Vince McConnell: The Best Damn Training Program, Period (Relatively Speaking)
- Effective training is doing what’s needed . . . not what you can tolerate
- Understand the why then you’ll get the what
- Your program is only as good as its application
- Even the best program on paper will need day-to-day adjustments
- Numbers may not lie . . . but they don’t tell the whole truth
- Best exercise and workload is relevant to your psychology as much as your physiology
- Consistency over long haul beats intensity in a single workout
- Your rep-by-rep execution is paramount to effort
- You must break training traditional rules to remain true to foundational principles
- There’s definite science in training, but art is in the application
- A “reboot” mindset is a key to your training success
- Your training results are as good as your next workout
Advice on training generally comes from one of four beginnings:
Personal bias or
Yes, the majority of the time there will be some combination of these four but you can always trace it back to at least one of these origins. That known, there are two key words omitted from any advice on training that are absolutely essential:
Success in training originates from defining your primary objective and then it’s all in finding what your body needs to respond—not how much it can withstand—and then applying this work on a regulated and consistent basis.
It really does not matter if some exercise, technique or system carries the proverbial franchise tag on training, if it’s not applicable to you, it’s not a good path for you to take. Some of the best programs “on paper” can never leave the spreadsheet due to lack of practicality for a particular individual. Cause-and-effect is the bottom line, and your body needs precise stimuli rather than just meeting some formulated quota.
The world of strength training, no matter if for general health, performance or physique development is filled with the infamous have-tos. There are have to exercises, have to methods and have to progressions. These training “laws” have their roots based on plenty of anecdotal evidence. In truth, and despite the credit given, many people have had impressive results in spite of certain training practices, instead of because of them. Similar or even better results could have been realized with alternatives.
Bringing training legalism into question by simply asking “Why?” allows you to not only better understand these assumptions but also see if, just maybe, there’s some mythical science to go with its accurate aspects. There’s always some truth in absolute statements, yet that does not make it the truth.
Arguable or not, each individual and/or situation will have differing “bests” in regards to exercises, rep ranges, techniques, methodologies and systems. This need not imply there be a free-for-all, anti-system crapshoot but it does suggest that “many roads lead to Rome.”
Always start with basic, established principles of strength training. Apply these principles in the most conventional manner available, then assess your response to the work before making any necessary adjustments. In other words, know and understand what’s in the proverbial box before going outside of it.
This box contains not just familiar exercises but also repetition and set schemes, progressions, exercise groupings, rep tempo advisories, workout splits, and many other generally-accepted-as-rules contents. There’s genuine benefit in understanding all of these components—without selling your soul to abide by them.
One prime example is the well-accepted “law” of progressive overload. When you first start training and seek guidance from someone proclaiming to be a strength training expert, you’ll typically get a list of the very basic exercises: bench press, squat, pull-up, rows, deadlift, and maybe if an athlete, power clean. Then you get the rhetorical, “do ___ sets of ___ reps, and then add some weight to the bar. Do more reps every week or so, or you’ll be a weak kitten wasting your time.”
At first glance, to a true beginner, this is not horrible advice. Of course, it’s not taking into account technical proficiency, or lack thereof, (but let’s assume for sake of this example that technique is good and consistent.) Now, with the example of the bench press let’s say this hypothetical 25-year-old man starts with 135lbs and performs 3 sets of 8 repetitions, and he does this one workout a week. Next, by him adding 5lbs to the bar every 2 weeks, he’ll nearly double the weight he started at in 52 weeks at 265lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps. This is excellent progress and considering he’s staying healthy and following the plan to the letter he is projected to be at 395lbs for the same sets and reps after a very modest two-year investment.
Following this “law” of progressive overload, and remaining injury-free, you can predict a world-record setting lifter within the decade. Following this advice, he can’t help but achieve the previously unachieved, correct? Or, we must believe he’s just not making the most of his resistance training commitment.
