Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mass Construction "Plus"

     Over the course of 2009, I have received quite a lot of e-mail regarding two of my workouts programs: my "Mass Construction" and my "High-Frequency Focus Training" program.  If you're one of those lifters interested in these programs, then you're in for a treat: the following is the "Mass Construction" program, plus a Q&A section at the end with a few actual e-mails that I received, and my replies.  A lot of the questions I got were along the same vein, and these represent most of those.

     And if you haven't read about "Mass Construction" training, then be all means, do so.  Of course, only if you want a lot of muscle growth.  But, I think, that covers a whole heck-of-a lot of folks that read this blog.


Mass Construction

State-of-the-Art, Holistic Training for Out-of-This-World Results

     After years of heavy power training—years upon years of heavy triples, doubles, and singles performed with supra-maximal poundage, my body just couldn’t take it any more.  For six months I couldn’t even lift a weight due to several herniated cervical disks.  Finally, I had to have surgery.  The doc’s advice: “don’t ever train heavy again!”  What, was this guy crazy?  I love lifting heavy weights—it’s the most addictive thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.  I’ve never tried heroin, but I’m pretty damn sure that I wouldn’t find it as addictive as getting under a 500-pound squat and cranking out a few triples.

     Never the less, when I recovered from my surgery and it was time to start pumping the iron again, I knew it was also time to make some changes to my training.  And so I made a choice: I decided to trade in one addiction for another.  I traded in the addiction of the max single for the addiction of the monster pump.  “Pump” training was my original love, after all.  (If you don’t believe me, just dig out some of the original articles I wrote for Ironman back in the mid ‘90s.  In fact, I wrote an article in one of the ’94 Ironman magazines—it was Ironman back then, not Iron Man as it is today—entitled “The Monster Pump.”)

     But one thing was certain: I also wasn’t about to start training like the average pro bodybuilder.  I decided that my new-style bodybuilding training was going to be state of the art.  I was going to take all of the stuff I learned from years of powerlifting and power-building, and I was going to apply it to some serious hypertrophy training.

     This bodybuilder was going to be 21st century; cutting-edge as hell.

The Principles of Mass Construction

     So, what are the cutting-edge training principles that will allow you to pack on the most muscle growth in the shortest time possible?  Well, there are several.  I’ll start by discussing the most important principle, and then the others that fall into place once you understand the first one.

Principle Number One: Volume is King!

     “Whoa!” some of you are saying.  “Hold your friggin’ horses, Sloan, ‘cause there’s no way this principle can be right!  We’ve read Mike Mentzer, and while we might not agree with everything he had to say, we do know that less is better.”

     Not so fast.  Not only is less not better, but more is a hell-of-a lot better.  The key is just knowing how to apply the volume, when to pour it on and when to back off.  But we’ll get to that backing off stuff in a little bit.  First, I want to spin a little tale about myself – how I first discovered there might be a lot more to this volume stuff than I ever realized.

     A few years ago, I was training for a powerlifting meet down here in the Deep South.  A couple of training partners I lifted with wanted to try one of those crazy Russian-style squat routines.  I decided what the hell, might as well give it a shot.  But if we were going to follow a Russian-style squat routine, then we were going to do the entire program.  We were going to train our bench presses and deadlifts Russian-style just the same.

     The program we followed had us hitting the bench press three times per week, squatting twice each week, and deadliftng twice each week.  The squatting and deadlifting were both done on different days, which meant that we were training our hamstrings, glutes, and lower back a total of four times each week.  And none of the workouts we did were light on volume.

     I definitely had my reservations at first.  But after a few weeks, I was sold.  My squat had never been stronger, and my deadlift and bench press were increasing.  The only problem: I was gaining too much muscle, funny as that may sound.  This routine wasn’t for someone trying to stay in a weight class, but it was fantastic for a trainee trying to pack on the pounds.  I had to actually decrease the amount of work I was doing in each workout in an attempt to stay in my weight class.

     But I had learned my lesson, one that I am now applying to my new hypertrophy workouts.  Volume definitely rocks!  You just need to know how to manipulate it to get the best results.  That’s where the following principles come in.

Principle Number Two: Volume Might be King but Squatting is Queen

     If you don’t gain anything else from this article, at least learn this: volume training combined with lots of squatting is the most sure-fire way imaginable to pack on the muscle mass.

     You want to increase your bench press?  Squat more.  You want to gain 30 pounds of muscle?  Squat more.  You want big arms more than anything else in the world? Squat more.

