Unfortunately, when it comes to building muscle, there are no shortcuts to success. Muscle hypertrophy, or more simply put, the growth and increase in the size of muscle cells can only be achieved with a proper resistance training programme, but results I’m afraid are not instant. In fact, research suggests that
Name: Lee Boyce
Occupation: Owner of Boyce Training Systems.
Hit the health club on any given Monday, and you might think there’s an audition in progress for a new episode of “Maury Povich” about the bench press and the men who love it. After all, what better way could there be to start the week than getting under a loaded barbell and pushing it for all you’re worth?
Well, I can think of a couple, but that’s for another article. Look, I understand the allure of the bench press. It’s the ultimate glamour movement in the gym for men, and it’s also a great movement for upper-body size and strength.
The problem is that most people gauge their success only by benching as much weight as possible, and they disregard the crucial setup process and downplay the importance of form to perform the lift correctly. This ends up creating a lot more ex-benchers than strong benchers.
Don’t let your favorite lift beat you down. Use these tried and true techniques to skyrocket your bench and blast off to new levels of mass and strength!
Lee Boyce On Proper Bench Press Technique
Watch The Video – 04:43
Upper back exercises are crucial for making the bench press pain-free, stable, and strong. As I mentioned in the video above, the bench press places stress on the shoulder blades and four rotator cuff muscles that originate on the scapula. Having the ability to keep the scapular muscles nice and tight is a key to stability for any pushing movement.
I program my back workouts before my chest workouts whenever I’m isolating specific body parts. This ensures that the back muscles get sore, tight, and are limited in range of motion and flexibility to help fix the shoulder blades on chest day. On a full-body workout, I pull before I push.
Make sure the following exercises are included in your back training day to really build scapular stability and strength:
If building big bench is important for you, you need to get scientific about it. Break down your lift and figure out where you’re weakest, and then focus on turning that weakness into a strength.
Barbell Bench Press
In most cases, a lifter going for a max-effort rep hits a wall or reaches a sticking point around the halfway point coming off the chest. If this is you, it means you lack lockout strength. Luckily, there are many great exercises to help you improve this sticking point.
Use a barbell or two dumbbells and lay flat on the floor with the weight in the bench press bottom position. The elbows will be on the floor and the weight around six inches off the chest.
Keep your upper back tight and shoulders retracted. Breathe in, drive the weight up to full-extension at the arm, and keep the legs held together and straight on the ground. Pause at the bottom of each rep. Perform 3 sets of 8 reps.
Set up a bench inside a squat rack to create a bench press station. Position the safety pins 4-6 inches above your chest. Lay the bar on the pins and position your body under it. Assume your preferred bench press grip and drive the bar to the top position.
After lockout, lower the bar quickly to the pins. This exercise allows you to focus on max effort. Due to the lack of eccentric control, you’ll have more juice in the tank to lift.
Give yourself a couple seconds between reps to get tight and reset your body. Perform this exercise for 3 sets of 3-6 reps.
Attaching chains to the bench press makes the load heavier as you progress through the concentric portion of a rep. It’s a great way to make your triceps do more work during lockout.
In rare circumstances, the sticking point happens at the bottom of the lift, which indicates that chest and shoulder strength is a weak link from a biomechanical perspective. Implementing starting strength exercises can help exponentially with this issue.
Bent over barbell row
Starting Strength Exercises
On the bench press, lower the weight slowly and pause for at least one second on the chest. Remember to stay tight during the rep without slackening your grip or exhaling. You won’t be able to lift as much weight as usual with this method, so lower the weight to 80 percent of the normal amount you can lift for reps.
This exercise cuts off the stretch reflex so you can’t use momentum at the bottom of the lift. Momentum tricks your chest into thinking that it’s performing well, when in reality, it’s nothing more than kinetic force that propels the weight out of the hole.
Pause reps are a staple in competitive powerlifting routines everywhere.
One and a half reps are my favorite way to improve chest activity in a bench press. Ensure that you’re set up correctly and lower the bar to your chest like normal.
Press the bar off the chest to the halfway point, where you have a 90-degree angle at the elbow. Lower the bar to the chest again and drive the bar to the top for one rep. Repeat for 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
The science behind this madness is simple: For every rep of 1.5s, you’re doing 2 reps with just the chest and 1 rep with the triceps at lockout. At the end of a set, your chest will have done twice as much work than your triceps.
Like most physical activities, if you want to improve at something, you must practice it. Building a stronger bench press happens in part from benching frequently. Make like the Bulgarians and up your weekly volume—without going overboard, of course!
