Last Updated: 15.10.2017
People who successfully build muscle and get strong over time do two things very well:
First, they accumulate the right knowledge that will get the results.
Second, they put 100% of their efforts into putting that knowledge to work for them.
But you might be asking yourself:
“But there’s so much information out there? How TO gain lean muscle?”
Today I’m going to help you out by presenting you with the most comprehensive guide to muscle growth online.
In it, you’ll learn everything you need to know ranging from exercises to training volume and frequency all the way to progressive overload.
Don't have the time to read the whole guide right now?
No problem. I put together a free PDF version of it. You can download it by clicking the button below.
The PDF version contains all resources, links, and tips found in this guide.
But First, The Often Asked Question: Can I build muscle mass while staying lean?
Let’s face it:
Yes, we’re doing what we’re doing to feel good, be healthy and functional but we also want to look good.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
You can build muscle while staying lean but you need to be mindful with your macronutrients to achieve that.
This approach is called clean bulking. Everyone who is willing to put in the effort can build a good amount of muscle over time without much fat.
Here are two examples of guys who’ve gained more than 15 pounds and gained little to no fat in the process:
If you want to take the aggressive approach to building muscle, keep in mind that it will also result in more fat gains.
Since muscle growth is limited, I don’t see a reason to pig out for a few months. You'll end up fat and you'll have to cut for months before reaching decent body fat levels.
Take a look at how much muscle you can gain:
Now, considering those numbers, do you think it’s wise to put on 60 pounds of weight in 1 year?
Learn What the Best Exercises For Each Muscle Group Are
It’s no secret that not all exercises are created equal. There are two types: compound and isolation movements.
Compound exercises work a range of muscles, while isolation exercises target a single muscle group.
A compound exercise such as the deadlift is going to work more muscles and need more effort to perform. Compare that to a dumbbell preacher curl which only works your biceps.
So, compound exercises > isolation exercises, correct?
Not so fast.
Both types of exercises have their place in a well-structured training program and both are good for different things.
Compound lifts are great for developing your entire body, strength, coordination, and athleticism. They should be the staple of your workouts and your goal should be to make progress on them.
Isolation exercises are a great way to develop each muscle group individually.
Sure, a barbell overhead press is going to work a range of muscles, mainly your shoulders. But, lateral dumbbell raises will put the finishing touches on your delts and make them pop.
While doing a regular flat barbell bench press, you are working your triceps, as well as your chest, that is a given. But if you want to develop awesome triceps, doing isolation exercises such as EZ-bar skullcrushers, cable tricep pushdowns, and overhead dumbbell tricep extensions is a must.
They won’t work a range of different muscles but they are great for targeting a single muscle group and stimulating growth.
But what if I don’t care about size? I want to get strong as hell.
This is a common concern and some guys don’t care for the big, muscular look. They just want to lift a ton.
If you’re in that camp, read on.
Here’s the deal:
It’s likely possible to achieve great numbers while weighing less. But know that progress is going to be much slower than if you were to add size to your frame.
Not only does more size give you better leverages when it comes to lifting but bigger muscles also have a greater strength potential.
You’ll have a much easier time reaching the 1000-pound club while gaining some size as opposed to trying to reach that level at your current weight.
This is where those isolation exercises come to play. They help develop the different muscle groups that go into a complex movement and help you build more strength faster.
Some will argue that practicing the big three lifts is enough to reach impressive numbers on them. But, it is a healthy blend of strength training and bodybuilding that produces the best results.
So what are some great exercises for different muscle groups I can include into my training?
For the sake of serving you as best as I can, I will provide a list of exercises for each group and I’ll add links to instructional videos.
Your workouts don’t have to be limited to the examples below. These are suggestions to include.
Decline Sit-ups (with or without weight)
Side Bends (With Any Type of Resistance)
Optimize Your Training Volume for Best Results
The term “training volume” refers to the amount of work you do each workout or within a given week.
There are a few ways to track your training volume. Such are counting your total repetitions and sets done for each muscle group.
