Stay Motivated to Train: Smart Strength With Charles Staley

This week, Charles provides valuable insight into training motivation, shoulder growth, and exercise science.

Question #1: How Do I Build Bigger Shoulders?

READER: My delts are flat and pathetic. I do side and front raises as well as presses with both barbells and dumbbells, but that just seems to make my shoulders ache a lot and not change the muscle appearance. What can I do?

CHARLES SAYS: The first thing to recognize is that we aren’t all gifted with great-looking body parts in all cases. In my own case, I have relatively good-looking delts pretty much regardless of what I do or don’t do for them, and terrible calves regardless of what I do or don’t do for them. So there’s no way for me to know what your situation is with regard to your ultimate potential.

Here’s the list of considerations I’d think about if I were you:

  1. Am I doing the best exercises? And/or am I wasting time doing exercises that don’t take me toward my goals? (I’m not a fan of side and front raises personally)
  2. Am I doing those exercises properly?
  3. Do I feel these exercises in my delts, during and/or afterward? If you don’t feel them during the exercise itself and/or if your delts are never sore, then you’re either doing the wrong exercises or doing the right exercises improperly, and/or not working hard enough and/or frequently enough.
  4. Am I training delts frequently enough? (I’d suggest three times per week)
  5. Am I ensuring progression over time?
  6. Are my triceps so weak that they fail before delts on pressing movements? (If so, I take back my earlier comment about front and side raises)
  7. Am I eating enough to support hypertrophy?

At a distance, and with the limited amount of information I have about you, I have no way of answering those questions, but I’d carefully ponder each one in an effort to fine tune your approach.

Question #2: Measuring Body Fat?

READER: Fat measurement – what is the best/easiest/cheapest way to measure my body fat percentage, and what should I be shooting for as a 28-year-old male to look lean and ripped but not have to eat like a bird all the time?

CHARLES SAYS: I’ve long used a simple technique to assess body composition – it won’t tell you your actual bodyfat percentage, but it will tell you if you’re going in the right direction or not:

  1. Each day, measure your bodyweight and waist measurement (assuming you store most of your fat at the waist – for most women, it’d be the hips)
  2. Divide your weight by your waist measurement. The bigger that number is, the leaner you are. For example, if you’re 200 pounds with a 36-inch waist, you’ll get 5.55. If you’re 200 pounds with a 32-inch waist, you’ll get 6.25.

Using this method gets you past worrying strictly about your bodyweight, since (for example) an increasing in bodyweight without a commensurate increase in your waist measurement means you’re leaner. Give it a shot and let me know how you like it!

Question #3: Workout Duration

READER: How long should my general fitness-type workouts last? I am training to look and feel good but not to win any competitions. I belong to a globo gym and like to use free weights and machines, plus I want to do enough cardio so I am healthy long term.

CHARLES SAYS: Honestly, there’s no one simple answer to this (big surprise, right?). But in general, the more novice you are, the less time you’ll need. Think about it this way: if you’re just starting out, and you do two hours a week, that’s a lot more than what you were doing (i.e., zero hours per week).

If you’re experienced and fairly strong, your workout will be longer. For example, working up to a 400-pound squat takes me about 45 minutes (because of the amount of warm-up sets it takes me to reach that), and that’s just one exercise. In general though, you should be able to get your work done in somewhere between three to five hours a week.

One parting comment, though: it’s not necessarily true that you need to do cardio to ensure long-term health. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do, but there are many people who live to ninety and beyond without doing any exercise at all. Just food for thought.

body fat

Question #4: Staying Motivated

READER: What is the single most useful thing you’ve found to keep yourself motivated to train?

CHARLES SAYS: Competing. No question about it. When you put yourself on the line – you sign that meet application, you pay the meet fee, you commit to a date – it changes everything. Because now you’re making yourself accountable, and you have a reason to train and a focus for your workouts.

I’ve competed in martial arts, discus, weightlifting, and currently, powerlifting. I’m not particularly good at any of those sports, but I can tell you this: I’m much better off for competing than I would have been without competing.

