The Rule of 40

One of my favorite bodybuilding/powerlifting programming ideas is “The Rule of 40”. It’s a simple idea for learning how to program intensity and volume in your workouts.

I’ll show you how I would use this idea to program a typical day in the gym. Using back day as an example, I’ll pick 5 or 6 exercises that I haven’t done recently and/or haven’t done in this order, and set up the sets and reps something like this:

  1. Barbell row: 5×8
  2. Pullups: whatever you have to do to get 40 reps total.
  3. Snatch grip high pulls: 4×10
  4. db pullovers: 3×15
  5. machine reverse fly: 2×20

Another example for back day:

  1. Pullups 7×3 weighted
  2. db rows 4×10
  3. wide cable rows 4×12
  4. barbell shrugs 3×15
  5. barbell curls 1×40

The rule of 40 simply means the total volume for each exercise should equal (roughly) the magic number 40. 4×10, 5×8, or 4×12 and 5×12 are staples. 5×5 or 6×5 is a good bet even though it doesn’t add up to 40.

The 1×40 set is really interesting. It really depends on how you pick the weight. Pick a bit heavy, and it’s a trial from hell to get through that set. Pick a bit light, and this can be really good for flushing blood into the area and improving recovery.

The 40 rule is not a firm rule, but it’s a good starting point, which should help teach most people how much volume they need to progress. I’ve learned to tweak a few things, like I’ll do more total volume for exercises that have a very short range of motion – shrugs are a good example, where 4-5×12-15 reps probably works better. Also, I’ll typically do a bit more volume for back than for chest or shoulders. More often back exercises are 4×12 or 5×10, where chest will be 5×8 or 4×10.

Conversely, you might want to take the hardest exercises and drop the volume a bit. Deadlifts are a good example, where 5×5 is more than enough work. Or 7 sets of 3 reps of weighted pullups, which is only 21 reps total, is a lot of work.

Also, these rep ranges only work if you follow the “ramp up to one max set” method. As an example, if my best bench press is 225×5, and I expect to hit a PR today, I might do 5×7, like this:

  1. 135×7
  2. 160×7
  3. 185×7
  4. 205×7
  5. 225×6 (almost hit 7 today, but I made the PR of 6)

Only that last set was “all out”. So you get a growth stimulus of pushing your limit and breaking new ground, but also the volume of the 4 previous sets without blowing out your central nervous system. You can play around with this, and you COULD do 205×7 for 5 sets… But for me, always aiming for a PR just yields better results. I try to PR on the final set of every exercise, in every workout. And if I’m eating enough, training hard enough, resting enough, and rotating my exercises properly, it will happen.

Make it Simple

There is a lot to be said for simplicity in exercise programming. The fitness industry pushes all types of overly complicated workouts and exercise plans – it seems somehow we all feel like the key to fitness must be complicated, expensive, or come in a pill.

The truth is, the answer is just simple, consistent, hard work. AND it doesn’t cost a damn thing. Success in all areas of fitness is actually simple. Maybe not easy, but it is simple. Eat less. Move more. Be consistent. Here’s a “move more” example:

You want to improve your abs, but you don’t know where to start. Surfing the internet gives you a million ideas, all with different exercises, rep ranges and theories. Or maybe you decide to go to the bookstore and find a book on abs, which might be the thickness of a textbook, full of anatomy charts and hundreds of different abdominal exercises. But the answer doesn’t really doesn’t have to be so complicated. Not only does it not have to be complicated, it shouldn’t be. The simpler the prescription, the easier it will be to implement and be consistent with.

If you’re going to consistently keep doing something, it needs to be simple enough that you can actually do it, and repeat it, consistently, over a long period of time.

Here’s a simple workout prescription for abs – do this three times a week:

  • 3 sets of planks
  • 3 sets of v-ups
  • 3 sets of Russian twists

That’s it. In six months get back to me and tell me how amazed you are with your results.

Too easy? Just do a bit more every time. Longer duration planks. More reps or sets on the v-ups and twists. Build up slowly but always try for a just a little bit more.

I got this idea specifically from Runner’s World and Mike Rutt, an 800m runner who made the Olympic trials, who did this exact routine for 5 years. Unfortunately the video file type is not supported by WordPress, but this link will get you there until I figure out a workaround:

Want to lose weight? Run. Want to get in shape? Run. It actually works for everyone. I know, I know, maybe you can’t run, but if you set “being able to run” as your goal, and work your butt off to get to that point, you will definitely be more fit than you are now. And if you can’t run, that is probably something you should be working on. Is your knee busted up? Let’s work on fixing that. Foot issues? Ankles? Hips? Arthritis? Obese? It doesn’t matter. Whatever is holding you back, that’s what we need to work on. If you can walk, we can start there. Can’t walk? Well, then we have to work on that first!