Boyce Post-Workout Burnout! Bench Press 225×15
Watch The Video – 01:11
Post-workout burnout sets are money when it comes to adding benching volume. At the end of every isolation workout, do a couple quick warm-up bench press sets and then perform a burnout set with 60 percent of your max. Rep it out until failure for one big set.
Here’s a video of me doing a post-workout burnout set after a long Olympic lifting workout. My max is around 345 pounds, so 225 pounds is about 65 percent of my max.
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“Once you’ve been training long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can’t simply force it to do anything anymore.”
Bodybuilders and strength athletes stop making progress for one reason: They stop coercing their body to adapt. Note how I intentionally use the word coerce, not a connotatively weaker action verb like force. The reason is that once you’ve been in the training game long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can’t simply force it to do anything anymore.
When you continue to push and grunt with no concrete strategy other than “hard work,” you get injured or beat-up. Few things devour reasonable progress faster than what we’ll call “middle ground” training. That is, always training with the same set or rep scheme and with the same intensity. If you default to training in the 8, 10, or 12 rep range, I hate to break it to you, but your growth is simply wallowing in no-gain’s land.
Fortunately, there are tools in the training toolbox that will sharpen up your training. Let’s start with a brief overview and then move on to how these can be applied to your own programming to maximize growth and development.
The Neural-Metabolic Continuum
The first order of business is to focus on a key element of training: The neural-metabolic continuum. It’s a fancy term that allows you to understand whether you actually work your muscles or central nervous system (CNS), based on key variables. For the sake of brevity, here’s a visual breakdown of what it looks like.
Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain. If you’re chasing more metabolic (i.e. hypertrophic) gains, your, say, squatting program might look something like this:
4 sets of 10 repetitions
Tempo: 3 seconds down, no pause in the bottom, 1 second up
60-90 seconds rest between sets
On the other end of the spectrum, where you might be chasing more neural (i.e. strength) gains, your program might more resemble this:
5 sets of 3 repetitions
Tempo: As fast as possible
3-5 minutes rest between sets
Are we clear on the layout of the neural-metabolic continuum? Good, now let’s look at why you need to spend time in both ends (and not the straight middle) to maximize your growth and development.
The Case for High Reps
By now, it’s probably ingrained in you that you need to perform high reps per set (I’m looking at you, bodybuilders). Let me clarify that I define high reps to dawdle in the 8-12 rep range but could be as low as 6 reps per set.
There shouldn’t be anything really earth-shattering here. If you train with high reps, your goal is to build a bigger muscle.
Some folks call this “structural hypertrophy” since the higher rep sets allow you to focus primarily on the muscles themselves. They also lend themselves to fewer total sets per exercise. By virtue of slowing down the movement, coupled with the sheer amount of reps you do per set, you’re going to increase time under tension, which is a necessary stimulus for hypertrophy. No doubt, gains in strength will come along for the ride, but increases in muscular growth will outpace the increases in strength.
But what happens if you spend all your time here? Quite simply, your body will adapt to your training in this rep range if you continue it for extended periods of time. Furthermore, training in that zone will ultimately limit the amount of intensity you can use as well.
Do high-rep sets (15, 20, or more reps per set) have a place in programming? Sure, but they’re probably the exception rather than the rule.
The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger! This brings me to my next point…
The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger!
The Case for Low Reps
High reps deliver big gains, right? Well, low reps have a place, too!
The low-rep zone can be defined as anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set. They’re often viewed as being geared more for powerlifting or Olympic lifting, but if you really want to make high-threshold motor units work, you will need to push some serious weight!
This focuses on making your nervous system more efficient. If you switch from sets of 10 to sets of 3, you coerce your body to unfamiliar, shocking stressors, especially since low rep ranges encourage the use of much heavier weights. Every movement requires more “tightness” and a more intense focus. Further, more motor units and muscle fibers are recruited, and your body gets better at turning off antagonists (or opposing muscle groups) as well.
The result is that you’ll get jacked, but in a slightly different way. Since the goal is more on strength, your body composition will greatly differ from someone who performs exclusively high-rep sets. Powerlifters are strong as hell and can move jaw-dropping weight, but probably lack a bit of the size and definition of a well-trained bodybuilder.
The Perfect Combination
So if high reps promote hypertrophy and low reps facilitate strength increases, then in theory, the marriage of both rep schemes will bring forth muscular and strength development worthy of the Greek gods.