There are so many competitive options available, from CrossFit to powerlifting, to kettlebell sport, to weightlifting, to physique competition, the list is truly long. So start investigating and exploring, and make the decision to compete in something – anything – before the year is out. Trust, me, you’ll be glad you did.

Question #5: Carbs and Insulin

READER: Do all the studies on mTor signaling, the effect of different carbs on insulin production, meal timing, etc., etc. mean anything in real life? Those conditions are controlled in a lab to elicit the results they get and our real-world conditions can’t mimic them. Does all that worrying about having the “best” schedule, products, or training regimen help the average Joe or Jane Trainee?

CHARLES SAYS: We do have a tendency to get caught up in the minutia. I’ll give you that. For most people (myself included) the fundamentals are what really matter. It’s not that things like meal timing and food sources don’t matter at all, it’s just they don’t matter much.

In terms of training, specificity, hard work, and progressive overload must be respected – everything else is gravy. Nutritionally, calorie intake and macronutrient ratios are what matter most. Think of the basics as your “big rocks.” More on that idea here:

This Week’s Training

This Week’s Volume: 29,525 Pounds (Last Week: 123,952 Pounds)

Significant Lifts:

  • Deadlift: 450×1

This was a deload week, and the transition between the hypertrophy and strength phase of training – only three training days where volume in particular is sharply reduced for the purposes of facilitating recovery. For the most part, I tried to keep intensity as high as possible, so that fitness gains would be preserved at the same time. In fact, in many cases, I used equal or even greater intensity than I had used in the previous phase, including a 450 deadlift on Thursday.

Next week I’ll be dialing up to the 5- to 6-rep range, and I’ll also be using the three competitive lifts for the first half of the seven-week phase. After seven weeks of this “general” strength block, I’ll finish up with an eight-week peaking cycle, leading into the meet.

Interestingly, while I had no orthopedic issues at all during the bulk of this cycle, my right shoulder started bugging me during bench presses on Tuesday. Hopefully, it’s just a one-time thing.

So that’s about it for this week, thanks for all the great questions, and looking forward to getting into heavier weights next week. See you then!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bodyweight: 201.8 Pounds

Volume: 14,290 Pounds

High Bar Squat

  • Set 1: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 95 lbs × 5
  • Set 4: 135 lbs × 5
  • Set 5: 185 lbs × 5
  • Set 6: 225 lbs × 5

Stiff-Leg Deadlift

  • Set 1: 135 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 185 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 225 lbs × 5
  • Set 4: 275 lbs × 5

Bench Press

  • Set 1: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 95 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 135 lbs × 5
  • Set 4: 185 lbs × 5

Notes: Some pain in my right shoulder on bench pressing

Seated Row

  • Set 1: 150 lbs × 8

Tricep Pushdowns

  • Set 1: 150 lbs × 8

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

  • Set 1: 70 lbs × 8

Leg Extension

  • Set 1: 160 lbs × 8

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bodyweight: 200.8 Pounds

Volume: 6570 Pounds


  • Set 1: 135 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 135 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 225 lbs × 5
  • Set 4: 275 lbs × 3
  • Set 5: 315 lbs × 1
  • Set 6: 365 lbs × 1
  • Set 7: 415 lbs × 1
  • Set 8: 450 lbs × 1 (Video Below)

High Bar Squat

  • Set 1: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 95 lbs × 5

Leg Curl

  • Set 1: 80 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 80 lbs × 5

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bodyweight: 201 Pounds

Volume: 8665 Pounds

Bench Press (Dumbbell)

  • Set 1: 80 lbs × 10
  • Set 2: 80 lbs × 10
  • Set 3: 120 lbs × 8
  • Set 4: 160 lbs × 6

Chin Up

  • Set 1: 5 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps

Bench Press

  • Set 1: 45 lbs × 5
  • Set 2: 95 lbs × 5
  • Set 3: 135 lbs × 5

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

  • Set 1: 70 lbs × 8

Tricep Pushdowns

  • Set 1: 150 lbs × 8

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Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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