The Gaining Strength Program

Anyone can use the Gaining Strength Program to build strength and muscle mass, but it is designed especially for hardgainers and athletes who are over the age of 40 years.

This program is based on the latest research on resistance training for strength and hypertrophy.  

Equipment required

To start implementing all of the exercises I recommend in the Gaining Strength program you will need the following equipment:

  1. A power rack with safety pins and a chin up bar.
  2. A 300-400 pound barbell set for squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and possibly bench presses, or an X3 bar.  
  3. Parallel dipping bars or a bench for bench pressing or Serious Steel 42” loop elastic bands to add or subtract load to/from push ups.
  4. A Brute Belt or other quality chin up/dip/hip squat belt, which will allow you use resistance bands or plates to add resistance to chin ups, pull ups and dips (if you do dips instead of bench press).
  5. A set of fractional barbell plates weighing 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 1 pound each is useful for microloading progression with barbell and dumbbell exercises, chin ups and dips.
  6. Optional, a set of gymnastic rings or a suspension trainer.
  7. Optional, a set of Serious Steel resistance bands to either provide assistance or add variable resistance to push ups.
  8. A notebook in which you will record details about each training session.  I use essay books. 

The Gaining Strength Basic Training Program

The Gaining Strength Starter Program consists of 2 slightly different full body training routines, alternated thrice weekly:

Routine A 

Tuck split squat or pause front squat (barbell or X3 bar)  – 1 x 10-15

Straight leg deadlift (bar+bands or X3 bar preferred) – 1 x 15

Rise on toes (with dumbbell or bands) – 1 x 15

Regular chin ups  – 1 x 8

Standing overhead press (X3 bar or barbell)– 1 x 8

Inverted rows or fulcrum 90º pull ups  – 1 x 8

Dips  – 1 x 8

Neck extension – 1 x 12

Routine B

Pause full front squat (X3 bar or barbell) or high bar back squat – 1 x 10-15

Leg curl (bands, suspension trainer or bodyweight) – 1 x 10

Rise on toes (with dumbbell or bands) – 1 x 15

Regular chin ups  – 1 x 8

Standing overhead press (X3 bar or barbell) – 1 x 8

Inverted rows or fulcrum 90º pull ups  – 1 x 8

Band push ups, bench press, or X3 bar chest press – 1 x 8

Neck flexion – 1 x 12

You do these thrice weekly with 48-72 hours between.  For example, do routine A on Monday, B on Wednesday, and A on Friday.  The next week do B on Monday, A on Wednesday, and B again on Friday. 

Why Full Body Routines?

A training frequency of at least twice weekly probably produces greater strength and muscle mass gains than only once weekly.  The positive effect of frequency on hypertrophy is mainly due to a greater volume of effective loading and more frequent elevations in muscle protein synthesis and more time spent in a positive net protein balance.  

Full body training allows you to train all muscle groups two to three times weekly while also allowing you four to five rest days.  Also, research has reported that full body routines may produce greater strength and mass gains than split routines.  

As noted, this is probably because when you spread your work load for a specific exercise or muscle across three sessions weekly instead of  doing it all in one session, you perform more total effective work.  For example, if you compared performing 3 sets of squats in one weekly session to 3 sets over three different sessions, with the higher frequency training all 3 sets would be performed in a rested condition, whereas with the once weekly plan 2 of the sets would be performed in a fatigued condition.  Similarly if you eventually found that your squats respond best to 4-6 sets weekly, you would be better off doing 2-3 sets twice weekly than 6 sets only once weekly. After 2-3 sets of squats doing AMRAP the last three sets would not likely be of high quality.

One set?

Start with only one set per exercise. I advise starting with one set to find out how you respond to this minimal dose.  If you respond well, great, you have a very brief routine that works. If you don't respond well, or some exercises/muscle groups don't respond well, then you might need to add some sets.  We want to do only the amount necessary to get the desired results, so if after at least 8 weeks of using 1 set per exercise, some muscle group/exercise is not responding (no strength or mass gains), add 1 set to the non-responding muscle group(s), using either a new exercise (from recommended exercises) or the reverse pyramid method.  Then do 2 sets for the exercise(s) for a 3-4 weeks, and see if that improves the results.  If not, then try adding another set, again using either another recommended exercise or the reverse pyramid method. Re-evaluate again.

Following this procedure you may get to a point where you need to split the routines in order to fit them into your schedule.  At that point you can split them into an upper body/lower body split.  

But what about arm work?

Multiple studies have shown that adding direct exercises for biceps and triceps to any routine that includes a multi-joint vertical pull – i.e. chin up or pulldown – and a multi-joint pressing motion (dips, chest press, shoulder press) produces no greater strength or size of arm muscles.

If you want big arms, focus on getting really strong in chin ups, dips or chest press, rows and overhead presses.  These exercises provide all the work your arms need to grow.  

However, if you really feel the need to add direct arm work, I suggest adding a set of bicep curls to the end of routine A, and a set of tricep extensions to the end of routine B.

Warm ups

Here is the general warm up I recommend:

  1. Neck extension/flexion x 10-15
  2. Neck lateral flexion x 10-15
  3. Neck rotation x 10-15
  4. Small arm circles forward x 30
  5. Small arm circles backwards x 30
  6. Waist rotation with Liver/Kidney taps x 20
  7. Hip rotation x 10-15 each direction
  8. Bodyweight squats x 20

When using proper exercise execution with submaximal loads permitting at least 6 repetitions, the specific warm up is built into the work set during the first one-third to one-half of the set when you move a bit more slowly than is actually possible at that point, as described in earlier. Moreover, research has shown that on average specific warm ups have practically no benefit when you are training with submaximal loads allowing 6-20 repetitions.

Nevertheless, if after a general warm up you still do not feel mentally and physically prepared for your first work set, include a specific warm up for the first exercise as follows:

  1. Use 50% of the working load for the target number of  repetitions for the work set of the exercise.
  2. If still not warm enough, increase the load to ~75% of the working load and do half the target number of repetitions for the work set of the exercise.
  3. Rest 1-3 minutes during which you increase the load to the the work set level.
  4. Perform the work set.  

After performing the first work set you should be quite warm and probably will have no need to perform further warm ups for that session. 

Effort level: AMRAP

Do as many reps as possible up to the goal number of repetitions on each set.  You stop when you know that you will not be able to  complete the next repetition in good form.  Training to muscular failure produces greater hypertrophy when using low loads (~34 RM) but not when using high loads (8-12 RM) [study].   However, training to muscular failure reduces your time investment.  For example, one study found no significant difference in strength gains between a training time of 7 minutes consisting of several sets to failure per exercise and 25 minutes of sets not to failure, so by training to failure or performing as many reps as possible you can reduce your training time by approximately 70% [study].

Progressive Resistance

To get strong you must use progressive resistance.  I recommend progressing the resistance using fractional plates.  Small increases in load are much easier to adapt to and sustainable for long training cycles. 

The table to the left lists the progression increments that I recommend.  Keep in mind that if you add 2 pounds to your squat every week for a year you will add in total 100 pounds to your squat.  

If you train with the right level of intensity and get plenty of good food and rest, you will likely be able to add load to each exercise once weekly.

Stick with it and grow!

Yes, this is all you need.  This program includes all the best exercises for each major muscle group.  All you need to do is get as strong as you can in performance of each of the exercises.  

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