With the plethora of information already available on the subject of how to put on muscle, which lifting schemes to use and which foods to eat, I’ll tell you my personal lifting values that I use every workout. No matter what you are doing, whether is power lifting, body building, hypertrophy work, isolation, HIIT, super setting, german volume, the box method, BFS, WHATEVER, there are a few things that must stay constant.
Maybe first let’s just quickly recapitulate HOW our muscles grow, as it will tie together the information coming up.
Our muscles are made of muscle cells (duh). We have different types of muscle fibers that are largely determined genetically, but that we CAN alter through training. Our muscles grow by either getting bigger muscle cells or activating more muscle cells, but never by making new ones. We do not make new muscle cells. Period. Unless you are willing to show me scientific papers that prove otherwise and then I’ll owe you pizza and kale juice.
All the different training you see out there aims to train your muscle cells a certain way. Lifting heavier helps activate the most muscle cells, using lower reps breaks your muscle cells a different way, super setting gets the blood moving faster from muscle to muscle, each have their very valid reasons.
So, here’s my advice: have FUN!!! Try them out! Yes, all of them! try something for 3-4 weeks, if you see results in strength or size, keep going! If you stagnate, switch it up. If your body needs a rest, take a rest and then start over again.
Whichever method you try though, stick to the following principles for optimal gains.
When you are in the gym, focus on being in the gym. PUT YOUR F#CKING PHONE ON AIRPLANE MODE!! Streaming music? Try downloading the playlist beforehand so you don’t have to use wifi, or only allow your music apps to use wifi for it. Do not let trivial things like texting, checking Facebook or social media hinder your workout.
Oh, I know how it goes man: “I’ll just respond to this one text, it’ll take 30 seconds tops” and 3 minutes later you are in a fierce back and forth word battle with your bro about how some TV show should of ended last night. Or the incessant scrolling down the IG/facebook feed…Yea, that really does make your workouts less effective and does slow progress. Imagine how great your workout could’ve been if you did a few extra sets and reps.
This principle ties in very nicely to the next one…
How you ever seen those guys that bench press by literally bouncing the bar off their chest? Like what are you even training bro? Your freaking pec reboundability? Is that a thing? Or when you see guys doing lateral raise by throwing up the weights with their hips all the way through the set? A rep, of any exercise, should be controlled and you should feel the targeted muscles do the work. The exception here of course is ballistic movements such as weightlifting which demand a very high speed of execution.
You should be able to feel your muscles working during your warm up sets. Make sure all muscles are used properly. As the weights get heavier during your working sets, you should still feel the targeted muscles work. If you go too heavy and don't feel a thing in the targeted muscle, you can probably fix a thing or two by going lighter are refocusing on quality.
A quick side note on this principle: you need to maintain your body’s optimal ranges of motion by stretching and mobility drills. On top of injury prevention, full range of motion allow you to use more of your muscles, making your whole system stronger. You see, by doing half reps, or incomplete reps, you detrain your tendons, and your muscles will become tighter which can result in injury, putting you out of the gym for a while. Key areas for focus are the shoulders, knees and surprisingly, ankles.
Another tip for quality: focus on tempo. Tempo refers to the time you take to complete the rep and has 4 distinct phases:
- The concentric phase: Your muscle contract and shorten. On the bicep curl that would be lifting the weight up
- The first pause: The top of the rep. For the curl that’s when you have the bar at the highest position.
- The eccentric phase: when your muscles lengthen and stretch. Lowering the bar during the curl.
- The second pause or end of the rep, when the bar is back to its beginning position during the curl.
You can play around with how long you spend at each phase. The goal of tempo is to eliminate momentum from your rep. Using momentum just lowers the quality of the reps and should only be used during cheating reps when appropriate.
A common tempo is 2-0-2-0 meaning 2 seconds on the way up, no pause, 2 seconds on the way down and again no pause at the bottom. But go ahead and try 4-2-4-2 or something else of your liking. Sometimes, alternating your tempo is all you need to bust through a plateau.
Bla bla bla Rome wasn’t built in a day bla bla bla and neither is your body…yea I know you don’t want to hear but that’s the truth. Trust your process and results will be a side effect.
You can modify body fat very quickly, in a matter of days, but muscles don’t work the same way. It takes time for them to build. 1 pound of lean muscle every 2 weeks is a very, very good start.
You do not need to dirty bulk! Yes, it’s fun, but you can put on muscle without putting on fat. My biggest recommendation here is to go through liberal bulking phases and then stricter cutting phases. Similarly to the training aspect, it’s beneficial to change up your meal plan occasionally.
In body building we have that naturally with our prep time and off seasons. We go through restrictive phases and can stick to them because we know it’s worth it since we are getting leaner and leaner and that our off season is coming up. If you are always bulking, you will hit a wall, and there’s a point of diminishing returns with nutrition as well right. How many calories are you going to ingest if you constantly try to eat more to get bigger?
Perhaps the most neglected principle of all. Stick to your plan guys! A workout is an important appointment with yourself if you genuinely want to see results. You know the other cheesy quote about how the only bad workout is the one you didn’t do. It is also right unfortunately. I
There's going to be times you feel tired! Times you forget to eat! Times the weather decides to piss on you! Times where you just don't want to do it! Those are the times that matter the most. Those are the times where progress happens. Not only on the physical side, but also the mental side. The difference between an elite trainee and a novice one is the mental toughness to go through tough times.
Here's a hint: when you're at the gym and feel like crap, lower the intensity a bit. Use slightly lighter weights, and really focus on the quality. You'll see that after a few sets you'll be energized enough to put on your regular weight.
What about rest days and recovery weeks?
These are more of an art than a science as it will vary greatly with the type of training and diet protocols you use. My rule of thumb is that if everything else in my life is doing well and I still have sleep issues, then I will take a little break. It is proven that giving your body enough recovery is important to grow so don’t feel bad if you take a week off. Just make sure it doesn’t happen every other week.
You can do light activity during that time, but remember the goal here is to REST.
These are all the principles I use during each workouts. No matter what my rep range is, or my caloric intake, I always stick to those to make sure I am progressing. I’ll tell you a few other tricks I use to make sure I’m not hitting plateaus.
Understand when you stop progressing
You should see slow continuous progress throughout your training cycle. A good rule of thumb for me is if I improved a certain lift either by adding weight or reps within 2 of the same workout. Say a workout has 5 exercises. If I can improve at least one every other workout, I know I am moving forward. But if I see I hit the same numbers 3 times in a row, that’s a sign to start thinking about changing things up.
That’s not to say you need to hunt PRs every time you’re at the gym. I found by just following the above principle, PRs come naturally. Sometimes, your exercise order changes during a workout and it’s normal to hit a new PR or lift less weight on a given exercise. Take that in consideration when you track your workouts.
Only supplement in what you are deficient in. If you want to supplement with more protein to sustain a higher protein intake due to a lower carb intake, that’s fine. But ingesting protein for the sake of it sounds expensive to me. Remember that 1.2g of protein per kilo of body weight is enough to gain muscle.
The best way to figure out your deficiencies is to go see a doctor and ask for a blood test to analyze your needs. It can be a little pricey but so is buying unnecessary supplements.
Seeing your gains grow is a fun process but a process nonetheless. Instead of chasing muscle building fads and gurus, choose training principles that will be valid no matter what workouts you do and stick to them.
It takes time to understand which principle work best for each of us and even longer to learn how to implement them correctly. Stick to your guns, ask for help when needed, be humble, and don’t forget to give praise where it is due. We’re all trying to get to a better version of our own self and encouraging each other is a fantastic catalyst for a lot of people.