Hardgainer Mistake #8: Program Design Blunders


“The best workout is the one that you follow.” – Unknown

“Everyone wants to excel. But few are willing to make the sacrifices that excellence requires.” –  Joe Friel

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weights.” - Ronnie Coleman

For the past 10 years I’ve read more than a few thousand emails from trainees who are confused about why their program “isn’t working” and I’ve boiled it down to these four different categories. If I’ve missed any be sure to add your input in the comments section below.

“I need an ADVANCED program”

Really? For novice lifters I have seen the most success by initially focusing on quality not quantity for the first 6-12 months of a lifter’s career, which is contrary to traditional bodybuilding workouts. Your first exposure to bodybuilding workouts were probably split routines that could be summarized as lower intensity and higher volume. The goal of those workouts is to do a lot of exercises and a lot of sets, then try to add more intensity to all of those sets. In my entry level program, No Nonsense Muscle Building, I take a reverse approach based on maintaining a higher intensity and lower volume, recognizing that initially a novice lifter’s work capacity will be very low. Then we increase the volume progressively, without sacrificing the intensity. In summary, the goal with my novice lifters is to teach them how to lift intensely with low volume and only add more volume if they can sustain the same intensity. Here’s an approach that would support this logic in terms of progressing a split:

Year 1 – 1 Day Split (i.e. Full Body Workouts)
Year 2 – 2 Day Split
Year 3 – 3 Day Split
Year 4 – 4 Day Split
Year 5 – 5 Day Split

Here’s how I define beginner, intermediate and advanced lifters, and this was taught to me when being mentored by Australian strength coach, Ian King:

Beginner – 1 year or less of consistent training

Intermediate – 2-4 years of consistent training

Advanced – 4+ years of consistent training

The problem is that EVERYONE thinks they’re advanced. I’m always perplexed when novice lifters are following 4-day and 5-day splits when they have not yet exploited the benefits of a full body or 2-day split! Coming from a competitive long distance running background, it’s like people who want to run a 42-km marathon but can barely run a decent 10k. Get faster at 10k before you think about running a slow 42k! Quality before quantity.

Novice lifters are always weaker, and the weaker the individual, the greater need for higher training frequency. So in cases of rehab or post-surgery, training frequencies are as high as six times a week and tolerated no problem. Females, because of their lower maximal strength initially, need greater training frequency to maximize training progress. My full body workouts in No Nonsense Muscle Building teach you how to train the same muscle group twice every five days before we transition you into greater volumes. It makes perfect sense and ignoring these principles will rob you of appreciable muscle gains. In fact, if you have been training for five or more years and not where you feel you should be it may be because you’ve skipped the beginner or intermediate phase and I would recommend going back to base one and start with full body routines as prescribed in the first six months of No Nonsense Muscle Building.

Winging It

Confession time – how many of you show up to the gym and just wing it? You have some sort of an idea of what you want to do but if I asked you to tell me exercise order, reps, sets, rest periods, tempos and whether or not this was a low, medium or high intensity week you would be left speechless. Hitting the gym without a workout plan is like going to university without a major. You hop from class to class aimlessly, waste lots of time and money and have nothing to show for it in the end. It’s just as silly as trying to save money without looking at your bank statements!

What’s wrong with taking an “instinctive training” approach? I guess nothing if your time is not worth anything to you. “Instinctive training” should be reserved for times of the year you just wish to coast. In fact, the more advanced you become, the less likely an instinctive approach will work. I’ll use the money analogy again. Most successful business owners find making their first 100 thousand per year or 1 million per year easy. But to get to 10  million a year and above, it requires a completely different approach and way of thinking. In bodybuilding, you’ll find that what you do to build the first 40 pounds of muscle on your body is very different than what you do to build the final 10 pounds of muscle on your body. Principles are similar, but details are different.

The best decision you can make today is to start following a plan. One of the reasons a “cookie cutter routine” might still produce results is because it eliminates the guesswork for an individual and provides a step-by-step plan. Look around your gym today and I guarantee you’ll notice that the men and women producing the most impressive results are following some sort of plan. I have lots of them here if you need a new one.

Paralysis by Analysis Syndrome

These guys are the complete opposite of the guys who wing it. These guys design 72 weeks of meso-cycles using the most cutting-edge periodization principles (only reserved for Olympic caliber athletes), only to rewrite a completely different 72 weeks of meso-cycles two weeks later! These guys get their programs reviewed by a dozen different gurus before they even consider tying up their running shoes. I love these guys from the bottom of my heart but it goes without saying – it doesn’t matter how well designed your program is if you don’t follow it!

A program is only as good as the individual following it. I could give two people the identical program and one could go on and get their WBFF Pro Card with it while another dude double checks all my scientific references for a month before starting! The bottom line is that a program doesn’t work by itself; you must make the program work with good old fashioned hard work, discipline and consistency. Now, on the flip side of the coin, there are programs out there that are just poorly designed…

Poor Program Design

This is a reason people pay me to design programs. Aside from having a university degree in Honors Kinesiology and 10 years of hands-on experience with clients, I’ve also been mentored by Australian Strength Coach Ian King and world-famous strength coach Charles Poliquin through his P.I.C.P Level 1 and Level 2 certifications, and have closely studied the the top strength coaches in the industry. The biggest problem I see with programs is too much variety and change. The trend has swung from not enough variety to too much variety.

I believe that too much variety kills results and damages continuity. A poorly designed program has no continuity through the various phases. There is no common thread from phase to phase, so the size and strength gains don’t continue from phase to phase. As an example, if you look at my programs, you’ll notice that we use similar exercises from phase to phase and some subtle variations. They provide a continuity and allow us to see gains in strength and size in these particular exercises. If you are following a program that lacks continuity from phase to phase than you’ll stall your progress quickly.

