Inside the Mind of Stuart McRobert — Training Advice You're Not Following

TAGS: low frequency, low volume, isolation movements, training program design, training expert, Chuck Miller, Stuart McRobert, gain muscle, compound lifts, muscle growth, training advice, strength training

Stuart McRobert could literally change your life, at least the part of it devoted to bodybuilding and strength training. I know, because he changed mine. After several years of devoting myself to training according to his recommendations, I went from nondescript to large, muscular, and powerful beyond my wildest expectations.

I’ve known McRobert for nearly 25 years. I devoured his first book, BRAWN, the very evening it arrived in my mailbox all the way from Cyprus, sometime around 1992. The next day, I began implementing the methods he wrote about in the book. Eventually, I understood those methods well enough, and had practiced them effectively enough, that he published articles I wrote in his bodybuilding and strength-training magazine, HARDGAINER.

I transformed myself from a 22 or 23-year-old kid weighing 170 pounds at a height of 5’ 9”, into a fully-grown man of 220 muscular pounds. I didn’t just gain showy muscles; I also got brutally strong, achieving raw elite powerlifting totals in two different weight classes — not an unheard of achievement, but one only a tiny percentage of the lifting community can claim. To say that I’m a believer in McRobert’s methods is a vast understatement. Crusader for them would be more accurate.


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I’m surprised at reactions when I mention his name today. Folks I mention him to generally fall into one of two camps. Either they haven’t heard of him at all, or they have heard the name but dismissed it without ever delving into his methods, wanting nothing to do with the term “hard gainer.”

Whether through ignorance or unfounded bias, ignoring McRobert is something akin to ignoring the indisputable evidence that the earth is indeed round, and not flat. His published writing is a treasure trove of advice for anyone serious about getting big and strong.

So just what does McRobert have to say about training that’s so great?

600 Squat

Keep It Simple

Have you ever noticed the tendency of experts in just about any field to explain what they do in a manner that’s too complex for anyone to understand except perhaps another expert in that field? I have friends who are like this. I’ve made the mistake of asking them about their jobs in science or business, only to leave those conversations scratching my head, puzzled that I probably understand even less about what they do than before I asked.

It’s like this with training experts. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have gotten something out of those training manuals that are written like graduate-level physics texts, complete with graphs and charts that would make even Einstein’s eyes cross, but I certainly didn’t glean much from them other than a headache.

McRobert has a gift for taking complex problems and distilling them to their simple essence. This gift for simplicity has been a double-edged sword in his career.

On the one hand, he puts out digestible advice that can be used by anyone to design training programs that will work as hard as they are willing to apply themselves to the required work.

On the other hand, due to a societal “complexity bias,” McRobert’s advice has probably been dismissed at times. “Pffft, that can’t be all there is to it,” mutters slump-shouldered Steve as he scurries off to resume his quest for the elusive “shortcut” that, supposedly, will finally jump start his stagnant training.

Do you really think that the kid who, decades ago at a York Barbell Company picnic, famously asked strength-legend Doug Hepburn how to improve his press, ever heeded Doug’s legendary advice to “Press!”? I bet the kid dismissed this gem as being too simple to work, and instead went searching for some complex solution.

Alright, enough lecturing about the merits of simplicity. Exactly what are the hallmarks of McRobert’s training methods? Let’s start with HARDGAINER magazine’s tagline: “basics, ‘breviated and best.”

Let’s throw out that “best” part. Even being the enthusiast I am, I’ll stop short of calling any one method the “best.” McRobert’s is the best for most normal, drug-free people, and certainly the most efficient even for the genetically gifted, but not the best across the board. You could find an outlier if you look hard enough, though let’s also be clear that you, dear reader, aren’t that special snowflake. I get the idea, though — "darn good" didn’t have quite the alliterative ring of “best” in that phrase.

Just the Basics, Please

So what of this “basics” tenet? When McRobert writes about the importance of the basics, he’s mainly referring to lift choices. Too much emphasis, he would say, is placed on cutting and shaping, before any real muscle is built. And muscle is built not with isolation exercises, but with major compound lifts.

A typical McRobert routine is built on only five or six major movements spread over just two training sessions a week, or three in some special cases. The most commonly recommended movements are as follows: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, row (preferably a chest-supported version to reduce lower back involvement), and chin-up (or pull-up).

