You can find my introductory post to my ongoing Leangains experience right here.
This post is taking a different form from my original intention. I was going to post about my workout experience and how I see it as different from pre-Leangans days. And, eventually in the course of this series I’d shoot some interview questions at Martin, workout questions being among them.
But in discussing some of the goals I’d like to meet in a post like this with Martin it soon became clear that we ought to just partially do this in and interview format from the get-go, after a brief introduction summarizing my own experience. So that’s what we’ll do and, of course, Martin will be around to expand on his ideas and methods in comments. So let’s get to it.
As I blogged way back in the beginning, May 2007, I did have a sense that brief and intense was superior to the standard gym drudgery of 3-5 visits per week of an hour or more with significant time devoted to low-effort cardio. Instead, I went only twice per week, 30-minutes per session, did no cardio (I did a few sprints once or twice per week away from the gym), and focussed on 3 sets X 10 reps for as many as I could get in, i.e., little to no rest between sets or exercises. In addition, I normally did circuits of 2-3 exercises at a time, such that I could move from set to set with no rest, alternating between the exercises.
For the first few months, perhaps six, the two workouts were split between chest and arms one day, legs and back the next. Then, we simply went full body each time but employed different exercises. Eventually, we changed that to be more weights and machines oriented one day and more crossfit circuit styled stuff the next, though I don’t know much about what precisely constitutes crossfit. What I do know is that the weight day got me real pumped while the “crossfit” day got me plain exhausted. I’d call it a combination of bodyweight stuff, some weights, plyometrics, and so on with the result being that it was quasi aerobic, or cardio at the pace I performed it.
I did make significant progress. In roughly the three years I did this I went from 235 pounds to holding between 180-185 (I was 183/4 when I began Leangains). I don’t recall what weight I was lifting in the various moves at the outset but I do know that I gained significantly over the three years.
SIX MONTHS OF LEANGAINS WORKOUTS
Note: six months was the timeframe, but over the summer months I had time off for vacations and such so actual time was about 5 months of actual workouts.
From my perspective, there are four primary exercises in the Leangains method (at least in the program Martin designed for me according to my goals and abilities): Deadlift, Squat, Bench Press, and Weighted Chinups. In addition there are about 8-10 other exercises classified as assistance moves. This was a great perspective as it really focussed the goal. I had four exercises to focus on primarily and I didn’t really concern myself with gains in the others. They kinda come automatically. There’s an interesting push / pull dynamic with gains, and it’s never linear.
The other difference is that I went from two to three workouts per week. The primary reason for this was a sea change in the way I was doing things in a circuit fashion. Martin required that I drop the number of sets I was doing and, in addition, the number of reps. In exchange, I was to lift more weight and get some rest in-between sets and exercises. Attack every set with maximal effort was the name of the game.
So let’s summarize the results. I’ll provide individual gains for the aforementioned primary moves and will just group the assistance gains into one number and then give a combined total. These are gains over 20 weeks of actual exercise.
- Conventional Deadlift: 155 – 295 / 90% gain
- Back Squats: 185 – 215 / 16% gain
- Bench Press: 165 – 180 / 9% gain
- Weighted Chin Ups: 0 – 20 / 11% gain, using average bodyweight over the period to calculate
- 11 Assistance Exercises: 29% average gain
- Total Overall Gain Over 20 Weeks: 27%
As I said, I don’t recall where I began in terms of weight 3 1/2 years ago, but in that first three years before going to the Leangains approach I may have — just guessing — gained 50-100%, maybe more in a few things. But that’s over 3 years. This was over 20 weeks, 5 months of actual time in gym.
So call me impressed, and happy.
So at this point I’ll move into questions for Martin Berkhan.
Martin, you’ve seen my summary of my pre-Leangains time at the gym. What can you say about the methods I employed? Anything good and why? What’s bad, and why?
I didn’t see anything good about it and I don’t know where to start with the bad. A few observations in random order.
1. Set structure: I hate “3 x 10” or “4 x 8”, or similar absolute systems. What does that mean exactly? So you do 10 reps with your 14RM weight to get 3 sets of 10 reps with the same weight so that the third set can be completed? What if you can get 12 reps on the third? What’s the point of half-assing it with two easy sets which leaves you semi-fatigued so that you can never get one truly good set in? Huge waste of time and an inferior way to train.
