Small Improvements Over Time = HUGE Improvements
If you could improve by just one percent at something every week, it’s a certainty that within a year you would be much better at it. Small but steady changes add up over time into major differences in performance. Adding just one pound a week to your max bench press would mean that in a year’s time, you would be pressing 52 pounds more – and that’s significant! Too many people never get started working toward their goals because they are intimidated by the scope of what needs to be done. Life coaches and self-help books are constantly stressing the importance of breaking big goals down into bite-size, manageable piece, essentially having both short- and long-term goals. If you want to have a much better physique a year from now, the key lies in making a series of small adjustments or tweaks to your current program. Here are key areas to address that will transform your body in a year’s time.
Clean Up Your Form
“My form is fine!” was your knee-jerk reaction. But is it, though? We all tend to fall into bad habits over time, and it’s really just our body’s way of trying to avoid discomfort and make the lifts “easier.” Subtle shifts in body position can cut your range of motion short or even shift the stress away from the target muscle. This is one time when I encourage you to film yourself training, as it will allow you to see yourself as an observer would. You may very well notice flaws in your form that have gone unchecked for months or years, and one simple adjustment could be all it takes to drastically increase the effectiveness of any given exercise you might have been cheating yourself on.
Do More Reps
Talk about an easy fix! If you are someone using weight training to build muscle, you have no business doing low reps that don’t keep the muscle under tension long enough to stimulate a growth response. The rep ranges we often talk about are really just representatives of how much time we want to put the muscle under tension for. The upper body seems to respond best to 8-12 reps with controlled negatives, and the lower body thrives on anything from 10-20 reps. I’ve counseled many hundreds if not thousands of people who were at a loss as to why they weren’t growing, and in many cases, they just weren’t doing enough reps. Once they upped the reps, the gains began almost immediately even if they hadn’t grown in years.
Harris, you contradictory bastard! Here’s the thing. If you have been training for well over a decade and you’ve started to accumulate injuries and chronic tendonitis and joint pain/arthritis, attempting to get stronger is probably a bad idea. For everyone else, it could very well be the ticket to putting on more muscle mass. You don’t have to train like a powerlifter with low reps to become stronger. It’s just a matter of adding tiny increments of weight on a regular basis in that hypertrophy rep range of 8-12 upper body/10-20 lower body. If your gym doesn’t have any 2.5-pound plates, pick up a pair cheap online and use those. Five or 10-pound jumps are typically too much for anyone except raw beginners. If you add a total of 5 pounds to your top set of squats every week for 10 weeks, that’s a 50-pound increase that will be evident in the dimensions of your thighs. Most machines with weight stacks allow you to add weight in smaller denominations with either sliding “doughnuts” or miniature versions of the weight on the stack that can slide down from the very top of the stack to add on to it. You can and should keep track of the weights you are using, which brings us right to the next tweak.
Log Your Workouts
Unless you have a memory like one of those people that can recite the entire Bible from memory, it’s tough to recall exactly how much weight you did for how many reps even last week, never mind months ago. How can you get progressively stronger if you don’t know what you’ve already done before? Start recording your exercises, weights, and reps either on paper in a notebook or in any variety of options on your smartphone. This way, you can add resistance in small increments as time goes on and can be sure you are actually becoming stronger by glancing at your progress. Otherwise, you’re just guessing and estimating, which is an imprecise method at best. Write it down or type it up and you will have a record to “beat.”
Log Your Food Intake
Gaining muscle and losing fat are both tied into your diet, and it’s impossible to make adjustments up or down if you have only a rough idea of what and how much you’re eating. There are plenty of calorie and macro-tracking apps you can download, many of which are free. These nutrition calculators allow you to know exactly how many grams of protein, carbs, and fats you’re taking in every day as you enter your meals. When results stall, you will be able to either add or subtract from your current intake to get moving in the right direction again.
Get More Sleep
Many of you who are at a loss as to why you either aren’t gaining muscle or losing fat don’t realize it’s probably your lack of adequate sleep that’s to blame. Many of you are part of the “hustle culture” that likes to equate financial success with long work hours and “#teamnosleep.” While that might make you feel like a hero, the excess cortisol production from lack of sufficient, quality sleep is a serious hindrance to recovery. Training, nutrition, and rest are all three sides to the triangle, and that triangle falls apart if any side is weak. This tip is especially important for those of you who are simply giving up sleep to watch more TV or play more video games. What’s more important to you? If improving your physique is a priority, you will forego those hours in front of a screen and get your ass in bed. The age-old recommendation of a solid, uninterrupted eight hours of sleep should be your goal every night.
Drink More Water
Most of you don’t drink as much water as you need to. The average sedentary person can afford to live in a constant state of dehydration, which most of them do. For someone whose goal is to perform at maximum capacity in both weight training and cardiovascular training and gain muscle mass, adequate hydration is mandatory. How much? Assuming you don’t have a physical job and aren’t out in the heat all day, a gallon and a half should be fine. Add another gallon to that if you are in those conditions. And even if you snicker at those meatheads who lug a gallon water jug around everywhere, guess what? At least they know how much water they drink every day – and so should you! I bet you good money that most of you who think you drink well over a gallon of water daily fall far short. Start using that water jug to keep track. Generally speaking, you should never feel thirsty or have a dry mouth and eyes.
