Let’s get straight to the point. To gain muscle and strength you have to have a plan. That plan must include two important ingredients – because without them, your progress in the gym won’t exist.
- You must utilize the big, multi-joint compound movements. These are the exercises that activate the most muscle in the least amount of time. Big barbell moves such as bench presses, rows, squats, deadlifts and shoulder presses, not to mention dips and pull-ups among others.
- Your training must be progressive. It must include lifting more weight and performing more reps over time. This is accomplished through progressive overload.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is simply defined as the gradual increase of intensity, volume, frequency or time in order to get to where you want to be. In your case that’s more muscle tissue growth. The body needs a reason (and a good one) in order to sustain a certain amount of muscle.
How do you progress? The bare-bones basic method is to increase either the amount of weight you lift or total reps performed for a given weight or both over time.
Now, over time training to muscular failure in this fashion will most-likely lead you to the ever-loathed plateau. Your gains in strength will slow or stall and your motivation will crash. When this happens you need a structured plan of action. You need a few methods that will cover you for the long haul.
Below are a few general principles to apply when you are structuring a training plan. These are time-tested methods that are common fair in anyone’s arsenal.
- Linear Periodization: This refers to the gradual increase in training frequency, intensity, volume and/or time. It can be characterized by a steady upward slope of progress. For example, if your goal is to gain strength and muscle using the bench press, then you would start out with a light load and high reps. As you progress through your weeks of training you would apply a gradual increase in weight and a decrease in reps.
- Non-Linear (Undulating) Periodization: This method refers to variances in reps, volume, intensity, rest periods, velocity of reps (speed) among other factors throughout your training cycle. One week may be heavier loads with lower reps, the next may be lighter loads with higher reps and the next week may be moderate loads using moderate reps. Frequency, intensity, volume and time will vary from week to week or even from workout to workout.
Intra-workout progression tactics
On a smaller scale other methods can affect your progression such as using specific intensity techniques to add some possible much-needed “spice” to your workouts.
- Rest/Pause: This technique is an instant strength enhancer. Rest/pause training will allow you to dramatically increase the amount of weight lifted in a single session. For example, during a bench press session load the bar with an amount of weight where you can perform 2 to 4 reps comfortably. Perform 2 or 3 reps and then rack the bar. Rest for a brief 10 to 15 seconds then perform another 2 or 3 reps. Complete 3 or 4 rounds of this before taking your normal rest period. After the set is completed you will have performed 8 to 12 reps with a weight you could only lift 2 or 3 times prior.
- Explosive Reps and Power: Lifting at the same tempo day in and day out can get a bit monotonous. You may need some explosive power in your routine to shake things up a little. Take a look at sprinter’s legs. They rival those of some bodybuilders; big, shredded and balanced. Sprinters use power throughout their training and maybe you should too. Use some ballistic plyometric-style training such as all forms of box jumps, jump squats, sled pushes and pulls and high-velocity lifts performed with low weight and speed.
- Antagonistic Supersets: A favorite technique of bodybuilders in the 1970’s was performing supersets of antagonistic (opposite) body parts such as chest/back, biceps/triceps and quadriceps and hamstrings. Alternating sets like these with little to no rest forces an enormous amount of blood into the area helping induce an environment primed for growth. It will also up the intensity ante in half the time freeing you up for added volume.
- Exercise Order: Often overlooked but all too important is the order of your chosen exercises. Training 101 states that you should perform all multi-joint moves first and also the big moves for chest, back and legs before hitting arms and shoulders. Hammering biceps before back, for example, would create a weak link for pulling and rowing exercises. Start with the big lifts when you are fresh and strong. Remember, you’ll want to focus on progressing with those lifts in order to properly overload your muscle for growth.
Other useful methods
- Keeping a Journal: Did you know how much weight and how many reps you used on each set for your last workout? Are you progressing each week in all of your lifts either by weight or reps? Or are you at a standstill and have plateaued? Keeping a running record of reps, sets, weight used, your nutrition intake and even rest and recovery habits will only get you to your goals faster. You will not only know if you are progressing or not but will also be better able to adjust things where necessary.
- Track Your Time: Another factor to play close attention to is rest periods between sets. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of training and can significantly influence your rate of gains. For general muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) rest periods of 30 to 60 seconds for smaller muscle groups such as arms, shoulders and calves and 60 seconds to 2 minutes for larger areas such as chest, back and legs is recommended. Don’t cheat yourself – you aren’t performing at a powerlifting meet needing every ounce of strength to set personal records. The goal is to fatigue the most amount of muscle fiber for growth.
- Partner Up: Nothing can influence your motivation level like an attentive training partner – especially one that has similar goals. Spotting during heavy lifts, assisting with forced reps, correcting form and using motivational cues are just a few advantages. Having a set time to meet up and pacing your training can increase intensity levels dramatically. Just don’t get into the habit of sitting around and catching up on your day.
- Pick a Plan and Stick With It: One of the biggest mistakes made is not sticking with a specific plan long enough to see results. Many trainees simply jump from program to program with little patience hoping to finally land on that “perfect plan.” News flash: It doesn’t exist. The best plan or program is the one you stay on for a certain amount of time – normally between 6 and 8 weeks. Whatever you decide to do, pick a plan, stick to it and give it a chance. You will ebb and flow during the program, but how else will you know what works for you and what you need to ditch?