So, in addition to music and school in all that mess, I decided to drop a few pounds of fat... and gain a hell of a lot more in muscle. I didn't quite know where to start at first, though I had a decent knowledge of what it was I wanted to do, which was strength training, leaning hard toward old school bodybuilding. To do that, of course, I knew I needed a set routine that I could work into my existing school and social obligations and keep at least three active rest days out of the week while still netting enough of the right calories to fuel the muscles I wanted to shock and therefore stimulate to grow. A mouthful, right? And then there's finding the right supplements -- because everyone knows, no matter how well you eat, a dumptruck couldn't pump you full of all the nutrients needed for achieving mass and satiating that metabolic drain, and a garden variety multivitamin won't do the trick either. Advice, tips, tricks, and a finger pointed to where to get any good samples is definitely welcome in this area. Oh hell yes.
Still, in need of supplies for my desired muscle-bound lifestyle, I did what any aspiring meathead would do. I went to Walmart -- mostly because I had a wallet to consider, but also because I knew already what I was looking for in this area. I got your typical go-tos, creatine, protein powder, protein drinks/bars that didn't have too many additives, everything but "thermogenic shred", and tried to stay away from taurine or caffeine for pre-workout formulas. Those can wait until my 3500-4000 calorie a day diet starts doing a bit more than supercharging my muscles, or until the waterweight stops falling off like butter. The way I see it, if I'm losing too much fat at this stage, I need to eat more. It's been about a month, and currently, my goal is to keep the bodyfat I have relatively constant while gaining lean mass and strength and continually raising the bar -- the "one more rep" mentality.
When I started my regimen, I was 175 pounds with clothes and hightops on, not very lean. Didn't feel too good about myself. Everything but my right bicep, back, and calves felt flabby and shrimpy to me, and I'm embarrassed to say my 58 year old mom, who shoveled 2000 pounds of ice and toted 150 pound boxes of shrimp on one shoulder every day for 29 years at her job as a seafood manager until 2007 or so, still has a meaner flex. Although, I can still beat her arm-wrestling and log flipping, so that's a relief. Of everyone barring my fiancee, mom's been the most supportive ever since I told her what I wanted to do with my body, and I hope to impress her in the coming years. She's always been my inspiration, such a strong, independent woman.
So far, one month and some weeks in, whatever I'm doing is working. The growth has been baffling me. I literally did not expect results to come soon, but today, I'm 189 pounds. My arms are back in the shape they were three years ago and still growing at a quick pace, especially triceps. My hips and waist are trimming. Thighs are firmer. A lot of what used to be loose skin is tightening up faster than I thought, to the point I wonder if I'm going to hit a plateau any time soon. I've gained several inches on my upper arms and my left and right arms are starting to equal out, same with the thighs. Love handles are quickly dissappearing, etc. Everything seems to be falling in line, and most of all, my mood, concentration, and energy levels have skyrocketed. I've also discovered that, predictably, as an aspie, I adore the solid routine.
I've read that beginners often experience explosive results, given the right training, simply because a lot of muscle groups haven't gotten any work in, and when they do, they adapt quickly. This seems to be holding true. I've also read that, due to the setup I have as a biological female, my body will be relying on HGH, human growth hormone, to build muscle, and estrogen to maintain and otherwise protect muscles from catabolisation, and that this does not limit growth but actually enhances endurance and recovery. So, while I was initially bummed at the fact that I don't have that much testosterone (at least in comparison to men) to build off of, finding out that growth hormone was just as if not more effective than T as touted in scientific studies and that strength gains pound for pound would be about equal if not better than if I were male was exciting, and the higher rep ranges, faster recovery rates post-workout, and shorter recovery periods between sets associated with female physiology seem to also hold true. I can work my muscles to failure, and by two days, the soreness is about completely gone and the muscle is both stronger and visibly larger the next week.
Currently, I'm on a three phase program, which I recently found closely resembles Jim Stoppani's 12 week Shortcut to Size, the exceptions being that each muscle group gets worked twice per week rather than once, one light day and one heavy day, and while Jim's program has 4 week phases, mine has 3. This seems to work better for me at rounding out the areas I neglected when I was in high school and working out mostly to supplement physical activities such as band, so the CO2 buildup while playing and marching for hours wouldn't sap me with a heavy intrument like baritone or tuba practicing in the hot sun. Suffice to say, my arms, back, calves, and shoulders were pretty jacked, endurance was good, etc., but my body wasn't very balanced at all, and not very aesthetically good looking to me either, quite a bit of body fat due to a poor diet. When I've got these areas rounded out, I may swap to Jim's 12 week cycle. It looks damn good, and the guy's got a doctorate, so he must know what he's talking about. Not to mention, a similar plan means it wouldn't be a huge change to my routine.
