What is pain-free hypertrophy training? It’s exactly what it sounds like. By using advanced training methods and an intelligent system, you can achieve both the addition of lean muscle and the reduction of body fat without breaking down your body and ending up hurt in the process. Sounds good, right?
Here are a few of my top training methods I use to accomplish these goals in a pain-free manner with my own clientele ranging from world class athletes to average Joe’s. And just as a head’s up – this is not your average bodybuilder programming.
Pain-free hypertrophy training will help you build lean muscle without breaking your body.
1. Specialized Pre-Training Warm Ups
Cookie cutter warm ups are one of my biggest pet peeves in programming. The warm up, more than any other aspect of a balanced program, needs to be custom fit to an individual’s level, recovery ability, and, most importantly, movement dysfunction.
Sure, for some people strategically targeting a few areas with self-myofascial release techniques before jumping into a training session can enhance a workout, but by no means is this a requisite for every person’s program. The same can be said for general warm ups to increase heart rate and blood flow.
My general rule of thumb for warm-up routines is to follow a basic, but strategic progression through three phases:
General Warm Up
Dynamic Warm Up
Neural Activation Techniques
The goal is to minimize the time spent in each phase and continuously reassess if the time spent results in any noticeable benefits to either your function or performance.
“THE WARM UP, MORE THAN ANY OTHER ASPECT OF A BALANCED PROGRAM, NEEDS TO BE CUSTOM FIT TO AN INDIVIDUAL’S LEVEL, RECOVERY ABILITY, AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, MOVEMENT DYSFUNCTION.”
General warm ups can be as easy as jumping on any cardio machine. If the thought of jogging on a hamster wheel turns you off as much as I think it will, no worries. Feel free to go on a brisk walk, jump on the Airdyne, or even get on the elliptical. Start out with a five-minute duration. Your goal is to decrease this over time.
Depending on the focus of your training day, specific dynamic warm ups can be implemented to increase local tissue temperature, lubricate active joints, and work on movement and mobility.Here’s an example of a routine we use to elicit a full body response in the warm-up phase of a training session:
Last come the neural activation warm-up techniques that should be matched strategically to your training day focus. These are advanced techniques I only use with athletes who have great movement pattern foundations and who also have mastered all the mobility and stability requisites in their programs
My favorite activation techniques for lower body training days are jumps. For push heavy days, I have seen amazing results by implementing accommodating resistance rotator cuff work and explosive bodyweight pressing movements like the push up. Go-to movements for pull days include direct glute work like bridge variations, along with functional lateral hip stability movements.
Explosive bodyweight pressing movements like the push up are some of my favorite warm ups.
2. Primer Strength Movements
Early on in my career, I was taught to program the most important compound movement of the day first in a program. It made sense. First things first, right?
Though many protocols from my early days in high-performance strength and conditioning helped shape my current training methodology – this tip to go heavy right away isn’t one of them.
“THE FIRST MOVEMENT OR TWO IN EVERY TRAINING PROGRAM WILL HAVE A SPECIFIC INTENT AND PURPOSE THAT FEEDS THE REST OF THE TRAINING DAY AND GETS OUR BODIES AND MINDS READY TO SUCCEED.”
The problem with this approach for most people is that the body isn’t ready for maximal effort early in a session. The specific tissues you are targeting need more time and reps to be fully primed for the epic performances that create results, not injuries.
Does this mean we aren’t going to lift heavy? No, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We are going to get under some serious weight, but only when our bodies are ready. How do we get there? Through primer strength movements.
The first movement or two in every training program will have a specific intent and purpose that feeds the rest of the training day and gets our bodies and minds ready to succeed.
The first movement needs to have a few distinct properties to work as a primer:
The movement must be programmed with higher rep ranges than your average strength set/rep scheme.
The intent of the movement is to tap into the mind-muscle connection and groove the pattern you are executing with constant tension and accentuated ranges of motion. This drives blood flow to the tissues, lubricates joints, and pumps the region.
Here’s one of my favorite lower body primer movements that I picked up from legendary coach John Meadows that continues to be a staple of primer training before squats!
These primer movements should always be easy on the joints, as many of them will be programmed with an extraordinary amount of volume. But after your first taste of primer sets, if you are like me, your training will never be the same.
3. Heavy Tempo-Based Strength Work
How does the old saying go? If you lift long enough with the right intensities and heavy-ass loads, you will eventually be injured. There is some truth to that based on statistics – but not if you train like I suggest. With this approach, you’ll be part of the chosen few who are going to lift heavy and reap the benefits of lean muscle growth and fat loss without the derailing injuries.
“THE USE OF STRATEGIC VARIATIONS OF THE BIG MOVEMENTS ALLOWS US TO ADAPT TO NEW TRAINING STIMULI WHILE ALSO BEING CHALLENGED BY CHANGES IN JOINT ANGLES, CORE STABILITY AND FOOT AND HAND POSITIONS.”
After we are primed and ready to go, I like to program the big movements of the day. As with many highly successful programs that have stood the test of time, our primary strength work is going to be based around the bench press, squat, and deadlift.
Does that mean that every session is going to look the same? Hell no! The use of strategic variations of the big movements allows us to adapt to new training stimuli while also being challenged by changes in joint angles, core stability and foot and hand positions.
Take the explosive box squat for example. This movement not only takes into account a change in setup, loading and movement, but also HOW you will train the movement with detailed intention.
Along with changing up the big movement themselves through slight variations in setups, my methodology also employs strategic tempo-based strength work. At certain points in a program, we bring out all the tempo changes, intensity techniques, and challenge sets that produce results, not injuries.