But let’s take it a step further:
Track your training volume by multiplying the load you’re lifting by the repetitions you complete for the total sets you do. This is a much more accurate way to track volume and to have a better understanding of your progress.
Let me give you an example to illustrate:
Let’s take a regular lifter. His bench press personal record is 255 pounds for a single. If he were to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions with 80% of his 1 RM (255*0.8= 204 pounds), that would be 204*5=1020 pounds. And 1020*5=5100 pounds of total volume for that one exercise.
Side note: Some sort of an intensity threshold needs to be broken for your training to actually be effective. While you can grab a pair of light dumbbells and curl them for an hour, it won’t force growth. There needs to be a balance between training intensity (% of what you can lift) and volume for muscle growth.
This applies to each exercise you do in the gym. Still, don’t get carried away with the obsession of building up more volume at the expense of good form.
Now that you have a good understanding of how to best track your volume, you might be wondering:
“Well, do I need to track each exercise I do in the gym?” And the answer is no.
You can choose to track only your main movements and some of the accessory exercises after that. You don’t need to obsess over every single set.
So, how much training volume is best for me?
There isn’t “one shoe fits all” with this question but there are general guidelines you can follow.
For bigger muscle groups such as your back, chest, and quadriceps, aim to do between 12 and 16 total sets per week.
For smaller muscle groups such as your arms, shoulders, and calves, start with 6 to 9 working sets per week.
These are only general guidelines but it comes down to you to determine how much is actually optimal for you. I recommend starting low and working your way up the range.
Your aim should be to do as little training as you can while making decent progress. Due to your body’s natural adaptive mechanism toward stress, the least required work to make progress over time is going to increase.
What causes progress now can be insufficient in a year.
Start low, track your volume, see if you’re making progress over the weeks. Add a set here and there when you start feeling like your workouts aren’t producing results.
Training Frequency: What is Optimal
Some say training each muscle group once a week is enough.
Others think a higher frequency of training is a better option for muscle growth. But who is right and who is wrong?
Let’s dissect the 3 frequencies of training and come up with an unbiased answer.
Once Per Week Workout Frequency
If you’ve spent any time in the gym, you’ve come across this frequency the most. It is the popular kid at school and the common bro splits only have you focus on each muscle once per week.
Let’s take a look at a couple of splits:
Example Split #1 (4 Workouts)
Back & Biceps
Chest & Triceps
Shoulders & Abs
Example Split #2 (3 Workouts)
Legs & Abs
Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Back & Biceps
As you can see with these examples, each muscle group gets trained once per week or every 7th day, making them low-frequency routines.
The problem with such low-frequency training is the fact that you’re not utilizing your week the best way you can.
Think about it:
Training each muscle group once and then waiting 6 days before training it again gives you a lot of downtime. Much more than what your muscles need to recover and do the work again.
There are other factors that you need to consider for muscle recovery. But, the general rule that applies to most people in normal circumstances states:
A muscle won’t need more than 72 hours of recovery time before you can train it again.
Look at it from this perspective:
If you were to train your chest once a week for an entire year, that would be 52 workouts and 52 opportunities to stimulate growth.
But, if you were to train it two times per week, it adds up to 104 opportunities to stimulate growth within a single year. Twice as much!
Assuming that everything else stays the same, which one do you think is going to cause more growth and strength development?
That is right, the twice-per-week frequency.
And I said above, waiting for 7 days before training a muscle again is not needed and it’s more than enough recovery time.
You’re only leaving time on the table which could be better-spent training more often. And while low frequency is the easiest one to schedule, it doesn’t make it, in any way, better.
Can it work, though? Sure.
As long as you’re doing everything right, a low-frequency program will produce results for you.
But is it optimal? No.
And while you might have fallen into a comfortable routine that you like following, remember:
It’s not only important to know if something works, but is it the optimal way.
A low-frequency program can work in two particular scenarios that I can think of:
But, I can’t proceed without saying a few words about who this type of frequency is not suited for:
Twice Per Week Workout Frequency
This is the middle ground for training frequency. It’s generally accepted to be the best one for guys and girls at the intermediate-advanced level.
