The Power of One
The One-Exercise-Per-Muscle Group Manifesto
God only knows how many different training routines are out there in today’s bodybuilding world. The magazine in your hands alone probably has at least a half dozen of them. All this eclecticism can get a bit confusing for many bodybuilders and strength athletes. Especially for those guys and gals of you that are just starting out. So, what is the best way to train?
One reason that so many different programs exist is because all of them are effective (to a certain extent), and lifters and ‘builders all respond differently to different programs based on their body types. I’m here to tell you, however, that one method of training seems to stand above all the others. And this method is the one-exercise-per-bodypart philosophy. Of course, many different workouts exist within one-exercise-per-muscle group training, so this article will attempt to outline just about every single one of them—a hefty thing to do, but I think I’m up for the challenge. You could train for the rest of your lives using just the programs in this article, and you would never need another workout program. Yep, I feel just that damn strong about one-exercise-per-bodypart training.
The Reasons for One
I can remember vividly that the first article I ever read about one-exercise-per-muscle group workouts was entitled “10 sets of 10” by Greg Zulak, and it appeared in the June ’92 issue of MuscleMag International. Ol’ Zulie—I think I heard him affectionately called that somewhere—really opened my eyes to the power that could be found in these kinds of workouts when it came to adding muscle size and strength. (Of course, this kind of training really became popular when strength coach Charles Poliquin outlined his own 10 sets of 10 regimen that he called “German Volume Training.”)
And ever since I read that first 10 sets of 10 article, I’ve been hooked.
One-exercise-per-muscle group training is incredibly effective for several reasons. One—if you’re a bodybuilder—is the pump that this kind of training allows you to achieve. When it comes to building muscle, a “pump” is a very good way to tell if your workouts are producing results or not. If your muscles pump easily, and stay that way for some time, then this is a good indicator that muscle growth will soon follow. Well, one-exercise-per-bodypart training allows you to get a pump in a muscle like nothing else. Don’t believe it’s better than multi-angular training? Then think about this: how many times have you started off on an exercise and been achieving a fantastic pump, only to switch to a second exercise and lose your pump? Think about it. This has probably happened to you more than just a few times.
Another advantage is that this kind of training allows you to quickly bring up your strength on an exercise. It allows you to focus on training a certain “lift” instead of a certain muscle group. Many bodybuilders—and especially powerlifters or beginning bodybuilders—would get better results out of their training if they went to the gym and focused on working an exercise instead of a muscle group. In other words, it’s better to go to the gym and focus on training your squat, than it is to go in there and focus on training your quads. Your mental focus is better, not to mention your drive and determination on the particular exercise you are trying to improve.
I believe there are also certain scientific reasons why this kind of training is more effective than multi-angular training. There’s just something about high-volume lifting on just one exercise that brings about quicker gains than multi-angular lifting. And I ain’t the only person who believes this stuff, folks! Russian strength coaches and other coaches from the former Soviet Republic believe that you need to do at least 8 sets of an exercise in order for a workout to be effective. And you thought 4 or 5 sets was a lot for one exercise. Hah!
Okay, without any more rambling, let’s discuss the various programs and techniques that are out there for one-exercise-per-bodypart training. (There are a lot more of them than you probably realize.)
The Old Standby
For those of you interested primarily in building muscle, but have at least some kind of training experience under your belt, the 10 sets of 10 reps program is the best place to start this sort of training. This technique is straightforward and simple, but surprisingly effective. It works like this: pick a weight that you can get 20 reps with before reaching failure. Now, sticking with that same weight on all sets, attempt to perform 10 sets of 10 reps. After the first couple of sets, you’re going to be telling yourself, “no problem; I got this thing licked.” By the time you’ve done 4 sets, you’re going to be a little less sure about your ability to finish all 10 sets, and by the time you’ve done 6 sets, you won’t know how in the hell you’re going to get 10 reps on all of your remaining sets.
Don’t worry if you can’t get all 10 reps on all 10 sets. You probably won’t. Just stick with the weight at each workout until you can do 10 sets of 10.
Here’s a good bodypart split for this program:
Day One—Chest and Back
Day Four—Shoulders and Arms
Stick with this regimen for at least 6 weeks. Maybe longer if you’re not real advanced. After that, you’ll be ready for something different.
Advanced 10 Set Method
This one’s a heck of a workout for advanced trainees. Not only is it great at adding quality muscle tissue, it’s also a very good way to bring up your strength.
One reason that many advanced bodybuilders fail to make progress is that they don’t devote enough time during the training year to heavy lifting. When you have been lifting weights for a few years, your body actually needs heavy training—I’m talking 6 reps or under—in order to grow more muscle mass. You don’t have to spend all of the training year working out this heavy, but you do need to do it at least some of the year.