You need to spend dedicated periods of time in both the high-rep and low-rep ranges to maximize your development. High reps build muscle and connective tissue strength, and give your body respite from the grind of low-rep sets, too. Similarly, low-rep sets build neuromuscular and CNS efficiency. When you become more efficient and then go back to your big lifts, you can use even more weight than before, because you’re just that much more efficient and effective.
As an example of what I often do with physique-focused clients, I break down their set-rep schemes into one of two categories:
- High rep – 8-12 repetitions per set
- Low rep – 4-8 repetitions per set
These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. There may be times when even higher reps (15-20) could be used. On the flipside, there are other times when you may want to push the weight and work in the 1-5 rep range.
The biggest benefit from switching between these two ranges is that you’ll constantly coerce (there’s that word again) your body to adapt, to grow, and to improve.
Can’t I Just Train Everything at Once?
I know some people really like undulating periodization, in which you hit different set-rep schemes on different days of the week.
“You have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your symphony of muscles.”
If this is you, perhaps your training looks something like this:
- Monday – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Wednesday – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Friday – 10 sets of 3 reps
With this weekly program, you hit everything in one training week, thinking it’s smart, efficient training. This is true if you’re newer to lifting or have never tried a protocol like this before. However, as you get more and more advanced, this type of scenario won’t work nearly as well since you’re sending multiple mixed messages to your body.
Monday’s workout would tell your body it’s time to get big, but then Wednesday’s workout will kick your body into a bit of strength mode. Finally, Friday’s workout will run counter to Monday’s and place the emphasis on raw strength. What is a confused body to do?! As you become more proficient, you have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your symphony of muscles (and thus, training).
It’s kind of why an elite level sprinter can’t simply wake up one day, decide to run a marathon, and hope to be awesome at both distances.
While I’m saying that you need to spend time on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum, you need to have some patience and zero-in your efforts on one at a time. The general rule is to spend at least 4-6 weeks focusing on one end before you even think about heading to the other.
The Final Step
Hopefully, you’re now alternating between periods of high-rep and low-rep training—awesome! The next step is to alternate the level of intensity over the course of the training cycle. Think of the following quote: “A peak is surrounded by two valleys.” You can’t expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You’ll only burn yourself out. Layer-in days of high intensity combined with days of low intensity.
The astute reader (you!) might inquire about whether simply wavering between high and low rep ranges might already serve this purpose. It does in a rather unrefined way. Here’s an example of how I’ll set my intensity within a training month:
- Week 1 – 4 sets of 5 reps @70%
- Week 2 – 5 sets of 5 reps @80%
- Week 3 – 4 sets of 3 reps @75%
- Week 4 – 3 sets of 5 reps @85%
As you can see, I’m not trying to move the same weights or loads on a week-to-week basis.
In week 1, I build a base and get a good weight to build my base from. In week 2, I push the limits of my volume. In week 3, I deload. Basically, that means I lower the intensity and volume to make it an “easier” work week, allowing my body to recover and supercompensate. Finally, in week 4, I go for broke with regard to my intensity. Try using this for your squat sometime—it works great!
“You can’t expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You’ll only burn yourself out.”
You could also do something far simpler, which yields amazing results when you just get started:
- Week 1 – 3 sets of 10 reps @70%
- Week 2 – 3 sets of 8-10 reps @75%
- Week 3 – 3 sets of 8 reps @80%
- Week 4 – 2 sets of 8 reps @70-75%
In this example, I use a stair-step approach to prepare you for week 3. After that, you deload and get ready to run the cycle again on week 5.
With these examples, the point I’m driving home is that you can’t go hard every single week. Instead, “wave” your intensity and build up to a series of big workouts, then back off to allow your body time to recover.
It’s All About Smarter Training
If you want to get the most out of your training, you not only need to work hard, but you need to work smart. By training on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum and incorporating undulating waves of intensity into your training cycle, you’ll not only see better results but you’ll incur fewer bumps and bruises along the way.
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Name: Abby Huot
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Education: St. Mary’s University of Minnesota (2004)
Occupation: Athlete, writer, fitness model, bikini/figure competitor
Quick, do a digit check. Are all your fingers and toes accounted for, or have a few succumbed to the cold? I can tell you that this has been a brutally chilly winter for most of the upper Midwest, and my region isn’t alone. Records have been shattered all across the United States for cold, ice cover, and snow totals. Right now it seems impossible to imagine warmer days.
But, make no mistake, summer is coming. Soon it will be time to crawl out of our cozy hibernation nests, peel off the polar fleece we’ve been donning like battle gear, and reveal our pasty, dry skin to the warm basking glow of a spring sun. Finally, Vitamin D in its glorious, non-supplement form! You can almost feel it.
