Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Let’s Do More Hypertrophy?

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | May 30, 2023

carl raghavan coaches a lifter as she locks out a deadlift

When a client asks me if we can focus more on hypertrophy, I think to myself, "But we were already doing that." After all, I personally gained 100 lb of body weight over 11 years as a natural lifter, with a 315 press, 377 bench, 567 squat, 595 deadlift, and 245 power clean, just by eating, sleeping, and lifting heavy 5s while following Rip's advice. Other people I know who have similar or bigger numbers than mine don't have issues with looking jacked. Of course, it's important to note that achieving these results took over a decade of diligent lifestyle and choices. There was no program hopping or multiple goals, just one vision: get big and strong and chase PRs. I didn't train for a marathon or JuJitsu; I simply focused on heavy barbell training. For the 6-month novice lifter who is stuck and still struggling with mediocre lifting numbers and has only gained 5-15 lb of total body weight, YNDTP. As Nick D says, "Everything you want is on the other side of hard and heavy – just don't get distracted." 

Let’s Do 8s – 12s

Reps get results, right? Wrong. Especially when you're weak and not eating adequate food. Doing lighter weights for reps isn't a productive way to train and doesn’t yield the best hypertrophy response. Obtaining strength and consuming “functional edible materials” (my new term to avoid affecting or triggering any religious food communities) is key. Gaining muscle is easy at first, when you're weak and have the strength of a prenatal fetus. Eating and lifting heavy weights is all a regular person needs to do. However, this approach is counter to what they are used to hearing.

What do I mean? If I were to get fired up about the exact supplements to take or had boxes of pills that need to be taken at special times or else you miss your "window," or if I claimed that every single set has to go to failure or at least 8–12 reps in order to make the muscle grow, they wouldn't bat an eyelid. Keep this very important fact in mind: in absolute terms, heavy 5s are heavier than heavy 12s. It takes more force to move heavy 5s than heavy 12s. And the way muscles get stronger is by adding size. And that's all there is to it.

The fitness media has led you to believe that every single small muscle group needs to be targeted with immaculate form and all body parts need to be split into their own separate days – the “bro split.” Chest day, back day, arm day, and leg day (legs are allowed to be skipped, of course). They have convinced you that this is the only way to pursue muscle mass, thanks to Joe Weider's marketing. This might be okay for advanced bodybuilders who are already strong as an ox and on a ton of gear. But for someone who is just starting out, like you, it doesn't work. Instead, use full-body days with no splitting required. Do your 5s and go heavy with the squat, press, deadlift, bench; then sprinkle in some chins and power cleans, and eat your face off.

The Eating Problem

The common issue I see in people who are concerned with gaining muscle is an incorrect diagnosis of the problem. The key reason a person isn't gaining enough muscle while training for strength is not due to a programming issue or lack of exercise variety – it's an eating problem. Eating enough animal protein and normal human food provides the body with ample calories for growth. It's that simple. You might think I need to tell you something sexy or more advanced for this process to work, but I don't.

It’s much easier to blame your coach or your programming, but the real factor is often yourself. Blaming others for your personal shortcomings is common in our age. However, the responsibility ultimately lies with you, especially when it comes to not eating enough. Food is a complex topic, as it is heavily intertwined with our psychology and personal behaviors. We tend to use food for love and comfort, not simply as fuel for performance or to create good body composition. Bad snacking habits, mindlessly eating while watching Netflix, or actual psychological eating disorders can be very difficult. I've said it before: I'm not your therapist. Before putting anything in your mouth, it's important to think and make better food choices, whether your goal is to gain lean muscle mass or lose body fat.


What the person really wants is permission to fuck around because the barbell has gotten heavy. Like, heavy enough to completely question why are they even training in the first place. The bar is crushing you, you’re starting to get a few aches and pains, and the mental fortitude to show up and add 5 pounds every workout is getting harder to muster. Effort and consistency are the crucial qualities a lifter needs to break through this wall of adversity, and it’s that process that helps make you a better man – not just a stronger one. Because you did what was required in order to achieve delayed gratification instead of a cheap, fake pump.

As Bob Santana says, “People want to exercise themselves to a trained body.” Meaning they want the results of someone who trains like a barbell monk, but think they can get the exact same outcome by lifting with no plan, a shitty diet, and minimal sleep. The simple truth is, 8s and 12s are light, and much easier than 5s. Who does 12s? Gym bros. They are the prime representatives of this type of training, and their bodies tend to look exactly the same after 4–6 years of training, I’ve seen them, and you have too. That includes their puny calves, and the sparrow legs they’ve covered up in sweat pants or ugly white tennis socks. You know those guys – they still exist, and they achieve minimal to no gains from this “training.” So who are they kidding? 12s don’t work as well as 5s do – period.

There’s a reason why barbells for sets of 5 have stood the test of time: it’s because they work across a huge spectrum of demographics, and have done so for a very long time. The real question is, are you serious enough about your training to make the basics work? Because now you have no excuse to be weak and skinny. You’ve got the blueprint: chase a 200/300/400/500 and then a 300/400/500/600 press, bench, squat, and deadlift, eat 250 g of protein and enough total calories for a small surplus every day, and sleep 8 hours a day for a decade, and you too will be big and strong. You might not get all the way there, but in a decade you will be much further along than you expected. Rest

Stress/recovery/adaptation: this is the process our body uses to adapt to stress and make major structural changes like getting bigger and stronger. Recovery is highly undervalued as part of this process, and without the recovery piece, there is no adaptation. Sure, you can do 10,000 steps walking your dog or some light non-strenuous cardio, but really, the day you're not under the bar and squatting should be a day for total rest, so you're primed for the next bout of stress deriving from your following session in 48 hours’ time – especially when you're a novice. You want to maximize this opportunity and gain as much strength and muscle as you can while doing a basic, simple, general program.

A side note: it's only going to get harder from here, so enjoy this while it lasts, and that means doing it right. Rest is a huge piece of making your muscles grow, and a good night's sleep is the ultimate for strength and muscle recovery. Fun fact: sleep is free. What a cheap supp!

And I don’t know how much more blunt I can be: just shut up and eat. Yes, your stomach is going to feel full and yes, this is hard. Arguably harder than the training. Just remember, we didn't tell you this was going to be easy. You assumed it would be, but we just told you that being strong is important. Don’t despair because everyone on Instagram and their mum can lift serious weight and is jacked. In the real world, you need to stop making excuses about wanting to fit into your teenage jeans or being scared of losing your six-pack for the ladies, and just eat. It's perhaps the most important part of the stress/recovery/adaptation thing.

My Mistakes

I've been there too. I've gotten distracted and given myself permission to take it easy on hard strength training, thinking that following some holy grail fitness magazine was the way to go because that's what Bruce Lee or Arnold was doing. But it doesn't work as well as our method. I'm living proof that it works. Whatever I was doing, if I just reset and cut back to the basic barbell lifts and focused on increasing the weight on the bar, I would always get bigger and stronger – every time.

When strength is your limiting factor, you need to focus on lifting 5s on all the big barbell lifts. If you can bench 200 lb dumbbells in each hand for 12 reps with good full range of motion, then you're probably not struggling with strength levels as your limiting factor. But if you struggle to bench press 225 lb for 5 with a barbell using both hands, then yes, strength is definitely the reason you're struggling to gain upper-body muscle.

So instead of hyper-focusing on your programming – “not doing enough volume” – as the reason you're not as muscular as you want to be, how about taking some truthful ownership and asking yourself, "Am I strong enough, and am I eating enough?"

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