Contrary to popular belief, many of the popular barbell strength routines marketed towards beginners do not produce aesthetic (lean & mean) physiques.
Those training methods have severe technical deficiencies turning them into factories for skinny-fat men with poor upper body development and viciously drained central nervous systems from heavy squatting and deadlifting.
Here are the seven main reasons why that happens:
1. Unjustified Squat Specialization
The S-Q-U-A-T is presented as the greatest exercise on Earth. The King of Kings.
The muscle scholars make it seem as if your entire life would be a complete waste unless you put yourself under a heavy barbell.
Or in simpler terms – they squat shame you into oblivion.
“If you’re not squatting, you’re not training,” they say.
The squat had to be glorified so that naturals could receive a new wave of hope. And that couldn’t have happened without brainwashing the average beginners into thinking that they could gain slabs of beef by chaining themselves to a squat rack.
Most beginner strength routines call for three squat sessions every week. You do the squat first and in every workout. This makes the movement a priority because you’re dedicating a lot of your time and freshness to it. Every movement after a heavy squat suffers because the lift is too stressful on the entire system.
But none of that would be a problem if the squat could elicit any meaningful release of growth factors such as testosterone and growth hormone. There’s a testosterone spike after a training session, but it’s too little to make a difference because of the low quantity and the incredibly short lifespan. Naturally, the squat marketers forgot to tell you that.
The hard question, in this case, is why?
Why should people be obsessed with the squat?
Unless you’re a powerlifter, the squat is just an exercise for the lower body.
The overhyped effectivity of the squat as an overall mass builder and the unhealthy focus on the movement are detrimental to a man’s aesthetic future.
2. Low IQ Dietary Advice
Bulking when natural = getting fat.
It’s that simple.
Yet many skinny noobs are ridiculed for being a certain weight and pushed into eating an insane number of calories (5k-7k) to become “real men”.
Force-feeding yourself in the name of the squat is a crime against a natural’s aesthetic development.
Bulking for the sake of gaining weight and to satisfy some barbell professor’s idea how much a man should weigh produced an army of fatsos who look like they’ve never done any exercise in their life.
But the greatest insult was the demonstrated ignorance in regards to body composition. This made many ectomorphs skinny-fat.
Here’s the formula:
A dude says that he weighs 130-150lbs. The manly barbell coaches instantly conclude that this specimen is close to death because in their opinion a man cannot be real unless he’s 200lbs. I’m not kidding. They had a T-shirt saying: “Adult male > 200lbs”.
Upon getting his confidence crushed, the skinny noob starts force-feeding himself. At first, it’s hard because his body is new to the process of eating food normally reserved for 2-3 people, but the dream of muscle keeps him going.
A man who is 200lbs but also 25-30% body fat.
3. Ridiculously Low Upper Body Volume
The classic Starting Strength version calls for 3 bench press sessions every two weeks. The first week you bench once, the next twice, then once again…etc.
In other words, during one of the weeks, you’re doing 3×5 = 15 reps for your chest. However, you’re always squatting three times a week for 3 sets of 5. On top of that, you’re also deadlifting (1 set of 5).
Then, in phase 2, you add power cleans (5 sets of 3). Both the deadlift and the power clean are also lower body lifts focusing on the posterior chain.
Let’s see where this leaves us in terms of “hip volume”.
Squats – 45 reps
Deadlift – 5 reps
Power cleans – 15 reps
Total: 65 reps
Let’s go a step further and divide the reps per body part.
Reps Per Body Part (1 bench session per week)
Do you notice a trend?
Apparently, the glutes and the spinal erectors are the most important muscles according to programs like Starting Strength. Hence why they get 65 total reps.
During this particular week and phase, the biceps get zero. Eventually, the lifter adds chin-ups, which is great, but they are also alternated.
Another muscle group that is painfully ignored are the lats. Without chin-ups, the only movement that works them is the deadlift.
The triceps and the front delts get a decent amount of volume, but the truth is that the overhead press is a subpar triceps exercise in comparison to the weighted dip and the close grip bench press.
Therefore, the only upper body muscles that get real love on SS are the anterior deltoids and the spinal erectors.
How do you expect to build up an aesthetic physique when all your energy goes towards the construction of your buttocks and hidden muscles such as the spinal erectors?
All while getting fatter in the process…
4. Typical Strength Training
The two characteristics describing strength training the best are:
- Low reps per set
- Long rest between sets
Why low rep sets? Because you have to condition your central nervous system to lift heavier weights, and you cannot lift heavy weights for high reps – the two are mutually exclusive.
For example, if you can squat 200lbs for 10, that weight is light for you from a strength perspective, and you would be better off squatting 240lbs for five if strength is the ultimate goal.
