What is to follow is a solid strength program that I made and which I have used over the years on myself and on my clients with much success. It is named The Manly Strength Program (aka Manly Strength) as it will develop not only strength and muscle, but will also add a fair amount of extra toughness and manliness. To develop strength one only needs to satisfy two factors: training hard and training smart. This program has you training smart and if you bust your ass, you will reap its strength and muscle gain benefits. I have used this routine as a staple whenever I was not training as an Olympic weightlifter and was limited to training in a conventional gym, which, due to my career, has been quite a few times as I would relocate to different countries and finding an Olympic weightlifting training hall was as difficult as convincing Paris Hilton to wear her panties for a day. Thus, I would settle with training in whatever gym happened to have a squat rack and enough weights.
Full body training is the way to gain strength and fitness for a natural trainer
Now, my routine Manly Strength has you training every time in a holistic fashion, that is, you will be training your whole body in every session. Yes people, this is a full body routine. You see, back in the day when there were no flashy gyms with fluorescent lights and smiling personal trainers with colourful badges, weight training peeps used to simply lift barbells in a compound fashion every time they trained. Whether they were Olympic weighlifters or physical culturists (the antique name for a bodybuilder), they would do full body training sessions, repeating each full body session whenever they felt recovered. Sometimes they would hit the gym in a more of an activery recovery fashion and other times they would go hard and heavy. In essence, they were self-modulating their workload instinctively way before terms such as “overreaching”, “supercompensation” or “creatine” were even thought of. Through trial and error, the weight training community found that anywhere from 2 to 4 days per week of training was ideal, with 3 days being the number that most adhered to. Timeline of this is from the 1920’s until the late 1950’s. A good time to be a bodybuilder.
John Grimek was a great bodybuilder in the 30’s and 40’s who would train full body
and was a member of the US Olympic team in the 1936 Olympic Games.
And this is the sort of body he developed from full body training routines and without the use of steroids
A natural weightlifter cannot train like a steroid user
It was not until the discovery of anabolic steroids in the late 50’s and their ensuing introduction into the weight training scene that weight trainers started changing things around. Anabolic steroids allow one to recover faster which meant one could train much longer, much more frequently and with much more intense workloads. Split routines were popularized in the following decade by the Venice beach crowd and the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a great bodybuilder who would have a whole chicken and a pint of beer after training. Now, that sort of advice is the stuff that I like and, really, no one can question how these guys would train. However, the weight training community started emulating the sort of workouts of these steroid-fuelled super humans.
From the rising popularity of steroids and onward, silly routines were sponsored by questionable individuals as the holy grail of muscle gain and non-steroid users would buy into these routines. All the stuff that was learnt decades before from years and years of trial and error was lost in a sea of extremely muscular bodies and polluted advice, and routines that were intended for steroid users became the norm. An average routine would have the user “killing” a bodypart one day, waiting a whole week to kill the bodypart again, and training everyday of the week while dedicating training days to minuscule bodyparts such as arms! While that suits a professional bodybuilder who dedicates his life to training and is willing to use steroids, it really does not fit non-steroid using weight trainers seeking strength and muscle mass, and also seeking to have a life outside the gym.
Luckily, the field of sport sciences kept up with the times and was not tainted with the popular skewed bodybuilding advice. Amongst many discoveries, research proved that muscles can be stimulated frequently and that for strength gains, frequent stimulation is also desired. These discoveries actually paralleled all the training knowledge that was common before the introduction of steroids. Hence, frequent full body training stands strongly, in this day and age, as a training philosophy that is not only backed by history but also by research.
The Manly Strength program: a full training beast
All right, enough of historical stuff. Let’s get on with the program. With The Manly Strength Program, you are going to train three times a week, you are going to train with compound heavy exercises and you are going to train with intensity. A training day will, at most, take you 90 minutes. That’s 90 minutes three times a week, warms ups and all that included. You actually get to have a life outside the gym with this routine and if you put effort into it, you will get great strength and muscle mass gains. The inspirations and credit for my Manly Strength program come from the different Olympic weightlifting coaches I have had in the past, my own strength training experiments, Bill Starr and his great The Strongest Shall Survive strength program (from the 70s) and Reg Park’s 5×5 methodology (from the 40s and 50s).
With Manly Strength, every training day has you doing a push exercise, a pull exercise, a leg exercise and one or two accessory exercises. Out of those three days, one is trained with the heaviest weight, the other is done with high repetitions and the other is done with an emphasis on volume. After three weeks of training (a training block), you train for a week with less volume and test your strength, this is known as a deload week. After the deload week, you do another training block, deload, and continue infinitely, until you stop progressing and then take a week off training. Progression is measured by increasing the weights lifted, either by repetitions or weight load. If you get stronger and eat plenty, you will get bigger, in fact, with this routine you can expect to put on up to 20lbs of body weight in the first three months, most of it being muscle and provided you increase your strength numbers every week.