Get on a Regular Training and Eating Schedule
All successful lifters, and by that I mean those who achieve their physique goals, not necessarily even those who compete, are creatures of habit. They eat the same foods in the same meals at the same times every day, and they train at the same time as well. This routine is often jokingly referred to as “Groundhog Day” in reference to the classic Bill Murry comedy, because every day can often seem exactly the same. Yet it’s this consistency that produces the best results. I understand that some of you do have hectic and unpredictable schedules. Do the best you can. For the vast majority of you, it would behoove you to get on a strict schedule to ensure you always give your body exactly what it needs, when it needs it in terms of food. Training at the same time every day also allows your body to acclimate to perform optimally at a given time.
Have a Plan for Your Workouts
The late Joe Weider was infamous for his “Weider Principles,” all of which were borrowed from other experts and champions and some of which were horribly misinterpreted. One of those was “The Instinctive Training Principle,” which essentially meant one should be able to adapt a given workout to shifting conditions and pick up on your own body’s cues rather than rigidly adhering to a predetermined workout. Most people took that concept too far and decided it was fine or even optimal to “wing it” at every workout. I truly believe in the adage, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It’s ridiculous and inefficient to aimlessly wander around the gym, doing whatever strikes your fancy. Some people don’t even know what muscle groups they will train until they stride onto the gym floor. I firmly believe in having a solid plan to execute. For many years I would write my workouts ahead of time, down to the weights I would use and how many reps I needed to get on each set. Those were definitely the most productive years in the 39 years I have been training. I strongly suggest doing this, or at the very least, having a rough idea of what you will be doing. Your workouts will have a stronger direction and purpose, and you won’t waste time pondering what to do next.
Start Food Prepping
The toughest part of weight training and transforming your body is nutrition, and it’s the area most people fall short in. Eating the right meals four to six times a day, every day is critical for making consistent progress toward any physique goal. You are always going to be more likely to adhere to a proper diet if the right foods are always available when you need them, which is why nearly every successful “bodybuilder,” and I use that as a catch-all term for all men and women striving to improve the appearance of their bodies via weight training, meal preps. Meal prepping simply means cooking large quantities of common “clean” foods at once and keeping it frozen or refrigerated until you eat it. You can cook big batches of chicken, steak, fish, ground beef or turkey, rice and potatoes by grilling, baking, or using a crockpot/slow cooker or an air fryer. You can either keep all the protein and carbohydrate sources together in larger containers, or else portion all your meals into smaller containers to thaw out and eat when needed. If you can’t or won’t do this, the next best option is ordering meals from meal-prep companies that cater to the fitness crowd. But trust me on this, if you are constantly trying to figure out what to eat next and where you will get that meal from, your physique progress will always be hampered.
Stop Buying Junk Food
If you have a hard time avoiding the temptation of “foods” like cookies, doughnuts, muffins, chips, ice cream, crackers, etc., you should treat junk food the way an alcoholic would treat booze – keep it out of your home! If you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it, period. Sticking to a strict diet is tough, which is why you should meal prep so you always have the “right” foods available and stop buying anything you know you shouldn’t be eating. The secret to getting leaner and staying lean isn’t a secret at all. It’s merely the result of eating clean and limiting calories over time. If you have junk food in your cupboards and refrigerator, it will always be there calling your name, especially late at night when most of us crave sweets. Keep that crap out of your home!
Get Blood Work Done
Making gains will always be more likely when your overall health is optimal. Blood work looks at the current status of markers that indicate the relative health of the various organs as well as hormone levels. If you have any issues that may need to be addressed, the blood is the first place they will typically be seen. If levels of free and total testosterone, SHBG, cortisol, and estrogen are out of whack, you can bet it will affect your body’s ability to gain muscle or lose fat.
I’m not referring to seeing a therapist for your mental and emotional health, but by all means do that if you need to. What I’m talking about is deep-tissue massage and chiropractic adjustments. Our bodies take such a beating from the repetitive trauma of heavy weight training that our spines are often out of alignment and our muscles become bound with adhesions and scar tissue from thousands of microtears. If you can’t afford deep-tissue work, which in the USA will run you anywhere from $60 to $120 per session, invest in a percussion gun like the Theragun. For that, you will need another human being to work on hard-to-reach areas like your back. A good foam roller is also something you should use a few times a week to roll out those kinks. All of these will enhance your recovery between workouts and lead to better results over time.
Make Cardio a Regular Thing
Cardiovascular training keeps your heart and lungs functioning optimally, and it also burns calories so you can stay leaner even if you do indulge in treats here and there. Unless you are on the far end of the hardgainer spectrum with an incinerator for a metabolism, cardio will not interfere with your gains. Recent studies have shown that just 150-200 minutes of moderate cardio weekly, which breaks down to about 20-30 minutes per day, equates to living almost another three years. I don’t know about you, but I would consider that a small price to pay for three more years on earth! Finally, being in good cardiovascular condition will allow you to train harder on leg and back days, when “wind”’ is often a limiting factor.
