| | John’s 6 Rules for Strength & Muscle

Author / John

8 - 10 minute read

A few years ago, I wrote an article on Talk To Me Johnnie called “Just Tell Me What to Eat” after getting an email asking for nutrition advice. The email simply stated, after hearing me talk and reading through my blog he said he trusted me, and didn’t want to pour over the endless research studies to figure out the best approach for nutrition, so he made simple request – just tell me what to eat. 

I had a similar question asked recently in regards to training. What simple truths have I observed over the last 20 years that have always been true and are proved true day in and day out. 

Remember, I have published multiple daily workouts every day since March 31, 2009. Back in 2009, when I started CrossFit Football I was running the daily programming on the CrossFit Balboa page – my home gym. As I passed that torch, I added Field Strong on Power Athlete and the programming grew exponentially since. I have delivered tens of thousands of workouts to millions of athletes since 2009 and from all those data points, I have found a few truths that have stood the test of time.  

1. Progressive Overload

Progressive overload must be used to continue to put on muscle and strength. 

Progressive overload got a bad rap from Louie Simmons and Westside because they understand it as classical westernized periodization. The idea that you start early in a training cycle with lighter weights for high reps and translate to heavier weights with lower reps. While this form of programming has been used by everyone from Ed Coan to Bill Kazmaier to hit world records there is a more detailed understanding of progressive overload. 

The way I understand and teach progressive overload involves doing more over time. For example, this could be an athlete putting more weight to the bar, doing more reps with a given weight, adding more sets to increase volume or increasing training frequency to increase training exposure. 

I found years ago that rep maxes were a greater builder of strength for me as an athlete than just doing singles. Singles are important and vital for powerlifters where the sport requires one maximal rep. That is the sport specific nature of the competition. If you go into a powerlifting meet only having squatted 5s, then you are behind the curve. But for a football player where the time under stress of a single play is 5-7 seconds, rep maxes in the variety of fives and triples to be more useful than just singles alone. When put into a wave of 5s, 3s and 1s where 66% of the work is done with 5s and 3s. 

Singles are important as the heavier weight and single rep requires the CNS to wire up and work into concert with the rest of the body to execute on maximal lift. 

Progressive overload means each time you train you have to either pick up a heavier weight, do the same weight for more reps or add a few sets to increase the volume. 

The element not discussed in progressive overload is compensatory acceleration. Dr. Fred Hatfield in his book POWER discussed compensatory acceleration to be as mechanical advantage increases on a movement, so does speed. This means as you are coming out of the bottom of the back squat, at your weakest position, speed needs to increase on the concentric portion as you get to the top. Simply, if you are moving the bar at the same speed out of the hole you are at lockout, you are not doing it correctly. 

I have always looked at progressive overload to include increasing bar speed. If I can move a weight from point A to point B in 1 second then continue to train and fight to move the same weight from point A to point B in .8 of a second – I have increased speed and adhered to the principals of progressive overload. 

This goes without saying that much attention needs to be placed on your technique and how you are moving a bar. If you are squat looks awful and more like a dog shitting a razor blade then more attention needs to be placed on perfecting your movement.

Progressive overload is different for beginners than it is for advanced athletes. While we are theoretically created equal, what happens to an individual after they meet the iron is different. When a beginner first starts lifting weights amazing things start to happen. The body starts to coordinate with inter and intra muscular coordination. This means as an athlete starts to perform this movements under load the fibers and motor units start to coordinate within the muscle then the muscles start to coordinate with each other to execute the given movement. 

Ever seen a beginner bench press? 

Usually they bring the bar down to their chest in a movement pattern than looks like an EKG, pause and as it drives up one hand will go first then the other to lockout. The pattern is usually erratic and very uneven. A few months the athlete lays down and brings the bar down with a slight curve and drives back up about the same pattern it came down. It looks smooth and even and the athlete has gained a certain amount of competency. 

The path from erratic to smooth is the visual representation of that inter and intra muscular coordination. That is strength training at its finest and if you rob an athlete of that piece of their journey you are hindering their progress.

2. 10-20 Sets Per Body Part

There has been much debate about how many sets an athlete needs to continue to get stronger, put on muscle and drive a positive adaptation. Since we just got done discussing progressive overload, let’s look at how many sets is needed to keep driving adaptation. 

I have found over the last decade that a beginning athlete needs about 10 working sets over a week to continue driving adaption while an advanced athlete needs about 20 working sets per muscle group over that week to make progress. 

What is a working set?

In my programs, I rarely program warm up sets because I am not overly concerned with how many sets you need to prepare yourself. I played with guys that would get the stadium 3 hours ahead of time, get dressed and go out on the field for an hour running and warming up. I played with guys that would roll in on the last bus, put on their pads and run out of the tunnel to bang helmets for 3 hours. 