For this program, you are going to pick a weight where you can get 10 reps before reaching failure. In case you haven’t already figured it out, this means you’ll be performing 10 sets of 5 reps with this particular weight. At the next workout, you will add 5-10% to the weight lifted and perform 10 sets of 4 reps. At the third workout, you will add another 5-10% and perform 10 sets of 3 repetitions. At the fourth workout, you will go back to the weight you lifted for 10 sets of 4 reps and attempt 10 sets of 5 reps. For workouts five and six, you will increase weight by another 5-10% (respectively) and perform 10 sets of 4 and 10 sets of 3. Got it? If you haven’t, here’s a hypothetical 6-week squat program to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
375 pounds for 10 sets of 5 reps
395 pounds for 10 sets of 4 reps
415 pounds for 10 sets of 3 reps
395 pounds for 10 sets of 5 reps
415 pounds for 10 sets of 4 reps
435 pounds for 10 sets of 3 reps
If this program really works wonders for you, don’t be afraid to stick with it for another 6-week cycle.
The French Connection
As with many bodybuilders, one of my favorite films is “Pumping Iron.” For me, that was the glory days of bodybuilding. Maybe I just have a sense of nostalgia about the film because I first saw it when I was about 14 to 15 years old and decided that I wanted to start pumping iron myself. However, unlike a lot of other folks, I’m of the mind that the best physique in the entire dang movie belonged to a certain French bodybuilder named Serge Nubret. You know the bloke. He’s the one that entered the contest at the last moment and relegated young Louie to 2nd place.
Anyhow, Serge Nubret’s favorite workout program was a 20 sets of 20 regimen where—you guessed it—he would pick one exercise and blast it for 20 sets of 20 reps. As I recall, two of his favorite exercises for this sort of thing was bench presses and dips. (As a side note, one of Sergio Oliva’s favorite chest programs was to superset 20 sets of bench presses with 20 sets of dips—tires me out just thinking about it.)
If you thought the first two regimens were hard, they’re absolutely nothing compared to the 20 sets of 20 killer.
Unlike the 10 sets of 10 method, I wouldn’t advise using the 20 sets of 20 technique on a bodypart for more than a month. After that, it’s time to move on to some heavier training.
Some bodyparts and exercises are better relegated to this form of training. Here’s a list of exercises I would recommend for this:
Chest—bench presses, cable crossovers, wide-grip machine dips
Biceps—cable curls, dumbbell curls
Triceps—bench dips, close-grip board presses
Shoulders—lateral raises, Bradford presses
Lats—Wide-grip pulldowns, cross-bench pullovers
Quads—leg presses, hack squats, leg extensions
Hamstrings—leg curls, stiff-legged deadlifts
Calves—standing or seated calf raises, donkey calf raises
Enter Old School
One mistake made about one-exercise-per-muscle group training is that it’s best for “split” training. In fact, when training with a full-body regimen, the best way you can train is by performing only one-exercise-per-bodypart. And this kind of training isn’t just for beginners. It’s equally productive for advanced lifters, too. If you’ve been lifting for a few years and don’t believe me, just give one of the workouts below a try.
Probably the best way to use this “old school” brand of one-exercise-per-muscle group training is with the 5 sets of 5 reps method. This was a favorite of old-timers like Bill Pearl and Reg Park. In fact, it was Park who made the 5 sets of 5 reps method so popular.
Here are a couple of whole-body programs that use the one-exercise-per-bodypart method.
The 5x5 Program
Squats—5 sets of 5. Use a weight you can get about 8 reps with before reaching failure. Use this weight for all 5 sets of 5 reps.
Bench Presses—5 sets of 5
Wide-grip Chins—5 sets of 5. Add weight via a weight belt if needed.
Dips—5 sets of 5
Barbell Curls—5 sets of 5
Standing Overhead Presses—5 sets of 5
Calf and ab work—At the end of the session, add a few high-rep sets of calf raises and crunches, leg raises, or sit-ups
Front Squats—5 sets of 5
Dumbbell Bench Presses—5 sets of 5
Skullcrushers—5 sets of 5
Cable Curls—5 sets of 5
(no calf or ab work)
Squats—5 sets of 5. Use the same weight from Monday’s workout. On the following Monday, increase the weight by 5 to 10 pounds.
Incline Bench Presses—5 sets of 5
Bent-over Rows—5 sets of 5
Behind-the-neck Presses—5 sets of 5
E-z Bar Curls—5 sets of 5
Close-grip Bench Presses—5 sets of 5
Calf and ab work—Add some more high-rep sets of calf raises and ab work.
Advanced Full Body Blast
Squats—5 sets of 5/4/3/2/1. Here’s an example weight progression: 315 for 5 reps, 325 for 4 reps, 335 for 3 reps, 345 for 2 reps, and 355 for 1 repetition.
Bench Presses—5 sets of 5/4/3/2/1
Deadlifts—5 sets of 5/4/3/2/1
Bradford Presses—5 sets of 10/8/6/4/2 reps
Barbell Curls alternated w/ Dips—5 sets of 10/8/6/4/2 reps on each exercise
Calf and Ab work—Perform a minimum of 5 sets accessory work for each muscle group.
Squats—8 sets of 8. Perform all 8 sets with a weight you could get about 15 reps with before reaching failure.