So what’s your game plan? Hot chocolate and blankets are just what the doctor ordered for frigid nights, but if you’ve gotten used to skipping the gym and hoarding comfort food, it’s time to change things up. Reignite your fire for fitness and get your head back in the game.
Here are a few reminders about why you should get going with your training and diet again. After all, spring and summer are going to be here in the blink of an eye.
1 Wedding Season’s Upon Us
June is a major month of note. Not only does it signal the first day of summer, Father’s Day, and the oh-so-notable Flag Day, but it’s also the most popular month for weddings. If you’re among those getting laced up in white, hitting a training program now will help you head down the aisle with extra confidence and, depending on your goals, an extra layer of lean muscle.
“Try a new lifting routine or kick up your cardio with high intensity interval training on a Stairmill.”
Use that save-the-date stuck to your fridge to inspire you to push forward, even if your new fit body is not for your own wedding. Try a new lifting routine or kick up your cardio with high intensity interval training on a Stairmill. Start with one minute at level 8, or 30-45 seconds at level 10, followed by brief rest periods for a total of 20 minutes. Shock your system into growth by trying German Volume Training (GVT), which pushes you to do 10 sets of 10 reps on one exercise. The more you ramp up your training routine now, the faster you’ll see results.
2 Smaller Clothes Are Coming
“Picture yourself running in shorts and a tank top. How does that make you feel?”
I promise I’m not poking fun at your winter weight. With warm weather around the corner, it’s just a matter of time until layers start coming off. Whether you’re ready for it or not, the time for that teeny-weenie bikini is fast approaching.
As you look out your window at the snow-covered ground, sunbathing on the beach might sound like a far-off dream. So take a step back. Picture yourself running in shorts and a tank top. How does that make you feel? Awesome, or anxious? If you’re not feeling great, remember that winter is the perfect time to get in gear. You might be more apt to don a cute new sports bra or running shorts when you’re feeling fit. Be the first one in your town to hit the ground running and looking mid-summer awesome when it’s only April.
Set a concrete goal. Sign up for a local event, 5K, 10K, or an obstacle race. Start training for strength and endurance now. Alternatively, have you ever thought about competing in a physique competition? Start taking a peek at local and regional competitions that are happening this year. Competitions that are 16 or 20 weeks out will give you a hard deadline while putting extra training gas in your tank.
If you’ve never felt comfortable wearing shorts, work hard so that this is the year to feel great in them. If you’re self-conscious about your skinny arms, make this the year of the muscle shirt. Plan jogs outside or go rollerblading for the first time in years. Grab some friends to set a pace for yourself and make it a cardio get-together. The more positive people you have around you to cheer you on, the more successful you’ll be.
2014 should be your year to shine, not cover up!
3 Spring Break Is Upon Us
Got a winter getaway trip planned? Time to get your butt in gear! You don’t want to have to worry about the pounds you’ve packed on while you pack luggage. If you’re planning on site-seeing, start now with 30-minute walks on the treadmill and tinker with the incline to mimic being outside. If you’re planning on snorkeling, get in the pool at your gym three days each week and push yourself for a calorie-burning, lap-swimming workout. Changing your cardio workout styles can not only lean you out, it can also prepare you for the vacation activities you’ve spent so much time saving up for. Don’t let it go to waste, and don’t forget the sunscreen!
“Get in the pool at your gym three days each week and push yourself for a calorie-burning, lap-swimming workout.”
4 Spring Is The Season Of Love
Are you single? Why not utilize your time now to find your best and most confident version of yourself? Nothing is more attractive than someone who is strong, confident, disciplined, and goal-oriented. Put your best foot forward by buckling down on your training and diet routine. Already got someone special? Plan couples workouts and get to the gym together. Not only can you push each other, you can get in and out of the gym in a blink by supersetting exercises. One person can do sets of squats while the other person does kettlebell swings, then you can switch. Low-rest, high-intensity workouts will strengthen your bodies and the health of your relationship.
5 Your Friends Need You
Many people have already fallen off the wagon for their 2014 goals in your life. Why not give them a boost by leading the way?
Working in groups or having someone to keep you accountable for your goals often creates a solid emotional boost to the recommitment of goals. Be the catalyst in the lives of people around you by electrifying your social group with your enthusiasm to get back on the wagon.
“Working in groups or having someone to keep you accountable for your goals often creates a solid emotional boost to the recommitment of goals.”
