You can’t keep doing what you’re doing now and expect anything to happen. I’ve come up with some ways to shock your body into responding again, and I am certain one or more will be the key to you seeing brand-new muscle growth if you apply them.
So you’ve been stuck at a physique plateau for some time now, haven’t you? How do I know that? For most trainers who have been lifting for more than two to three years and are past the “honeymoon phase” of newbie gains, new lean muscle tissue is hard to come by. Understand that increased muscle size and strength are adaptations to stress. Once your muscles and nervous system have fully adapted to whatever stress you’re putting them through, no further gains will be seen until you either increase the stress via heavier resistance and/or greater training intensity, or expose your muscles to other factors they’ve never encountered before. In short, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing now and expect anything to happen. I’ve come up with some ways to shock your body into responding again, and I am certain one or more will be the key to you seeing brand-new muscle growth if you apply them.
Change Your Exercises
Here’s what I want you to do for at least the next six weeks. At every workout, perform at least one exercise that you’ve either never done before, or that you haven’t done in at least a year. This is a lot easier than it sounds initially, due to the fact that there are so many hundreds of exercises and variations of exercises to choose from, and we all tend to be creatures of habit that fall into comfortable routines of doing the same things every damn time we train. And if you’ve been at this for a very long time like me, you tend to forget about a lot of exercises, even ones you used to do and found productive. For instance, even though I write about arm training and talk to pros about their arm workouts on a regular basis, I realized not long ago that it had probably been well over a year since I’d done a set of concentration curls for biceps. The very next time I trained bi’s, I did them and got a great pump. That’s the thing. While some guys thrive from performing the exact same exercises every week for years, most of us adapt to them after a while and stagnate in our development. Unless you’ve given up on building your body and you’re happy to “body maintain,” you need to switch things up. Use a different exercise, a different grip, hand or foot position, a different machine, something – at every workout for the next six weeks and watch what happens.
Rest Less Between Sets
You don’t have to guess how much rest time between sets is optimal to stimulate muscle growth, because researchers over the years have already done the studies and determined that 60 to 120 seconds of rest, with one to two minutes between sets, is ideal. Resting longer, as in three to five minutes, is perfect for those striving to increase their strength rather than muscle mass. This all relates to the metabolic pathways and energy systems responsible for each. It’s also why you can’t really train for maximum size and strength at the same time. My guess is that if your main goal if you’re reading this is bigger muscles, am I right? In that case, you need to immediately start making sure you aren’t sabotaging your gains by resting too long between sets. Use a stopwatch if you need to, but by all means limit the time between sets of exercises to that golden one- to two-minute window. Don’t talk to anyone or look at your phone until you’re done with all working sets of any given exercise. Keep the blood in the muscle and stay warm. Many of us mistakenly rest longer so we can use heavier weights because we believe that’s the key to growth. It’s not, and science has confirmed this with plenty of real-life studies. Ignore that fact at your own peril, or follow the proven guidelines of briefer rest periods and grow.
Train on a New Split
How long have you been on the same exact training schedule? Has it been months, or more like years even? If so, that’s another factor that can easily lead to complete and total adaptation. Most of you probably follow a traditional “bro split” that has your training week look something like chest, back and biceps, legs, and shoulders and triceps. It’s time to switch things up. You could try any of the following:
• Chest and back together, supersetting exercises
• Splitting legs into quad and ham days, or alternating between quad- and hamstring-dominant leg days
• Doing arms on their own day
• Pairing chest and shoulders
• Training hams with back
These are just a few suggestions. You can come up with your own combinations, and you should feel free to experiment and think outside the box. If you want to try something that others would consider crazy like brief full-body workouts three times a week, go for it. There are no rules. Just shake your muscles out of the complacency they’ve grown accustomed to.
Specialize on a Body Part
It never ceases to amaze me how many people complain about a body part of theirs they’re dissatisfied with, yet they haven’t tried anything targeted to ameliorate the situation. Isn’t it obvious? If a certain muscle or muscle group isn’t responding to what you’re doing, you should try doing something else! Specializing on that body part by training it with more volume, intensity, and/or frequency has helped many guys finally see improvement. The most common strategy is to hit it more often, varying the workouts. For instance, you might train legs twice a week, with one workout featuring heavy straight sets, and the other comprised of higher reps, supersets and drop sets. Or, you might add a couple of sets for that body part to every other workout you do. There are many options available, but it’s safe to say that you must pay extra attention to a stubborn body part if you want to see any changes in it.
Weigh and Measure Your Food
“I eat a lot of food, bro.” That’s what every guy who is serious about adding muscle but is struggling to gain weight has told me. Being skeptical after having heard this a million times, I task them to actually weigh and measure every meal for at least a couple of days and show me the numbers. For the ones who actually follow through, they’re always amazed at how much they were overestimating their macronutrient and caloric totals. They thought they were eating 400 grams of protein a day when it was only 200, or else they were eating just over half as many grams of carbohydrates or calories as they had believed. If you don’t weigh and measure your portions, you’re only guessing, and most of us suck ass at guessing. Knowing exactly how much you are eating allows you to make adjustments and track results. Doing this over time has been the key for many lifters to make consistent gains. When it’s time to cut up, you do the same thing but in reverse; gradually reducing carbs and calories to achieve the desired fat-loss results. I used to roll my eyes at those who did this, believing they were overcomplicating nutrition. Eventually I came to realize they were being precise and were making better gains than most people who eyeballed their food portions and hoped for the best.
