Old-school training brings to mind the likes of Steve Reeves and company performing full-body workouts three times a week. Today such a routine is often passed on in favour of more ‘advanced’ training splits — training the body over four or five days. Whether that’s really more effective, though, is open to question.
Supposedly the advanced split enables your body to recover over a longer period of time and lets you perform more sets for each body part; however, that approach to training frequency isn’t better than the other. The full-body workout has its place in bodybuilding. It’s stood the test of time and can be used by beginner, intermediate and advanced bodybuilders alike.
Remember, Reeves had an awesome physique, one that is still considered great, so he must have been on to something.
Why the Hercules workout works
1) Overall muscle balance and conditioning. A total-body workout, performed three non-consecutive days a week — for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday — is efficient. Working the entire body in one session enables all -body parts to develop at about the same rate, which is essential for beginners seeking to build overall muscle mass and strength. Too often beginners perform endless sets of barbell curls and bench presses four times a week. In the end they either burn out or are injured because of muscle imbalance.
The full-body routine encourages — perhaps forces — you to devote an equal amount of effort to developing each body part, since it would be virtually impossible to do 12 sets of chest exercises, followed by squats, lunges, dips, deadlifts — you get the picture.
In addition to encouraging overall muscular development, a full-body approach forces you to learn different exercises. Even for advanced athletes, the reduced volume on each exercise encourages more concentration and proper form because you have to get the job done with fewer sets. You automatically train harder.
2) Better ripping results. When you’re dieting hard, the reduced carbohydrate intake means your glycogen stores are low. Consequently, your muscles often appear flat, and you feel like crap when you work out. The last thing you want to do is 15 to 20 sets for back at one workout.
The main goal during a fat-loss phase is to lose fat. Your workouts should therefore be geared more toward muscle maintenance, not extreme hypertrophy. Performing a full-body workout with reduced rest time between sets — 45 to 60 seconds — keeps you in the fat-burning zone, adds to the cardiovascular effect and boosts your metabolism after you train. In fact, full-body workouts may enable you to do cardio to two to three times a week instead of the usual five to six.
3) Active recovery. A few months ago I put myself on Arnold’s six-days-per-week, 20-plus-sets-per-body part routine for four weeks. At the end of it I’d made significant gains, but I was starting to feel the effects of overtraining — unable to sleep well, increased fatigue, decreased appetite. I knew it was time to cut back, or the muscle I’d gained would disappear in a matter of weeks. A three-days-per-week full-body program was perfect at that point.
For many bodybuilders decreasing workout volume is a tough pill to swallow. Unless your gym buddies are Deca and D-bol, however, you’ll have to cycle your training from higher to lower volume periodically, or you’ll risk suffering the effects of burnout.
After intensive training for four weeks or more, the average person requires anywhere from one to three weeks to fully recover. A lower-volume routine lets the body regenerate while still giving it adequate muscle stimulation. It also allows time for mild injuries to heal. Most important, the back-off period is usually the time when you enjoy the most muscle gains. Why do I make such a bold statement? Consider Arthur Jones, the creator of Nautilus machines and the father of high-intensity training. Top pros who were performing 30 to 40 sets per workout would come to him and be put through full-body workouts of 10 to 12 sets three times a week and — Boom! — their gains would go through the roof.
The Hercules Workout
You should be motivated to give full-body training a shot. Given that the average Joe (or Jane) has time commitments to school, job, family, spouse and so on, 12 to 15 sets per workout (not per body part!) should be perfect for consistent muscle size and strength gains.
That translates into four or five different exercises for working the entire body. Because you get only one exercise for each body part, compound, or multijoint, movements are best so that you work a number of muscles simultaneously. Also, it’s best to complete the workout within 45 to 75 minutes to prevent excess muscle catabolism. Here’s a traditional three-days-per-week full-body program that uses the same exercises at each session:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday
- Bench presses 3 x 10
- Seated military presses 3 x 10
- Bent-over rows 3 x 10
- Squats 3 x 10
- Leg curls 3 x 10
For most people performing that same workout three times a week for three to four weeks would get pretty boring — and you’d be limiting yourself by using the same exercises over and over; your muscles aren’t being worked from different angles, which means you wouldn’t be ensuring total muscular hypertrophy.
The solution is to vary the exercise choice at each workout. Here is the variable Hercules workout, designed to train your entire body from different angles throughout the week.
- Dumbbell bench presses 3 x 10
- Seated dumbbell presses 2 x 10
- Wide-grip chins 3 x 10
- Leg presses 3 x 10
- Glute/ham raises 3 x 15
- Flat-bench flyes 3 x 10
- Bent-over rows 3 x 10
- Squats 3 x 10
- Leg extensions 3 x 12
- EZ-curl-bar curls 2 x 15
- Dips 1 x 15-20
- Incline dumbbell presses 3 x 10
- Cable rows 3 x 10
- Stiff-legged deadlifts 4 x 8
- Dumbbell lunges 2 x 15
- Standing calf raises 3 x 20-25
The variable Hercules program doesn’t devote a lot of time to training the arms and forearms directly. That’s because you will already be developing significant arm strength and size by doing the basic compound movements like bench presses, rows, chins and dips. Your grip strength will improve from those big moves as well.
One last comment: As with any workout program, be sure to get enough rest every day and eat right. If you use the Hercules workout correctly, you should see Herculean results sooner than you thought possible.
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