2. Circuit-style workouts and “little to no rest” in between sets. Are you looking to improve your conditioning? Training for an endurance event? Because that’s not how you train for strength and muscle gains. Rest at least 3-5 minutes in between sets for strength. Studies shows that longer rest equals greater strength gains. Since muscle gains follow strength gains, you can draw your own conclusions from that.
3. Mixing conditioning/strength. In the best case you’ll get mediocre at both, in the worst case you’ll stagnate. Keep them separate. Either do a strength session or a conditioning session, and do them on different days.
4. Changing parameters from week to week, i.e. workouts are variable and not constant. This makes it impossible to track progress.
5. Did you even have a training log? Did you go for PRs on a regular basis like you should? Because that’s what you should’ve been doing.
Given my gains over the initial 20 weeks under your guidance, would you say those gains are typical, below, or better than what you see from the average client? And, how about considering gender and age (I’ll be 50 in January)?
I’d say they’re just what I expected given your level of compliance and commitment, which were good. You stick with a sound plan and the right diet and you get to reap the rewards which is what you did. You lost fat, gained muscle and increased your strength significantly.
I know you pay significant attention to goings on in the community. In the context of gym time, what do you see as the good and the bad? How about the really, really bad?
Well, I think I covered that under the first question. In the bodybuilding community you have the issue of people overcomplicating things and screwing around with the small stuff instead of focusing on the core movements, i.e. ten different curls and chest movements, worrying about the optimal pre-workout stack, etc. In the paleo community you have this notion of simplifying things but what I see is instead an overreliance on novelty and mixing things up too much. Workouts vary from week to week, includes some elements of conditioning and strength, etc. This is purely based on my observations and I’m obviously generalizing a good bit. This is an inferior way to train beyond the first sweet six months or so where you’ll get great results on just about any approach. Beyond that point I think you need a more structured approach and get your goals straight to make faster and better progress.
Can you briefly describe your reasons behind the four primary core exercises?
Those are the four money movements from which at least 80% of your gains will come from. I don’t necessarily choose those exact movements but I do choose a proper substitute depending on the client. I’ll talk briefly about each below.
Bench press: For chest and shoulders. Sometimes substituted for weighted dips or dumbbell presses. I prefer barbell over dumbbells since it allows smaller weight jumps for progression, i.e. going from 50 lbs dumbbells to 55 lbs dumbbells is a 10% increase in load, while going from a 135 lbs bench press to 140 lbs is a 4% increase in load. While I do include a set or two of the overhead press, I find that most people don’t need much direct shoulder work in the plans I make. Shoulders get a lot of indirect training via chins, deadlift and even squats to some degree.
Weighted chins: Depending on the relative strength of the client, it’s pulldowns, chins and then finally weighted chins. Extra loading starts with 5-10 lbs added when you can do 8 body weight chins since I believe it’s a movement that’s best trained heavy, in the 4-6 rep range. I always advocate chins, not pull-ups. Chins allows a greater ROM and people tend to cheat less when adding weight. Besides chins, close-grip chins is another favorite variety I use. Most people could build a great set of biceps focusing on weighted chins and close-grip chins only. I did.
Squats: Well, not much to say about this one. Best lower-body movement hands down. Front squats is another great alternative. Leg press is also fine. Some people simply aren’t built to squat and are better off focusing on leg presses instead. Most often tall guys with long legs.
Deadlift: Like squats, this is another no-brainer. Depending on your leverages, this will either be more of a back-lift or more of a lower-body lift. Either way, it needs a separate day; at least in the context I use it. Don’t squat and deadlift on the same day. In my experience, the deadlift is a lift that should be trained low volume, low frequency and high effort. Never more than once a week.
Why heavy, and why the allowance for lots of rest in-between sets and exercises?
Hard and heavy gives you the most return on your time investment. Make all your sets count and try to improve on them your next session. Being physically and mentally prepared is important, therefore the long rest periods. Besides, studies show longer rest periods equals greater strength gains. I should note that I use different setups depending on the goal of the client. For example, I’ve experimented with higher frequency training where sets were not taken to failure every session. However, that was in the context of gaining. On a diet, hard and heavy is the right way to go. Training volume should be low, effort high.