Set Strength Goals (in a hypertrophy rep range)
We just mentioned how training for size and strength are two different things that call for different rest periods between sets. That holds true when training for absolute best results in strength, a concern for those in sports like powerlifting and Strongman. I never meant to imply that you shouldn’t be striving to increase your strength over time in the hypertrophy rep ranges, generally considered to be eight to 12 for the upper body and 12 to 20 for the lower. Your chest is going to be a lot thicker when you can bench press 315 pounds for 10 reps than it was when 135 for 10 was your best effort. There will come a time for all of us when you have fully maxed out your strength, but few ever see that day as it takes many years of pushing hard with the weights. Rather than be overwhelmed and try to get stronger on every exercise, focus on one at a time for six weeks. Maybe your best barbell curl is 100 pounds for 10 reps. Set a goal of curling 1,120 pounds for the same 10 reps six weeks from now, in the same form. Remember, if you’re loosening up your form, you didn’t really get stronger. You will be surprised at how effective applying your focus and effort to improving your performance to just one exercise at a time can be.
Vary Your Rep Ranges and Tempo
Another area many of us fall into a rut with is our rep ranges. We either get it in our heads that we always need to do a certain amount of reps, or we just keep doing it out of habit. The number of reps you do is really nothing more than an expression of how much time we keep the muscles under tension for in a given set. It takes longer to do 15 reps versus five, for example. If you always expose the muscles to the same amount of that time under tension, they will eventually fully adapt to it. It doesn’t matter why you do as many reps you typically do, whether it’s a conscious decision or you’re just following a common paradigm. You should and must vary your rep ranges from time to time. Go higher if your reps have been on the lower end, or do fewer reps and a bit heavier resistance if you’ve been pumping away with higher reps for a while. The same principle applies to tempo, or the speed in which you do your reps. I started out in bodybuilding after faithfully reading the gospel of Saints Arthur Jones and Dr. Ellington Darden, who proclaimed with the authority of a deity that the only correct way to perform a rep was to lift the weight in two seconds and lower it in four. Only much later did it dawn on me that this might not be the most productive rep tempo for all people, in all exercises, at all times. It does ensure better form and taking advantage of the eccentric or negative portion of the rep. But just as one small example, I recall one study that showed the biceps respond better to an explosive concentric or positive stroke of the rep. Many champion bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman trained with ballistic form, keeping the weight in constant motion like a piston. Even Dorian Yates, himself a student of Jones his protégé the late Mike Mentzer, believes in lifting the weight explosively and lowering more slowly and under control. Personally, I believe the best option is to use both styles, either in the same workout or in cycles. I feel the same way about training form. If you exclusively use only perfect form or loose form, you will miss out on results.
Get More Rest
We all lead busier lives in 2022 than our forefathers did. No, we’re not out in the fields for 12 hours a day. But we often work 50 to 70 hours a week so we can afford all the toys and shiny things our consumer-driven culture has made us crave or because the guy next door just bought a boat or a vacation home. We send and receive hundreds of text messages, DMs, and emails every day. Between social media and the millions of hours of content available to watch on our TVs with 2,000 channels of cable and 20 streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, you could easily entertain yourself 24 hours a day every day. So let me ask you, Mr. Serious Weight Trainer, how much sleep do you get every night? If the answer is anything less than seven hours, you are not fully recovering, and you aren’t making the gains you could and should be making. If you aren’t getting seven and preferably eight hours of quality sleep every night, take an honest appraisal and see why that is. If any of that precious sleep time is being taken by gaming, watching YouTube or TV, think long and hard about where your priorities lie. Keep in mind that your training and nutrition can be totally on point, but without adequate rest, your gains will never be as significant as they could be.
Put Your Phone Away
I saved this for last because it will be the most difficult to do for almost every one of us. The smartphone is truly a technological wonder, and those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s could never have imagined we would all own devices that were capable of things even the most powerful computers of those eras couldn’t come close to. But these phones have also become tremendous addictions and distractions. Gaining muscle and building the best physique possible requires training with focus, concentration, and intensity. There’s no way you can give that if you are constantly checking your IG feed, text messages, DMs and so on. And I will sound like a hypocrite for saying this, and maybe I am to a point, but you can’t be truly training hard if you’re busy taking selfies and filming every freaking set you do. Some of you have small children or extremely demanding jobs that require you literally be accessible at every waking moment in case of emergency or because others you work with or for often need to reach you fast. I get that, trust me I do. But if you don’t need your phone with you on the workout floor, leave it in the locker room so you can apply 100 percent focus and attention to your workout. You can text everyone back and check how many likes you got on your newest post once the workout is over! In the meantime, give yourself and your physique the gift of training distraction-free. I bet many of you will be pleasantly surprised to find how much better your workouts, and consequently your results, will be.