Try a hip-hop dance class with your friends if you’ve always been curious. Find a training program online, or hire a trainer to bring you through a group workout. Set up a circuit routine the gets everyone involved—think biceps curls, planks, step-ups, and Swiss ball hamstring curls. Follow it with 5-10 minutes of hard incline cardio. If you’re a competitor, get together with a friend who shares your passion, and increase accountability by practicing posing and stage routines.
6 You Owe It To Yourself
Yes, winter can be brutal and can make the idea of training debilitating. When it’s 0-15 degrees outside, you don’t care much to venture outside the house. I get it. I live in Minnesota, where 2014 brought 44 nights below zero already, twice as many as we normally get in a year! Even so, you owe it to yourself to follow through on the goals you set—no matter the weather.
Give yourself the power and momentum to push forward and start your spring and summer seasons with the body and health you’ve always dreamed of having. Find inspirational members on BodySpace and ask them questions about how they got to where they are. Go to a big fitness expo or competition and talk to the people in the world of fitness. How do they keep their own fire aflame?
Follow your favorite athletes through social media and read inspirational books like “You Are a Badass,” by Jen Sincero, which is one of my personal favorites. Education and inspiration are crucial to your success. The motivation to keep going is available everywhere when you look for it and are open to it.
You’re just as worthy of your efforts now as you ever were. 2014 has barely started. It’s way too soon to give up on yourself. Start now or start again and make it the best year of your life!
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Back when I only had 135 pounds on my 6-foot-1 frame, I had to deal with the usual labels: ectomorph, hardgainer, skinny kid. I didn’t care for those words then, and I don’t like them any better now.
I used weights to change my physique. I love to train heavy, I love to move quickly, and I love the pump I get from high volume. I put all three of these elements into each workout I do, and I couldn’t ask for better results.
Today’s chest workout is no different. It combines a fast pace to keep your heart rate up, high volume for an insane pump, and heavy weights to make you stronger.
When you put each of these pieces together, you end up with a max-effort workout that will challenge all aspects of your fitness level.
Let’s get it done!
Watch The Video – 11:11
One of the toughest aspects of this workout is the mental game. Your body will always have that extra rep, or that extra set, but you have to find the mental energy to get it done. I may not be the biggest or strongest guy in the gym, but I guarantee no one can outwork me.
If you’ve never done this type of training before, you might find it difficult. If you fail, put the weight down and give yourself a little break before you finish the set. You want the shortest rest periods possible, but do whatever you need to get the work done. Never give up on a set.
A lot of guys tell me that they want to build the best physique ever. I think that’s the wrong approach. Don’t focus on being the best ever, focus on building your best physique ever.
Max out what you can do. If you constantly compare yourself to everyone else, you’ll sell yourself short. Hit this workout with all you’ve got and reap the personal rewards.
- Incline Dumbbell Press
Warm-up sets: 2 sets of 8 reps
Working sets: 8 sets of 8 reps
Rest 30-45 seconds between sets
- Hammer Strength Chest Press
4 sets of 15, 12, 10, 8 reps
- Reverse Grip Barbell Bench Press
4 sets of 10-12 reps
Rest 60 seconds between supersets
- Pec Deck
4 sets of 15, 12, 10, 8 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes
4 sets of 12 reps
Rest 60 seconds between supersets
- High Cable Flyes
Incline dumbbell press
I like to do a couple warm-up sets before starting the first heavy set. Don’t go too heavy on the warm-up because you’ll wear yourself out. Eighty total reps is a lot of reps, so you have to keep an eye on muscular endurance. This is a chest marathon.
I start with 75-pound dumbbells for the first warm-up set and then go up to 85 pounds for the second. When I start my working sets, I go up to 100 pounds. Don’t worry about what I’m doing, though. Pick a weight that’s challenging for you.
This style of training is mentally draining. Dig deep and do your best on those last couple sets. If you need to rest-pause to hit the total rep count, do it, but make sure you finish every single rep.
Hammer strength chest press
You can do these with whatever grip you prefer. Challenge yourself with the weight and then increase it every set. You might feel like you’ll never get those target reps, but trust me—I’ve been doing this long enough. One way or another, the reps will come.
Hammer Strength Chest Press
Reverse-grip barbell bench press
Use lighter weight for this exercise and focus on the contraction—squeeze on each and every rep. You want to push until you can’t go anymore. Crush the barbell with your grip and engage your mind-muscle connection.
If you fail on this exercise, don’t panic. Let the weight briefly sit on your chest, reverse your grip back to normal, and press the bar back up.