Let’s take a look at a couple of different splits utilizing this frequency:
Upper-Lower Body Split Example (4 Workouts)
With this classic split, you’re hitting every muscle group twice per week. Meaning that each muscle works every 3rd of 4th day as opposed to every 7th day.
But, there is another way to set up a higher frequency program where you’re not training everything twice per week but rather about twice per week.
The first time I came across this idea was from an article written by Jay over at AWorkoutRoutine and I loved it. It’s simple, yet few people ever talk about it.
We often think of a single week as a measuring unit for our programs. Yet, there are no rules to suggest that jumping onto a second week is bad. This is where this split comes:
Monday: Upper Body
Wednesday: Lower Body
Friday: Upper Body
Monday: Lower Body
Wednesday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
And the second split example:
Monday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Tuesday: Back & Biceps
Thursday: Legs & Abs
Saturday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Sunday: Back & Biceps
Tuesday: Legs & Abs
Thursday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Friday: Back & Biceps
Sunday: Legs & Abs
As you can see, with these 2 splits, each muscle group is trained every 4th or 5th day for a total of 3 times every 2 weeks. This is a great transition split to do for a while, before jumping into twice-per-week training.
This way, you can dip your toe into the water and get a good feel of what higher frequency feels like. You can also adjust your training volume to what feels optimal and allows you to recover.
There is also a third alternative for setting up a higher-ish training frequency split:
You do most of your volume for a given muscle on one day and then provide extra stimulus to that same muscle days later:
Back (+Leg exercise)
Chest (+ Shoulder exercise)
Legs (+ Back exercise)
Shoulders (+ Chest exercise)
Arms (Optional volume day)
A split such as this one is trickier to design in a way that is not going to sabotage you but it’s a viable option to consider.
Now, why would this frequency be in any way superior to the once-per-week?
Depending on the impact of the workout, muscle protein synthesis is usually elevated for 24 to 36 hours after training. After that point, it declines to baseline levels. Now, let’s apply this to the real world:
If you train your chest muscles on Monday’s workout, then muscle protein synthesis will be elevated for 36 hours.
By Wednesday, it’s back to normal.
If you don’t train your chest again within that week, you are waiting an extra 3-4 days before training it again.
You are losing the opportunity to cause more muscle damage and potential growth.
This might not seem like much but look at it from the perspective of an entire year:
52 workouts will likely result in much less progress compared to 104 workouts.
Three Times Per Week Workout Frequency
With this frequency, each muscle group is trained three times per week or every 2nd to 3rd day.
Let’s take a look at a split example:
Full Body Training
There are other ways to set up this kind of frequency but they would need more training days every week.
The main difference between this and low frequency is that with this one your goal is to cause less stimulus to each muscle. That way, you’ll be able to recover faster.
Whereas with a low frequency, your goal is to cause much more damage within a given workout, to warrant for the entire week.
See, your total training volume for each muscle group can be the same in both frequencies but individual workouts are not the same.
Where most people fail with transitioning from once-per-week to 2-times-per-week and beyond is they assume that their work volume for one workout should now be the volume for every workout.
That is why calculating your total volume and then spreading it within the week is better. As long as you can recover between workouts and continue making progress, you’re on the right track.
Who is a 3-times-per-week frequency best suited for?
If your primary goal is to improve your main lifts, a higher frequency approach will allow you more variation and more chances to get stronger.
Many strength athletes follow this approach. Very few people only perform the bench press, squat, and deadlift once per week.
Also, if you’re a beginner, the full body split 3 times per week is going to be a very effective way to train.
You can download a free beginner’s program. Just click the button below:
If you don’t fall into either of the two categories above, you shouldn’t use this training frequency.
Will it work? Yes.
Any well planned and applied training protocol will provide results but we’re not looking for ‘providing results’. We want the best possible way to train for our goals.
The 3 Most Important Mechanisms for Muscular Hypertrophy
There are three primary mechanisms that stimulate muscle growth:
Think about the feeling you get when you’re doing a high-repetition set of an isolation movement. Say, bicep curls or dumbbell lateral raises.
