Canadian Firefighter Magazine

FitSmart: The basics of building

By Brad Lawrence   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness

Most women on this planet would argue that men are fairly simple creatures. The more I learn about myself, and men and women in general, the more I unfortunately tend to agree.


Most women on this planet would argue that men are fairly simple creatures. The more I learn about myself, and men and women in general, the more I unfortunately tend to agree. As hard as it is for me to admit this, nowhere is this more prevalent that in a gym. While women often strive for a variety of goals from flexibility to toning and weight loss or overall well-being, most men have a very specific mindset. As men in the gym we seem to have two broad goals – we’re either trying to lose weight or gain size and strength. Increasing size and strength is the overwhelming favourite with men, and it also seems to hold a lot of confusion. Many men struggle with this battle their whole lives and, unfortunately, are never satisfied with their progress. Here, we’ll explore the fundamentals and techniques of achieving this common goal of increasing size and strength that so many of us share.

Think back to the first time you set foot in a gym. It’s OK to admit that we were all quite overwhelmed. As you remember walking onto the floor, think of what came into your vision. Scattered around are hundreds of machines for just about anything you may want to do. If your experience was anything like mine, you could identify only a handful of these machines and you could operate even fewer. From there, most of us inched our way toward the dumbbell (for curls) and the flat bench for the obvious. Finish with a few sets of abs and your first workout was probably complete. The point I’m trying to make is that from that point the majority of us were self taught, or taught by a friend who initially dragged us in there. Most of us lack much in the way of formal training and, chances are, so did our friends and mentors who got us started. If this was familiar territory, read on and we’ll get to the basics of building mass.

Train with a purpose
Motivation is one of the biggest speed bumps to overcome, not just in a gym, but in life. We all have good days and bad days in the gym. The key to purpose training is becoming motivated enough that you’re excited about lifting. If you’re training for mass you should get in there and feel like you want to leave blood on the barbells. To succeed, you need far more good days than bad. Ask yourself, on a scale of one to 10, how hard am I working? Your answer should be 10 or your reason for stagnant progress is obvious.

Exercise selection
All exercises are not created equal. Different exercises exist because they offer different results. When choosing exercises for size and strength you’re looking for two things: first, for size, choose exercises that allow you to lift near maximum weight and offer a reasonable amount of isolation to the muscle you’re attacking; second, for strength, you should choose exercises that require a great deal of skill and still allow you to lift very heavy loads.
When training for size and strength you simply combine the two categories of exercises.  If you’re confused about which movements to select, stick to the basics first. There are four essential exercises you need to be doing to reach your goals – the big four are squats, deadlifts, pull-ups and chest presses. These are all compound movements dealing with very high exertion over several muscles. These lifts will also release the highest levels of your essential growth hormones. The better you are at these four movements the better your fitness level will become. Your isolation exercises will fall into place but your mass program is on the back burner until you have mastered the big four.


Volume training
No matter how hard you train, your muscles simply won’t grow unless you overload them. One or two sets isn’t going to cut it; shoot for six to eight reps of maximum weight, and up to five sets. Each set should end in muscle failure; if you have something left in the tank you’re cheating yourself and holding back vital hormones from your muscles.

Hormonal advantage
There are several important hormones in your body that can help you with no supplementation necessary. The three we are going to focus on are testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor. These hormones all release with high-intensity workouts and high-intensity sprints. The reason you need to perform your big-four exercises, and the reason you need to become exhausted through them, is the release of these hormones. Testosterone is responsible for creating muscle mass among other things, and is crucial to your success. Growth hormone is commonly called the fountain of youth, and helps with all bodily functions, especially building muscle and lowering body fat. Growth hormone is released when you’re training and when you’re sleeping. That’s just one more reason to get a good night’s sleep and train like a champion.

Variety is the spice
Your body is built to adapt to anything you throw at it and weight training programs are no exception. The big-four exercises should be a staple; other things can be swapped in and out. If you plateau try “doubles” lifting: perform one full exercise at the beginning and end of your workout, for example, three sets of pull-ups, and three more at the end. Size and strength is a broad topic and we’ve merely scratched the surface. The goal you are tackling takes time. With proper knowledge and dedication it won’t be a lifetime goal, just one of your many goals.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer. Brad has trained and coached countless firefighters through all aspects of fitness and overall well-being. E-mail

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