As you can detect, from the above theoretical example, progressive overload is not quite as indefinitely lawful as the first look appears. This is a great example of certain valid principles that have broader definitions than the initial application. You must find other ways of increasing intra-muscular tension and manipulating workload, rather than depending solely on how much weight is on the bar. Progressive overload works, yet when considering a long span of training years, just adding more weight is a relatively short-lived solution. Periodization (or cycling) can be a very effective method of progression, in that it deliberately alters intensity levels in a set pattern with the purpose of having that progressive overload over the course of an extended period of time.
Still, even factoring in one of the bona fide periodization models does not resolve the reality that just adding more weight to the bar, even over a greater extended period, has a diminishing return at a certain point.
Numbers: Great Servants, Horrible Masters
Training parameters, regarding quantifiable numbers of sets, reps, loading, rests, duration, frequency, etc. are all relevant guides to keep order and efficiency in your workouts. But, these digits should never be used to define the quality of your workouts. Five repetitions with 300lbs is not just 5 reps with 300lbs. It’s all in how it affects the muscles and systemic aspects of your physiology that determines the degree of benefit. You can move 300lbs from point A to point B five times in more than one way. One way emphasizes getting the most out of each repetition while others are purely “manual labor-like” in emphasis and fully lose the training objective (unless your objective truly is about just hoisting weights up and down for a certain quota, regardless of how it happens).
To use an appropriate, albeit extreme, example let’s say you are convinced a heavy barbell squat is the rite-of-passage to huge legs. You do everything in your neuromuscular system to hit a new personal record (PR) of 405lbs. Now, you can expect your lower body to reward you with new muscle tissue covering your quads and glutes, correct?
What about the 115lb woman who uses every fight-or-flight adrenalized fiber in her being to lift the front end of a vehicle to prevent a child from being injured? Is this newly revealed strength now transferable to her workouts and development of her posterior chain? An extreme and admittedly ridiculous example, but no less than thinking you must indefinitely add weight to any exercise to make progress in the gym.
Again, progressive overload is not a bad thing; it’s simply one component that can lead to the result you desire according to your objectives. Use all of the parameters of progression—for example: volume, frequency and intensification—to optimize your result by extending the adaptation curve and remain orthopedically and systemically healthier.
There will be certain exercises that you may top-out (in regards to overload) but that does not mean you’ve exhausted its benefit to your training goals, especially in regards to your physique.
Take the example of an exercise that emphasizes single-joint action—such as a dumbbell side raise or lying triceps extension—there will come a point where you truly max-out the amount of external load that can be safely applied. From here you’ll be wise to sustain that load and even start to decrease it to increase the muscular benefit of the exercise. This is where you’ve outgrown the need to lift heavier, both physiologically and psychologically. This can occur just as surely with basic compound exercises as well, especially when your goals are centered on building your physique. A great method to implement at this stage is combining two or more exercises that work the same region in complementary fashion. One quick example of many would be combining a high-load barbell or dumbbell exercise with a body-weight exercise or cable exercise.
Don’t be intimidated when you mature beyond the need to numerically quantify your training quality and progress. Once you’ve resolved this in your psyche, your body will show great appreciation and subsequent results.
You must break traditional training rules to remain true to foundational training principles.
Even if something works for the vast majority, this does not make it mandatory. A conditional fact is not the truth in the world of fitness or any other area of life. There’s a major difference between principles and methods. The former is the foundation the latter is built upon—rather than vice versa.
At any point in time, you may have greater benefit in doing or avoiding certain exercises, performing higher or lower rep ranges, with more or less frequency and greater or lesser training volume. Truth is, everything you may do in training works . . . but not necessarily in a way that is beneficial for you. Your main job is developing a keen degree of honest biofeedback and developing your kinesthetic sense—your training’s 6th Sense.
Define Your Direction
When designing a training program, the best place to start is by asking:
“What is my primary goal?”
Yes, it’s true; you cannnot succeed in hitting a target that doesn’t exist. The answer to this initial question will be different for different people.
Before we look at other examples, if your primary goal is to lift a certain amount of weight on a certain exercise or lift, then all of your decisions regarding program design should be extensions of that. A competitive lifter will base all aspects of training around lifting more weight from point A to B, in the most efficient way possible on the specified chosen lifts. This isn’t to say those are the only lifts in a productive program with that goal, but that every exercise in that program will be there to serve that primary goal. In other words, keeping the goal the goal is about lifting more weight on a particular exercise.