The burning sensation you feel and the pump you achieve in the muscles that work is caused by several factors, three of which are:
Interestingly enough, these reactions are all reasons why blood flow restriction training is so effective at helping athletes maintain muscle mass by using very light loads when dealing with injuries.
This mechanism is very different from metabolic stress.
The feeling you get when you complete a very heavy set is what mechanical tension is all about.
An interesting fact:
Metabolic stress type training often causes the most severe muscle soreness in the following days. Yet, mechanical tension training often causes negligible discomfort, at best.
This further supports the idea that muscle soreness doesn’t necessarily indicate muscle growth, but the lack of it doesn’t mean your training has been ineffective.
Muscle damage is a combination of the above two mechanisms working synergistically.
The buildup of metabolic by-products in the muscles, the changes on a structural level at the cell membrane, and the muscle fiber damage.
Each aspect of muscle damage helps contribute to the ongoing cycle of stimulation-adaptation that causes muscle growth.
Now that we’ve overviewed the 3 main drivers of muscle growth, it’s time to tie them up with the number one requirement for ongoing progress in the gym: progressive overload.
What is Progressive Overload And Why It Is Crucial
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein
This is a great quote and it fits training quite well. A lot of people fall into the comfort zone of training and don’t bother to change and improve it. Yet, they can’t seem to understand, why they aren’t making any progress.
“I’ve been lifting 3-4 times per week for 8 months now and I’m still weak and haven’t put on any real muscle. What’s wrong with me?”
You can find this question asked everywhere. On forums, in comment sections, on live Q&A’s and so on. And it is frustrating because people are putting in work but not getting any results to show for it. In essence, they are wasting their time.
The often overlooked but key rule for long-term progress in the gym is progressive overload.
In short: progressive increase of stress on the body due to training. There are many ways to achieve that, some of which I will list down below. But, let’s examine why progressive overload is so important.
Why progressive overload is that important.
The progressive overload principle states:
In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.
This is important to remember moving forward. Take a snapshot with your phone or write it down if you want to.
I often see people at the gym who have fallen into a comfort zone of training and are doing the same thing over and over. Not surprisingly, they don’t change much from year to year.
There is a simple explanation for it and it’s called adaptation. When you introduce a new stimulus to your body (such as lifting), you are forcing it to take action and adapt to that stress.
You get stronger and bigger. But, once your body gets used to that stress, it won’t have a reason to develop further. The stress is within its coping abilities.
This is why progressive overload is so important. You need to be introducing more stress to your body on a regular basis to force it to adapt and strengthen over and over again. This is the foundation of ongoing progress.
Now, there are many ways to achieve progressive overload, here are 8:
What’s the bottom line?
As you can see, there are many different ways to progress and numbers on the bar aren’t the only indicator of that. But, keep in mind that progressive overload comes only after good form.
No one is going to be impressed with a 405-pound half-squat.
What progressive overload looks like:
A lot of people have this false perception that they should be getting stronger on a weekly basis. This is not the case. In fact, progressive overload will never be linear and as fun, as it is during the newbie phase of training.
No improvement, be it gaining strength, speed or increasing work capacity is ever going to be linear. Adaptations of your body to these outside stressors are unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll make big jumps easy, while other times you may stall for weeks.
Think about it from this logical standpoint:
If you could add 5 pounds on your bench press from week to week, every year your bench would increase by 260 pounds. And even though that would be awesome, it won’t happen.
Adding such an enormous load on your bench max is going to take a lot more than a year to achieve.
Here is a chart that illustrates what real progress actually looks like:
Exercise Selection and Priority for Best Results
Walk into any gym and I guarantee, you’ll see at least one person who is not prioritizing their exercises properly.
Doing isolation exercises such as dumbbell kickbacks before flat bench press.
Doing rows, pulldowns, and pullovers before deadlifts or pull-ups.
Doing lateral dumbbell raises before overhead shoulder press.
