Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/01/2013

Is Supercharged Good for Advanced Lifters?

Photo of Alli McKee by Michael Dominic Tedesco

A question that often comes up when Alwyn Cosgrove and I release a new book in the New Rules of Lifting series: “Will it work for advanced lifters?”

I have short answers and long answers, but I don’t always have persuasive answers. So I asked my friend Bryan Krahn, an editor at T-nation, to ask me some tough questions about Supercharged. You tell me if I close the deal.

Who’s this book for? What problem does it solve?

I think it’s for any lifter — any age, either gender, any stage of development — who either doesn’t have a program at all, or understands that his current program has stopped working, knows he needs to do something different, but doesn’t know what.

My philosophy is, if you’re putting in the time and effort, you probably deserve better results than what you’re getting.

That’s the problem Alwyn solves. His business depends on providing programs that give people better results than they can get from his competition.

How does an advanced lifter benefit from this book?

What is advanced? Is it years of training? Is it hours per week in the gym? Is it a level of achievement?

Speaking as someone who’s worked out in gyms almost continuously since 1980, I’d say that a lot of people are doing advanced workouts. But I rarely see advanced lifters.

To me, an advanced lifter is a guy or a woman with advanced form, advanced strength, and an advanced approach to training.

Those three things are going to look different from one lifter to the next.

Explain.

We all know some basics. If you can’t squat without your heels coming off the floor, or your form breaks down on the second rep of a set of five, you aren’t even an intermediate, much less advanced. Adding more weight to the bar before you fix your form is just going to mess you up, and probably sooner than later.

Advanced strength, to me, means you’re close to maxed out on both form and load. If you bench press on the Smith machine with your feet up on the bench, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing Wendler’s 5/3/1 with three plates on each side, or if you leg press 800 pounds for reps. You’re certainly strong on exercises we don’t recommend. But you aren’t an advanced lifter.

An advanced approach, as I see it, means you’re doing a program that not only matches your goals, but addresses the weaknesses that prevent you from reaching those goals.

So if you have a 45-inch waist, and you’re spending an hour a week on biceps curls, that’s fine if your goal is to look like John Goodman in The Flintstones. If it’s not, perhaps you should rethink your approach.

Stone-age guns (and gut)

There’s some interesting stuff on hypertrophy in here from Brad Schoenfeld. Can you go over it briefly?

Brad’s my hero on Supercharged. His studies condense hypertrophy science down to three factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic disruption, with mechanical tension being far and away the most important.

So if you’re designing the perfect program for hypertrophy, you obviously start with progressive resistance. No surprise there. I think we all understand we need to work with heavier weights over time.

The other stuff finishes the job you start with mechanical tension. You get muscle damage by imposing a new challenge — new exercises, new techniques, maybe an increase in volume where appropriate.

And you get metabolic stress by working hard, by sometimes getting into a deep oxygen deficit and forcing your muscles to generate energy in the most difficult, inefficient way possible. It takes your body a long time to recover from that, which is why your metabolism is elevated for so long after you leave the gym.

That’s exactly what Alwyn’s workouts are designed to do.

What I like about the book is that it’s like this giant ode to periodization — something recreational lifters seemed to have abandoned. Why do you think that is?

Basic, linear periodization was something I never tried, or even understood, in my teens and 20s. That’s why I suspect it’s the one fundamental technique that even some longtime gym rats haven’t yet tried. Certainly the more entry-level lifters, from my observation, don’t seem to get the idea of building strength by gradually increasing the load.

But here’s my sort of sneaky reason for pushing it so hard:

If you can get lifters to try a periodized program, you force them to log their workouts, to change things up every four weeks, and to focus on the process of training rather than the outcome.

Outcome goals are obviously important, but they’re also incredibly distracting, and they promote the idea that exercise X is the solution to problem Y, with no consideration of the context of your program.

An editor once asked me to find an exercise to help guys get a more visible vein in the middle of their biceps. If you’re telling your readers to focus on meaningless crap like the cephalic vein, you’re not doing them any favors.

