Playful Muscle – how to add variety and keep structure in your hypertrophy training

Today, I got a gem for you. Well, maybe it’s more of a raw diamond, as it’s still in beta stage, but still, today you might take away something. This is an idea that came to my head after quite a couple of ends met. I won’t pretend that I had any revelation on that one, so first, I’d like to summarize of of the sources and inspirations that led me to come up with this one.

In [this] episode of the [Industrial Strength Podcast] Joe DeFranco said something along the lines of „the one thing you have to know about hypertrophy training is that variety is key“. He also went on to talk about how muscles don’t have emotions, so the term „muscle confusion“ isn’t all that smart, but still, the workout you get most swole from is the one you never did before. That’s part of the secret behind beginner gains and the whole „everything works for about six weeks“ thing. Still, it’s imperative to have a plan and a structure to training. You’ve got to know which quality and pattern is going to be addressed during which session. Also, Joe is talking about that on [this] episode.

On the [Tim Ferris Show], I’ve been listening to [Jane McGonigal], the creator of [SuperBetter]. Now apparently, everythings gets easier when it’s done in a playful manner. [Chore Wars] shows that a relatively simple incentive system can even motivate pepole to do their housekeeping. I believe that the element of surpise plays a certain role as well – a certain amount of randomness just breaks the routine and makes everything a bit more interesting. On a side note, I was a competitive swimmer for some time in my youth and the thing that turned me down the most was the monotony. Same thing goes for Kata / Poomsae / Tuls in the martial arts. I was never into that because it just bored me to death. Fighting is the ultimate form of improvisation and seizure of the moment. Still, in strength training, the whole [WOD] mentality is – in my opinion – a severe case of training [ADD] and leads to no good. Therefore, I always prefer my plans to be very structured and clear. The less choices I have to make, the better.

Still, I do understand that you should always train the same, but different. I’ve covered that in a couple of posts on [GTG]. Now if you’ve been following this blog, you might know I really like (most of) the stuff that [Pavel Tsatsouline] puts out. As a matter of fact, much of what I do is inspired by his work – both when it comes to my own training as well as training my clients. Now Pavel impersonates the „low choice lifestyle“. In [Simple and Sinister], he writes:

„… Nevertheless, I chose not to give you that option in S&S. You have no decisions to make. You are to dedicate 100% of your attention to technique and power.“

Earlier in the book, Pavel is citing [Dan John], who says:

„… Less choice, less mental RAM going out the door. The more you choose, the less you have left to push the workout. Those leg innie and outie machines can convince you you’re working your legs. You’re not… but you can use your brain to convince you that you are.

No choice. More work.“

With all that being said, Pavel does indeed promote a great degree of randomness and variability, where appropriate. As a matter of fact, GTG, which he presents in [The Naked Warrior], is based on four „F“ words, one of which is „Fluctuating“ (the others are „Frequent“, „Fresh“ and „Flawless“). In [Power to the People], he suggests cycling through conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts and finally, trap bar deadlifts as the weight gets heavier. So in essence, you’d always be doing the same exercise – namely the deadlift -, but always in a different version. Also, in [Enter the Kettlebell], Pavel has the reader roll dice on the time that is spent on snatches / swings every session. There’s even a [blog post] on the [Strong First] homepage that takes this whole idea of rolling the dice a step further.

This is the inspiration I used when creating the „Kettlebell Academy“ at the [Shinergy Base], where I’m in charge of S&C. I introduced some slight changes to the original article. For example, in my classes, all the movement categories – Bent Press, Snatch, Get Up and Swing – are practiced, in that order. Also, the minimum time spent on each category is seven minutes, so only one dice is rolled and the result is added to six. Furthermore, I changed the exercise selection a bit.