Why long rest? Because the CNS and the body need a long time to recover from a heavy set. When I was at the final stages of my Starting Strength journey, I was so tired that I rested 10 minutes between my squat sets. This was the only way for me to keep pushing. My hips and mind were exhausted from all that squatting and occasional deadlifting. I had to rest but didn’t because I hadn’t reached a 3-plate squat yet.
“Dry” strength training produces an inferior growth stimulus. For instance, 3 sets of 6-10 squats done with a moderate weight and shorter rest periods would trigger more hypertrophy than all that heavy stuff. Yes, some of the hypertrophy will be sarcoplasmic, but that’s not bad.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is not your enemy because it increases your capillary density and with it your work capacity – a quality that actually helps you train harder and for longer. Limiting your sarcoplasmic hypertrophy won’t do you any good. If you think that low reps build real muscle whereas high reps build fake “bodybuilda” muscle, you’ve fallen victim to the 5×5 propaganda campaign.
And to top it all off, that poor work capacity is fueled by an unreal number of calories.
You don’t need 2000+ calories on top of your maintenance to do 3×5 squats.
If you decide to bulk, right from the start, you would be eating like a pig to do 45 squats a week with the bar and a few small plates on it.
Where do you think those extra calories would go? I’m sorry to tell you this, but strength training does not burn a lot of energy. Going for a 1-hour hike is a more calorie intensive physical adventure.
5. Fat CNS Strength
A lot of the strength that you’re going to gain on low volume high-intensity routines is what I call “Fat CNS Strength” or FCS for short.
What’s that? Strength the result of fat gains (unhealthy bodyweight increase) in combination with an improved ability to overclock your central nervous system and produce more force.
Most people finish their linear progression around a 1.5 bodyweight squat. If you’re 170lbs, that amounts to 255lbs, but if you’re 200lbs, a 1.5BW squat is 300lbs (almost three plates). Hence why the beginners who “do the program” and bulk up as advised end up with some pretty decent numbers sometimes close to 400lbs.
But don’t let the numbers fool you. A lot of the extra iron on the bar is proportionate to the extra lard accumulated all over their bodies.
6. Pointless Hate on Cardio
Squat promoters love to hate on cardio. They make you allergic to the idea of actually training for endurance.
The reality is different. Cardio, just like high reps, increases your work capacity and conditions your body for a future surge of training volume – a maneuver often necessary to break through a plateau.
7. Adding Weight to the Bar at All Costs
The main focus of those programs is to add weight to the bar. That’s understandable. However, an error 404 occurs when weight accumulations happen at the expense of your conditioning, body fat percentage, and even muscular development.
More pounds to the bench press do not always equal a bigger chest. Just like more pounds to your squat do not always produce bigger quads. Sometimes the nature of those extra gains is FCS. (Fat CNS Strength).
Another issue of this method is that people get mentally destroyed. You’re always lifting more and more and more.
Those routines often ignore the possibilities to progress by increasing the reps and shortening the rest between sets.
8. Ridiculous claims
Where do I start? Seriously? There are so many nuggets of broscience wisdom surrounding 5×5 routines.
One of my favorites is: “Squats help your arms grow because you’re holding the bar.”
Here’s the truth:
If an exercise is not limited by a muscle group, then that exercise cannot trigger optimal growth of that muscle group.
The squat is not an arm exercise and does nothing for your arm size because you would never miss a squat due to weak biceps or triceps.
The squat isn’t a calf exercise either. Yes, the calves stabilize the lower leg during squats, but no one misses a squat due to calf failure.
The squat is a lower body movement that works primarily the quads, the glutes, and the spinal erectors.
And by the way, the squat and the deadlift are not that great for ab training. If you want to develop strong abs, you’ll have to do dedicated movements.
What to do instead?
1. Stop squatting low bar if you are.
The low bar squat is a powerlifting perversion that robs your quads of work. And the quads are the ultimate aesthetic leg muscle. You need to maximize your chances of getting them big.
Do high bar squats, leg presses, front squats…etc.
2. Don’t do Olympic lifts.
Power cleans, power snatches and the full versions of the exercises are worthless from a hypertrophy perspective. Yeah, bro. I know. They build your upper back and traps, but doing them with that goal in mind is like joining the local swimming team to get bigger lats. If you want to do Oly lifts, go to a weightlifting club.
3. Never dirty bulk.
4. Increase the upper body volume substantially.
The lats, chest, and arms need more work. A lot more.
Chest. Dips, push-ups, incline presses, bench press
Arms. Dumbbell curls, hammer curls, lying triceps extensions, dips, close grip bench
Lats. Pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldowns
Upper back. Wide grip seated rows, wide grip bodyweight rows
Spinal erectors. Deadlifts.