     In case you haven’t figured it out, all of those above answers had one thing in common.  You’ve got to squat if you are serious about gaining muscle mass.

Principle Number Three: Full Body Workouts are the Best

     If volume is king and squatting is queen, then full body workouts are the aces up your muscle-building sleeve.

     Full body training is “the bomb” for several reasons.  First, training the whole body seems to promote overall growth better than “split” training.  It acts as an anabolic catalyst, so to speak, triggering growth everywhere, even if only a few exercises are performed.

     Second, full body workouts allow you to train each bodypart more frequently.  Yep, you just read that correctly.  Frequent is good.  Recently, it has become almost a fad to train infrequently and irregularly.  The rationale has been that increased rest between workouts will aid recovery, and therefore growth and strength.  It sounds simple, it sounds like it will work, but unfortunately for many that have tried it, it just doesn’t work that way.

     While it’s true that you can’t train heavy more than once-per-week (at least until you become very advanced) you can train several times each week using workouts that aren’t that heavy.

     Look at all of the great lifters from the past sixty years (especially the ones that weren’t on steroids) who had fantastic physiques and were freaky strong, and you won’t find any of them that got great results from infrequent training.  From Marvin Eder to Bill Pearl to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Pat Casey to (current World’s Strongest Man champion) Mariusz Pudzianowski, all of them trained (or train) each muscle group at least twice per week.

     Also, if you look at all of the good systems of training over the last twenty years—from Bill Starr’s full body 5x5 workouts to Louie Simmons’s Westside Barbell system, to the full-body powerlifting methods of Russian coach extraordinaire Boris Sheiko, to the “grease the groove” training of Pavel Tsatsouline—the one thing these workouts all have in common is they train the major lifts frequently.

     To put this in perspective, consider this quote by the great Russian strength coach and current director of the biomechanics laboratory at Penn State University, Vladimir Zatsiorsky: “You need to train as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.”

     And if all of that is not enough, I’ll give you one more reason to give full body workouts a try: Marvin Eder, pound for pound the greatest strength athlete/bodybuilder to ever walk the planet.  In the 1950s, Eder had 19-inch arms at a bodyweight of 198 pounds.  He could squat 550 pounds for 10 reps, bench press 510 for a single, and do standing overhead presses with 365.  In addition, he once did the mind-boggling feat of cranking out 1,000 dips in 17 minutes.  And he built his physique using whole body workouts, training three days each week.

Principle Number Four: Stay Away from Failure

     When training with high volume (lots of sets, full-body workouts three days each week) you want to, for the most part, stay the heck away from muscle failure.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “You can either train hard or you can train long, but you can’t do both.”  Well, that statement happens to be right on, but most people just don’t understand that training long is better than training to failure.

     Despite the fact that this program I’m outlining is state-of-the-art, it’s not really anything new.  Bodybuilders of old knew very well that it was better to train long that it was to train hard.  Most of your classic bodybuilders from the ‘60s and before trained their muscle groups three times each week.  They didn’t do this because they read some new-fangled study that told them that was the best way to go.  They trained this way because they attempted every bodybuilding workout under the sun, and this was what worked best for them.  And they knew that in order to train their muscle groups that frequently, they would have to avoid muscle failure.

Principle Number Five: Keep Your Reps Moderate

     When training with a lot of volume, you want to avoid a couple of things.  One, you don’t want to train with incredibly heavy weights.  Why?  Because you will be approaching failure or hitting failure on all of your sets.  And, as we saw in our fourth principle, failure bad.  In other words, you can’t do 10 sets of max triples and not expect to burn out.

     Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do 10 sets of 3; it just means that the weight needs to be only moderately heavy if the reps are going to be that low.  Also, keep in mind that when trying to build maximum muscle mass—not maximum strength—your reps can be a little higher.

     The second thing you need to avoid when training with a lot of volume is doing too many reps on each set.  High rep sets combined with a high number of sets can add up to too much workload in a single workout.  This is what leads to overtraining, not volume workouts in and of themselves.

     What’s an ideal rep range for a bodybuilder solely interested in building muscle?  I’d say anywhere between 6-12 reps, with 6 to 8 being best.

Principle Number Six: Know When to Back Off

     Funny thing about those Russian workouts my lifting partners and I were doing: every four weeks, the volume would drop for one week.  I’ve noticed something else about all other great workout programs that rely on volume, whether it’s a Soviet-inspired squat regimen or a Westside bench workout.  Almost every one of them takes a break after three weeks of hard training.  This doesn’t mean you have to lay off for an entire week; it just means cutting back on sets and reps.