Make sure you don’t round your shoulders forward: Keep your chest high and maintain a good arch in your lower back. Focus entirely on the chest and squeeze.
Incline dumbbell flye
Get as much as you can out of this exercise. Stretch nice and wide at the bottom of each rep, and squeeze at the top for a full contraction. Don’t go too heavy or you’ll round your shoulders forward. Keep the tension entirely on your upper chest.
High cable flyes
We’re doing 100 total reps, so do as many reps as you can per set and as many sets as you need to get to 100 reps. I usually do four sets of 25 reps.
High Cable Flyes
At the end of the workout, you’ll be exhausted. You may want to give up and walk out. But at the end of the day, you always have those extra reps and extra sets in you. Leave them in the gym.
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Name: Hunter Labrada
Weight: 235 lbs
Education: Texas A&M University
Sponsor: Labrada Nutrition Athlete
Location: College Station, Texas
Growing up, bodybuilding wasn’t pushed on me at all. This might sound strange to some people, seeing as my dad is Lee Labrada, the IFBB Hall of Fame bodybuilder, but it’s completely true. I consumed a healthy diet as a child, but I never ate that much. As a result, I was always skinny.
More than anything, I loved sports. I played hockey from the time I was 5 years old until I was 12, and I never felt like I was at a disadvantage due to my lack of size. I could skate fast and was pretty strong—what else did I need?
In seventh grade, I became interested in football, and from the first practice I was hooked. I quickly realized that unlike hockey, I was at a distinct disadvantage. I had fun and did well enough in my first season, but my growing passion for football made me start looking for ways to put on size so I could become a better player. I’ve learned this is a common story among bodybuilders. Many, including my dad and Shawn Ray, got their feet wet in bodybuilding in order to get better at high school football.
I immersed myself in the afternoon and summer strength and conditioning camps my school had to offer, and while I made some progress initially, it wasn’t as much as I had hoped for, or expected. Following my eighth-grade season, I weighed a whopping 100 pounds, and I knew things had to change big time if I ever wanted to see playing time in high school.
Grow Like Dad
I consulted with—who else?—my dad, who made it clear that if I wanted to gain weight, I had to dramatically increase my caloric intake. Sure, I was training hard, but I had to eat more! That offseason, with his help, I started eating like a horse, and it made a world of difference. I gained 25 pounds that year alone.
As I kept working out and getting bigger, I began looked forward to training for football almost as much as I enjoyed playing football. By my senior season, I had built myself into a 5-foot-8, 210-pound running back and strong safety, and I signed a letter of intent to play football for a Division-II university in Boston. My senior season was a major letdown, however; I tore my hamstring on the first day of regular practice.
Hunter Labrada was part of the bodybuilding community long before he ever decided to become a bodybuilder.
After rehabilitating, I returned and played just four games before hurting myself again. This time, I suffered an avulsion fracture when my quadriceps tendon pulled a piece of bone off my hip at the growth plate, which was still soft because I was so young. Essentially, my legs had become so strong that the tendon had overpowered the connection to the bone, resulting in the fracture.
Football was looking less and less like my future, but as an upside, these injuries gave me an opportunity to train on a strict bodybuilding split routine. I found I had to split up the work for my upper body into multiple sessions so I could still be at the gym as much as I wanted to be. I made incredible progress, and by the time I was cleared to begin running, my athletic dreams had transformed along with my musculature.
Soon enough, I found I wasn’t enjoying all the things I used to enjoy about football. The highlight of any day became getting into the weight room. I decided that fall that I was done with football, and I was going to become a competitive bodybuilder.
Do The Caloric Math
That was three years ago, and since then, I have been able to transform my body even more, adding layers of muscle and quality size. I now weigh 237 pounds and am holding sub-8 percent body fat. More importantly, however, I’ve learned through trial and error, and hours upon hours of research, what works for me in terms of training, diet, and supplementation, and what doesn’t.
Remember that bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint!
Do you know what doesn’t work? The old method of walking up to the biggest guys in the gym and asking them what their splits looks like, what they do for certain body parts, or my favorite, what supplements they take.
Nine times out of ten, the people asking these questions do it with the best of intentions, and they just can’t figure out what the big guys’ secrets are. All they see are beasts crushing heavy weights in their workouts and drinking concoctions afterward that look questionable for human consumption.
The real secret is what those guys do during the other 22 hours of the day. What sets them apart from the people who are not growing is nutrition. Many people might think they know what I mean by that statement, but even they could be way off the mark. If you are truly trying to put on muscle mass, your traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner simply won’t suffice, no matter how hearty they are.