Below is the routine and format of the Manly Strength program.
The Manly Strength Program
Here is the beast. It is essential to keep a record of all sets and reps for every training day:
Squats: work up to a set of 5 reps in 5 sets. Increase one rep per week.
Bench press: same as above
Barbell rows: same as above
Lying leg raises: 1×20
Squats: work up to 2 sets of 8 repetitions in 5 sets, first 3 are ramp up sets and then do 2 working sets. Increase one rep per week.
Military press: same as above
Barbell rows: same as above
Chest flyes: 2×12
Lying leg raises: 1×20
Squats: five sets of 4 reps, all sets with the weight used on Day 1. Increase one rep per week.
Bench press: same as above
Barbell rows: same as above
Straight leg deadlift: 1×15
Bicep curls: 2×12
Lying leg raises: 1×20
Note that whenever a a numerical format is used, the first number is for the set and the second number for the amount of reps, thus 2×12 means 2 sets of 12 reps.
That is it. Take a rest day between each training day except for after Day 3, when you will take two days off before doing Day 1 again. A convenient training schedule is Monday-Wednesday-Friday, with the weekend off from training and left for leisure activities and winding down. Follow the structure of days, that is, do Day 1-Day 2-Day 3, do not alter the order of days.
An initial warm up is composed of 5 minutes of stretching and doing 10 reps of bodyweight squats. Then take the unloaded barbell and do another 10 reps. You are now ready to commence the training session with squats. Do the same 10 reps with the unloaded barbell to warm up for the other exercises when you have to do them.
To start this program you need to do so conservatively as the frequency of training will have you sore and fatigued for the first few weeks. Do not underestimate the program, squatting three times a week is a special task on its own! Hence, I want you to start with a weight that you can do with perfect form and leaving two reps in the tank for Day 1. So, if you can squat 200lbs for 7 reps, use 200lbs as a finishing weight for Day 1 so work up to a set of 5 reps with 200lbs and that’s it. Only do one set, with perfect form and confidence, your sets to get to 200×5 may look like this:
Squat: 100×5, 115×5, 150×5, 175×5 200×5
The final set is your work set, whereas the other sets building up to your work set are ramp up sets. The weight used to increment your ramp up sets should be between 25lbs to 100lbs, or even lower (e.g. 10lbs) if you are at a strength stage that doesn’t allow for such increments yet. Likewise, you can do the barbell alone x 5 as your first set (provided the barbell is of the Olympic type which weights aprox. 45lbs). Just go by feel and make sure to use the same weights for the ramp up sets every time you do the exercise of that day.
You goal is to increase ONE repetition for the work set in every Day 1, so the second week after starting the program, you have to do 6 reps. the third week you will do 7 reps and so on. Apply the same concept to the remaining exercises of Day 1. Once you can 10 repetitions on each exercise on Day 1, increase the weight 25lbs for squats and 10-15lbs for bench press and barbell rows, and start again at 5 reps. For lying leg raises, increase one rep per week until you hit 30 reps, then either add 10lbs (strapped to feet) or do 2 sets of x20 and build up again to 2×30. You can also increase the incline on the bench and start again at 1×20, I leave it up to you.
For Day 2, start the first week with a weight you can do for 2 sets of 8 repetitions with perfect form and grinding the last rep of the second set (this is approximately a weight you can do for one set of 10 reps). You goal is to work up to 2 sets of 12 in the coming weeks, increasing ONE repetition per week. The progression would look like this:
Week 1: 2×8
Week 2: 1×9, 1×8
Week 3: 1×9, 1×9
You do the same for all exercises of Day 2. The military press is a great exercise to build strong shoulders and core, work it hard. End Day 2 with chest flyes and more lying leg raises, and increase one rep per week.
Day 3 has you using the same weight as Day 1 and doing 5 sets of 4 repetitions. You should be able to do four reps on all sets if you chose the right weight for Day 1. It is imperative to start the first week with these 5 sets of 4 reps because your goal is to now work up to 5×5 in the coming weeks. Again, increase ONE rep every week so in the second week, your sets would be: 5 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps and 4 reps. On the third week you do 5,5,4,4,4. You goal is to eventually do 5 sets with the same weight you could only do for one set on Day 1. Congratulations, you got stronger as you do five times the amount of what you could originally do once. Do the accessory exercises and work the straight leg deadlift hard, increasing one rep per week until you get to 1×20, then add 10lbs and start again at 1×15. Bicep curls are done up to 2×15 and then add 5-10lbs to work at 2×12.