5. Train your neck if it doesn’t grow from compound exercises.
Sometimes the neck gets bigger from basic exercises, sometimes it doesn’t. There are decent deadlifters with pencil necks. Depending on your situation you may need direct neck work.
6. Limit your leg days to 1-2 a week.
You can do squats as often as you want if you’re still learning the lift, but once you become more advanced, limit the heavy leg days to 1 or 2 a week.
If you want to, you can apply alternation.
Week 1: Legs once a week.
Week 2: Leg twice a week.
Leg work is strenuous and takes away valuable resources that would be better invested in upper body training.
Yeah. I said it.
7. Do direct ab exercises
Compound movements work your abs, but just like the arms, the abdominals need special attention to reach their potential.
8. Do forearm work
Forearms are heavily influenced by genetics. If you have long muscle bellies, they’re easier to build-up. Nonetheless, you owe it to yourself to try.
Recommended exercises – wrist rollers, hammer curls, reverse biceps curls.
Example routine (arms, lats and chest focus)
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Chin-ups – 5xF*||High bar squats – 2×5, 2×8||Deadlifts – 1×5-8|
|Dips – 5xF||Chin-ups – 5xF||Incline press – 3×8-12|
|Hanging leg raises – 3×10||Dip – 5xF||Chin-ups – 5xF|
|Biceps curls – 3×6-12||Hanging leg raises – 3×10||Leg curls – 2×8|
|Hammer curls – 3×6-12||Biceps curls – 3×6-12||Biceps curls – 3×6-12|
|Triceps extensions – 3×6-12||Hammer curls – 3×6-12||Reverse curls – 3×6-12|
|Triceps extensions – 3×6-12||Triceps extensions – 3×6-12|
*5xF stands for 5 sets to failure but without form breakdown.
Progression: Once you can complete 3 sets of 12, increase the weight and switch to 3 sets of 6. On the isolation exercises (e.g., curls), apply the smallest possible jumps.
If bodyweight chin-ups and dips are too easy for you, add weight and drop the reps to no fewer than 5.
Rest between sets: 2-5 minutes
Is day 1, 2, and 3 on Monday Wednesday Friday?
Love what your doing. Keep up the great work!! Keeps us naturals in perspective.
Thank you for the support.
Heres my routine: (similiar to your template).
Mon: upper body (push dominant)
Wed: lower body (with some push ups and pull-ups)
Fri: upper body (pull dominant)
Also very good. Natties dont need to obess over legs since we gain maximum points for upper body so naturally 70%+ of our effort should go to upper body max development.
Routines like this also keep us sane for anybody with over 10 years in the gym who isn’t a slave to dogma.
Its also a good idea to include some direct ab work at the end of every session. So 1× failure of a ab exercise 3 times a week.
Yes, upper body routines are fun.
Thank you for the support.
This is a fine piece—the argument is flat-out accurate, even if one quibbles with programming details.
It is the new “useful”. And that word needs to be used in this counter-context—frequently as possible—the better to expunge its bizarro-world antithesis.
“Starting Hypertrophy” (SH) has arrived.
Keep kicking the floorboards, young man. You have the training stuff on-lock.
Hey Truth Seeker!
How much and how intense cardio do you think is tolerable if the goal is to maintain leg size? Do you think that 1-2 lower body sessions a week type of approach works if there’s a plenty of endurence training on top of it? I go further: do you think that some running and cycling can actually HELP with leg maintenance if there’s only one lower body session per week?
I don’t think you’ll lose size from cardio unless you turn into a marathon runner.
High-intensity cardio like sprinting has an effect similar to weight training. It can help you maintain size.
But if you’re training legs once a week, you shouldn’t be losing size anyway.
Thanks for the response.
I primary mean endurance and not high intensity cardio. Yeah, I know that involves different types of adaptations. But I’d like to think of myself who can run 10km (that’s like a 1/4 marathon) and cycle uphill on a significant distance without dying. At the same time I want to save leg size, and I have nice proportions for squats, in fact I enjoy squatting, but lower body sessions consume way too much time at this point, also doing none but this is getting boring to be honest, that’s why I’m planning to cut back on them and do other stuff.
Spot on! I will definitely be trying this routine when the gyms reopen!
Thank you. I hope you like it.
I 100% agree with the “if you bulk as a natural (especially over 30) you simply get fat”
BUT…i do not agree with some of this. My physique is a lot better at heavier weights, contractions and partials than it ever was doing high volume lighter weights…BUT I’ll admit i am much more on my diet/nutrition than i was in the past. Maybe it is that…maybe i simply react better to lower volume, heavier weights?
I always remember hitting the gym about 20 years old…and being told you have to “bulk up” aka over eat…About the worse advice I ever followed. Luckily I only ever got to about 18% B.F. even when trying to gain weight..
