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In fitness and bodybuilding, pursuing an ideal physique often leads people down various paths. Some choose to stay natural, while others look toward enhancement to supercharge their gains. In my journey, I have decided to remain natural. It suits my goals and lifestyle. That said, to each their own. I have nothing against those who choose the steroid route.
Steroids are a part of bodybuilding culture. Amidst this landscape, Sam Sulek is currently the biggest name in the sport. We live in the era of social media superstar bodybuilders. Like it or not, Sam is the frontman for a generation of lifters. He has three million YouTube subscribers that follow his every move.
Yet, behind the veil of admiration lies a question that many dare not voice aloud: can mere mortals achieve similar results without the aid of performance-enhancing substances?
This article embarks on a quest for truth as I, a self-proclaimed 'natty' or natural athlete, follow Sam Sulek's workout routine for a month. Can I make it four weeks, and are his controversial methods effective for someone not on the juice? Join me as I navigate the highs and lows, the challenges and triumphs, all in pursuit of progress.
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As someone who was a part of fitness YouTube in the early 2010s, I can see why Sam Sulek is so successful at a young age. His videos remind me of old-school YouTube from back in the day. Talking to his camera in the car, no fancy gym editing, no clickbait, just raw training footage with commentary.
Somewhere along the way, fitness YouTube stopped being about fitness. The videos became Keeping Up With The Kardashians more than Pumping Iron. Instead of hard training, it was flashy cars and fancy editing. And even worse, a fake persona replaced the realness people craved from a fitness influencer.
Sam is a throwback in the best way. He is just a college kid at Miami University of Ohio who loves training and being a part of the bodybuilding community. However, with his recent explosion in popularity across social media channels, the critics have come out of the woodwork. That is a part of popularity. As he puts out more videos, the criticism will only grow. Before we outline his program, I want to review the "Sam Sulek quick facts" of his routine and philosophy.
Most of the controversy around Sam's training is unwarranted. Is Sam Sulek natural? Most likely not, but he is still doing many things right. Here are three things we all should copy.
It doesn't take long to realize Sam Sulek trains hard when watching one of his videos. It should go without saying, but effort is mainly responsible for the results you get from the gym. You can have the best program on paper, but your progress will be limited if the effort is not there.
One of Sam's philosophies is to push each set as hard as possible, often to failure and beyond. He routinely uses drop sets, assisted reps, and lengthened partials to milk every set for all its worth.
Many people would benefit from putting more effort into their training.
Lengthened partials are partial reps performed at the bottom of the lift when the muscles are most lengthened—for example, the bottom of a barbell curl or the bottom of a dumbbell row. When done at the end of a standard set, they can be a great way to stimulate the muscle a little more.
I don't care how many drugs you are on. No one needs to do three-hour bodybuilding workouts. Sam focuses on effort, not time. The truth is that most people use the time spent in the gym to validate how hard they are working. It's faulty logic. A three-hour workout with long rest periods and easy sets is not effective. When you train hard, short workouts are necessary. A workout is a sprint, not a marathon. Go in, go hard, and go home.
First, his methods are clearly working. That said, from watching his videos, here are three things I recommend he cleans up.
Look, I want to keep his intensity high. He bullies the weights, and I love to see it. However, you can still train with maximum intensity while controlling the eccentric and minimizing momentum.
When you watch Sam Sulek train, he tends to lower the weights fast. The eccentric part of a lift is crucial for building muscle because it places the muscle under tension. At the same time, it lengthens, leading to greater muscle fiber recruitment, increased muscle damage, and ultimately, enhanced muscle growth and strength adaptation. Lowering the weights under control limits momentum, making the muscles work harder to move the weights. It's a way to get more out of less, especially on pull workouts.
Plus, using poor form presents a greater chance of injury. Getting hurt and needing to miss workouts is rarely a recipe for making gains.
The double-edged sword of lengthened partials is that they can create an inconsistent range of motion. When Sam performs a set, the reps slowly lose range of motion as he goes. There is no set point where the reps stop being full range of motion and become lengthened partials. This is not a big deal, but most people would be better off not muddying the waters. Use a full range of motion for as many reps as possible, and as soon as you can't do another complete rep, switch to lengthened partials.
Sam doesn't follow a set training program. He wants to do a specific amount of volume (sets) for a muscle group, but the exercise selection is entirely random. He chooses what to do based on how the exercise feels that day. Now, basing exercise selection on feel can be a good thing sometimes. However, consistency in movements week to week makes it easier to track progress. Plus, you have a better idea of what exercises work after you have stuck with them for an extended period.
As mentioned, Sam picks exercises on the fly, so he doesn’t follow a specific workout plan per se. The following is the workout I will base my program on. If needed, like Sam, I will substitute some exercises while staying true to the nature of the program.
Sam takes a flexible approach to nutrition. He weighs and measures everything he eats and aims to consume a specific amount of protein and carbohydrates. Since he tracks his food, he doesn't follow a particular meal plan. What's more, many of his calories come from nontraditional bodybuilding foods.
Here is a sample day of eating in Sam's journey to gain muscle mass.
100g of carbs
Daily Nutrition Breakdown: 200g of protein, 665g of carbohydrates, 160g of fat, and 4,900 calories
In preparation for the program, I will make a few adjustments to fit my lifestyle. For one, Sam follows the four-day split outlined above but only takes rest days when needed, often only once a week. When I was in college, I did something similar. However, now that I'm in my 30s, have three kids, a full-time job, and too many responsibilities, I cherish those rest days. So, I will keep the four-day split but stick to only four weekly workouts.