Are the workout programs you furnish clients mostly the same or are they different based on factors like goals, gender, age, ability?
No, they vary depending on the client; goals, available equipment, age, and so forth. However, I do have a few templates that I use over and over again. The one you used is one of the more common templates. Some people gained more strength on that one on their diet than they did on another one when bulking. It’s simple and effective.
Do you ever employ Olympic lifts (snatch, clean & jerk) for clients and if not, why?
No, never, unless they’re Olympic lifters or have a good deal of experience with the lifts. While productive, these lifts require skill and practice. Given that I do most of my work online, it would be irresponsible to include them in people’s templates. Most people can bench, squat and deadlift with good form, but they can’t snatch and clean.
Lots of my readers out there aren’t looking to get ripped but yet want a decent body composition and a good measure of strength. Supposing they’re not going to go all out for a Leangains program, what advice — or perhaps principles or rules of thumb — can you offer that will give them the biggest bang for their time & effort invested?
1. Track progress short-term and long-term. Use a training log to document every workout and compare your performance in between workouts. For long-term progress, use checkpoints. I talked about checkpoints here.
2. Don’t mix strength and conditioning. Keep them separate. Why? First of all, you can’t get a great strength session and a great conditioning session in the same workout. Second of all, there’s a very good reason to keep them separate if you look at what happens on a cellular level. In simple terms, conditioning activates a protein (AMPK) which blunts another protein (MTOR) that turns on muscle protein synthesis.
3. If your goal is fat loss, limit strength training to 3 days a week. 95% of the people reading this don’t need to spend more than 3 days a week tops in the gym to get to where they want, regardless if they just want to lose a few pounds or get ripped.
4. If you stagnate, be that in terms of fat loss or muscle gain, the first thing to fix is your diet, not your training or cardio routine. Count calories.
5. Start every workout with a core movement and pair them intelligently. Looking at Richard’s template, we did.
Monday: Deadlifts and weighted chins. Make sure you get 5 mins of rest in between deadlifts and chins.
Friday: Squats. Make sure you get a minimum of two days of rest in between deadlifts and squats, i.e. don’t do heavy deads on Wednesday and then heavy squats on Friday.
6. If you’re dragging yourself to the gym in order to do HIIT or burpees supersetted with hindu pushups, or whatever else is trendy right now, ask yourself if you’re really doing this for conditioning purposes or fat loss. I think if most people answered honestly it would be the latter. If you’re interested in gaining strength and muscle, while losing fat, keep in mind that strenuous cardio like HIIT and other high-impact cardio will make that a whole lot harder and less likely to happen. Focus your efforts on strength training and keep cardio light. Ditch the intervals and take a 45-60 min leisurely walk instead.
7. For fat loss, I always use reverse pyramid training with a double progression scheme. I talked about double progression here. So for example, in Richard’s plan he had “Deadlifts 2 x 4-5”. That means he’d warm-up and then do one set all out in the 4-5 rep range. He’d then rest, lower the weight by 10%, and do another set all-out. If he could get 5 reps in either set, he’d up the weight for that set by by 2.5-5% the next session. When using the RPT-scheme, use no more than 3 sets per movement in the core movements. For assistance movements, 1-2 sets is enough.
8. If you want to lose fat, and possibly gain some strength and muscle in the process, the most important aspect of your diet is protein intake. Though there might not be any benefits beyond 2 g/kg body weight in energy balance, protein needs are elevated on a diet. Generally speaking, 2.5 g/kg is the bare minimum I recommend you get on a daily basis on a diet.
9. There are also other reasons you’d want to keep protein high, such as satiety and TEF, where protein is superior to any other macronutrient. For this reason, I also recommend a high protein intake as part of a lifestyle diet in order to maintain body fat and protect against fat gain once you’ve reached your goals in terms of where you want your physique to be. I talked about this here.
I’ll get drafting the next installment right away so it’s up within a week to 10 days. We’ll cover the dietary aspects of Martin’s approach and perhaps also the fasting depending upon length. But I suspect fasting will require its own post.
Update: Next installment is up. Leangains: The Dietary Approach