Another example: if your goal is truly performance-driven regarding certain amounts of dedicated exercises and drills within certain time frames (such as in CrossFit-style competitions), your primary goal is just getting it done. Again, keep the goal the goal and design your training around that.
In these two cases, the specific exercises are the goal rather than just a tool. You base a program around the exercises rather than the following examples where exercises are based around the program.
On the other hand, if you are outside the example of a weightlifter, specific exercises will simply be tools to choose from in actualizing your primary objectives.
A high school football player will have a different response than that of:
20-year-old college student wanting to fit,
40-year-old wanting to get leaner and keep up with their kids,
25-year-old competitive bodybuilder needing to add muscle mass,
50-year-old wanting to sustain muscle mass while playing tournament golf,
30-year-old professional baseball player needing to enhance mobility and power, or
an 85-year-old wanting to remain dynamically active.
There’s an obvious discrepancy in the ages of each example; however, that number is only one factor to take into account. Just as relevant are the specific objectives and general daily physical and mental demands.
From there, assess their training age: “What training, how regularly, for how long?”
You may be 35 years of age and have 15 years of training experience or you may be 45 yet have never done any formal training beyond a 5K run 10 years ago, some cardio and a couple months with an infomercial DVD. The 35 year-old would have a training age of 15 while the 45 year-old is in their training infancy. Your training age will give you important information in regards to the kind of stress you’ve placed on your body orthopedically as well as systemically.
If your specific goal is to deadlift 3x your body weight, then the barbell deadlift is your primary tool to achieving that. Whereas if you are an athlete, and optimized performance in your sport is your primary objective, the barbell deadlift is but one option to make that a reality.
Always consider the various options available to create the straightest line to your goal(s). If you have been training for a significant number of years and are at a place where you need a new start, then stop and reset.
Return to the start with a clean slate mentally. Literally “reboot” your entire perspective and system by setting aside your current training biases rather than bringing that baggage with you in hopes of it giving you a better result than what you are already frustrated with. Again, take a renewed mindset and your body will respond by giving you accurate feedback to make positive decisions for constructive action.
More questions to start with:
What type of exercise should I emphasize?
What is my medical history?
Do I have any existing physical impairments?
What do I have available regarding a facility or equipment?
What amount of time do I have available on a regular basis?
There will be several associated concepts to ponder next, such as the influences in your life outside of your workouts:
Are you in a seated position the majority of the day?
Do you have a very physically demanding job?
Is your typical day mentally draining?
Can you control these external factors?
The selection of exercises you choose as optimal for you as any given stage is but one variable to consider in designing your best program. Other key considerations include, rep ranges, loading parameters, density of work, intensification of work and frequency of work.
Count The Cost
Your psychology will be a prime factor in choosing the best components in your training program. If you have an aversion to doing certain exercises or methods of training, it does not matter how perfect they may be, it simply may not be a wise selection—at this stage in your life—even if it means achieving a lesser result on paper. Mental engagement is the catalyst to physical proficiency.
There may be an exercise that would, physically speaking, provide the best result. However, due to its technical requirements and psychological demands, it may not be the best selection for someone in a hectic, high stress career. You can argue that the barbell deadlift is the best overall strength exercise in existence (all things being equal), allowing you to lift the most weight, providing highest reward. However, with the deadlift’s obvious benefits comes a potentially higher risk, and when the weight starts to approach a 1-rep maximum and you are unprepared for optimal execution on a given day, this liability escalates.
If you find yourself with physical and/or psychological stress draining much of your reserves on a regular basis, this variation of the deadlift is probably not the best option for you. You can still perform the hip hinge/deadlift exercise but with a different form of loading and workload. For training success rep-by-rep execution of an exercise is paramount to the effort you perceive. You can certainly add effort to execution, but it’s not reliable in the reciprocal fashion.
No, this is not to imply that if you abhor exercise altogether, you can lounge your way to a healthier, stronger and better body. However, rarely is there only one best option to get the job done. You must choose based on both your physiology as well as your psychology.