There is a difference between mindlessly going hard in the gym and having a calculated approach to workout brutality. Trust me – choose the second.
Strategic variations of the big movements allow us to adapt to new training stimuli.
4. Eliciting Joint-Friendly Metabolic Stress
Programming for the primary goal of building muscle sometimes gets a bad reputation for being too focused on “the pump” and not enough emphasis placed on meaningful strength training. But lets get one thing clear, the metabolic pump effect if for real, and if you aren’t tapping into metabolic stress in your training programming you are leaving both muscle and strength on the table. It’s your job to be smarter than old school meathead bodybuilders. We are targeting that same response, but just getting there in a more intelligent manor.
Coaches and athletes get caught up in the thought that only one single variable can be improved at a time via training, and streamlined results in power, strength and hypertrophy can only be achieved through a laser focus on a single type of training scheme that reflects the goal. This is closed minded thinking, especially when we continue to keep pain-free training at the forefront of our goal sets.
Achieving a goal of body recomposition requires targeting both mechanisms of hypertrophy and fat-loss simultaneously, and this can’t be done by just doing the ‘ole 3 sets of 10 until you plateau or fizzle out due to sheer and utter boredom.
A little confused what I’m talking about? For those of you who are familiar with my pain-free hypertrophy programming, the banded face pull finisher set is a brutal reminder of what kind of metabolic pump effect can be produced from just a band and your willingness to push yourself past the point of failure.
In my system, I place an emphasis on eliciting a maximal pump effect in the targeted tissues AFTER we have already trained them explosively with heavy loading. Think of this as wringing every last drop out of energy out of the tissues before you conclude your training session. Though that sounds strange, and dare I say injurious, here’s why this scheme is different…
By working within rep ranges that would be classified in the ultra-endurance scheme, we can minimize the amount of joint stress on the tissues secondary to the movement themselves while maximizing the local blood flow and pump effect of these tissues. And yes, we are talking rep ranges of 20+ mixed with a high number of sets and a lower programmed rest period between training bouts.
This type of scheme creates a maximal pump effect that is possibly the single most overlooked aspect of getting strong, building muscle and burning fat for any type of athlete. Now that we have exhausted the musculature, it’s time to stretch, and no I’m not talking about some passive fluff for minutes at a time.
5. Loaded Stretches and Accentuated Ranges
As a strength coach who also sports a doctorate in physical therapy, I often get asked the age-old question of whether stretching is a requisite aspect of a fitness program. My answer is always yes – but the next thing I say catches people off guard.
Should everyone stretch? I think so. Should everyone practice long-duration static stretching? No way. There are times that static stretching for longer than 30-45 seconds can be useful. But I haven’t been exposed to those times when it comes to aesthetics and hypertrophy training. What do I believe works?
“SHOULD EVERYONE STRETCH? I THINK SO. SHOULD EVERYONE PRACTICE LONG-DURATION STATIC STRETCHING? NO WAY.”
I am a believer in using full ranges of motion for the majority of movements, along with programming loaded stretches to nail down functional mobility that translates into performance and bulletproofed bodies. One of my favorite regions to target with this method is the chest and lats. After just a few seconds under a loaded stretch, you can kiss the need for static stretching goodbye. Here’s the neutral grip lat pulldown in action with a forced accentuated stretch on each rep.
The truth is posture is one of our most limiting factors in Western society, so prioritizing programming that not only enhances good posture, but retrains your tissues to release tightness under heavy loads is the quickest way to fixing dysfunctional or painful positioning.
6. Primary vs. Secondary Splits
Not every training day needs to be balls to the wall. In my opinion, each muscle group or functional pattern should be hammered once a week. When you are training at the right intensities and pushing your limits on every single set, once a week may even seem like a bit much.
Lifting is not an activity with only one gear. We need to train strategically based on our overall recovery and the regeneration of tissues. When both of these aspects are on point, the use of secondary training days becomes of huge benefit.
“SECONDARY DAYS ARE PROGRAMMED WITH HIGHER SET AND REP SCHEMES THAT ARE LARGELY PUMP OR CONDITIONING FOCUSED.”
In many of my programs, we hit it hard and heavy early in the week, trying to squeeze every rep out of our bodies until we no longer have any gas in the tank. But using techniques like primer sets, tempo-based strength work, and loaded stretching, you can get pretty fried quickly. So along with all that fun comes the need to recover properly.
The addition of a dialed-in nutritional program along with taking care of simple things like hydration and sleep can go a long way to get your body back to baseline. And when recovery is proven out on a week-by-week basis, there may be a window where we program additional split-focused days to increase volume and give our bodies another chance to grow and torch fat. But these additional days will not look the same as your primary training days – far from it.
Secondary days are programmed with higher set and rep schemes that are largely pump or conditioning focused. Also, they employ variations of the big movements that are more joint friendly and have less need for heavy core and pelvic bracing. This keeps the emphasis on the muscles as opposed to the joints and connective tissues that can be notoriously gnarly with high-frequency style training.
We need to train strategically based on our overall recovery and the regeneration of tissues.
Consistent Strategy Is Key
As I mentioned, this approach is not your typical approach. But you also won’t experience your typical results. Your performance will continue to progress, your body will continue to lean out, and you won’t experience the injuries that leave you sitting on the bench. Consistency is key – and strategic training is the key to consistency.
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, barbell sport competitors, and over 50,000 clients from all walks of life with his innovative pain-free performance programs and systems, which has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus. Dr. Rusin is also the founder of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) that has certified over 2,500 personal trainers, strength coaches and rehab pros from across the globe in the pain-free performance training system over the past two years.