The goal of a well-designed program is to not use the methods that are “best” but to skillfully use all the “best” methods in a progressive and cyclical manner. Remember, there are still upsides and downsides to all the “best” methods and the key is knowing how to organize all the methods into a plan that maximizes the upsides and minimizes the downsides.

For instance, you’ve probably heard to never train small muscle groups before large muscle groups because you won’t be able to overload the bigger muscles optimally if the smaller stabilizing muscles fatigue first. Makes sense, right? However, does it make sense to always put a smaller muscle group at the end of a workout if it’s a weak link? No. One aspect of a well-designed program will ensure you give all muscle groups opportunity to train at the start of a workout so you don’t develop visual or strength imbalances in the long term. If you want access to the most advanced 12 months of periodized programming then be sure to join Hypertrophy M.A.X. when it re-opens. Click here to join the waiting list. Our users tell us it’s by far the most bad-ass muscle building program in existence!


What program design blunder have you have struggled with? Share your comments below. And if you think I missed a program design blunder, let me know that too. Looking forward to hearing from you.


10 Responses to “Hardgainer Mistake #8: Program Design Blunders”

  1. Damien

    This is a good insight into programs.

    You mentioned what you do to build the first 40 pounds of muscle is different to what you do to build the final 10 pounds. I’m at this stage and i’d love to know (or could you direct me) to one of your blogs that details this please.

    Great post

  2. Jackie

    I really want to thank you for this post. The whole “do a different program every single day” concept introduced lately, that seems to be the ongoing trend now makes me absolutely crazy. How does anyone expect to get good at what they’re doing if they don’t even KNOW what they’re doing?

    Thanks Vince. That made my day.

  3. Catherine

    Another great article Vince!

    I don’t have the problem of being a hard gainer but, it takes just as much dedication to lose fat and gain muscle. I’ve noticed that many of the same principles apply to both, and yes even to women! I love that you encourage us to think for ourselves, track our progress by writing stuff down, and not being afraid to change what’s not working. I think its important to not skip the basics. I didn’t really like the up-side-down training to begin with but, I soon realized the importance of it! How can I make improvements with my dead lift if my forearms can’t handle holding the weight my legs can lift? I love that I don’t have to depend on someone else to spoon feed me answers because you teach us to think for ourselves. It amazes me how many I see at the gym with no program, just winging it. These are the same people who look the same from week to week. I’m proud to say that I finished the basic 29 week NNMB and now I’m working on the next 29 week program and I LOVE IT! Now that I feel a bit more accomplished with my workouts I’m taking my nutrition to the next level with carb cycling. I’m not going to “wing it” with my nutrition any more. Its hard to stay focused sometimes with all these new and awesome programs that come out but then I remember what you say about just sticking with one thing at a time and I think that has been the biggest thing for me. It feels amazing to say I finished a program and see some incredible results in the mirror! Not to mention by tracking my progress I push myself way harder than if I was just winging it. I’m giving myself the added motivation of planning a photo shoot for the spring. All the more reason to keep focused.

    Thanks again for your inspiration and motivation and just plain old common sense!

  4. Alex

    I think the worst problem is the one size fits all program.. unless the trainer knows you, your physique, your objectives and your injuries, experience, can watch you train, makes a personalized diet, tweaks the program and diet to fit your life, changes what needs to be changed, see what is working and what is not, is able to motivate you during the hard times and sticks with you the whole way..it can be a very good program, but it is not made for you.
    We are all so different, saying that a program is good for everyone, whatever that program might be, and will produce the best results, whoever uses it, is the worse blunder i find :)

  5. bern

    well, my problem is not probobly trying to add in something new every week. that plus i don’t really know if my workout is too intense or too light

  6. perry

    Can you advise work for the other body types ? IS STRICTLY APPLICABLE TO HARD GAINERS?

  7. Ben Greenfield

    Great post, Vince. There is a moment when a task becomes so overwhelming that you tend to throw up your hands and avoid action, procrastinate, or neglect the task altogether. The more complex a task is, the more likely this is to happen. And a perfect example is exercise. At the beginning of each week, I write down a simple physical activity goal or workout for each day, and keep it simple and sweet. Not having to overcome the complicated or annoying mental burden of dealing with a complex workout makes achieving an athletic or health goal much more easy to pursue. Could a more “complex” workout get superior results? Perhaps. But not if you don’t do it. Simplicity equals adherence, adherence equals consistency, and consistency equals success.

    Keep up the great posts, man!

  8. mikey s.

    Great article again! I can testify to the useless of “winging it.” For a long time thats exactly what I was doing and made very little progress. I also appreciate your explanation of novice to advanced progresion. That clears up a lot of questions for me. Keep up the good work!

  9. stevie

    Good work vinny always interesting to read your stuff.I personally have had varied results from different programs ive used and i would say its several factors,time,money,nutrition,knowledge and attitude.Take away any 1 of these and your seriously limiting your your body potential for growth, irrelevant of what body shape you are.
    My days of winging it at the gym are over,hypertrophymax has given me all the tools i need for maximal growth.BOOM!

  10. Matt

    Great article Vince!

    I want to stress the role nutrition plays with the success and failure of any particular program – especially for ‘hard gainers’. I’ve been training for 5 years and had great results, but you can work out as hard as you want, but if you don’t eat a lot of quality food, it’s worthless for building mass. My friends ask me for programs all the time, a few of them see good results, some not. The only reason why some of them succeed and others don’t, is their food intake. End of story. Those who attack the program with food always get better results than those who don’t- not matter what the program is. This really needs to be emphasised a lot. It’s protein, fat and good carbs everyday in balanced meals, forever, not just for one day, forever. Or until you don’t want your muscle any more.