     In fact, little Principle Number Six here is the key to making big gains with volume workouts.  And, in case you haven’t figured it out, not backing off every few weeks is the reason why most people get absolutely nowhere when training with high-volume.

Creating the Ultimate Workout

     Okay, knowing the above factors, just what in the world would a really great training program look like incorporating these principles?  I think it would look a lot like the one that follows.  This might not be the ultimate program ever created for packing on muscle, but I don’t think you could ever find one much better, either.

     What follows is a four-week cycle.  Read the entire program and study it several times before hitting the gym.  When we get done with the program, I’ll give you a little advice to keep the gains coming longer than just the four weeks.

Week One

Day One

Squats: 5 sets of 8 reps

Incline Bench Presses: 5 sets of 8 reps

Wide Grip Chins: 5 sets of 8 reps

Barbell Curls supersetted w/ Dips: 5 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 15 reps

Day Two

Sumo Deadlifts: 5 sets of 6 reps

Standing Dumbbell Presses: 5 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Curls: 4 sets of 10 reps (each arm)

Skullcrushers: 4 sets of 10 reps

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 15 reps

Day Three

Squats: 5 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Bench Presses: 5 sets of 8 reps

Bent-Over Rows: 5 sets of 8 reps

Preacher Curls supersetted w/ Pulldowns: 5 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 15 reps

Week Two

Day One

Squats: 6 sets of 8 reps

Incline Bench Presses: 6 sets of 8 reps

Wide Grip Chins: 6 sets of 8 reps

Barbell Curls supersetted w/ Dips: 6 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 20 reps

Day Two

Sumo Deadlifts: 6 sets of 6 reps

Standing Dumbbell Presses: 6 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Curls: 6 sets of 10 reps (each arm)

Skullcrushers: 6 sets of 10 reps

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 20 reps

Day Three

Squats: 6 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Bench Presses: 6 sets of 8 reps

Bent-Over Rows: 6 sets of 8 reps

Preacher Curls supersetted w/ Pulldowns: 6 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 20 reps

Week Three

Day One

Squats: 8 sets of 8 reps

Incline Bench Presses: 8 sets of 8 reps

Wide Grip Chins: 6 sets of 10 reps

Barbell Curls supersetted w/ Dips: 8 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 25 reps

Day Two

Sumo Deadlifts: 8 sets of 6 reps

Standing Dumbbell Presses: 8 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Curls: 8 sets of 10 reps (each arm)

Skullcrushers: 8 sets of 10 reps

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 25 reps

Day Three

Squats: 8 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Bench Presses: 8 sets of 10 reps

Bent-Over Rows: 8 sets of 10 reps

Preacher Curls supersetted w/ Pulldowns: 8 sets of 12 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 5 sets of 25 reps

Week Four

Day One

Squats: 3 sets of 8 reps

Incline Bench Presses: 3 sets of 8 reps

Wide Grip Chins: 3 sets of 8 reps

Barbell Curls supersetted w/ Dips: 2 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 2 sets of 15 reps

Day Two

Sumo Deadlifts: 2 sets of 6 reps

Standing Dumbbell Presses: 2 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Curls: 2 sets of 10 reps (each arm)

Skullcrushers: 2 sets of 10 reps

Incline Sit-Ups: 2 sets of 15 reps

Day Three

Squats: 3 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 sets of 8 reps

Bent-Over Rows: 3 sets of 8 reps

Preacher Curls supersetted w/ Pulldowns: 2 sets of 10 reps (each exercise)

Incline Sit-Ups: 2 sets of 15 reps


·      Train three non-consecutive days each week.  The most popular days would be Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

·      All sets listed are “work” sets, done in a “straight” set fashion.  In other words, for all of your work sets, you will use the same weight on each set.  Perform one or two warm-up sets on each exercise before any work sets are performed, however.

·      Only the last set or two of each exercise should approach “muscular failure.”

·      When in doubt, use less weight not more.

·      Rest two to three minutes between sets.

·      The program is designed so that each week builds upon the previous one.  This entails that you DO NOT miss a training session.

·      The last week is your “back off” week.

·      When you are finished with the fourth week, you can either start the program over again for another four-week cycle or create a workout of your own based on the principles you have learned.

Question and Answer

     The following questions are a few that I received from readers wanting to know a little more information about the Mass Construction program.  Most of the questions that I received were along the same line of reasoning.  I’ve selected a few of the more in-depth questions to be printed here, which should help you with most questions you might have regarding the program.