The list goes on, but you get the picture.
And before you jump at me with “Maybe they don’t care to get strong, so what’s wrong with that?” let me tell you why this is a poor approach to training:
You see, compound exercises generally allow you to train each muscle that is involved with a higher load.
This doesn’t mean that doing close-grip bench press is going to be better for your triceps than doing dumbbell kickbacks. There are other things worth considering.
Such, for example, is bad technique.
But, there is a big advantage to doing the bigger movements early in your workouts.
Taking advantage of your strength early before your muscles become fatigued is important. You can overload your body with more weight, more repetitions and even less rest between sets (intensity, volume, and density respectively).
In the above section, we discussed the importance of progressive overload for long-term progress. It’s important to remember that if you’re doing the same thing in your training as you did a year ago, chances are, you haven’t made much progress.
This is why doing compound exercises early on is important.
Your focus should be to make progress on them. Keep track of the loads you’re using, your rest periods and repetitions. Over time, as you get stronger, you’ll be able to overload your muscles with more training volume.
Don’t start your workouts with isolation exercises and then move onto the compound movements. Understand that it is not an optimal priority set and you’re hindering your progress.
Here is a good way to structure your workout:
Think of the compound lifts as the foundation of a building. Once you lay it down, the accessory work is going to be the tall, beautiful skyscraper built on top.
Here is an example leg workout that follows these guidelines:
Exercise 1: Barbell back squats – 4 sets, 4-6 repetitions
Exercise 2: Leg press – 3 sets, 6-10 repetitions
Exercise 3: Alternating dumbbell lunges – 3 sets, 8-12 repetitions per leg
Exercise 4: Lying hamstring curls – 3 sets, 10-15 repetitions
Exercise 5: Seated calf raises – 3 sets, 8-15 repetitions
This example of a leg workout also follows the guidelines in reverse pyramid training. You start off with heavy sets and gradually decrease the intensity and increase repetition ranges.
This is a smart way to structure your accessory work. You don’t want to be ego lifting on isolation exercises where breaking down your form is easy.
Learn How to Overcome Weightlifting Plateaus and Make Progress Year-Round
Before we dissect the top 5 ways to break through a weightlifting plateau, let’s first define what it is:
A weightlifting plateau is a state in which the trainee cannot make any progress with their training. They are stuck at a certain weight and cannot continue overloading.
How long the progress stall lasts before we can consider it a weightlifting plateau depends on each individual. Their goals, training experience, current strength level, and lifestyle all play a role.
An elite powerlifter will need to train for an entire year just to add 5-10 pounds to their squat. Yet, if you can only squat 200 pounds now, you should be able to add 5-10 pounds on that every few weeks.
If you’re only used to sleeping 4-5 hours a night, don’t expect to make optimal progress in the gym. Sleep is crucial for optimal recovery and performance.
For the average lifter, I’d say anything longer than four weeks can be considered a plateau.
Now, let’s take a look at some common plateau questions that you first need to answer. Then, we’ll dive into the top 5 tactics to break your plateau:
Question #1: Is my diet on point and what’s happening with my body weight?
Needless to say, you need to be eating enough calories to supply your body with energy to repair itself and grow. I won’t get into calorie and macronutrient tracking here.
Read this post on protein intake and this one on caloric intake for muscle growth.
Also, let’s assume that you’ve plateaued for more than 4 weeks. How has your body weight changed in the last month? Has it gone up, is it the same or has it gone down?
If you’re gaining weight over time but aren’t making progress in the gym, we can move to question #2.
Question #2: Am I overreaching and need a break?
We are often told that we need to really push it hard in the gym if we want to get somewhere. But, this sort of mentality is going to do you more harm than good.
Pushing your limits every single workout is going to catch up to you and your performance will suffer. You’ll end up overtrained and frustrated.
If you are..
Chances are you’re overreached and need a break.
If you’re feeling energetic and lack of motivation isn’t the problem, let’s continue with question #3.
Question #3: How long have I been in this plateau?