Now what I thought of after listening to the DeFrance podcast mentioned above was that I could very well expand on that thought and translate it to hypertrophy training. Hence, I came up with a three-day, total body program that looks as follows:

Monday Wednesday Friday
1 Heavy Squat 1a Heavy Push 1 Heavy Hinge
2a Medium Push 1b Heavy Pull 2a Light Pull
2b Medium Pull 2 Medium Single Leg 2b Light Push
3a Light Single Leg 3b Light Anti-Extension 3 Medium Squat
3b Light Anti-Rotation 3c Light Anti-Lateral-Flexion 4a Medium Anti Rotation
3c Light Anti-Extension 4b Medium Anti-Extension

So basically, you’ll be squatting twice a week and hinging/deadlifting once per week (this is quite similar to the [5×5] template). In every session, there’ll be pushing and pulling, albeit in different intensities. Also, each session will have some midsection work. The reason I didn’t include a dedicated „anti-flexion“ pattern is that almost every exercise in the saggital plane is an anti-flexion exercise, so you’ll be doing plenty of that stuff anyways when you’re squatting and deadlifting. Now as for the intensities, this is nothing fancy, just use this rough guideline:

  • Heavy:    5 x 5, 120“ – 180“ Rest
  • Medium:    4 x 8-12, 120“ Rest
  • Light:    3 x 15-20, 90“ Rest

For supersets, use half of the rest period, for tri-sets use a third. So for example, after each set of heavy squats, you’d be resting two to three minutes, for complete recovery. Never miss a squat or a deadlift. In a medium push / pull superset, do your 8-12 pushes, rest for 60“ (instead of 120“), then go for your 8-12 pulls and rest for another minute. In the Light Single Leg / Anti-Rotation / Anti-Extension tri-set, you’d shoot for around 30 seconds of rest in between exercises.

Now that we’ve got a framework, it’s time to fill the individual slots with actual exercises. Now I’m a fan of what Pavel calls „high yield“ exercises. These are rather individual, so everyone might respond differently to a specific exercise, but as a general rule, the more joints and muscle are involved, the better the exercise. At least IMHO. Below you’ll find a list of five exercises for each category. In the beginning of your session, you roll a six-sided dice for each exercise category, thus deciding what you’ll be doing on that particular day. A six always means a joker, i.e., you choose your favourite exercise from the list. Again, keep in mind that this is by no means a complete list  I’ll probably change some of it in the future. However, I consciously chose exercises that don’t require much in terms of fancy equipment. For example, a MAX lunge could make a nice anti-rotation exercise, but then again, most gyms don’t offer sandbags. Hence, it didn’t make it into the list.

Push:

  1. Incline DB Bench Press
  2. DB Shoulder Press
  3. Weighted Push Up
  4. Half Kneeling Landmine Press
  5. Double KB Push Press
  6. Joker

Pull:

  1. Pull-Up
  2. TRX Reverse Rows
  3. Bent Over Barbell Rows
  4. Renegade Rows
  5. Bench Supported DB Rows
  6. Joker

Squat:

  1. Front Squat
  2. High Bar Squat
  3. Low Bar Squat
  4. Box Squats
  5. Jefferson Squat (out of the hole)
  6. Joker

Hinge:

  1. Romanian Deadlifts
  2. Conventional Deadlift
  3. Hip Thrust
  4. Trap Bar Deadlift
  5. Sumo Deadlift
  6. Joker

Single Leg:

  1. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
  2. Split Squat
  3. Bulgariant Split Squat
  4. Lateral Lunge
  5. Peterson Step Up
  6. Joker

Anti-Extension:

  1. RKC Plank
  2. TRX Body Saw
  3. Ab Wheel Roll Outs
  4. Vertical Cable Press
  5. Dead Bugs
  6. Joker

Anti-Lateral-Flexion:

  1. Suitcase Carry
  2. Suitcase Deadlift
  3. X-Walk
  4. Side Plank
  5.  Bottoms Up Kettlebell Walk
  6. Joker

Anti-Rotation:

  1. Tall Kneeling Pallof Press
  2. Half Kneeling Cable Lift
  3. Tall Kneeling Cable Chop
  4. Split Stance one Arm Cable Press
  5. TRX Anti Rotation Press
  6. Joker

As pointed out above, feel free to repalce any or all of these exercises with other ones, that will work better for you in terms of technical skill, availability of equipment etc.

„As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.“ — Harrington Emerson

Well, enough said, I guess – now it’s your turn to print this list, grab a pair of dice and get training! Be sure to leave me a feedback in the comments section. Really looking forward to reading about your thoughts on this stuff.

So long,

don’t get hurt

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