Wide-grip Dips—8 sets of 8
Dumbbell Curls—8 sets of 8 reps (each arm)
Squats—5 sets of 6/5/4/3/2. Here’s an example weight progression based on Monday’s workout: 300 for 6 reps, 310 for 5 reps, 320 for 4 reps, 330 for 3 reps, 340 for 2 reps.
Bench Presses—5 sets of 6/5/4/3/2
Deadlifts—5 sets of 6/5/4/3/2
Barbell Curls alternated w/ Close-grip Bench Presses—5 sets of 6/5/4/3/2
Calf and Ab work—Perform a minimum of 5 sets accessory work for each muscle group.
High Set Singles
Many lifters—especially those of you bodybuilders who never listen to any advice offered by powerlifters or other strength athletes—are surprised when they try out this technique and discover just how effective it is for building strength and muscle mass. Don’t think singles build muscle, you say? Try this method and you won’t think that anymore.
This method is very easy to do. Pick a heavy multi-joint exercise—any one of the three powerlifts are great choices—and bomb away at it for at least 10 singles, although I think upwards of 20 works even better. As far as weight lifted, choose a weight that’s approximately 80-85% of your one rep max.
Below are a few good programs to follow using this technique:
Incline Bench Presses
Close Grip Bench presses
From Russia with Strength, Power, and a Buttload of Muscle Mass
Okay, I’ve saved the really hard stuff for the end. The workouts that follow should only be utilized by those of you who have spent a few months on some of the above workouts.
The countries from the old Soviet Republic—specifically Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine—are known for their absolutely grueling workout programs. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters from these countries use volume that is unheard of here in North America. While these workouts are grueling and long, they are also extremely effective for those lifters willing to take them seriously. Oh, and they are almost always centered around one-exercise-per-muscle group.
Below are two programs. Follow the first one for at least three months before attempting the second.
Squats—8 sets of 5 reps. Utilize a weight that allows you to get 10 reps before reaching failure.
Bench Presses—8 sets of 5 reps
Squats—5 sets of 8 reps. Use about 50% of your one-rep maximum.
Dumbbell Curls—4 sets of 12 reps
Ab work—Perform 5 sets of your favorite exercise
Bench Presses—8 sets of 12, 12, 10, 10, 8, 8, 12, and 16 repetitions. Add weight on the first 6 sets before stripping some off for the final 2.
Deadlifts—3 sets of 5 reps, 2 sets of 3 reps. Add weight on every set.
Bench Presses—5 sets of 10 reps. Use a weight that you would usually be able to get 20 reps before reaching failure.
Skullcrushers—4 sets of 12 reps
Squats—8 sets of 2 reps. Use a weight that is about 50 pounds more than what you used for your 8 sets of 5 on Monday. These should be a lot easier than Monday’s session.
Bench Presses—8 sets of 2 reps. Use the same technique as on the squats.
Squats—5 sets of 8 reps. Use approximately 50% of your one-rep max.
Wide Grip Chins—4 sets of 8 reps
Squats—8 sets of 5 reps. Use a weight that allows you to get 10 reps before reaching failure.
Bench Presses—8 sets of 5 reps
Squats—5 sets of 8 reps
Dips—5 sets of 10 reps
Dumbbell Curls—5 sets of 10 reps
Bench Presses—8 sets of 8 reps. Use a weight that allows you between 15 to 20 reps.
Deadlifts—8 sets of 3 reps. Work up over 8 progressively heavier sets of 3.
Bench Presses—8 sets of 8 reps. Attempt to use the same weight that you used on the first 8 sets of 8.
Bench Dips—5 sets of 25 reps
Squats—8 sets of 2 reps
Incline Bench Presses—5 sets of 5 reps. Perform 5 progressively heavier sets.
Squats—5 sets of 10 reps
Dips—5 sets of 10 reps
Barbell Curls—5 sets of 10 reps
Deadlifts—8 sets of 1 repetition. Work up over 8 progressively heavier singles until you reach 90-95% of your one-rep maximum.
Dumbbell Bench Presses—5 sets of 8 reps. Use a weight where you could get between 12 and 14 reps before reaching failure.
Deadlifts—5 sets of 5 reps. Use between 50-60% of your one-rep maximum.
Reverse Curls—5 sets of 10 reps
Skullcrushers—4 sets of 10 reps
Both of the above programs are relatively simple in design, but they pack one hell of a muscle-growing, strength-building wallop if you will take the time to let your body adapt to them. Even when you embark on Program One, you’ll probably feel a little overtrained the first week or two. Stick with it. Your body will adjust, and that’s when you’ll really start to see some results.
Summing Stuff Up
There you have it. More than a handful of great one-exercise-per-muscle group programs. When I said that you could use these workouts for the rest of your life without switching to anything else, I meant it. Never will you find any program as effective as one-exercise-per-bodypart training.
Now, get your keister to the gym, embark on one of these programs, and watch yourself grow larger and stronger.