Big, Ugly, and Strong: The Anti-Hero Workout

It’s time to put down the cable concentration curls and pick up some heavy stuff—really heavy stuff.

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There’s a question I sometimes ask those who come to me for advice on their workout programs: Do you want to be big, ugly, and strong, or lean and pretty? 

There’s a question I sometimes ask those who come to me for advice on their workout programs: Do you want to be big, ugly, and strong, or lean and pretty? 

One of my gym buddies was training with a powerlifter. They lifted big weight, rested a long time between sets, and it seemed every attempt was a max effort. But here’s the catch: he always wanted to build a V-taper, get leaner, and finally get those washboard abs, like those actors who build superhero muscle. So I reminded him that his actions need to match his goals. Lifting like a powerlifter won’t get you the body of Captain America. That takes specific, hypertrophy-style training. Of course, this can still include heavy lifting, but you’ll inevitably have to dip your toe into the bodybuilding world in order to optimally reshape your body.

Who Wants a Cape, Anyway?

But what about those of us who have toiled away at hypertrophy training for a significant number of years, and are in need of something to shake up our programming? What about adding some real, brutal strength to workouts, in order to look and be strong at the same time? There’s nothing wrong with looking the part, but don’t you want to actually be grittier, stronger, and more resilient too?

The movies use CGI and other tricks to make it appear that the actor has superhuman strength to lift cars and land from three stories up. Since you don’t have that option, it’s time to put down the cable concentration curls and pick up some heavy stuff—really heavy stuff. While you’re at it, let’s build some big, strong, brutal muscle to go along with it. Nowhere does it say that the two are exclusive. You can hammer in more muscle while creating a thicker, stronger body. You just need to approach things a little differently. Think less Captain America, and more like Bane.

How the Anti-Hero Trains

This type of training isn’t pretty. It emphasizes mainly multi-joint, compound movements that will optimally pack on muscle and increase strength. No cute little magazine cover exercises that look good in the mirror or on your Instagram account; just good ole-fashioned big lifts that have been proven over the last century or so.

Don’t let the simplicity of this program fool you. Simple doesn’t mean easy. It’s a plan based on necessity, versus what feels good. You will adopt a basic structure and work like hell, week in and week out. You’ll have to take on a warrior mindset, since consistency is the cornerstone of your success. If you expect to be bigger, stronger, harder and more capable in and out of the gym, get ready to earn it.

Fight the urge to add in additional isolation exercises. Since you’ll be focusing on the big lifts, you won’t have the time or recovery ability to perform a ton of added volume. Feel free to substitute exercises to work around an injury, but make sure they are a suitable substitute. Leg curls don’t cover all the bases that Bulgarian split squats will.

Keep a close eye on rest periods. On some exercises, you may need a bit more rest, while others less. Just pay attention to how much you are resting. It’s easy to get lost in conversation, or your phone. On second thought, just leave the phone at home. 

Keep a record of your workouts. Get a handy journal and jot down sets, reps, and weights used for each exercise. It might be a good idea to also write down a few words about how you feel regarding energy levels, sleep, and eating habits for that day. This will be a daily motivational tool to fuel each future workout, along with the fact that you can look back and make any adjustments necessary.

The Anti-Hero Training Program

Perform the Anti-Hero Training Program for four to six weeks. Remember, consistency is king, so do your best to adhere to the schedule. After this time period, either take a week off and keep participating in recreational activity, or train only two days for a week at half of the intensity and half of all sets per workout.

This is a four-day-per-week program that can be performed in several ways. The only requirement is that you only train for two consecutive days at a time. So you could easily fit this program in a week by training on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, for example.

The program’s beauty comes from its simplicity. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and it isn’t “sexy.” It’s barebones. Think of it as the work that needs to be done in order to build a big hunk of granite, right before you chisel away the details—that part will come later. Right now, it’ll be to your advantage to focus on less complexity without getting bogged down in the weeds.

Be sure to begin each and every training day with a general, dynamic, and specific warm up. Start off with a 5-10-minute brisk walk, jog, or other cardio machine at a medium pace. Next, go with a short round or two of a bodyweight circuit consisting of things like push ups, bodyweight squats, burpees, and crunches for 10 reps each. Lastly, you’ll perform specific warm-up sets for most exercises.

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