You almost never eat French fries or donuts or Dairy Queen Blizzards, and pizza is only for cheat days, so you’ve ruled out a crappy diet. You hit the gym five, sometimes six, days a week with a good dose of cardio and lifting, and yet you still don’t know what the problem is. Why am I still not ripped, you wonder. Why am I killing myself in the gym without a six-pack and an abundance of striated muscles to show for it?
You’re right, diet may not be the answer. And genetics isn’t necessarily to blame either. There’s a good chance that all the work you’re doing is undermining your efforts of building lean muscle. The fact that you’re frequenting the gym isn’t the issue; it’s what you’re doing once you get there.
If your cardio sessions drag on forever and the dumbbells you use always seem to come from the lighter side of the rack—that could be your problem right there. We think we may have just discovered the three main training reasons why people aren’t getting shredded, and it’s time to put an end to it, once and for all.
Reason #1: Too much cardio
One of the great training misconceptions is that lifting weights gets you bigger and cardio gets you leaner, period. As a result, the guy (or gal) who’s primary goal is to get more “defined” often makes cardio the centerpiece of his program, while lifting takes a backseat. And by “centerpiece,” we’re talking 45-60 minutes on the treadmill followed by 15-20 minutes of pumping iron. What you end up with is some weight loss perhaps (provided a clean diet is followed), but a body that’s no leaner than before.
Here are the facts: Weight training can, and will, help you get leaner, and cardio can actually have a negative impact on body composition (percent bodyfat), as too much of it creates a catabolic (muscle-wasting) environment in the body, which slows metabolism. In the presence of adequate protein and carbohydrate consumption, lifting will help build muscle.
More muscle means a faster metabolism, which means more fat is burned and the physique becomes leaner. And while you may burn more calories during a cardio session than a lifting workout, you’ll burn more calories at rest (like when you’re sleeping or sitting around watching TV) as a result of lifting versus cardio.
“If you want to know what type of physique results from a lot of aerobic exercise, attend a local marathon or triathalon,” says Charles I. Staley, B.S., M.S.S., strength coach, competitive Masters-level Olympic-style weightlifter, and director of Staley Training Systems. Granted, long-distance runners and other endurance athletes are thin and very lean, but who’s more shredded: the Olympic marathoner or the world-class sprinter?
That’s not to say that giving up cardio completely is the answer; but rather, those endless sessions on the stair-stepper and elliptical machines have to go. “A better cardio alternative is higher-intensity, ‘stop and start’ interval-type training, which burns more fat and spares your hard-earned muscle at the same time,” says Staley.
The key here is intensity. Because the cardio workouts that Staley speaks of will typically top out at around 20 minutes in duration, it’s critical that you push yourself hard. A short, low-intensity session is, literally, a walk in the park, which will produce little, if any, results. Interval cardio training at its core means alternating between heart-pumping, fast runs and jogging or walking to provide temporary recovery before ramping the intensity back up again.
Timing is important too. Staley suggests that, whenever possible, you separate your lifting and cardio sessions—as opposed to doing them back-to-back in the same workout—to minimize muscle-wasting. An off day from lifting is a good time for a high-intensity cardio session.
The wrong workout: 45-60 minutes (or more) of jogging or walking on a treadmill at a relatively slow speed.
The right workout: Anaerobic intervals, as follows…
- 3-5 minutes of jogging or walking to warm-up and help you transition to the actual “work intervals.”
- Fast running for 60 seconds, followed by a 2-minute period of fast walking or jogging.
- Repeat for up to 5 cycles.
- Intervals can also be performed on a bicycle, elliptical, stair-climber, in a pool, or other mode.
“Ideally, the walk/jog phase should be about half as difficult as the 60-second running phase.” says Staley. He also states that the fast running intensity should equate to roughly 75% of your full sprinting speed. “It’s not ‘all-out’ sprinting,” he says, “or you’d be toast after one interval.”
Coach’s tip: “If you’re new to this type of training, perform 2-3 cycles the first time out, then gradually build up to five cycles,” says Staley.
Reason #2: Too much specialized training
If your current lifting program isn’t producing the ripped results you’re after, take a close look at the exercises you’re doing. If you’re doing set after set of single-joint exercises, this could very well be your problem—specifically, chest routines that are heavy on flyes and cable crossovers instead of presses and leg workouts where leg extensions take precedent over squats and lunges.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do isolation exercises. Calf raises, concentration curls, and dumbbell kickbacks will always have their place in bringing out the finer points of a physique, but they’re not what’s going to make you shredded. Compound (multi-joint) movements need to be the foundation of your program, since they’re the exercises that will build the most muscle, and hence keep your metabolism revving.
