If your goal is to maximize your muscular strength and size there are certain rules you must follow. If you compare all of the most effective training programs you will find a lot of differences in details like exercise selection, repetition methods, sets, and reps, but they will all have these ten basic rules in common:
1. Train hard
Your results from exercise have more to do with your intensity of effort — how hard you work relative to your momentary ability — than the amount of weight you lift, the number of repetitions you perform, or the specific repetition method you use. To stimulate your body to produce the greatest possible increases in muscular strength and size you should perform every exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure (MMF), completing as many repetitions as possible in good form.
When you perform an exercise to MMF you send a message to your body that your current strength is inadequate to handle some demand your environment is placing on you and it must get stronger so the next time you are able to handle it more easily and with less fatigue. If you do not train to MMF, if you hold back your effort even a little, you are not asking your body to do anything it isn’t already capable of and not sending as strong a message to improve. Instead, the message your send to your body is “we’re strong enough, no need to devote energy and resources to building more muscle”.
The recommendation to hold back effort or “leave a few reps in the tank” so you can train more frequently or with heavier weight is wrong, because although load and frequency are important, you can’t make up for a lack of effort by working less intensely with a heavier weight or by simply doing more.
Some of you may be scratching your heads wondering about this last part, so I’ll break it down. Intensity of effort is how hard you are working relative to your momentary ability, so at the start of an exercise using seventy percent of your one rep maximum your intensity of effort is only seventy percent. As you fatigue over the course of the exercise the weight becomes an increasing percentage of your decreasing momentary strength, and more effort is required to continue. When fatigue has reduced your strength to the point where the force your muscles are capable of producing matches the resistance provided by the weight your intensity of effort will be one hundred percent and you will have achieved MMF.
If you use a heavier weight, eighty percent of your one rep max, your intensity of effort will be a higher eighty percent at the start of the exercise, but if you stop short of momentary muscular failure you will never reach one hundred percent. For example, if you stop when your starting strength has only been reduced by around ten percent, your intensity of effort will only be eighty eight percent.
This was demonstrated in a recent study (Giessing J, Fisher J, Steele J, Rothe F, Raubold K, Eichmann B. The effects of low-volume resistance training with and without advanced techniques in trained subjects. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2016;56(3):249-58.) which compared one group training to MMF with two groups not training to failure (NTF) one of which performed rest-pause repetitions to allow for the use of a much heavier weight (RP-NTF). Each of the three groups increased their muscular strength and size, but the MMF group had much better results than both NTF groups including the RP-NTF group which trained with heavier loads. The RP-NTF group had better results than the NTF group, though, showing that all else being equal, heavier loads produce better results (and that resting between reps doesn’t hurt strength or size increases despite reducing the efficiency of inroad).
Holding back effort for the sake of being able to do more volume is also a mistake, because even at the same intensity of effort multiple sets do not stimulate greater increases in muscular strength and size than a single set, so putting forth less effort so you are able to do more work won’t give you better results and will probably give you worse.
2. Train progressively
As you get stronger you must progressively increase the demand you place on your body during exercise to stimulate continued improvement by attempting to perform more repetitions or use a heavier weight. If you don’t, you stop challenging your body and stop sending it the message it needs to improve.
If you’ve ever worked out at the same gym for more than a few years you’ve seen examples of people who look exactly the same, month after month, year after year, never improving. If you observe their workouts there’s a strong chance they’ve been doing the same number of repetitions with the same weight on all of their exercises every time they train, never attempting to increase. Don’t be one of them.
This is one of the reasons keeping accurate records of your workouts is so important. If you are not keeping track of the weight you use and number of reps you are able to complete for each exercise every time you work out you can’t know exactly how much you are improving, or objectively evaluate the effects changes in your training has on your progress.
3. Train consistently
To train consistently has two meanings:
The first is you must work out on a regular basis to make continued progress. If you only train sporadically a few weeks or months at a time a few times a year, you’re not going to maximize your muscular strength and size.
The second is your workouts should remain relatively consistent over time to avoid constantly repeating the skill acquisition and neural adaptation period which precedes improvements coming primarily from hypertrophy.
During the first six to eight weeks of performing a new or unfamiliar exercise, sequence, or workout the majority of improvements in exercise performance are due to improved skill and neural adaptations. Over this period of time the percentage of improvement from skill and neural adaptations gradually decreases while the percentage from hypertrophy increases. At this point, progress can appear to slow down on paper since strength increases from hypertrophy will be slower than performance improvements from skill and neural adaptation. This has led many people to wrongly conclude you must change your program every six to eight weeks to keep your body adapting, when it actually does the exact opposite, slowing down your muscular strength and size gains.