In Supercharged, as in NROL for Life, you have what Alwyn calls a Chinese-menu approach to exercise selection. Readers pick their own exercises in each category, and move up at their own speeds. This gets dangerously close to one of my pet peeves, and one of the biggest mistakes I see lifters make: changing exercises too often.

We make it clear that the most experienced and aggressive lifters need to focus on the primary strength movements — typically the barbell squat and deadlift, barbell or dumbbell chest and shoulder press, and dumbbell row and chin-up. For hypertrophy, strength, and power development, you have to use the exercises that are designed for those things.

Alli deadlift finish

That is, for hypertrophy you want the straightest, most direct path from point A to point B. For strength you want the best leverage to lift the heaviest load. For either goal you aren’t going to choose exercises that challenge your balance and coordination. That’s going to compromise the amount of weight you can use, and it’s going to mean less work for the prime movers and more for the supporting muscles.

But those exercises definitely have their place in a program that also emphasizes mobility, core fitness, body comp, and overall conditioning. Those are the ones you can and should rotate in and out of your program. For one thing, as Alwyn often points out, if you’ve worked hard to develop a fitness quality, it makes no sense to completely abandon it so you can move on to something else.

Okay, so how about a workout from the book?

You’re going to start with mobility work, unless you choose to start with foam rolling (that’s what I do). Alwyn’s program is called RAMP, for Range of motion, Activation, and Movement Prep. You have a stretch for your hip flexors, a mobility exercise for your thoracic spine, an activation exercise for glutes, and then a series of movements that require progressively more balance, coordination, and range of motion. You finish with some movement drills — high knees, side shuffles, cariocas.

Next is core training. Most workouts will include a stability exercise — a variation on the plank or side plank — and a dynamic-stability exercise, which can be anything from mountain climbers to rollouts to cable chops to Turkish get-ups.

Isn’t it counterintuitive to fatigue the core before performing high-coordination strength work?

Fair question, and I think it comes down to this: Core stability is something you either train first or last. If you train it last, you train it least. Alwyn thinks core training is important enough to train when your body and mind are fresh.

This is an admittedly small sample size, but several of his clients have set powerlifting records, and one of his trainers recently won a state Olympic-lifting championship. So it seems unlikely that core training limits performance. But short of dialing up Stu McGill in the middle of a holiday week, I can’t say for sure.

Anyway, mobility and core training should take about 15 minutes, and give you a great warm-up for the strength workout.

Alwyn’s programs typically have A and B workouts. You’ll do a push and a pull in both A and B. Most lifters will do a vertical push and pull in one and a horizontal push and pull in the other.

You’ll do a squat variation in A and a deadlift variation in B. Then you’ll do a lunge variation in one and a single-leg-stance exercise in the other.

In most of Alwyn’s workouts the exercises are paired, so you’ll alternate between an upper- and lower-body exercise for however many sets you’re doing.

Then you’ll finish with 5 to 10 minutes of metabolic training. That changes from program to program.

I’ll show you a sample strength workout from one of the Hypertrophy programs.

Workout A

A1) Squat

A2) Pull

B1) Lunge

B2) Push

Workout B

A1) Deadlift

A2) Pull

B1) Single-leg stance

B2) Push

For metabolic training, you’ll do the complex of your choice. To keep it simple, let’s say you do a barbell complex of cleans, front squats, and push presses – 5 reps of each, 4 to 5 sets.

I’m not seeing the periodization here.

Alwyn’s Hypertrophy workouts use daily undulating periodization, which is easy enough to understand as a heavy-medium-light rotation.

Let’s say you work out Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Monday is always the heavy day (for this example, 4 sets of 4 reps), Wednesday is medium (3 x 8), and Friday is light (2 x 12). You’re also doing an ABA-BAB split, so over four weeks it looks like this:

Monday Wednesday Friday
Week 1 Workout A, heavy Workout B, medium Workout A, light
Week 2 Workout B, heavy Workout A, medium Workout B, light
Week 3 Workout A, heavy Workout B, medium Workout A, light
Week 4 Workout B, heavy Workout A, medium Workout B, light

Obviously, exercise selection really matters here. 