So Many Questions . . . So Much Information. . . So Few Answers
After you’ve defined your primary objectives, set short-term and long-term goals, you are now faced with the dilemma of “What’s the best program?”
It starts like:
What’s the best exercise for legs?
What’s the best exercise to jump higher?
What’s the best number of reps?
What’s the best abdominal exercise?
What’s best way to improve my speed?
What’s the best chest exercise?
What’s the best way to firm my butt?
And on, and on, and…
And, then the floodgates open:
How long should my workouts be?
How many days a week?
Which muscles do I work each day?
How often do I change my reps?
How do I get stronger in the bench press?
How many sets do I do?
How do I do better in the power clean?
How long do I rest between sets?
What’s the best rep speed?
How much weight do I use?
Do I go to failure every set?
How many times do I work each body part?
Do I superset exercises?
How often do I add weight?
And, that’s just a short list.
The answer to any one of these questions must include words very akin to “relatively speaking,” “it all depends” or “all things being equal.” Many different paths can work effectively as long as that path is based on sound principles of both generalization and specificity (including technical proficiency, overload, kinesthetic efficiency and progressive workload).
Unless your primary objective is to improve on a specific lift for its own merit (read: Powerlifting competition), there is no universal best exercise (or best any other training variable for that matter).
There’s Science in it . . . But It’s Not a Science
Make no mistake, anyone who’s made evident changes in his or her body through exercise has done so through applied science. That known, how this science is applied is where the gray area resides.
What works best for you, your objectives, your mindset and your situation will be based on all of the aforementioned considerations.
The number one key to success in a training program is consistency.
You can be consistent on a mediocre program and experience super results compared to an elite program that lacks compliance.
There is no magical method to actualizing your training objectives and no wrong exercises other than those that are not practical for you. The same goes for the specific techniques, methods and systems you choose. It all can work as long as it is based on principles which include intramuscular tension, workload and recovery—if it coordinates with your life’s other demands and responsibilities.
Bottom line: your success in training is based on a dichotomy where you treat every workout as the only one in terms of attentiveness and biofeedback yet you sustain a coexisting broader understanding that it’s setting the stage for your next session. Applying foundational principles, making daily assessments and necessary adjustments over an open parenthesis of time, with smaller bracketed phases interspersed, rather than any single “killer” session or just a 12-week series of workouts.
For an example, your schedule—or mindset—may be such that you need to, and can, break your workout up into two or three shorter sessions a day while someone else excels on a program of two or three longer sessions over an entire week. Both can work and provide similar impressive results. Your mental makeup may be to take nearly every set you perform to its technical limit while someone else with similar training objectives prefers to leave a few reps “in the tank” with each set. You may prefer to do fewer sets of more exercises to produce the training effect you desire while another favors a higher volume of sets with a single exercise for each muscle group. This same pattern is true for preference in lower reps vs. higher reps, brief rests between sets vs. longer rests. At the end of the day, week, month . . . to your body, it’s all about workload performed, and it can be consolidated or spread out to larger degree.
You can remain consistent with these parameters or you can make regular changes. To repeat; it all works, yet it’s best to find your main path and travel on it long enough to have a baseline to return to when when potential roadblocks occur (and it’s necessary to take detours).
Each approach, from one extreme to another and everywhere in between, has produced impressive results, time-and-again. The common denominators always include principle-based applications and consistency over an extended period of time. The numbers can remain the same or change workout-to-workout. Challenge this truth and you’re wasting valuable time and energy.
All of these various applications have their specific arguments and evident benefits, and recent studies have shown some noteworthy profit in varying all of these parameters over the course of a period, or cycle, of training. That being true, there remains no consensus of comprehensive best this, best that in regards to application of foundational training principles for every individual.
Even the best program on paper will need day-to-day adjustments to be applied with optimal efficiency over the period of time needed for success. You are always as good as your next workout.
Your clarity and confidence in the principle-based work you choose will far outweigh any potential benefit of any other traditionally-accepted exercise or system that leads to technical dysfunction, orthopedic trauma or mental dread.