It is important for complete and well-balanced muscular development to have some variety in your workouts, and to occasionally perform different exercises for some muscles or muscle groups capable of more varied movement, however this variation should be relatively infrequent. I recommend sticking with the same program for at least three to four months before making any major changes to it. If you want to perform a greater variety of exercises, instead of changing your program entirely, alternate your existing workout with two or more workouts which substitute different exercises.
I suspect a big part of the reason many people change their workouts too frequently is bodybuilding magazines, books, and web sites have given them unrealistic expectations of how quickly they can build muscle, and they become frustrated when they have not gained twenty pounds of muscle after six weeks and assume the problem is their workout. While there are a few people with the rare combination of genes which allows them to gain a large amount of muscle rapidly without drugs, most people can only realistically expect to gain between a half and one pound of muscle per week during their first half year of training, about half that much during their second half year, and less than half that afterwards. I’ve had a few clients gain faster and a few gain slower, and you might do better or worse, but these numbers are realistic for most people.
There are cases where people have gained muscle much more quickly, but these almost always involve people regaining muscle that was lost due to detraining or illness, regaining muscular size by rehydrating and replenishing muscle glycogen stores after dehydration and carb depletion either intentional or due to illness, or using steroids or other growth drugs. Unless you are a genetic freak or happen to fall in one or more of these categories you shouldn’t despair if you’re not gaining several pounds of muscle a week, much less if you don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger after your first few months of training. If you’re following all the rules listed here you’re going to gain muscle about as quickly as your genetics allow.
4. Keep your workouts brief
If you are training with a high intensity of effort very little exercise is required to maximize muscular strength and size. In most cases, just one hard set per exercise of one or two exercises for each muscle group done one to three times per week is all you need (either as part of a full-body workout or divided over two or more body part splits) and more will not produce better results, and can even be counterproductive.
A high intensity workout should not last for more than around forty five minutes if you are using free weights, or last more than thirty minutes if you have a training partner to load bars ahead of you or you are using selectorized machines or bodyweight. If your workout lasts a lot longer than this your body will start to decrease testosterone and increase levels of catabolic hormones like cortisol, hindering rather than helping your attempt to get bigger and stronger.
You can only maintain a very high intensity of effort for a limited number of exercises without extending your rest between sets to more than one or two minutes, which increases the duration of the workout and reduces the acute increase in testosterone and growth hormone. You’re better off dividing all the exercises you want to include in your program over two or more workouts than doing them with less effort.
5. Give your body adequate time to recover and grow between workouts
Exercise does not directly produce improvements in muscular strength and size or any other factor of fitness. The only thing exercise can directly produce is an injury if you use poor form or fail to use appropriate safety equipment or spotters when needed. What exercise does is stimulate your body to produce those improvements. First, however, it has to recover from the negative effects of training, including muscle damage and the inflammation it causes, and this takes time. If you don’t allow your body enough time to recover between workouts, if over time the volume and frequency of your training causes more damage and inflammation than your body can recover from and adapt to, you’ll become overtrained and stop progressing or even lose strength and size.
The most frequently a genetically-average, drug-free trainee should train is three non-consecutive days per week. If you are training with a high level of intensity this is all you need. More does not produce better results, can actually make things worse, and advanced trainees and some people with poor recovery ability may find they make better progress training less, working out only twice a week or three times over a two week period.
As you become bigger and stronger and learn to push yourself harder during your workouts you may find you require additional rest days to fully recover. If you fail to go up in either weight or reps on most of your exercises for more than a few weeks and there are no other factors which may be causing it like poor diet or sleep or other physical demands, skip a week or two of training to allow your body time to fully recover, then resume working out at a slightly reduced frequency to determine whether you need more recovery time between workouts.
6. Build your workouts around basic, compound exercises
While it is certainly possible to build strength and size with simple (rotary, single-joint) exercises, compound exercises make it possible to train multiple muscle groups more efficiently. Compound exercises are also usually less complex, making them easier to learn to perform correctly and allowing you to focus more on effort and less on technique.
Minimally, this should include upper body pushing and pulling exercises in both horizontal and vertical planes, and both quadriceps dominant and glute/hamstring dominant lower body exercises, like squats and stiff-leg deadlifts, or leg press and hip extension or trunk extension.
7. Use strict form
The goal of an exercise is not to see how much weight you can lift, for how many reps or seconds, but to place as much of a demand as you can on the muscles you are working without wrecking your body in the process. The better your form, the more effective the exercise will be for this purpose. Using loose form or cheating for the sake of using more weight or completing more repetitions does not make an exercise more effective, and can increase your risk of sustaining injuries which can interfere with or even prevent you from training depending on the type and severity, or developing joint, spine, or connective tissue problems over time.