The basics of growth are simple: Consume more calories than you expend. In some ways, it’s that easy. But figuring how many calories you need to maximize quality growth, well, that’s not as simple. Here’s how you burn calories during your day:
- Resting metabolic rate: These are the calories burned by your body just so it can function, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of your daily caloric consumption.
- Daily activities: You burn plenty of calories just doing your daily tasks like walking, talking, working, and every other way you pass time outside of the gym.
- Training: These are the calories burned by your workout and cardio.
There are a number of different ways to calculate these numbers, but no matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of calories!
The amount of surplus that you’ll need varies based by your goals and how your body individually responds. One person might only need a 300-500 calorie daily surplus to make incredible gains, while another might require closer to an extra 1,000 calories. And the bigger you get, the more you will need to eat. This is a result of the increased metabolic rate caused by the added muscle mass and, most likely, your heightened training intensity.
The New Macros: Lean, Complex, Healthy
The New Macros
- Chicken breast
- Turkey breast
- White fish
- Ultra-lean ground beef
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Rice cakes
- Salmon and other fatty fish
- Fish oil or krill oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
As you know, figuring out how many calories you need is only one part of the battle. Choosing which foods are the best to fuel your body and achieve your daily required caloric surplus is the other.
There are several schools of thought on this, but the one that I am most partial to, and have had the most success with, is simply eating large amounts of clean food. And no, I’m not talking about how you wash your vegetables.
I’ve never been one to go on the pizza-and-ice-cream bulking diet, because while you’ll probably put on weight, you will also be left with a lot of empty calories and unwanted body fat that you’ll have to burn off later.
Remember that bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint! So why put on large amounts of unnecessary body fat when you can achieve the same end goal of building dense muscle, while looking and feeling much healthier, by doing it the right way? It’s simple: You can’t go wrong by eating lean proteins, complex carbs, and healthy fats.
These clean-food options aren’t complete lists, but they are guidelines. Why “ultra-lean” ground beef? Food marketers in our country have done a great job of capitalizing on consumer ignorance, so when the average person picks up a package of ground beef and sees a big “93 percent fat free” sticker, they think they are making a great choice. This beef, at 93 percent fat free, is actually approximately 33 percent fat per serving.
How is this possible, you ask? Because the beef is 93 percent fat free by weight, not by calories! A gram of protein has 4 calories, and one gram of fat is 9 calories, so you can see where it can get tough to stay on top of the numbers. This is why I look for 98 percent fat-free lean meats for my diet; these work out to approximately 10 percent fat per serving, by calories. I keep my proteins lean, and make up for it by eating fats from the “healthy fats” list.
The bigger you get, the more you will need to eat.
Before we dive into training, it’s important to touch on the supplements I use to augment my nutrition plan. As any smart athlete or coach will tell you, supplements can’t replace hard work and quality nutrition.
They can, however, round out your diet, introduce performance-boosting nutrients, and make getting adequate amounts of specific macronutrient easier.
Protein is usually the first thing that comes to mind when you talk to someone about supplements, and for good reason. Protein is essential for muscle growth and post-workout repair.
Whey is digested much faster than any other protein source available, which makes it ideal after training. Try to drink your whey within 30 minutes of your workout, targeting roughly 40 grams of protein.
When searching for a good whey protein, look for servings per container, protein per serving, and the presence of any “filler” nutrients like fats and added sugars.
You obviously want to maximize your money spent and give your muscles the best possible quality of protein for optimal results.
Creatine monohydrate is simple, safe, effective, extremely well-tested, and cheap. You will experience size, strength, and performance gains while taking it because creatine increases phosphocreatine stores inside your muscles and also causes them to hold more water.
I don’t like to mega-dose creatine, so I stick with five grams per day. When shopping, look for a pharmaceutical-grade creatine like Crealean.
Glutamine is the most prevalent amino acid in your muscle tissue, and it’s one of the key shuttles for nitrogen into your muscles.
Beyond the muscle-building and recovery benefits of glutamine, it’s helpful for immune support and gut health, making it an essential supp in my book.
Take 5-10 grams per day.
A good pre-workout will increase blood flow to your working muscles, which increases your strength and endurance by delivering more oxygen and nutrients. This, in turn, increases your performance and supports growth.
Look for a pre-workout powder that contains a full dose of creatine, beta-alanine, glutamine, and other performance ingredients.
Stay away from products that feature proprietary blends. That’s usually where manufacturers hide useless pixie dust amounts of exotic sounding ingredients that don’t help you much.