There will be those who thrive off of doing squats with a barbell, make great progress in strength add quality muscle size, all while sustaining orthopedic health and central nervous system vibrancy. There will also be those who can barely perform that movement pattern with a 45lb bar without negative consequences. This does not mean the actual exercise is contraindicated, but that an alternative squat application may be the solution. This is the reality with all of the “big” traditional exercises. They are not bad exercises and they do have many different loading variations that are to be recognized as valid alternatives to implement in the realization of your training objectives.
It must be stated that this is not license to perform inferior exercises in place of principle-based movement patterns. For instance, you are not going to fully replace a squat pattern with a leg extension machine, or a horizontal push exercise with a Pec Deck. It’s not about denying foundational exercises; it’s about not being chained to their traditional applications.
Foundational, functional patterns combined with Kinesthetic Efficiency (optimized intramuscular tension for a manageable amount of intensity and work performed with regulated frequency), cannot be denied as providing benefits to your health, performance and physique. From that basis, make quality decisions that work for you (rather than you trying to work for them).
Below are examples of traditional exercise applications and the actual objective in performing them, followed by valid alternatives that may very well be better choices for certain individuals. It must be stated that there are times the loading application of an exercise is not the problem—it’s the amount of loading or volume.
Using the barbell squat as an example again, an individual may be fine in the 8-10RM and higher ranges but has physical issues when loading closer to their 1RM. Another individual may have issues that flare up with higher (20+) rep ranges, but is able to handle heavier load/lower reps without consequence. Another clear example that it’s a case-by-case situation, lacking a single answer for everyone.
The traditional exercise is not always the answer.
It’s also not always the problem.
Traditional: Barbell (BB) Olympic Lift variations
Primary Objective(s): Lower body power/ explosiveness
Valid Alternatives: Box Jump, Trap Bar Deadlift Jumps, KB Swings, Band Broad Jump, Dumbbell (DB) Snatch, Split Squat Jumps
Traditional: Barbell Bench Press
Primary Objective(s): Upper body horizontal push strength
Valid Alternatives: Ring Push-Up, Push-Up w/added load, Band-resisted Push-up, DB Bench Press, Single-arm DB Bench Press, DB Floor Press, certain Horizontal Press machines
Traditional: BB Squat (Back or Front)
Primary Objective(s): Lower body quadriceps-dominant strength/hypertrophy
Valid Alternatives: Kettlebell (KB)/DB Goblet Squat, Sandbag Zercher Squat, KB Front-Rack Squat, Band Front Squat, Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat, Reverse Lunge (with torso upright), Pulley Squats, certain Leg Press machines
Traditional: Overhead BB Press
Primary Objective(s): Upper body vertical push strength/hypertrophy
Valid Alternatives: Single-arm KB/DB Overhead Press, Landmine Press, ½ Kneeling Landmine/DB/KB Press, Yoga Push-Ups, certain Vertical Press machines
Traditional: BB Deadlift
Primary Objective(s): Lower body hip-dominant strength/hypertrophy
Valid Alternatives: Rack BB Deadlift, Trap Bar Deadlift, KB Deadlifts, Split-stance Trap Bar Deadlift, Single-leg Glute/Ham Deadlift, Hip Thrust/ Glute Bridge variations, Reverse Lunge (with torso forward lean), Single-leg Pulley RDL, Supine Hip Extension/Leg Curl variations, certain Leg Press machines
Traditional: Bent-over Barbell Rows
Primary Objective(s): Upper body horizontal pull strength/hypertrophy
Valid Alternatives: Seated Pulley Rows, Single-arm DB Rows, Single-arm Landmine Rows (aka Meadows Rows), Standing Single-arm Pulley Rows, Chest-supported DB/KB Rows, certain Horizontal Row machines
Traditional: Pull-Ups/ Chin-Ups (on horizontal bar)
Primary Objective(s): Upper body vertical pull strength/hypertrophy
Valid Alternatives: Ring Pull-Ups, Neutral-grip Pull-up, Pulley Pulldowns, Single-arm Pulley Pulldowns, 45° Pulley Rows, Single-arm 45° Pulley Rows, certain Pulldown machines
Watch for more programming articles from Vince McConnell and check out these talks, videos and books from OTP:
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