Move in a slow and controlled manner
Lift the weight, don’t swing or throw it
Lower the weight under strict control, don’t drop it
Do not set the weight down or unload between repetitions (unless you are performing rest-pause repetitions)
Do not lock out and rest at the end point during pushing movements
Do not alter your body position or movement to reduce the resistance or shift it to other muscles
Do not avoid or rush through harder portions of the range of motion, “mine” them
Do not pause or move too slowly through easier portions of the range of motion, or avoid them altogether
Maintain continuous, even tension on the working muscles, do not back off then heave at the weight
Don’t externalize and think of exercise as using your muscles to do something to the weight. Internalize and think of exercise as using the weight to do something to your muscles.
8. Keep accurate records of your workouts and measurements
To follow the second rule about training progressively and the fifth rule about getting enough recovery you need to keep accurate records of your workouts, writing down the weight used and repetitions completed or time under load for each exercise, as well as other relevant information like the exercise order, whether any advanced repetition methods or techniques were used, and the total time of the workout. This is necessary to ensure you are training progressively and to be able to objectively evaluate the effects of changes in your program on your progress and determine whether you need to modify your program in any way.
While your mirror and an honest trainer or training partner can be a pretty good gauge of your progress, taking regular measurements of your body weight, body composition, and body part circumferences also helps to objectively evaluate your results and adjust your workouts accordingly.
You can use a workout chart, journal, a loose leaf binder, a notepad, a spreadsheet app on your smart phone or table, or anything you can take to the gym and write or type on.
9. Eat enough high quality food and protein
You have to eat enough high quality food and protein to provide your body with the energy and materials needed to build new muscle or much of your effort in the gym will be wasted. Assuming average to low body fat and normal daily activity levels in addition to training, for most people this means eating at least a few hundred calories over maintenance levels and a gram of protein per day for every pound of lean body mass. That means if you’re one hundred and eighty pounds you’d need to eat three thousand and six hundred calories and between ninety and one hundred and eighty grams of protein per day, or about ten to twenty percent of your calories from protein. At least thirty percent of those calories should come from healthy fats, from primarily animal sources (coconut and olive oils are also good), and the remaining calories should come from nutrient-dense plant foods, mainly vegetables and fruit.
If you’re overfat either focus on leaning down first or determine what you would weigh at around thirteen or fourteen percent body fat and use that number instead. For example, if you’re two hundred pounds and have twenty five percent body fat you would have to get down to around one hundred seventy five pounds to get your body fat percentage in the low teens, and you should base your calorie and protein intake on that.
Since energy expenditure varies significantly between individuals and with different activity levels, it is important that you weigh yourself and measure your body composition regularly so you can adjust your calorie intake accordingly. If you’re not gaining any muscle, you need to eat more. If you’re gaining more fat than muscle, you need to eat less.
It isn’t necessary to divide your food into six to eight meals per day and eat every two hours as some recommend. Going for longer than two or three hours without eating is not going to interfere with your gains. Three meals spaced four to six hours apart with a few snacks between and after works well and is more practical for most people than carrying a cooler around with them all day and scheduling their work and social life around food like some bodybuilders do.
If you haven’t eaten for more than two or three hours have a snack with some protein and carbs about half an hour before your workout, and another snack or meal afterwards. Also eat some protein just before going to sleep at night so your body to help with recovery and growth during sleep.
10. Get enough sleep
Getting enough sleep at night is necessary for your general health and well-being, and an absolute requirement for maximizing muscular strength and size gains. Sleep deprivation undermines your attempts to get bigger and stronger by reducing anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone and increasing the catabolic hormone cortisol. While the amount needed varies between individuals, most people should try to get eight to nine hours of sleep at night.
You’ll sleep better at night if you stick to a regular sleep schedule, keep your sleeping area dark and cool, avoid or limit the use of stimulants like caffeine in the evening, and keep pets out of your room at night if they crowd your bed or disrupt your sleep.
11. Work out with a partner
This isn’t a rule, but a strong recommendation (or this would be called The Eleven Rules… instead). A good training partner will push you to train harder and get more out of your workouts than you would on your own, as well as help keep your form in check and spot you when you need it. Having a training partner also makes it possible or easier to use many advanced repetition methods and techniques like forced-reps, forced-negatives, drop sets, negative-only, and pre-exhaustion (by setting up equipment in advance and holding it for you) which can be helpful in breaking plateaus or bringing up lagging muscle groups.
Also, a good training partner may be more objective in evaluating your performance, progress, and physique and can provide valuable feedback on how you’re improving, where you’re doing well, and what you need to work on.
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