My plan is pretty simple. I'm a firm believer in the "KISS" method. "Keep it Simple, Stupid". Each cycle lasts three weeks to combat the body's natural ability to adapt to stress, and believe me, this is a massive ability we're talking. The human musculature is a monster when it comes to meeting the bar and staying there if you let it. Therefore we must introduce change, shock it into action. The whole reason you experience any growth at all is because the body is trying to catch up with more stress than it's used to, so in comes the 3 week cycle.
3 Week Overview
As we enter the cycle, our rep ranges are high. As we exit, our rep ranges are low. You can apply the 3 week cycles to an existing workout, but it works well in 7 day plans like mine, where you have 2 workout days, a rest day, followed by two more workout days, then two rest days, repeat ad nauseum. In addition, this plan works well with both male and female physiology, appealing to the female enhanced endurance in week 1, then appealing to male strength advantage in week 3. The result is both strength and endurance when we go into the next cycle, a huge plus.
- Week 1 - High reps, lower weight, slow reps, high range of motion
The purpose of this is to increase your endurance and prepare for higher weight ranges. Slower reps with emphasis on good form and range of motion will be your best friend. You may only be lifting at 40% of your max, but the high rep ranges in the sets will work wonders to prepare you for the next week. Again, focus on steady recruitment, not cheating your reps, and form. You'll want around 14-20 reps, excepting legs and abs, which can tolerate quite a bit more and thus stand to gain more from this.
- Week 2 - Medium reps, average to heavy weight, slow reps, angle modification
At this point, I like to move up to about 60-80% of my max, starting higher weight, then, if I find I can't do at least 7-12 reps of a given exercise, I may do a drop set until I can get at least 10. If I modify the angle for different recruitment, I'm aiming for at least 7, if not another 10-12. Each rep is slow and controlled, no cheating with pure momentum to get the weight up. This is absolutely crucial to any plan, of course.
- Week 3 - Lowest reps, highest weight, drop sets to failure
Everyone is different, but by the time I reach week three, I try to add enough weight that I can only complete 1-4 reps on the first set of whatever exercise I'm doing and log that down, whereas on week one, I may have completed 20 reps on a lower weight of the same exercise. Week 2 is somewhere in the middle; 7-11 reps seems to be the magic number for me when it comes to straight growth and less soreness after, but the 1-4 rep range is what shocks the muscle and keeps it from locking into a routine. The inclusion of drop sets on week 3 are to ensure we really get the most out of that muscle before we go into the next cycle of high reps, lower weight, and you'll notice, like me, strength and endurance massively improving, maybe even 5-20 pounds progress each cycle with plateauing at an easily broken minimum. Of course, you'll want to track weights and reps. In addition to being a nifty way of knowing where you are, you'll have some nice motivation to go on. That's always a kicker.
How Well Does It Work?
Personally, after two complete cycles and a partial third, I've increased about 30 pounds in all areas, and for once, standard pushups are a breeze, something I had struggled with even in 7th grade with a lower bodyfat percentage. Yes, women, or just the overweight in general, I'm aiming this one at you, mostly because this was my very first and only tangible goal, and I met it about four weeks ago, when previously I didn't think it was worth trying because I'd always been told women were on average too weak to do even that, or their weight distribution was off, that they were relegated to the emasculated term "girl pushup" -- if they could even manage that. There seem to be two camps on the "GPU". One says there's no such thing as a "girl" pushup. The other says you shouldn't do them at all.
Now, I've added weights to my pushups and squats for my week 3 routines, and I find I have to keep increasing to keep up with my muscles and get the same feeling of pushing I felt at the beginning. For those with the advantage of good equipment, I have to say challenging the range of motion and angles with good form is extremely important if you want to see regular gains and recruitment of the muscle fibers. This quickly helped me achieve the pushup goal particularly. I'm hoping to get to the point I can maintain good form in similar exercises with a buddy sitting on me rather than a weighted backpack, in the absence of a bench. So far, I can manage a pushup plus about 50 pounds, 100 if we're in the 1 rep range, and I can do a one-arm pushup with the right arm. I'd say cycling has been pretty explosive, coming from almost nothing, even if I attribute a lot of the quick gains from past strength.
7 Day Breakdown
- Day 1 - Leg Day, Light on the Abs, Squat Focus
Probably my least favorite day, just by how punishing it is on the legs and glutes. Everyone loves to hate squats. The hardest thing about Leg day is probably just maintaining good form on squats -- which a lot of people don't realize they aren't doing -- and keeping the glutes engaged. Flexing my glutes into the squat helped fix form and eliminated knee pain completely. I like weighted calf raises quite a bit. Elevating the toe helps engage, for me. Leg presses also work great. Backpacks and other items you can strap on will work well enough in the absence of equipment, but don't compromise form.
I like a lot of bodyweight exercises on this day. Any way I can lift myself up, using only my legs, I do. I find rather than running, which tears down more muscle than it builds, I can lie on the floor face up or down, brace on my arms, and hook my feet, then push or pull with the legs as necessary to lift the rest of the body off of the ground and toward the feet, recruiting the back or abs as needed. Depending on how the arms are braced and the height of the feet versus the body, the weight will be higher or lower. After three cycles, I can say it has drastically improved my ability to run. Makes sense, seeing as this exercise builds strength in that range of motion. Your knee angle will determine what parts of the leg you recruit the most.