Another thing is i think naturals do not need to train so often As long as you much your limits and progress to your maximum then once a week is more than enough. Maybe 2X is slightly better (even then not sure) but it is not worth it. Training 2+ times a week with weights is a waste of time and can lead to regress in my opinion – ALL as a 100% natural of course.
The overweight power lifter has about the worse physique you could have. They are lost in their meat head cult.
The body can adapt to a very high frequency. Whether you need it or not is subjective.
One of the benefits of high frequency is that you can do easier sessions with less intensity and still progress.
Once a week, high-intensity, on the other hand, saves time but also burns out the lifters mentally and keeps you perpetually sore.
One of the most pathetic pictures I have seen is low rep fat lords going on mountain hiking. We started at the same time, climbed some top and on the half way back we met these guys looking like they are about to die gasping for their last breath. And they actually weren’t that fat, like around 20%. And they call this functional strength.
But I thought squats made everything easier 🙂
Good stuff. I was once a subscriber to the 5×5, Rippetoe, FUNCTIONAL TRAINING nonsense. I remember spending 2 hours in the gym to complete 3-4 exercises because the rest time needed was so insane. I thought if you weren’t squatting, you weren’t training. Blah blah blah. I regularly fell off the wagon because I was so burnt out.
These days? I train like a total bro. Medium weight at mid-high volume. Plenty of isolation work.
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, arms
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Chest, shoulders, arms
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Chest, shoulders, arms
Day 6: Back
Day 7: Take a wild fuckin’ guess, buddy
And so on. I’m leaner now and I’m still making by far the best gains I have up until this point.
Natties should train like, bros. 🙂
“Leg work is strenuous and takes away valuable resources that would be better invested in upper body training.
Yeah. I said it.”
I revisit this for mirth. I laugh each time, like the first.
The point is made. Productive Leg work in a rep range that supports hypertrophy—and if honestly performed—takes a ton of effort, which can compromise whatever exercise should follow.
But given the supremely useful strategies outlined in recent articles, and the volumes necessary to implement them (especially if direct arm work is included), why not just put the leg work (plus auxiliaries like calves, neck and grip work) on a 4th day—the day after “Day 3”? That way it would never conflict with the upper body exercises, assuming one had time for a 4th day.
I know most here are likely far younger than I, and thus recover better. No way, I’m squatting productively—and then doing upper body volume beyond mere maintenance. But maybe a dedicated day for legs isn’t so bad, as a general approach.
Hey Truth, I want to run this routine as a novice because I have a home gym with limited equipment (only a power rack with a pull up/chin up bar, plates, and dumbbells) but I have a couple questions. First, is it okay to do chin-ups with rings? Also what about deadlifts with a trap bar? For the back-off set with squats, how low in weight should I go? And lastly for dips, do we do the chest or tricep version? Much appreciated!
1. Ring pull-ups are the best – easier on the joints and combine a pull-up and a chin-up.
2. Trap bar deadlifts are fine too.
3. Probably 20-30% lower. Go by feel and get a little more volume in.
4. Do a standard parallel bar dip.
Hey thanks for the quick response, I just have one last question. For incline press, is it the barbell or dumbbell version? Again, much appreciated!
I will admit that I was the beginner that fell for this trap and it took years to recover. I was the tall, skinny guy who got to college and decided to “get fit.” Ironically I got off to a great start: only doing exercises where I felt the target muscle working, following my own routine of “this seems to hit the muscles without being sore or injured,” eating more, but smartly. I gained about 15 pounds my freshman year but was still really lean. Sophomore year maybe another 10 and still lean. Then I started reading magazines and all the “get huge” articles and stopped doing what I had proven worked for me. I started knocking back the weight gainer shakes, eating everything I could in the cafeteria, and doing whatever exercises the magazines said were “essential” even if I was not feeling specific muscles work. I did get to 210 lbs by the end of college, but a lot of it was flab. How much I do not know since I never was tested. I did not have a gut and being tall helped spread the fat around, but yeah I was not “cut.” I was just generic “hey that guy probably lifts weights.” It took years to connect to reality and understand “this is not what I actually like” and let myself go below 200.
These days, there is more cardio, a mix of high and low volume, but always a focus on “do I feel the target working?” and if no, try another exercise.
I sit on my ass all day playing computer games and after a few years of doing so I became soft and weak (skinny-fat). While browsing the Internet, I came upon this blog. Is this routine a good starting point for a beginner? What exactly do I eat to shed pounds and build muscle? I searched around a bit for an answer but there are so many conflicting philosophies surrounding fitness that I was quickly overwhelmed. Why is this shit so complicated?
Man I really love this post/routine and as a runner going back to lifting, I will do it. I really LOOOOOOOVE the fact it’s not freaking leg dominant because I’m already hitting my legs so much with the running, so I can focus on upper body.