Progress is never going to be linear as it is during the newbie phase and that’s normal. Don’t freak out if you’re not getting stronger from week to week.
As we already discussed, a plateau is a period of at least 3-4 full weeks of no progress, for most people. Depending on your experience and strength levels, this may vary.
If you are stronger and have been lifting for longer, further adaptations are going to come even harder, so don’t worry too much. Keep putting in the work and you’ll eventually be better.
Question #4: Have I plateaued on all exercises or just one to two (i.e. can this be due to bad form, weak points, etc.)?
A friend of mine recently reached out to me asking if I could help him with his bench press plateau. He said that he was feeling great and all his exercises were improving, but his bench press.
After seeing a few of his working sets, we diagnosed the problem. His form.
His elbows were somewhat flared out, he wasn’t using leg drive, and he was having trouble locking the weight on top (usually the cause of weak triceps).
First, we worked on improving his form then we added 3 sets of close-grip bench press for his triceps, once a week.
Within 3 weeks, he busted through his plateau and made quite a bit of linear progress. He went from bench pressing 165lb. (75 kg) to 225 lb. (100 kg) in a matter of weeks.
Not being able to make progress on one or two similar exercises is a good sign that the problem is hiding within that specific movement pattern.
Whether your technique needs improvement or you have weak points holding you back, you need to start from within to fix the issue.
Question #5: Is my program solid or does it need improvement?
This is a broad question to ask yourself but a necessary one, none the least. If the structure of your training program is plain bad, you need to change it.
If you’ve read everything so far, you should have a good idea of what a proper program looks like.
Take an honest look at your routine and try to spot where it fails to deliver. Tweak small things or make complete overhauls if you have to.
If you don’t, you’ll waste your time without having anything to show for your hard effort.
Now that we’ve covered the questions, let’s dive into the 5 tactics to break a plateau:
Tactic #1: Eat enough calories and track your body weight over time.
Before you do anything else, make sure that you’re eating enough food. Just as a house requires building materials to be developed, so does your body.
Your body’s ability to build muscle mass is diminished if you’re not supplying it with enough calories.
Once you have your BMR number, multiply it by the number which best describes you:
Once you know your estimated TDEE, add 100-200 above that number. No more.
I don’t recommend using any of the online calculators because they are often inaccurate.
Also, keep track of your body weight and see how it changes over time. Your aim is to gain 1 to 2 pounds of weight every month. If you’re more advanced, stay on the safe side and aim for 1 pound. If you’re a newbie, gaining a bit more weight is okay.
As long as your weight is going up, you can move to the other tactics.
Tactic #2: Deload or have a complete week off training.
Yes, overtraining is quite real and anyone can fall into that trap. Sometimes the severity of the symptoms is so bad that it doesn’t just affect your workouts.
These are some of the most commonly seen symptoms of overtraining you should be looking out for. You see, training is quite taxing on your body both physically and mentally.
After training for weeks and weeks without taking a break, that fatigue accumulates and you start feeling overtrained. This is where a full week off training or a deload week should come to place.
A recovery week is one where you don’t go to the gym for an entire week and focus on recovery.
A deload week is one where you scale down your workouts by reducing training volume, training intensity or both by about 50%. This means doing half of what you do in terms of total sets and weight lifted. During that week, there will be no training to failure and no PR attempts.
Practice good form, have a quick workout and leave.
The difference between the two types of recovery weeks isn’t big. Depending on how much you scale down your training on a deload week, it could be almost like a rest week.
But, I recommend a deload week for those of you who have trouble staying away from the gym and the notion of not lifting for a whole week seems absurd.
But, if you can get out of the gym with no problem and you are feeling quite overtrained, then you can take a recovery week.
Tactic #3: Improve your technique and work on your weak points.
Just like my friend had plateaued on the bench press due to a lack of leg drive, elbow flaring, and weak triceps, you too can be stuck because of such issues.
I recommend getting someone who has the experience to review your form and point out any mistakes you could be making.
You can also watch the instructional YouTube videos I linked to above and try to recreate proper form in the gym. Go a step further and record some of your sets to see how you look from the side.
