I’ve tried all kinds of different workouts and diets over the years and played around with a variety of methods and approaches to them.
Some were good, some were bad. Some were great, some absolutely sucked. I’m talking like laughably ineffective.
Fortunately, one of the few smart things I’ve done since day one is a keep a log of it all. This is good for many reasons, one of which is to allow me to look back at all of the mistakes I’ve made and learn from them. It’s also great for helping me help you avoid making those same mistakes.
I recently went back into some of these old logs and I ended up spending waaaay too much time skimming through my first 2 years of workouts.
The splits, the exercises, the weights I lifted, the sets, reps, rest periods, methods… all of it. And best of all, the progress I made (or more accurately, didn’t make) while using those workout routines.
And I gotta tell ya, it’s surprisingly entertaining. There is so much comedy gold in these logs (my notes that go along with them are just glorious), and I’d love to share some of it with you.
Specifically, I’d like to tell you about 3 types of workouts I used early on that got me absolutely nowhere. Here goes…
1. The “Whatever The Hell I Feel Like Doing Today” Routine
When I first joined a gym in 1999, I was about 16 years old, 5’11 and around 125lbs (with clothes/sneakers on). As you can imagine, I wanted to build muscle as fast as humanly possible.
So how did I go about accomplishing this, you ask? Well, according to my workout logs for those first couple of months, here’s exactly what I did.
There was no split. There was no routine. There was no plan or program of any kind.
Instead, I just trained biceps and chest around 3-4 times a week with some triceps and shoulders randomly thrown in here and there. And, if I happened to see some huge guy doing leg extensions or lat pull downs during my workout, I’d possibly throw in some of those too.
Basically, I just wandered the gym aimlessly stopping at whatever machines looked like a bicep curl or chest press/fly. Fun times! Also fun: the fact that I never even accidentally walked into the free weight room once during this time. I apparently didn’t have the balls for that just yet.
Now, I see clueless people in the gym all the time who have no F-ing idea what they’re doing. Yet, looking back at these logs, I will gladly admit to being 10 times more clueless than every single one of them.
As you can probably guess, my results during this time were nonexistent. And when you take into account the rapid progress beginners (especially teenagers) are capable of making at this stage when using an intelligently designed beginner routine, it’s pretty clear that my first few months were an epic failure.
Oh, and according to my notes, most of these workouts ended with me and the friend I joined with walking down the street from the gym and getting a few slices of pizza while waiting for our parents to pick us up.
My notes literally say: “ate pizza for 20 mins until Danny’s mom picked us up.” Hardcore!!!
2. The “High Volume, Low Frequency, Blast The Crap Out Of My Muscles” Routine
After realizing that I had no idea what I was doing and that just showing up at the gym and using whatever machines looked the shiniest that day wasn’t getting the job done, I decided I needed to do some learning.
I needed to find the highest quality source of weight training and muscle building information out there and put together a proper workout routine based on its recommendations.
So, I got myself a crap load of bodybuilding and fitness magazines!
The covers featured pro bodybuilders who were 10 times bigger than I even imagined being (and all natural too, right?!), and headlines like “Build massive guns in just 7 days!” or “The secrets to gaining 50lbs of rock hard muscle in just 3 weeks!” Hell yeah bro, sign me up!
After skimming hundreds and hundreds of pages of supplement ads for every 2 pages of articles, I finally understood what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to fix it. So, I put together a plan:
That’s right, baby! A 5 day body part split that trained each muscle group once per week. Chest day and shoulder day and arm day… it was a thing of beauty!
As for the workouts themselves, they were exactly what you’d imagine. For example, my chest workout was flat bench, incline bench, decline bench, at least one fly or pec deck (or both) and sometimes more depending on how I felt that day (e.g. not enough chest pump yet? 10 more dropsets!!!). The other workouts were designed the same way.
It looks like I did 4 sets of every single exercise, all of which were done pyramid style… 12, 10, 8, 6.
It was the stereotypical dumb-shit bodybuilder routine. The focus was to blast the crap out of my muscles from every angle with a ton of exercises for a ton of sets with a low once-per-week frequency.
Hey man, don’t blame me. That’s what ALL of the routines in those magazines looked like.
- So what if it was the least effective workout frequency?
- So what if I did a million times the amount of exercises and volume I actually needed?
- So what if I was training my shoulders on 3 consecutive days each week?
- So what if the last thing a beginner needs is a “chest day?” So what if the last thing pretty much anyone needs is an “arm day?”
- So what if I did a ton of machine and isolation exercises instead of compound free weight exercises?
- So what if I was training mostly for pump and soreness? None of these magazines even mentioned the word progression.
- So what if I used the dumbest set/rep structure of them all… the traditional pyramid.
This is what ALL of the huge guys in ALL of the magazines were doing and recommending, so it would clearly work just as well for me too, right?
Well, apparently not.
It turns out this type of workout routine only works well for genetic freaks and people using every steroid and drug known to man. Or, in the case of every single “natural” bodybuilder in those magazines… both.
But for a natural, genetically average (or in my case, genetically below-average) person like you and me? HA! This shit doesn’t work at all.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Just take a look around your gym. This remains the most common way the average person trains. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the average person gets nowhere? Granted, there are MANY things the average person does wrong. This type of training is just one of them.
More about all of that here: Bodybuilding Workouts SUCK For Building Muscle
I will admit though, training like this is super fun. It didn’t actually work (and that certainly wasn’t fun), but I didn’t realize that yet. Instead, I was totally ignorant to how ineffective this type of workout was for me (and the majority of the population), and let me tell ya… ignorance was bliss!