I don’t normally advocate fast carbs, but they can be helpful around your workouts. Since your body rapidly processes simple carbs, they allow you to replenish the glycogen in your muscles that you deplete during training.
This helps you recover faster and train harder. After a workout, fast carbs spike your insulin and help dliver nutrients to your fatigued muscles.
You can get simple carbs from fruits, sugary sports beverages, dextrose, or any number of extremely simple carbohydrates. I personally use Labrada’s PowerCarb product; it contains a special carbohydrate molecule designed to serve the exact function I described above, but better than any of the previous options listed. I enjoy sipping one scoop throughout my workout; it helps me sustain a full pump.
When you consume proteins, your body breaks them down into amino acids. There are three essential amino acids called branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are some of the most important for muscle growth, repair, and recovery.
I like to supplement with BCAAs before, during, and after my workouts to prevent catabolism (or breakdown) of my hard-earned muscle tissue and provide the fuel necessary for additional growth and energy during the intense stress of my training.
HUNTER’S MEAL PLAN AND SUPPLEMENTS
Here’s how a week of nutrition and supplementation looks for me on the system described above:
Training for Mass
Training regimens are a dime a dozen, and they’re almost all impressive in their own way. You have to listen to your body and find the one that works for you, or alter an existing one to better suit yourself. In the end, I believe it comes down to optimizing what I like to call your “training intensity equation.” Here’s what that looks like:
Training Intensity = (Volume x Weight used)/Rest time
This isn’t an equation that will spit you out a number. Instead, it’s meant to portray the relationship between the variables, so you can change them according to what works best for your body. You can increase or decrease your training intensity by either changing the volume, the weight you use on each set, your rest time, or all three.
I’ve been training on a push/pull-style split almost since I started, with all of the trial-and-error experimentation happening in the variables making up the training intensity. Initially, I pounded my larger body parts with upward of 25 sets. While I initially got great gains, my progress quickly slowed despite my good nutrition, supplementation, and rest.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that you don’t grow in the gym—it’s the opposite! You incur tears and trauma on a microscopic level, breaking down those precious muscles you have spent so much time and money to build. If the tears and trauma are too great, or they’re not given adequate time to recover, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Of course it’s normal to be sore or feel like you did something taxing the day after you train, but you shouldn’t feel like you got hit by a truck for three days after every workout, either!
The Intensity Sweet Spot
Once I started tweaking my training intensity equation, I found that I experience my best gains doing 12-15 sets per large body part (chest, back, legs) and 8-10 sets per small body part (shoulders, biceps, triceps) using a moderate 8-12 reps. This level of volume allowed me to keep my training intensity high by decreasing my rest time between sets and by performing each set to failure using techniques such as forced reps and negatives.
Staying mindful of these variables allows me to be more efficient in the gym, as well. My weekly chest and triceps workout takes me 1 hour and 10 minutes, but if I did the same routine in 1 hour and 45 minutes, I will feel like I did significantly less work. And for all intents and purposes, I did!
I challenge you to increase your intensity in some way during your next workout. That increased intensity, as many greats like my father have shown, makes muscles grow. Just stay mindful of the equation to avoid getting hit by the intensity freightliner!
Increase or decrease your training intensity by changing the volume, the weight you use on each set, your rest time, or all three.
My Sample Bodybuilding Workout
- Incline Dumbbell Press
5 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes
4 sets of 10-15 reps
- Hammer Grip Incline DB Bench Press
4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Flat Bench Cable Flyes
4 sets of 15 reps
- Bent-Arm Dumbbell Pullover
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Side Lateral Raise
4 sets of 15 reps
- Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise
4 sets of 15 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
4 sets of 15 reps
- Dips – Triceps Version
4 sets to failure
- Lying Triceps Press
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Triceps Pushdown – Rope Attachment
3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell One-Arm Triceps Extension
3 sets of 12-15 reps
Abs and cardio
- Rope Straight-Arm Pulldown
4 sets of 15 reps
- Seated Cable Rows
4 sets of 10-15 reps
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- T-Bar Row
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Underhand Cable Pulldowns
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Barbell Deadlift
4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Hammer Curls
3 sets of 20 reps
- Barbell Curl (Or EZ-Bar)
3 sets of 10 reps
- Dumbbell Alternate Bicep Curl
4 sets of 20 (10 on each arm)
- Alternate Hammer Curl
4 sets of 20 (10 on each arm)
- Cable Hammer Curls – Rope Attachment
3 sets to failure
Abs and cardio
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