In the first days of quarantine, when things shut down and the composition of my days changed overnight, I came to a quick realization: I may never again have an opportunity quite like this to train for muscle mass. I was a 43-year-old father of two with a time-consuming day job who had been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu four times per week with StrongFirst-based strength sessions making up the other three days. And suddenly, everything around me just…stopped. My kids’ schools closed, my office closed and went virtual, and my BJJ gym had to cancel classes and eventually move to Zoom. As a result, I now had about twelve additional morning hours per week available to me before the rest of my household woke up. Plus, I had unlimited access to my pantry for whatever sustenance I needed to put on some mass, and I wasn’t feeling beaten up from hard-on-the-body BJJ training. I figured now was the time to explore some new types of training I wouldn’t normally be able to commit to…and to eat a lot.
I started with twelve weeks of Geoff Neupert’s Kettlebell Strong! with double 28kg kettlebells and had such outstanding results from a dedicated hypertrophy program (14 solid pounds over three months) that I was hungry for more. About this time, I started hearing about StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor Fabio Zonin’s Built Strong, a unique approach to hypertrophy based on the principles of Pavel’s Plan Strong methodology. I hadn’t attended the workshop yet and didn’t know more than what was written on the StrongFirst website, but I knew I needed to try it. So, I contacted Fabio and offered to test whatever it was he was working on.
Hello Built Strong
Built Strong is described as a “return to the golden era of physical culture” when “icons of the iron game like Tommy Kono, Franco Columbo, Steve Reeves, and others were truly as strong as they looked.” The three main principles of Built Strong create a unique system for gaining muscle and strength across multiple areas and lifts, while keeping delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to a minimum:
- Train movement patterns rather than muscles. Built Strong relies on the fundamental patterns of the hip hinge, the squat, the horizontal press and pull, and the vertical press and pull. Some versions of the program consist of all six movements, others are a minimalist approach that use only three.
- Multifrequency approach. Unlike traditional bodybuilding which tends to focus on body part splits (training individual muscle groups, e.g., chest and triceps), with each muscle group only trained once per week at high intensity with several exercises, Built Strong does the opposite by focusing on perfect technique, varied intensity and volume, and keeping some “reps in the tank” to prevent soreness.
- Compliance with Plan Strong principles. This includes the Delta 20 principle for variable overload, keeping most of the volume in the medium range (vs. going too heavy or too light), and decoupling volume and intensity. This made some days quite challenging, some surprisingly easy, and others somewhere in the middle. (Learn more about Plan Strong.)
Fabio relayed the training parameters to me and since my new schedule afforded me additional time and I was feeling fresh, I opted for six movements training four days per week. Then we settled on the lifts I would be doing based on those six fundamental movement patterns:
- Hip Hinge: Barbell Deadlift
- Squat: Barbell Back Squat
- Vertical Press: Kettlebell Military Press
- Vertical Pull: Weighted Pullups
- Horizontal Press: Bridge Floor Press
- Horizontal Pull: Pendlay Row (I had to look this one up)
Next, I had to set my technical one-rep max (1TRM) for all the lifts, which I spread out over the course of several days. While I was tempted to go “all out,” I didn’t. It was important for me to not inflate any numbers, as I knew that would mean difficulty completing my reps down the line.
With my 1TRMs set and sent over to Fabio, I received my customized plan. The plan was built using each 1TRM to compute the load from session to session and week to week, and it was designed for training four days per week with my six lifts. The plan had me doing each lift every day, but with built-in “waviness” as each day had a combination of heavy, medium, light, and very light loads—and the movements were paired with one another in a way that wouldn’t overly fatigue me.
For example, the barbell deadlift was always paired with the kettlebell military press. Once I finished the prescribed number of deadlift reps, I would move to the kettlebell military press for my prescribed number of reps, and then return to the deadlift. This was time efficient, as it kept me fresh for my deadlifts while not doubling the amount of time each pair of movements would take to complete. It was also designed to keep me from swapping plates unnecessarily throughout the session.
Over the course of the four sessions per week, every movement group was trained once each at heavy, medium, light, and very light intensities but done in a way that kept me excited to return to it, and never sore from a previous session. Rest periods were three minutes between sets of the same exercise on heavy and medium days, and two minutes on light days. On the very light days, rest periods were compressed to be more glycolytic and were always at the end of the session.