I’m reminded of this on a regular basis when I see people in the gym training this way. I can see they’re having just as much fun as I did. Talking with their training partner about what they’re going to do today…
“Let’s start with flat bench, then some inclines, declines, flyes, dumbbell presses.”
“Sounds good bro, and there’s a great chest machine on the other side of the gym, let’s hit that too!”
“Hell yeah bro! Then let’s hit them triceps… cable press downs, rope press downs, underhand press downs, skull crushers…”
“You know it bro! And then maybe some dips as a finisher!”
Fun? Very. Effective? Not at all. Ah, the memories.
3. The “Low Volume, Low Frequency, Afraid Of Overtraining” Routine
At some point after getting nowhere blasting the crap out of my muscles as described above, I started to wonder if bodybuilding magazines were truly the best source of info. I was leaning towards maybe not.
So, I started reading around online. At this point it was 2000, so the internet wasn’t quite as populated with high quality diet and fitness information. Hell, it’s 2013 when I’m writing this, and the internet is still mostly filled with horseshit advice. The main difference was that in 2000, there was just less of it.
I ended up joining a couple of forums/messages boards. I have no idea what they were called, but I don’t think any still exist. I became pretty active on one in particular that seemed to have the largest collection of knowledgeable guys.
But not just knowledgeable guys… NATURAL guys! This was one of those “aha” moments for me where I finally realized that all of the advice I was getting up to this point was coming from drug users and likely wouldn’t work for anyone not using those same tons of drugs.
These guys were the total opposite of that. They were super pro-natural, and super anti-steroids and all of the crappy advice that typically came with it.
These guys were all about big compound exercises, lifting heavy, avoiding isolation exercises and machines… that sort of minimalist “hardcore” thing. And, above all else, these guys were all about avoiding overtraining.
Holy crap did these people put the fear of God into me with their discussions about overtraining and how if you did too many exercises, too many sets, too many reps, too much frequency or too much anything… it will cause you to instantly overtrain and your muscles will fall off and your results will suck and your life will be ruined.
I basically went from one extreme to the other. From drug users doing a million sets of a million exercises with a “more is better” attitude, to natural guys who hated drug users and were all about super low volume and a “less is more” attitude to prevent overtraining.
My split now changed to:
Yup, still a low frequency once-per-week body part split. Training each muscle group more often than that would have apparently been overtraining. Hell, that’s why triceps and biceps were now trained with chest and back respectively. Can’t let those muscles get even close to being trained a second time during the week!
And my volume per workout went pretty damn low. Not quite full blown HIT (which can be as dumb as 1 set to failure per week), but I did go pretty low compared to what I was previously doing and what everyone around me was doing.
I had to avoid overtraining at all costs!!!
So whereas I was doing nearly 20 sets on “chest day” before, I was doing maybe 4 or 5 sets now. Something like 2-3 sets of flat barbell presses and maybe 2 sets of incline dumbbell presses. Then 2 sets of triceps.
That was it… just once per week. The other workouts were the same way. I remember my shoulder workout took like 20 minutes. 3 sets of overhead presses, 2 sets of lateral raises and 2-3 sets of shrugs.
Now, if high volume was the most fun, low volume was definitely the least fun. It was boring as hell. But, the waaaay exaggerated (and unwarranted) fear of overtraining I had made it seem like this was the only way for a natural guy to train.
Not to mention, a natural hardgainer such as myself.
Yup, that’s right, it was around my “low volume/low frequency” phase that I somehow came to the conclusion that my shitty ectomorph genetics made me a textbook hardgainer… aka a naturally skinny (or “skinny fat”) person who has an extra hard time building muscle.
It turns out that most workout routines aimed at hardgainers also tend to be this same kind of low volume/low frequency nonsense, so it’s hard to tell exactly where one approach to training ended and the other started.
But, it doesn’t really matter in this case. My results were equally horrible the entire time.
So What Finally Did Work?
I didn’t get far enough in my logs to find the point where I actually started getting positive results from my training. It was a good few years of mostly just wasting my time and making little to no progress before that finally happened.
However, I definitely remember the gist of what this first game changing routine was for me.
It was the routine that helped me finally get away from all of the silly crap I was doing and all of the horrible advice I was listening to. It was the routine that allowed me to finally understand what I was doing wrong and what needed to change for it to become “right.”
Or, to put it another way, it was the routine I was using the first time I looked in the mirror and it actually started to look like I worked out.
So what was this routine, you ask?
Just a basic upper/lower program that had me training each muscle group twice per week (not too frequent, not too infrequent) with a moderate amount of volume (not insanely high, not insanely low), a primary focus on getting stronger at the big free weight/body weight compound exercises, and a smaller secondary focus on machines/isolation exercises.
I didn’t fear overtraining, and I didn’t blast the crap out of my muscles. There was nothing all that fancy. No advanced methods. Nothing I didn’t truly need. It was just what works, period. And of course, it went along with a diet designed to support it.
After years of tweaking and improving it to make it even better than it originally was for me, it’s the routine that eventually became The Muscle Building Workout Routine.
Want Some Advice?
Do any of the 3 types of ineffective workouts described above sound like your current approach to training?
Are you maybe training in some other way altogether that just happens to be producing the same type of lackluster results that these types of routines produced for me?
If so, you have 3 very realistic options…
- You can continue failing a little longer until you finally get tired of it and just give up.
- You can continue failing and let that become your permanent routine. Gyms are filled with men and women who have been getting the same horrible results year after year, often decade after decade. There’s always room for more.
- You can stop, take an objective look at your training (and diet) and the results you’re getting from it… and you can change it.
I personally went with #3. It gets my full recommendation.