     Question: I enjoyed reading and was very intrigued by your article "Mass Construction.”  I was hoping you might answer a few of questions.

1) First of all: What kind of weight progression would you use in the suggested routine?  Do you stick with the same weight for the entire cycle?  If so, when and by how much would you increase it?

2) What kind of strength gains did you get from this routine?

3) Also, in the article you mentioned that you first came to realize the potential of high frequency training a couple of years ago when you followed a Russian-styled high volume/frequency powerlifting routine.  If you don't mind my asking, what kind of routine was it?  What kind of muscle size gains did you get from it?

     I've read a lot of Pavel Tsatsouline's stuff, and have recently come across the Sheiko Training system (I always seem to be behind the times).  I've become very interested in high volume/high frequency training methods, but have had trouble making it work. 

     A little background on myself: For the past several years I had gotten away from heavy training and was focusing mostly on bodyweight and conditioning exercises due to school/work/family constraints.  Though I never stopped training, the intensity was reduced and my training goals had become erratic.  As a result, even though I was "in shape" I had let myself become surprisingly weak (and small).  I've decided to reclaim my muscle and might.  My primary goal is to gain as much muscle as I can, but I would also like to dramatically increase my base level of strength in the bench, squat, and deadlift.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks.

     Answer: First off, keep in mind that my "Mass Construction" program is not intended for anyone whose main interest is gaining strength.  It is strictly to induce hypertrophy.  I've had a lot of feedback from lifters who, once they got accustomed to the program, gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.  I doubt, however, that their maximum strength (as in 1-rep maximum) went up much, if any.

     If you do decide to use the program, then stick with the same weight throughout the 4-week cycle.  The increase in sets every week is plenty as far as "progression" is concerned.  If, after finishing the 4 weeks, you want to use the program again, then increase your weights on each exercise at the start of your second cycle.

     In 2003, I used the routines of Boris Sheiko almost exclusively.  The only difference was that I added a few assistance exercises for my lats, shoulders, and triceps (since my bench press was always a weak point).  During this time period, I could squat and deadlift more than triple my bodyweight, and I could bench press double my bodyweight.  The only problem with Sheiko's programs is that it's hard to stay in a weight class - you just gain too much muscle mass.

     Ever since then, I have always based my programs around volume-oriented, full-body workouts.  It's the only way to go.  (At least for myself, and many of the lifters I train.)

     If you have never tried a Sheiko program, I would recommend them.  However, make sure that you have first been performing 3-days-per-week, full-body workouts for at least a couple of months.  That way, the volume in Sheiko's routines won't completely wear you out.

     Question: I am about to start your “Mass Construction” program, but I have a couple of questions first.        

1) Are the work sets straight sets or should the weight get heavier with each set?

2) If the required sets and reps are met, should I increase the weight the next week or leave it the same due to the increase in number of sets and not increase until I start over after the four weeks?

     Answer: 1) All work sets are "straight" sets - use the same weight on each work set.

     2) You can increase weight on the sets, but ONLY if you are capable of performing the increased number of sets as well - which is not the case for most lifters.  This program works because of the increase in volume each week, and the sheer amount of volume used throughout the program, NOT because of an increase in poundages.

     Question: I have done the first week of your Mass Construction routine and I would like to go eight weeks with the routine, however, I have a question. I workout every other day, not M-W-F. This makes it hard to go two days off between Friday's (Day 3) and Monday's (Day 1) routine. How would I modify this routine to do it every other day? I was thinking I would repeat day 2 before I continue onto the next week.

      Answer: First off, I must say that I think the program is best if you don't try to modify it.  By the end of the 2nd week, most people really need the two days of rest.  Having said this... if you DO insist on training every other day then you will probably need a down week every three weeks instead of every 4.  Something like this might work well: Perform the first two weeks of the program as it is.  On the 3rd week, go ahead and perform the "down" week where you really cut down on your poundages and your intensity.  Then on the 4th week, perform what would have been the 3rd week of the program.  Following this intense week, do another "down" week before starting over with the 1st week again.

     Now, obviously it won't quite be "weeks" that you are performing, since you are training every other day.  What I am counting as a week of training in my above example would be six days for you.

     The other option is to do as you said and repeat day 2 before continuing to the next week.  This is less intense than what I am recommending and would be the better option if you respond to less "voluminous" workouts.  However, if you have been performing full-body workouts every other day for some time, then my option might be better - I have a feeling that your body can handle it.

     With either option, listen to your body.  You know it better than anyone else

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