Often times, these seemingly unbreakable plateaus can be caused by something minor and a few simple tweaks could help you get past them.
Weak points are another common reason why you could be plateauing on a certain exercise. I recommend you read this.
Tactic #4: Improve your program or follow one that has proven itself effective.
Sometimes the entirety of the program you’re following might be the issue and that is alright. You can change a lot of variables and improve the effectiveness of your training.
If a program is boring and ineffective, it’s your job to change it with something that challenges you and forces growth. After all, adherence to the program is a big factor for long-term success.
You can follow my guidelines and see where your routine falls short. Also, you can find a tried and true program that has worked for hundreds of people before you.
I recommend checking out Beyond 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler or The Conjugate Method. Both of these have a proven track record of success and yours can be the next one.
Tactic #5: Put more effort into your training.
Let me explain why I added this as one of the 5 tactics. You see, we often start something new (in our case a new program, split, etc.) with energy and enthusiasm.
But after some time passes, we kind of lose interest or drive to perform and fall into this comfort zone.
We exert a certain amount of effort but not too much that we challenge ourselves to leave that comfort zone we’ve created.
In other words, we get lazy.
I’ve been guilty of this myself and I know a lot of people who have fallen into this trap. Sure, you’re pushing yourself in the gym but not as hard as you think you are.
“Oh better stop this set now, I don’t want to get overtrained.”
“I don’t think I’m up for squatting 225 pounds today.”
“Last week I benched 275 pounds for 6. I can take it easy today.”
There are just some of the limiting thoughts that pop up and we can fall for them if we’re not careful.
So, here is my challenge to you:
The next time you’re doing an exercise with the same weight as the week before, dare to push it for one or two more repetitions. Chances are, you’re NOT going to reach muscle failure and completely wreck your central nervous system.
If you can, try to match the repetitions for the remaining sets on that exercise. It might not feel like much but those extra reps are going to make a big difference over time.
Aim for small improvements each workout and don’t fall into the comfort zone and wonder why you aren’t making progress. The power to change is in your own hands.
Learn How to Master This Often Ignored Aspect of Training
Autoregulation. I’m sure you’ve heard this term once or twice before and for a good reason – it matters.
You see, most people assume that your performance is going to be linear with a slight trajectory upwards over time.
But, if you’ve been lifting for more than a few months, I can bet that you’ve experienced all sorts of days – good, bad and ugly. And having low energy sucks.
But it’s important to understand for the sake of your longevity in the gym that those days happen.
This is why you’ll hear the term ‘autoregulation’ from a seasoned lifter, rather than from a gym newbie. The experienced lifters have learned that listening to your body is important. Trying to push through bad days is a boneheaded move.
Listening to your body applies to good days, as well. Sometimes we are fortunate. We get to the gym and we feel great. The weight we lift seems somewhat light and we can add more.
But, there are also the bad days. Warm-up feels tiring. We’re not in the mood. We’re scattered all over the place, and unmotivated. Weights that we could usually lift for 5-6 repetitions are our new 1 rep max.
On a day like that, don’t beat yourself up. Lower down the weight on each set by 5-10% and do that for each exercise in your workout. There is no point trying to match your performance from the week before if that comes at the expense of good form.
There are other times where you might feel like you’re not up to the challenge, but after one or two working sets, you start feeling the rush of energy flowing through you. What is important is to listen to your body and adjust your workouts.
Backing off is tough to do, especially if you’re an overachiever, but is a necessary step to take once in awhile.
Another useful tool you can use for autoregulation is the modernized RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale by Mike Tuchscherer. He first introduced it in his book The Reactive Training Manual.
He took the original RPE scale designed by Gunnar Borg around 50 years ago and modified it so that the scores are determined based on how many more repetitions you believe you can complete before reaching muscular failure.
For those of you who don’t know him, Mike is an IPF champion and a very respected powerlifting coach today. He has worked with a lot of powerlifters including some at the highest level.
Here’s what the scale looks like:
You should also read this awesome post on autoregulation.