“There’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of guys doing deadlifts and step-ups at your gym,” says Staley. “It’s the same reason you don’t see a lot of guys with significant leg development. The most results-producing exercises are also the hardest ones. Generally speaking, the more weight you can use on an exercise, the more muscle that will be stimulated, resulting in a faster metabolic burn. This means more muscle and less body fat.”
Specialized training also includes the recent trend of “functional” training—doing dumbbell presses while lying back on an exercise ball, squatting on a BOSU, repping on curls while standing on one leg. And just like with isolation training, we’re not deeming functional training ineffective; improving core stability and stressing smaller, assisting muscles serves a great purpose.
But when you do a particular exercise on a ball, you’re typically not able to go nearly as heavy or do as many reps as you would on a stable surface, like a bench or the floor. This means you’re not stimulating the muscle enough to produce maximize size, which can reduce overall calorie and fat burning.
If your primary goal is to improve core strength, by all means employ an exercise ball all day long. But if getting lean is the objective, hitting big muscles with big weights is the way to go. You’ll get the most bang for your buck this way, and your metabolism will respond.
The below deadlift and step-up workout, designed by Staley, is evidence of another big-lift benefit: “Part of the value of compound lifts is that you don’t need to do as many exercises,” he says. “Too often, people substitute volume—extra exercises—for intensity.”
The wrong workout:
Leg Press 3/8-10
Hip Extension Machine 3/10-12
Leg Extension 4/10-12
Leg Curl 4/8-10
Standing Calf Raise 4/12-15
Seated Calf Raise 3/12-15
The right workout:
Exercise Sets/Reps Rest
Deadlift 10/2* 60 sec
Dumbbell Step-Up** 5/6 90 sec
Proceed to your normal hamstring and calf routine or train them on a different day
*Using a weight that’s your 5RM
** Use a box, bench or step that positions your working thigh roughly parallel to the floor to begin each rep.
Coach’s Tip: “Deadlifts and step-ups don’t necessarily constitute a complete lower-body program,” says Staley. “Whatever else you think you need to do for legs, like squats, can be done in another workout. One big mistake people make is thinking that everything has to be accomplished in one workout. It doesn’t.”
Reason #3: Not enough heavy lifting
The “cardio burns more fat than lifting” theory is one of the great training misconceptions around, but we think we have a better one right here: Lifting with high reps and light weight gets you more shredded than going heavier with lower reps. Oh really? Well, no.
Truth is, high-rep sets increase muscular endurance, but not necessarily fat-burning. You can actually get more ripped training in the 8-12-rep range, as this is what’s been identified as the best rep count for adding muscular size. Where muscle mass increases, so does metabolism.
Bodybuilders like eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman have proven that you can go very heavy and still do 8+ reps, but true heavy lifting takes place at six reps and below. And while this is the ideal range for enhancing strength, studies have also shown that heavy sets keep testosterone levels elevated for longer after the workout, which helps keep metabolism high as well, resulting in greater fat-burning.
“Weight-training is for strength, not endurance,” says Staley. “Low-repetition sets are optimal for recruiting fast-twitch motor units and raising testosterone levels—two essential preconditions for a leaner physique.”
Recruiting more fast-twitch fibers is significant, as these, compared to slow-twitch fibers, have the potential to get significantly larger, which, again, will contribute to speeding up the metabolism, as muscle is metabolically active tissue.
The take-home here is not to switch over completely to only sets of six reps and fewer; a well-rounded program should include varying rep ranges—from high to low to moderate reps—to keep the body from adapting to one particular load. That said, make sure your 8-10-rep sets are performed with a challenging weight. If you’re continually able to exceed 12 reps, pick up a heavier set of dumbbells and aim toward the low end of the range (8 reps).
Also, don’t shy away from loading up a bar and letting your sets dip under eight reps, whether it’s only for one exercise in a workout, or occasionally for all exercises in your routine. The increase in testosterone levels will do wonders in helping you lean out.
The wrong workout:
Incline Dumbbell Press 3/12-15
Machine Press 3/15
Dumbbell Flye 3/20
Lat Pulldown 3/12-15
Seated Row 3/15
Straight-Arm Pulldown 3/20
Triceps Pressdown 3/15
Dumbbell Curl 3/15
The right workout:
Hammer Curl** 5/6
Lying EZ-Bar Triceps Extension** 5/6
*Perform dips and pull-ups in alternating fashion (a set of dips followed by a set of pull-ups), resting one minute between each set.
** Perform hammer curls and triceps extension in alternating fashion (as with dips and pull-ups), again resting one minute between each set.
Coach’s Tip: “If you’re strong in pull-ups and/or dips,” says Staley, “you can add weight to either one to make it more difficult—so long as you’re able to perform all 10 sets for three reps with good form.”