You may be wondering how long you should be resting per set. The ramp up sets should be anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Your work set or sets should be anywhere from 2-4 minutes, with the longest rest used for the work sets of Day 1 and 3. If you are not breaking a light sweat by the time you have finished the first exercise of the day, you are resting too much.
After each 3-week training block, you then do a week in which you only train two days, dedicating one day to testing your strength for two repetitions on all main exercises and the other day to training in a casual manner. The week schedule looks like this:
Squat: work up to a 2 repetition max
Bench press: same as above
Rows: same as above
Lying leg raises: 1×20
Squat: 5×5 with 80% of weight used on Day 3 of last week of training block.
Bench: same as above
Rows: same as above
Do one accessory exercise as you desire.
That is your deload week.
Day 1 of the deload week should be done three days after Day 3 of the training block and not two days after as you would normally do for a Day 1 of a training block. This means that if you normally do Monday-Wednesday-Friday on your training block, Day 1 of the deload week is to be done on Tuesday, not Monday. This is very important so do not skip any rest days. Rest three days after Day 1 and then do Day 2, so if you did Day 1 on Tuesday, Day 2 is done on Friday. Rest two days after Day 2 and start a new training block, again, do not skip any rest days even though you will probably be feeling fully rested a day after Day 2. You should be commencing the training block on the same day as usual, in this case a Monday, as you abide by the structure of the deload week.
On Day 1, dont worry about how many sets it takes you to hit a two repetition max. Just do it, get to a weight where you are grinding the second rep and move onto the next exercise. Record each weight lifted for two reps on each exercise as this is now your benchmark to test. On every deload week, you should be trying to do a bit more weight on Day 1 than the previous deload week. If you do 300lbs for 2 reps on your first deload week, you should be striving to get 305 or more for two reps on your next deload week. If you have been working hard on each training block, you will find yourself increasing the weight for the two reps on each deload week with relative ease, as your body gets stronger and stronger per training block.
You will be blown by now, so this is how you deload:
After Day 1, rest three days and do Day 2 which consists of training with 80% for 5 sets of 5 reps with the weight used on Day 3 of the last week of the training block. So if you did squats with 200lbs on Day 3 of the third week’s training block and your sets looked like 5 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps, your Day 2 of the deload week would look like:
Squat (80%): 160lbs x 5 sets of 5 reps.
Apply the same percentage and set/rep format (80% and 5×5) to the weights used for the bench press and the rows. Make sure to lift explosively and take short rest periods. Aim to get out of the gym in less than 30 mins. You can include one accessory exercise of Day 3 (training block) if you want, this is optional and I leave it to your discretion. The point of this day is to get in, do a quick workout and get out. You have worked very hard for the last 3 weeks so you deserve this workout.
As stated before, progression is measured by either increasing reps or weight load. As you should know by now, the program calls for starting with a set of 5 reps on Day 1, 2 sets of 8 reps on Day 2 and 5 sets of 4 reps on Day 3. You goal is to increase reps and eventually weight load too. This is how you must go about your progression:
Day 1: increase 1 rep per week on your work set until you get 10 reps, then add 25lbs (squat) and 10-15 lbs (bench press and rows) and start again at 5 repetitions.
Day 2: increase 1 rep per week on one set of the two sets of 8 reps until you get to 2 sets of 12 reps, then add 25 lbs (squat) and 10-15 lbs (military press and rows) and start again at 2 sets of 8 reps. If you increase one rep on the first set on one week, the next week you increase a rep on the second set.
Day 3: increase 1 rep per week on one of the 5 sets until you get 5 sets of 5 reps, then add 25lbs (squat) and 10-15 lbs (bench press and rows) and start again at 5 sets of 4 reps.
Can you see the pattern? It will take you 6 weeks (counting the deload week) to get to 10 reps on Day 1. Likewise, it will take you 6 weeks to complete 5 sets of 5 reps on Day 3 with the same weight you could only do for one set of 5 reps on Day 1. At the 6 week mark, you will throw in the additional stipulated poundages for each exercise on Day 1 and Day 3, always using the same weight for both days provided you get one rep every week (which is something you must work hard to achieve). It will take you a few more weeks to throw in more weight on Day 2 but the point remains, add a rep per week.
This program allows you to keep adding reps if you stick to it and respect the structure and schedule. Even if you feel you can do two reps instead of one, which will occur at times, do not do more than the established rep per week.
When progression halts
Eventually, you will get to a stage where deload weeks are not cutting it anymore in terms of providing enough rest and a week off training is ensued. There is not a set amount of time for when will this happen and there are too many variables affecting the need for extra rest in a weight trainer: from eating enough to bad sleep to too much external stress. I have had people on this program for a year before they took a week off, although most weight trainers need a week off at about the six month mark.