That’s the fun part!

For less experienced readers, Alwyn suggests using the same exercises for all your workouts, regardless of the rep range. (Different exercises for the A and B workouts, obviously.)

The most experienced lifters are probably going to do what I do, which is switch it up based on what works best with different types of loads.

Let’s look at one movement category: deadlift. (We call this the “hinge” movement pattern in the book, and Alwyn prefers “bend.” But we called it deadlift in the original New Rules of Lifting, and that’s still how I think about it.) Here are the five levels:

Level 1: Swiss-ball supine hip extension (or) supine hip extension + leg curl

Level 2: Romanian deadlift (RDL)

Level 3: Rack deadlift

Level 4: Deadlift (sumo, conventional, or trap bar)

Level 5: Wide-grip deadlift or wide-grip deadlift from deficit (i.e., standing on something to increase the ROM by a couple of inches)

Most of us aren’t going to use the Level 1 exercise for anything less than 15 to 20 reps. But the RDL, the Level 2 exercise, is a great choice for hypertrophy training. So that one’s in the mix for medium and light workouts.

For the heavy workouts, the most advanced readers are going to use Level 4. Which type of deadlift you do doesn’t matter, as long as you use the same one for each heavy workout.

Then there’s Level 5: You aren’t going to use a wide-grip deadlift from a deficit for either hypertrophy or strength, but it’s a kick-ass movement for body comp.

The way I do these programs is unconventional, and not necessarily what we tell readers to do. Over three or four months of these workouts (we include three Hypertrophy programs in Supercharged), I’ll do sumo deadlifts on the heavy days, RDLs on the medium days, and something I hate — like wide-grip deadlifts, with or without a deficit — for high reps.

It’s all the same movement pattern, and basically the same muscles employed. But by matching the exercise to the rep range, I can customize the program to hit all three of the hypertrophy mechanisms: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.

My big point is, what looks simple on paper becomes as complex and sophisticated as you want to make it. I use different exercise-selection strategies for each movement pattern. I also vary the exercises I use in core and metabolic training based on what I’m doing in the rest of the workout.

That’s why Alwyn can use this same basic workout template for complete novices at Results Fitness, or with some of the world’s most famous and best-paid athletes at the Nike complex in Oregon. One template, infinite applications!

  • pippa

    Saw something in here related to a question I was going to email you– new to your program for a month (using NROL for Life, 48 yo woman), previously doing P90X for 3 years but kept injuring my shoulder and got burned out on Pam the Blam, lol. Because I’m a born klutz and want to improve my balance for amateur ballroom comps, I was interested in working the balance-requiring options in, but I notice that the limiting factor becomes not really weight but some sort of “balance fatigue” type thing. I guess from what you are saying, that’s because my smaller core muscles are getting fatigued first. My motive for training is strength/ good health plus balance. I’ve always thought my balance trouble was just a coordination thing, but stronger muscles have made a difference already. I get in 3 weight workouts a week, plus 2 or 3 ballroom sessions. Would it make sense to rotate in a balance type option for each category, on different days? For instance, this morning I did the one-leg Romanian deadlifts– maybe next time I do regular deadlifts but do my pushups using cable handles, etc? Or is there a different strategy you have had success with for that type thing?

    • http://www.louschuler.com Lou Schuler

      Pippa, it really depends on which program you’re doing. When you get to the Hypertrophy programs, you’ll have an opportunity to use different exercises within the same program. (This probably won’t make sense until you get there. The H programs use 3 different set-and-rep ranges, so I’ll sometimes use 3 different exercises for some movement patterns within the same workout.)

      For Basic Training, you want to use the same exercises for each movement pattern in each A and B workout until you move on to the next program. Then you want to switch most of the exercises.

      I don’t see a need to go out of your way to choose balance-challenging exercises. I would just take them in order, by level, and focus on building strength and muscular endurance. Those two aspects of muscular fitness will probably help you more than a single-minded focus on balance.

      Good luck!