“What the !*#@, I do more exercises than that for just my pecs and delts!” you may say. “This McRobert guy can’t be serious! What about my inner pecs, upper pecs, medial head of my deltoids, and rear delts?”

Please take a good look at your chest in the mirror. What has all that flailing around with dumbbells and cables gotten you? With your shirt on, is it obvious that you lift weights? And what about your bench press? Is it something you’re proud of yet?

Matt Wenning

Photo courtesy of Kenneth Richardson

So, yes, McRobert is indeed serious, and so am I. You probably don’t have enough muscle on your pecs or delts, or anywhere else, to worry about cutting or shaping anyway. But you’re not going to build serious muscle by playing around with isolation exercises.

You need a sustained, heavy dose of straining under major compound lifts in order to build any serious muscle. For example, I’m talking about building your squat to at least 1.5 times your bodyweight for 20 deep reps, your strict press to at least your bodyweight for five good reps, and your deadlift to at least double bodyweight for five good reps. That’s the sort of achievement required to build real muscle, and not just in one area, but on your entire frame. Are you at those sorts of numbers? (And they are minimums, remember.) If not, stick to what McRobert recommends.

Even if you’ve already built some muscle, the quickest way to watch it wither away is to stray from the basics. Once you’re an advanced trainee, McRobert would still command you to focus on a select number of compound lifts while including just a few isolation exercises, and to tighten up your diet to achieve the definition you want.

Although he’s rigid in his insistence on using major compound exercises, McRobert is somewhat flexible in the specific selection, to account for structural variations or simple preferences. The trap/hex bar lift, for example, is an acceptable substitution for trainees whose levers prevent them from deadlifting with a straight bar without rounding their lower backs. That same substitution, provided it has sufficient range of motion, is acceptable for trainees who can’t squat to proper depth while keeping the right back positioning. And the parallel-bar dip can substitute for bench pressing for trainees whose levers don’t seem to suit the latter, despite trying different grip widths.

Can We Brief This Thing Up A Little?

How about his “‘breviated” (or “abbreviated”) mandate? When McRobert writes about abbreviated training, he’s commenting on both the volume and the frequency of training, neither of which need to be high in order to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains. In fact, he argues, the “do more” mentality that’s pervasive in almost every field is probably the single biggest factor limiting the progress of most weight-training enthusiasts.


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In most endeavors, correct practice really does make perfect. If you want to learn to play the piano, for example, practice correctly, and then practice some more. Fall asleep drooling on the keys, and wake up with your fingers in place to begin playing again.

With weight training, however, the point of diminishing returns comes quickly. It’s our very enthusiasm that ruins progress. We train too frequently, we include too many different lifts, and we grind ourselves into the ground doing too many sets of each.

Training too much isn’t nearly as forgiving as excessively practicing the piano. We don’t just get sore fingers from a training obsession. We greatly exhaust our ability to recover. And we injure our backs, knees, shoulders, hips, and elbows. At best, progress stalls. At worst, our bodies break down, injuries pile up, and we’re forced to take time off.

Converse to the “do more” mentality, a typical McRobert routine sees each lift trained just once per week. After warm-up sets, the lifter performs anywhere from one to a maximum of five work sets per exercise. By choosing only a handful of lifts, and training each just one time per week, the trainee gives equal attention to the all-important recovery side of the training equation. Do enough work to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains, and no more. On top of this, consume adequate nutrition, and rest abundantly.

Of course, there are stand-out examples of bodybuilders who do apply the “train more to gain more” philosophy. But as you should also know, they have stand-out genetics for bodybuilding, and a ton of drug assistance, so they aren’t role models for drug-free, genetically normal bodybuilders and lifters. And McRobert’s guidance is strictly aimed at the drug-free and genetically normal.

Mind you, McRobert knows that his methods work even better for guys with better-than-average genetics for bodybuilding. And some juiced-up lifters trained along the lines of his recommendations, and became world champions.

630 DL

Get Strong If You Want to Be Big 

In addition to the “basics” and “abbreviated” mandates, there’s another component that’s key to McRobert’s teachings. He bases progress not just on subjective measures like how you look in the mirror, but also by objective poundage targets. And he defines these targets so they are easy to remember. They are the 300/400/500 strength guidelines. That is, a 300-pound bench press, 400-pound squat, and 500-pound deadlift.