I prescribe the work. What you need to do to get to those working sets is dependent on you as an individual but if I could get you a ball park is it usually anything north of 75% of your heaviest 1 rep max.

Let me let you in on a small observation that I made over my years in college, the NFL and have rung true since retiring from the NFL and traveling the world teaching and training athletes. The structure and physique of athletes that consistently lift weights over 85% is dramatically different than those that do not. 

When I was in the NFL I could tell you with almost certainty, regardless of position and bodyfat, if he lifted heavy weights or just did enough to keep the strength coach off his ass. I am not saying those individuals I observed were not talented players and amazing athletes, there is a remarkable difference in the structure of an athlete that lifts heavy weights consistently compared to one that does not. This is not something that can faked or fibbed – you either have it because you built it or you don’t. 

3. Eat Enough Protein 

If you want to increase performance, strength and put on muscle you have to eat enough protein to at least maintain but ideally improve body composition. 

I have seen athletes get jacked on a low carb diets and high carb diets with a corresponding increase or reduction in fat with the one common denominator is high protein diets. 

I have yet to see anyone get jacked, strong and look the part on a low protein diet. 

And I will let you in on another inside secret – if you eat a large amount of protein (1-1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight) in caloric restriction you lose fat and not muscle. 

Now how do you know if you are caloric restriction?

That is going to involve weighing and measuring your food and weighing yourself. If you set your calories and you don’t lose weight, regardless of what ever app or expert says, you aren’t in caloric restriction.

4. 7 Primal Movements

To attain a complete physique and look like you actually did something athletic for a living, you are going to have to train all 7 primal movement patterns and 3 planes of motion. 

This involves 3 with the lower body with a hinge, a lunge and a step up done in the sagittal, frontal and transverse plane. For the upper body, you are going to need to vertical pull, vertical push, horizontal pull and vertical push. 

Avoid programs that only involve bilateral hip hinging done in a sagittal plane. Just like avoid strength programs that don’t involve any strength work. 


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5. 3 Muscle Contractions

There are 3 muscle contractions and each one needs to be trained at certain points in your training cycles. 

The eccentric contraction involves the lengthening of a muscle. The concentric involves the shortening of a muscle and an isometric involves holding a static position under load. 

The eccentric contraction is the most damaging to the muscle so if your goal is hypertrophy you need to have a lot of heavy eccentric movements programmed. 

The concentric is vital for rate of force development and where we apply our compensatory acceleration. When mechanical advantage increases so does speed.  

The isometric contraction is so often skipped or not even trained which is a shame as we develop stability under load during isometric contractions. They are vital for trunk stability and a key component for avoiding injury.

6. Bilateral Compound Movements with a side of Unilateral Accessory

Lastly, if strength and muscle is the goal you get the most mileage from your money from movements you can load heavy that involve the whole body to complete. Most times this involve bilateral movements like the squat, bench, deadlift and press. This heavy compound movements should be the first movements trained as they require the most committed and neural efficiency to complete. 

Once those movements are completed, you can backfill with unilateral movements as a way to build volume and make sure you are hitting the required amount of sets per day to keep driving adaptation. 

For example, if you go in on a Monday to squat heavy and you smash 5 heavy working sets but know you need to get 10 sets for the day to keep getting jacked, you start hitting some unilateral accessory movements to amass the required volume. This can involve lunging heavy, stepping up heavy or isolations movements like Bulgarian split squats. 

Where most people fail is they think a program of accessory movements are going to build a physique that is memorable. 

Reminds me of that one time went to dinner with some people who just want to order appetizers and salads. 

Pretty interesting to look back on the 30 years I have been banging heavy weights and realize there are just a few principals that need to followed to reach the pinnacle of strength with enough muscle for people to stop and stare. 

In case you were thinking about making a short list of the topics, here is the list. 

1. Progressive overload (weights vs reps vs speed)
2. 10-20 sets per body part
3. Eat Enough Protein 
4. 7 primal movements
5. 3 muscle contractions
6. Heavy diet of bilateral compound movements with a side of unilateral accessory

You have the information, now you have to action it. Because once you have been told and made aware you have no excuse other than to execute it. 

John

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AUTHOR

John

John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.

6 Comments

  1. George on November 9, 2020 at 7:45 pm

    Solid list. Thanks for sharing, John.

  2. Stephen Angus on November 9, 2020 at 9:15 pm

    Hey John,

    Enjoyed the article, how do you define the parts of the body when using the 10-20 sets per bodypart rule?

    Cheers

    • John on November 12, 2020 at 7:21 pm

      Like legs, back, arms, chest, shoulders, trunk….How do you define them?

      • Stephen Angus on November 16, 2020 at 5:43 am

        I’ve seen other coaches define the groups by whether they push, pull, hinge etc. Was interested to see if you had any other thoughts.

        Cheers

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