Train Your Abs and Do Vacuums
Big guts are never attractive, yet many of us are disturbed to find our midsections expanding as we head into middle age. A weakened abdominal is often the culprit. If you don’t train abs on a regular basis or at all, start now. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy, just a few sets of knee raises and crunches three to four times a week. You should also practice vacuums every day or every other day, aiming to work up to five to six “sets” of 20-30 seconds each. These will further train the abs to stay tensed and sucked in rather than loose and relaxed. Every physique looks better with a smaller, tighter midsection and worse with a protruding, bloated gut.
Rest Less Between Sets
Unless you are a powerlifter who needs to fully recover his or her strength between low-rep sets with extremely heavy weights, you should really only be resting long enough between sets to catch your breath. Limiting your rest periods keeps the blood inside the target muscles, which both provides a better pump and helps avoid injuries like muscle tears. Further, you will complete your workouts faster, giving you more time in the day to get other things done. Realistically, no weight training session should exceed 90 minutes, and you should be able to get anything aside from legs or back done in an hour or less.
Warm Up Before and Stretch After Every Workout
Two things I would have done differently over nearly 40 years of training would have been to warm up and stretch more. Mobility/flexibility is one of those things you take for granted and don’t even think about until they are severely compromised. If you don’t want to move like an old man at 40, take a few minutes to warm up with cardio before any weight training session and always stretch out when it’s done. Stretching is best after a workout when the muscles are warm and pliable. Pay special attention to stretching the shoulders, hips, and lower back, as these are the areas most likely to become stiff and immobile after years of heavy weight training.
Revisit ‘Lost’ Exercises
If you’ve been training for years, chances are there are some excellent exercises that were very productive for you that you simply forgot about or stopped doing for whatever reason. If you ever kept training logs, now’s the time to check them out and see what you might want to put back into your rotation. In many cases, there was never a legitimate reason you stopped doing them anyway; and the fresh new movement pathways will spur brand-new gains.
Have a Target to Get in Shape For
If your goal is get into extremely lean condition, you will almost certainly need a specific day or deadline to aim for. Otherwise, there will be no sense of urgency and no compelling reason to adhere to a strict diet for any length of time. The most obvious example would be competing in a physique contest in the Men’s Physique or Classic Physique divisions, but it could be for something like a class reunion or a tropical vacation. Anything that gives you a limited time frame and an exact date to be in your best shape will do.
Put Your Phone Away While Weight Training
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, we are addicted to our iPhones. Many of us can’t go more than a few waking moments without checking our notifications on texts, emails and social media posts. To refer to our phones as a distraction would be a laughably inadequate understatement. Your time in the gym should be completely focused on the task at hand, and glancing at our phones between every set drastically takes away from our ability to stay focused on the actual workout. Unless you have some type of demanding job in which you must be reachable at all times, or you have small children and could theoretically be called by their school or daycare in case of emergency, do your physique a huge favor and put your phone away while you weight train. Cardio is a different story. Unless you’re doing HIT style with rounds of sprinting, you can easily catch up on whatever it is you missed on your phone on the treadmill, bike or stepper.
Stop Filming Every Damn Set You Do
Hey, you kids out there, I’m talking to you! I know it’s fun to post tons of IG stories and TikTok videos of your workouts, but there is absolutely no way you can have a focused and intense training session if you’re constantly setting up tripods and filming all your sets. And really, the vast majority of sets that are posted are nothing special. If you’re going for a PR or want to demonstrate some clever new twist on an exercise, that’s one thing, but otherwise what you’re filming and posting is about as thrilling as watching paint dry. Maybe you will get some likes and comments, but the time and effort you are applying to all the filming is detracting from the overall quality of your workouts, not making them better. And need I mention that these video shoots often inconvenience other gym members who are merely trying to get their own workout in without worrying about “walking through your shot”?
Take Regular Physique Photos
What you should do is take photos of yourself at regular intervals, perhaps every two or four weeks, in the same poses, location and lighting. It’s nearly impossible for any of us to objectively look in the mirror and see changes. A photo record makes it easy to reference how you looked a week, a month or a year ago and compare it to your current condition. If you want to be truly thorough, also record your bodyweight each time and if you have access to a reliable method of body fat measurement, get that number too. The photos are especially useful in determining whether you have been making progress toward a specific physique goal, such as increasing the size of your arms or thighs or reducing your waist. Obviously, a tape measure would be helpful in this assessment as well, but with the visual record, you will have a very comprehensive system to track your physique over time.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” I saved this mental tweak for last because I wanted it to sink in and resound within your psyche. Making progress and improving is what lifting weights is really all about; most of its practitioners will never set foot on a stage. There will always be someone with a better physique than yours, someone with bigger arms, or better abs, or far superior calves. So what? None of that really matters. Your only true competition is you, and success should be measured by being able to be better than you have ever been before, regardless of what that looks like compared to anyone else. Each day is another chance to start making positive changes. As you can see from what we’ve gone over, there are so many areas in which you can make small but meaningful improvements, which in a year are guaranteed to translate into substantial improvements to your physique. Start today!