Each group leveraged one or more “ladders” (for example a rep ladder of 2, 3, 5) which were calculated based on the movement being used, and whether the session was heavy, medium, light, or very light. The beauty of ladders is that you do more work over the same amount of time because you aren’t burning out. After you get through the challenging top of the ladder, your next set returns to the bottom of the ladder and it feels easy again. More volume in less time results in greater gains.
A Sample Day
The easiest way to describe how this worked is to outline a sample day on the program. Note that this day did not call for light loads, only very light. This is part of Built Strong’s “waviness” algorithm that determines the volume day to day.
Warm-up (not prescribed). I generally did prying kettlebell goblet squats, and elements of the mobility flow taught in the various StrongFirst curricula.
Heavy (3-minute rest periods):
- Bridge Floor Press 125lb x 3; 165lb x 2; 190lb x 2, 3, 4, 2, 2
- Pendlay Row 125lb x 3; 165lb x 2; 190lb x 2, 3, 4, 2, 2
Medium (3-minute rest periods):
- Barbell Back Squat 185lb x 3; 235lb x 2, 4, 6, 5
- Pullup 2, 3, 5, 2, 3, 2 at bodyweight
Very Light (compressed rest periods):
- Barbell Deadlift 215lb x 4, 6, 10, 7
- Kettlebell Military Press 20kg x 4, 6, 10, 7
From this example, you get an idea how the load is waved from session to session. Subsequent sessions and weeks shuffled the lifts and their assigned intensities in a predetermined pattern optimized for hypertrophy.
Results and Takeaways
First of all, not only did I have a total blast over the 8-week program, but it also produced some amazing results.
At the end of the program, muscle mass gains were apparent. My thighs and glutes were too big for my pre-quarantine pants, and my chest and traps looked completely different. While my overall weight had remained the same after my pre-Built Strong weight gain, I felt strong—and I was maintaining this weight with fewer calories. In about week four, my wife described me as looking like a “square rock”—which I think is a good thing. 🙂
These gains came without any delayed onset muscle soreness. The only thing I noticed was that during the first two weeks or so, I was sleepy by the afternoon after training in the morning. This was usually associated with the medium or heavy deadlift days and to be expected with this amount of volume.
The loads were programmed perfectly, and I never missed a single lift. The heavy days, particularly the squat, was challenging but manageable. Everything felt just on the edge of my capability (meaning I could do maybe one or possibly two more reps during the highest reps of the set, but no more). When I spoke with Fabio about this, he said that he strongly believes that the light and very light days help with this by serving as a sort of active recovery and allow you to focus on improving technique which subsequently transfers to the medium and heavy days.
And I got stronger. While I wasn’t looking for one-rep-max gains, four of my six lifts saw improvements—and the improvements were significant for a single 8-week program:
- Barbell Deadlift went from 395lb to 415lb
- Kettlebell Military Press remained the same at 36kg
- Barbell Back Squat remained the same at 315lb
- Weighted Pullups went from 55lb to 70lb
- Bridge Floor Press went from 225lb to 250lb
- Pendlay Row went from 225lb to 285lb
Though my squat didn’t improve, after discussing my results with Fabio and Pavel, they felt it likely due to a “defensive inhibition” (me being afraid of my own strength) due to a previous knee surgery and some arthritis. As for the press, the 36kg has typically been difficult for me at my normal bodyweight of around 168lb (see my article on this!) but after Built Strong, I could do multiple reps of it on both sides. And for the first time ever, the 40kg went up halfway before stalling out, which means it was way closer than it’s ever been. Overall, I was incredibly happy with these results.
As I was approaching the end of the program, I had the opportunity to attend the first Built Strong online workshop in August of 2020. It was at this point that I learned the “why” of everything I had been doing for almost 8 weeks, as well as how to design a complete Built Strong program by hand. This workshop blew my mind and is highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the Built Strong methodology.
Attend the Built Strong online seminar—
and learn how to program your training to build muscle that is
as strong as it looks
To learn more, CLICK HERE