I plan to do legs on Monday, chest and shoulders on Tuesday, back on Thursday, and Arms on Friday or Saturday. Setting the program up this way ensures I can stick with it for the entire four weeks. Is it exactly how Sam does it? No, but it's close. Other than training frequency, I will stick to Sam's philosophies closely.
We have to make some adjustments to the diet, too. I can't eat 5000 calories every day for a month. By the end of this, I would look like a small apartment building- and not in a good way.
I will follow Sam's flexible dieting approach but aim for 160g of protein, 390g of carbohydrates, 90g of fat, and 3010 calories. These macros should put me into a slight surplus.
Here is how my month of training and eating as Sam Sulek went.
The first week on a new program is always an adjustment, but all things considered, it went well. Before starting Sam's routine, I was on an upper/lower powerlifting split. The concentrated volume of the new routine hit me pretty hard on chest and arm days. My chest was destroyed when I got to the cable flies.
Nutrition went well, too. I have been flexible dieting for over a decade, so diligently tracking macros is nothing new. The calorie increase was a challenge the first few days, but I enjoyed the extra food once I got used to it.
As I started week two, my arms were still sore from week one. I don't know when I last did that much arm work in one day.
In true Sam Sulek fashion, I had to make some exercise substitutions on leg day. It was Monday evening, so the gym was packed. A group of high school boys were hanging around the squat rack, and I didn't want to wait, so I opted for Smith Machine squats instead. As a powerlifter, this is not a substitution I would make, but it works since Sam's program is a bodybuilding routine. From a muscle-building standpoint, the Smith Machine is underrated.
The rest of the training week went smoothly.
In week 3, nutrition started to become an issue. For some reason, my appetite disappeared. On Monday and Tuesday, I had to choke down some food at night to hit my calorie goal. On Wednesday, I added a little "junk food" that is higher in calories, which helped.
Before my afternoon workout, I had a Pop-Tart. I used to do a lot of pre-workout Pop-Tarts when I was younger. It's an easy way to get 35-40g of carbs and around 200 calories. I also had two servings of ice cream after dinner. While Pop-Tarts and ice cream are not what you would typically consider bodybuilding foods, as long as you hit your macros, 10-20% of your calories can come from anything you want.
By the last week of the program, I settled into a nice groove. The soreness dissipated, and my body was handling the extra calories well. A month of bodybuilding training was a nice change of pace for me mentally. My old workouts were becoming stale, so emulating Sam Sulek for a month was fun.
Surprisingly, I only made a few changes. Although Sam is most likely on steroids, for the most part, his training philosophies work well for natural athletes, too.
The most significant change I made was to include fewer partial reps at the end of each set. During the first week, I tried to stay true to his practice of including partial reps to get the most out of each set. However for me, I felt like it caused my sets to become sloppy. As a compromise, I just took each set to failure using a full range of motion and included extra partial reps on the last set of the exercise. Additionally, I only included a couple of drop sets per workout and did not include any forced reps.
The slight drop in intensity from reducing partial reps, drop sets, and forced reps is enough to make Sam's program more effective for naturals. Focusing on effort and pushing each set to failure (or close) is a sound method. However, as a natural, you should limit how much you go beyond failure.
Following Sam's program pushed me out of my comfort zone. Overall, it was a good experience.
For starters, I gained five pounds. While not a crazy transformation, it's substantial for only a month. The extra diligence in tracking my food was a significant factor. I have been slacking on that for a while. Consistently eating 3,000 calories opened my eyes to the fact that I had been undereating.
Secondly, I swear my arms got bigger. I should have measured them before, but they look bigger to me. Arm training, particularly biceps work, was another area where I was slacking. I need to show my biceps a little more attention in the future with more arm workouts.
Lastly, my body feels better. Heavy powerlifting training takes a toll on the joints, and the higher rep sets helped my body feel better than it has in a while. I think incorporating a whole month of bodybuilding training is a good idea to give the joints a break.
Here are some other comments from natty lifters who have tried Sam Sulek's workout routine:
"I started doing it around August just to try, now it's the only way I train. Something about it makes my workout that much more satisfying. It may not be optimal but its the most progress I've seen in the gym definitely, wish I started it sooner." [source]
"For me it worked, my chest grew a lot bigger since I started doing his split, my biceps started (finally) growing and my legs too." [source]
"Ive been running it except with more rest days before he popped up. Legs Chest n Shoulders Rest Back Arms Rest. Rest At the end of the day like the other commenter said splits are very individual but i've found this to be pretty good." [source]
Well, there you have it - my experience as a natural athlete training like Sam Sulek for a month. Overall, Sam gets a lot of unnecessary criticism. He is just a young guy who loves to train and shares his passion with millions. Is everything he says and recommends excellent advice? No, probably not. Is he on performance-enhancing drugs? Most likely. However, we can still learn from what he does.
Sam trains hard. That is more than I can say for most lifters. He also diligently tracks his macros, ensuring he hits his daily calorie and protein goals. If everyone did those two things, progress would be a lot easier to come by.
It can be helpful to try popular training routines. Not only is it fun, but it can also be an educational experience. However, the key is finding what works best for you. The best program for Sam will likely be different than what is best for me or you. With training, it's like our mothers told us as kids: we are all special snowflakes.
(Image credits to original owner)
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