As a plant-based athlete for the past twenty years, ten of which were spent as a competitive bodybuilder, I have learned a lot about building muscle size and strength. I started out my plant-based journey as a 120-pound, five-sport high school athlete. At age 15 I decided I no longer wanted to contribute to animal suffering and I became a vegan, but I also wanted to get bigger and stronger. I wasn't sure that combination was possible. Vegan and bodybuilding didn't really go together. This was back in 1995, before the Internet came of age and there weren't many, if any, role models I could look to for guidance in my specific quest. So, I decided I would pave my own road and figure things out on my own. Years later I narrowed down the sport I wanted to pursue as my teenage years came to an end, and weight lifting took over as my primary athletic interest.
By age 21 I weighed 185 pounds and I embarked on my bodybuilding career. By age 23, I was up to 195 pounds, lifting heavy weights, and I had been featured in FLEX Magazine three times. My website, www.veganbodybuilding.com, was in its second year, and I had sufficiently learned how to build muscle size and strength on a plant-based diet living a vegan lifestyle. When I won some bodybuilding competitions and gained a little more credibility, I decided I would go out on tour to share with audiences what I learned in my areas of success as a plant-based athlete. I hit the road to share my message with others in 2005.
Over the years my training styles would change, and I tried numerous programs to discover what would resonate with me and what would create the greatest return on investment. And like I did with my initial approach to plant-based fitness, I created some of my own approaches to building muscle, one of which is an approach I am currently following today.
In 2010, at age 30, I retired from competitive bodybuilding and spent the next year writing the book, Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. Since that publication, I have continued to evolve my training, even though I don't train full-time for any specific sports interest. I released a new book, titled, Shred It!, in 2014, and these days I exercise to stay in shape for book tours, following the advice in my latest book. I simply train for the fun of it and I experiment with different styles that yield the best ROI. Though I retired from bodybuilding five years ago, and spent eight months without stepping foot inside a gym during a period in 2012, I am stronger now than I have ever been. I weigh 20 pounds less than in my prime as a bodybuilder, and I don't train as often since I am frequently on the road touring with my new book, yet I find ways to maximize my experience each time I do make it to the gym.
My current training philosophy looks like this: I select one or two muscle groups to focus on for a given workout, and I choose the exercise that is the most strenuous, to perform first. Once I determine what the initial exercise is, I create a pyramid to perform as many as 8-12 sets on the beginning exercise. Depending on the muscle group or specific exercise, I might spend a full hour just on my starting exercise. What's the point of all of this? The way I see it, each exercise provides an estimated ROI, and I want to pick the exercise that provides what I determine to be the best ROI first, when I am at my strongest. I warm-up with light weights and high repetitions and then move on to working sets. I pyramid up, increasing weight and decreasing repetitions and then I pyramid back down. Let's take decline barbell bench press, my current favorite exercise, for example. My first exercise completing a chest workout would look like this:
Numerous sets of push-ups to warm up (I am now up to more than 700 consecutive days performing at least 100 push-ups per day)
Decline Barbell Bench Press
135 pounds x 20 reps (50% effort)
135 pounds x 20 reps (50% effort)
185 pounds x 12 reps (60% effort)
205 pounds x 8 reps (70% effort)
225 pounds x 5 reps (80% effort)
245 pounds x 4 reps (90% effort)
275 pounds x 3 reps (100% effort)
300 pounds x 1 rep (100% effort)
245 pounds x 3 reps (90-100% effort)
225 pounds x 5 reps (90-100% effort)
185 pounds x 12 reps (90-100% effort)
135 pounds x 25 reps (90-100% effort)
This type of approach allows me to warm-up with light weights which prepares my muscles for a heavy and high volume workload. I then pyramid up in weight until I hit a 1-rep max, and then I pyramid back down to where I started, and I do a burn-out set to failure, performing as many reps as I can on my final set. Once I have completed a dozen or so sets on this pyramid for my primary exercise, I move on to additional exercises. For subsequent exercises I only perform four sets, pyramiding up in weight, and I aim to target the muscle group from different angles (incline versus decline, for example). Sticking with this chest workout example, the remaining exercises for my workout might look like this:
Incline Barbell Bench Press
135 pounds x 10 reps (70% effort)
155 pounds x 6 reps (80% effort)
165 pounds x 4 reps (90% effort)
175 pounds x 2 reps (100% effort)
50s x 12 reps (70% effort)
60s x 8 reps (80% effort)
70s x 6 reps (90% effort)
80s x 4 reps (100% effort)
I often perform four sets of dips or cable cross overs or cable flys at the very end to develop a pump and to work on range of motion and flexibility, and that would conclude my chest workout. Even with all this volume, my chest workouts are usually completed in just a little over an hour. As you can see, I spent the majority of my time during my chest workout performing the exercise in which I can move the most weight. By using this approach, I ensure that while I am at my strongest, I am lifting the most weight that I can handle. As my energy dwindles throughout the workout (even if I snack throughout the training session, which I often do), I perform the exercises that require smaller amounts of weights, such as dumbbell, bodyweight, cable, or angled exercises that are more difficult to use heavy weights to complete.
This is the approach I take for essentially every workout. Some of my favorite initial exercises to set the tone for my workouts include:
Back = T-bar Rows
Shoulders = Seated dumbbell overhead press
Biceps = Dumbbell hammer curls
Triceps = Dumbbell overhead extensions
Legs = Leg press
Abs = Hanging leg raises
With this approach to training, my goal is to build up strength by being at my strongest doing the heaviest or most strenuous exercises, while also stimulating the most muscle growth. Following this style of training for the first five months of 2015, with only a casual training approach when it works in my schedule, has made me the strongest I've ever been in most exercises. At a bodyweight of 175 pounds I recently performed a 900-pound leg press, 315-pound decline barbell bench press, and I shoulder shrug hundreds of pounds for many reps. I continue to gain strength in all muscle groups and sometimes I only complete one or two exercises during an entire hour-long workout.
What I like best about this approach is that rather than performing a bunch of isolated exercises for a single muscle group on one joint axle, I perform compound, multi-joint lifts that are fun, challenging, and yield the best results when made a priority in a training program. I encourage you to give this approach a try. Select your favorite compound free-weight exercises and spend some quality time with them. You'll be glad you did. Here's to a stronger you.
- Robert Cheeke, best-selling author of Shred It! and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, 2-time champion bodybuilder, and founder/president of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness — www.veganbodybuilding.com.