How to Warm Up, Decrease Joint Wear and Risk of Potential Injury
Before I wrap this guide up, I’d like to say a few words on warming up. This is one of the most important aspects of training:
A good warm-up will lift your mood, increase your energy and performance. A bad warm-up will leave you lethargic, unmotivated, stiff and prone to injury.
I’ve been in both camps and I can say with absolute confidence:
Warming up well for 10-15 minutes is the best investment of your time. Even if the following workout isn’t your best, a good warm-up is a must.
Since warming up is such an important aspect of lifting, there have been many suggestions made about what a good warm-up actually is. The truth is, there is no one perfect way to warm up. As long as your warm-up achieves the 4 things I listed above, you’re doing well.
But, I will give you some pointers about what a proper warm-up looks like and how to design one for yourself.
A good warm-up consists of two parts: General and specific.
Low-intensity cardio for 5-10 minutes (treadmill, jump rope, Stairmaster, elliptical trainer, etc.)
Your goal here is to raise your body temperature, get your heart rate up and warm up your synovial fluid (as mentioned above). Whole body dynamic drills are also great to do at this point.
Once you’ve raised your body temperature, it’s time to take a step further and give extra attention to the joints you’re about to work.
Here is a video by Scott Herman demonstrating a great warm-up routine for the shoulders (that takes less than 5 minutes):
If you bench 225 lbs for 5 reps, working your way up would look like this:
(Keep in mind that you should never take a warm-up set to failure. Only do as many reps as you feel comfortable with.)
Set 1 (warm-up): 45 lbs (bar only) for 15-25 reps
Set 2 (warm-up): 95 lbs for 6-8 reps
Set 3 (warm-up): 135 lbs for 5 reps
Set 4 (warm-up): 180 lbs for 3 reps
Set 5 (first working set): 225 lbs for 5 reps
The goal of the specific warm-up is to activate your muscles, stabilize your joints, and prime your nervous system.
Before I end this guide, I’d like to write a few words about two very important things:
#1: You Must Set Realistic Goals For Yourself
In the beginning of this guide, I showed you this image:
I’m posting it again because it is very important to know and understand.
Growing muscle takes time. And I mean YEARS. That is why you need to set realistic goals for yourself.
Stop comparing yourself to someone who’s been lifting for 10 years. Stop thinking your genetics are bad. Stop pigging out and getting way too fat. Just stop.
Part of trying to build muscle is looking at yourself in the mirror and barely seeing progress. But even a little bit of progress is progress.
Depending on how advanced as a lifter you are, keep the above numbers close to mind every time you feel discouraged.
In the end, a slow and steady approach is going to bring you much better results than if you try and rush it.
With that said, there’s one more important thing to discuss.
#2: Don’t Do It For Just A Few Weeks
I see this all the time. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself.
You start eating in a surplus, ready to pack on muscle mass. But then..
Spring rolls along.
You’ve gained too much fat too quickly.
You get inspired to get lean for the summer.
Long story short:
You’re cutting before you know it. Again.
Let me be blunt: If this describes you, you’re wasting TOO much time jumping back and forth.
Muscle growth happens slow enough as it is. And transitioning between bulking and cutting every few weeks will slow it down even further.
And the worst part: you could develop body-image issues and never be able to gain some fluff around the edges.
I’m a big believer in lean bulking and everyone who’s done it for at least a year can confirm that it does work.
Not only that but once it’s done, you’re left off with much less fat to cut to get lean.
But in order for a lean bulk to work, you need to be disciplined. You need to eat just enough to grow slowly from month to month.
This will suck for the people who use bulking as an excuse to pig out every day, but it’s the better approach.
But at the end of the day, no matter how you bulk, I’m a big believer that you should do it for at least a solid year to see good progress. No less.
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope you got a ton of value from the guide. Now it’s your turn to put this knowledge to work for you.
But first, I’d like to see what you’ve learned:
I’ve put together a quiz for you and it will only take you a few minutes to complete.
And no cheating! I’ll know! 😉