Each group I'm working, I try to do five or six sets. On week 1, my ab workout is unweighted. Week 3, lightly weighted. All exercises are slow reps, slowest in the first two weeks, at least in the 18-20 rep range on week 1, scaling down to 1-5 on week 3. For abs, I may do sit-ups and crunches. On squats, the primary aim is to achieve perfect form and work to failure.
- Day 2 - Arm Day, Light on the Chest, Heavy on Triceps
Day 2 is all about curls, barbells, and maybe a couple pushups, but we're going to hit the chest heavy later in the week, so not quite too heavy today, or at least not too much weight. Biceps are of course everyone's favorite showpiece, and my favorites are preacher curls, hammer curls, and zottman curls. For the triceps, weighted dips are all-out punishment. You might also try close grip bench presses or pushups. Kettleball presses work as well.
The important thing to remember is to never save yourself for another set. Working to failure is not a bad thing, so long as you don't actually injure yourself or exert more than you can repair. This is why drop sets exist. If I can't complete all my sets on the same weight in good form, I drop a plate and keep chugging through that set, maybe adding a few reps if I can, and I repeat if I run into the same problem.
Day 2 I also like to include the forearm pretty heavily. Honestly, I feel like I get the best recruitment from just wringing out a very thick towel or doing towel pullups, which are great, considering this is arm day. If I have no actual equipment where I'm at, I'll do this and work the biceps against the legs, either with the towel or by sitting down and grabbing one leg at the ankle and using it as resistance for curls. You can easily control resistance this way.
- Day 3 - Rest Day - Does not equate couch potato day!
A lot of professionals use the term "active rest". In other words, pick up on your hobbies. Maybe take a walk or play basketball, but don't over exert your muscles too much. It may be tempting to lift, but don't do it. You'll only hurt your training on days 4 and 5, and you may even kill your gains for the week.
- Day 4 - Ab Day, Light on the Legs, Heavy Side Obliques
I may do crunches and situps today, or I may hang from the doorway and do leg raises, aiming to knee myself in the chin basically. My butt is so round that lying leg raises just make my back pop, haha. Hanging by my legs and doing situps engages the abs exceptionally well. Definitely feel the burn, and other bodyweight exercises can target obliques. I rely mostly on a range of motion in the abdominal workouts, side planks with elevated feet and rotation, or with one leg. It's worked fantastically so far.
You can get a bit of leg in with your oblique with offset dumbell squats, but seeing as we've already hit legs on day 1, I try to keep only a few sets of these. Single arm farmer's carry is another good one, essentially walking, flexing your abs, and carrying a heavy object on one side for a prescribed distance. It doesn't have to be a dumbbell necessarily. Another good oblique builder is hip-ups, or half-kneeling cable chops. Essentially any stabilizing or rotating motion of the torso with resistance will work these. Most people don't know they exist until they find themselves sore after trying to target the abs with some sort of rotating motion, and their obliques scream.
- Day 5 - Chest Day, Light on the Arms, Heavy Back
I have to say, day 5 is heavy on the flyes, with many angles. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger loves these. If I'm not doing flyes, it's weighted pushups. For the back, I'll hang off of a bed, counter, or table until my torso is at a 90 degree angle to the rest of my body, anchor my feet, and haul up until my body is straight, near it, or a little past that. All of these sets I do to failure. I may also work the biceps against the legs today and do some presses.
- Day 6 - Rest Day 1 - Naps, at least an hour stretching
By day 6, I'm lagging a bit and sore. I combat this with a stretch when I wake up, after each time I eat, and before bed. Protein, water, and electrolytes are a must, and as sleep is crucial to growth, some healthy napping is in order. I try to take at least two 90 minute naps.
- Day 7 - Rest Day 2 - Stretching
By day 7, I'm feeling better, and the soreness has almost completely disappeared. Keep the stretching from the day before, and prepare for the next cycle with stretches. These will improve your strength and range of motion without compromising the muscles themselves in any way. You'll be happy you did if you're going into a week 3 workout, for sure. That said, it's important to stretch properly.
Where do I go From Here?
I plan to continue building indefinitely, and, although I may never compete, it's been such a boon for my mood and stress levels, I want to see about pursuing even further. May update with pictures later, when I'm feeling less shy about myself in a pair of these fancy compression shorts I've become fond of. My next step will be adjusting supplement schedules as needed, finding a better multivitamin, and seeing about getting a gym membership if I can afford it. That, or I'm going to buy a nice bench, an EZ-bar, a standard grip bar, and see about getting some supplement samples, see if there's any I like. The only one who hasn't been altogether supportive of me so far is my dad, maybe because he's jealous I'm going to be more swole than him. The sky's the limit!