A rule of thumb is, if you have not increased a rep after two consecutive weeks, take a deload week with BOTH days following the same structure of Day 2 of the deload week (80% and 5×5). Start a new training block and use the same weights and reps as those used in the week before the deload week. If you fail to progress after another two weeks, take an entire week off training.
You can also take a week off training to match any holidays or periods in which training will not be possible. Think ahead and predict these periods, and throw in a week off or even a deload week instead. However, the minimum time interval of training before taking a week off is three months as you will be progressing nicely during this period.
Wrapping up the Manly Strength program
Ok, so by now you are aware of having to train three times per week, doing three main exercises per day and training for three weeks then taking a deload week. You must increase a rep per week per exercise every training day and once you hit a maximum amount of reps, throw in more weight and start back again.
The structure of the program for the first 8 weeks would be:
Week 1: start conservatively with chosen weights. Day 1 work up to a set of 5 reps, Day 2 do 2×8, Day 3 do 5×4
Week 2: increase 1 rep in each exercise and every training day
Week 3: increase 1 rep in each exercise and every training day
Week 4: deload week. Day 1 test your strength for 2 repetitions on all main exercises. Day 2 only lift 80% for 5 sets of 5 reps of the weight lifted on Day 3 of Week 3.
Week 5: increase 1 rep in each exercise and every training day from Week 3
Week 6: increase 1rep in each exercise and every training day
Week 7: increase 1 rep in each exercise and every training day
Week 8: deload week. Day 1 test your strength for 2 repetitions on all exercises, aiming for a minimum 5lbs increase on every lift from previous deload week (Week 4). Day 2 only lift 80% for 5 sets of 5 reps of the weight lifted on Day 3 of Week 7.
A note on working hard
The Manly Strength Program is hard, I will not sugarcoat it. I have gone back to this program many times and have had plenty of people using it to their advantage. Most of the initial feedback I obtain from this program is that it is damn hard, with people experiencing walking difficulties after the first week. At the three month mark, I suddenly get people emailing me or phoning me telling of the positive changes they are experiencing and the changes become even more dramatic at the six month stage of following the program. It really delivers results if you stick to it and put the effort required into it, which brings my next point.
Along with the silliness from polluted routines used for the last several decades, there seems to be a consensus that training hard equates groaning, pumping, feeling the burn and using spotters. This is all bullcrap. While occasional grunts are expected as you grind the last reps, training hard simply equates consistency and discipline. Do not be fooled by the steroid pumping primadonna wearing tight attire who takes over all the mirrors in the gym to look at himself alternating bicep curls with tricep kickbacks while he groans like a pseudo alpha male. You go into the gym with your set amount of work to be done, you do it, and you get out of the gym. Whether you are doing a Day 1 of the program, or doing a Day 2 of the deload week, do what you are set to do.
Carry a small training notepad with you into the gym and record all lifts, even the time it took you to complete the training session. Before going into the gym, you should know exactly what you have to do for the day, all amount of reps and sets thus carrying a notebook with the already written plan is a great way to keep track without interfering into the workout. I always take 5 minutes during my itinerary to the gym to think about what I am about to do for the scheduled day and I highly recommend you to do this too.
This is me with squatting ass to grass 330 lbs (130 kilos) after only 6 months of training from ZERO. Some idiot was grunting next to me as I was squatting while he was in the rowing machine watching TV. These are the idiots I’m referring to.
It is worth mentioning that Manly Strength does not use the conventional deadlift and there are several reasons for this. First of all, Manly Strength is conceptualized from a view of having the least amount of training equipment. I developed this routine while relocating to different countries as I had to find gyms in which to train and, unfortunately, most gyms would not have 7 foot long barbells nor Olympic sized discs to perform conventional deadlifts. This is very much the case in most commercial gyms and many of you may not have access to such type of barbells. On the other hand, squat racks are much more common as so are bench press stations. Moreover, I made this program taking into account the need to have a strong lower back, as my background is in competitive Olympic weightlifting. Squats plus barbell rows performed three times per week will build a strong lower back, and military presses and straight leg deadlifts put the icing on the cake for a solid mid-section.
It should be duly noted that to progress you also need to be eating enough to support the body’s growth and the gains in strength. I am not fond of pigging out on anything I see but you should be consuming enough good food in the form of lean cuts of meats, fish, dairy, vegetables and fruits, nuts and low glycemic sources of carbohydrates such as whole grain bread. On top of that, make an effort to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per day as sleep is key in recovering adequately from the intense training. I will be covering in the near future the topic of sport nutrition so keep an eye out for advice on what to and how to eat for strength and muscle.
All the best,