McRobert maintains that almost every trainee who’s under age 40, presents with no limiting injury or other health history, and has the requisite motivation to train properly for several back-to-back years, should be able to reach these strength targets, or very close to them, at around 190 pounds bodyweight and a height of around 5’ 9”.

Many will naturally gravitate toward one lift in which they excel, and should push this lift to make up for deficiencies they may have elsewhere. A taller, long-armed lifter, for example, may be able to push his deadlift to 550 pounds or more, but could struggle to reach a 300-pound bench press or a 400-pound squat.

Some especially dedicated trainees will exceed these numbers.

Defining these poundage targets is one of the greatest examples of McRobert’s genius. You want to build big muscles? The best way to do that is to get strong on a few important exercises. An illustration of a McRobert routine:


MONDAY

  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Row (with chest support)
  • 1 or 2 isolation exercises of your choice

THURSDAY or FRIDAY 

  • Squat
  • Chin-up
  • Overhead Press (seated, with back support)
  • 1 or 2 isolation exercises of your choice

That’s just two workouts per week, which gives you five recovery days.

If you’re used to training a lot more often, the toughest part of adjusting to the new frequency will be in your mind. You might think you need to train more often, but you’ll just have to trust me.  You don’t.

Your body will thank you if you can accept this truth. You’ll be fresh for every workout and chomping at the bit to train with intensity.

When you’re feeling good because you’re allowing your body time to repair and recover between sessions, resist the urge to slip back into old habits. One of the worst things you could do to derail progress would be to sneak in additional training.

Take the dog on a long walk instead. That’s a healthy habit both for mind and body, and will only complement your efforts in the gym.

Persist with the new frequency for at least twelve weeks, strive to add weight to the bar in good form whenever possible, and I promise you’ll be much stronger than when you started. Twelve weeks is nothing; hardly a blip on the radar of what will hopefully be a lifelong commitment to strength training.

Plan the hunt; hunt the hunt; discuss the hunt.

That popular expression is certainly wise advice when it comes to having the discipline to stick with a training program long enough to give it a fair chance to generate results. The appropriate time for evaluation is not somewhere in midstream. It’s at the end, when you have adequate information on which to base your assessment.

Give the new schedule at least twelve weeks, not one day less.

Summary

McRobert has a whole lot more to say about training than I can convey in a single article. He’s written several books and nearly 1,000 articles on the topic. The broad brush strokes here are meant only to give you a feel for this style of training. With that in mind, these four principles are certainly a few of the most important cornerstones of the McRobert training method:

  1. Simple — Gains come from hard work on simple routines and proper recuperation, not from gimmicks.
  2. Basic — A typical McRobert routine contains only five or six major movements spread over two or three training sessions a week. Here’s a common list of preferred movements: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, row (preferably a chest-supported version to reduce lower-back involvement), and chin-up (or pull-up). He recommends some other lists of movements, as well. One or two isolation exercises per session are an optional extra.
  3. Low Volume and Low Frequency — Each lift is usually trained just once a week for warm-ups plus a maximum of five work sets, and more often just one to three work sets. Do enough work to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains, but no more.
  4. The 300/400/500 Lifting Standards — McRobert uses objective strength measures to define progress. He maintains that every trainee who’s under age 40, presents with no limiting injury or other health history, and has the requisite motivation to train properly for several back-to-back years, should be able to reach these strength targets, or very close to them. And some especially motivated and dedicated trainees will exceed these numbers.

Build strength, and lots of it!


Chuck Miller has competed in strength sports for over twenty years despite two significant challenges: he is a type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetic, and he overcame a tibial plateau fracture in his left knee at age 38 that required a plate and five screws to correct. He has totaled Raw Elite three times, all after turning 40 — twice in the 198-pound weight class and, most recently, at 220.  

Chuck has trained elite athletes, military special forces personnel, and average Joes and Jills. One of his proudest accomplishments is the upcoming publication of his first book later this month, INSIDE THE MIND OF AN IRON ICON, a comprehensive interview of one of his mentors, Stuart McRobert, well-known author of several strength training books and publisher of HARDGAINER magazine

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