Learn everything there Is to know about fItness, performance, fat loss and lifestyle from Adrian McDonnell.
The best plan on paper is only as good as your ability to adhere and follow it.
A badly written program with high compliance will yield better results than a program written by a professional with little to no compliance.
Building muscle and strength is something everyone wants to do. In fact, strength is the foundation to every form of exercise we do.
However, pursuing it is no easy feat and is actually quite a difficult task.
That’s why it’s worth taking your time to make sure you’re doing it right. Otherwise, you run the risk of wasting your time and energy, spinning your wheels and not seeing any real progress.
Here are the 6 commandments for building muscle and pursuing strength.
The best plan on paper is only as good as your ability to adhere and follow it. A badly written program with high compliance will yield better results than a program written by a professional with little to no compliance.
So how can we increase our likelihood of adherence? 3 ways – having a strong why, having a well written program you enjoy and being in a supportive environment.
Firstly, it all starts with a strong why. When it comes to setting goals related to your health and fitness, we all have a visual created in our head of what we want our bodies to look like.
But before you take your body to that destination, you first have to make sure your mind is ready for it.
Why are you doing this? Most people want to build muscle, tone up or just look and feel better. But what’s the reason behind that?
A method known as the “5 Whys” is a great way to uncover your deep reasoning.
1.“I want to build muscle.” Why?
2.“I want to feel stronger in myself.” Why is that important to you?
3.“I’ve always been known as the skinny guy amongst my friends and I want to change that.” Why?
4.“Because I’m not happy or confident in my appearance, in my clothes and in how I look in the mirror.” Why is that important to you?
5.“I want to look better on nights out and have more confidence talking to girls.”
(This may or may not have been the reason I initially started lifting weights!!).
While the goal here is to build muscle, the real reason behind it is to look and feel better and more confident in clothes and approaching girls. Having a strong why will help you pull through the character-building days when you don’t feel like doing a workout.
However, other factors too come into play with adherence – one of them being following a well-written program you enjoy doing. This can be greatly increased by being involved in the decision-making process of your program either directly or indirectly.
Directly would be you writing the program up for yourself. Indirectly would be you consulting a professional and explaining to him/her what exactly you’re interested in achieving, how many times a week you’d be able to adhere to along with any preferences in terms of style of training or exercise selection.
Finally, on top of having a strong “why” and enjoying your program, having support is also important. Support might come in the form of family, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend and/or a coach.
2. Volume, Intensity & Frequency
Volume: the number of sets and reps you do will depend on your overall training goal. The traditional sets and reps scheme is:
However, that’s not to say you can’t build muscle lifting in the 1-8 rep range nor does it mean you can’t build strength in the 8-15 rep range.
After all, if you can bench 60Kg for 8 reps and after 4 weeks you’ve increased that to 60Kg for 10 reps, you’ve gotten stronger. The load and amount of weight you lift does differ within the above categories. And that’s where training intensity comes into play.
The lower the rep range, the higher the intensity. The higher the rep range, the lower the intensity. For example, if you’re doing a deadlift for 3 total reps, you’ll likely be lifting a weight that’s around 90% of your 1RM. This would be at a higher intensity if you were to lift your 10 rep max at 75% of your 1RM.
As the intensity (amount of weight) increases, so too do the rest periods (follow on point). This might sound counterintuitive but the less reps you do (assuming you are lifting at the right training intensity) requires more reps. If you’re doing a barbell back squat for 5 reps at 85% of your 1 RM, you may need upwards of 2-3 minutes whereas if you were to do a Goblet Squat for 10 Reps with 75% of your 1RM, you may only need to take 90s rest.
Effort is a by-product of intensity. How you spend your time in the gym or working out at home is important. There’s a difference between working out and training. Workout out involves exercising for the sake of it while training involves following a plan and bringing the right intensity and effort into every session of that plan.
The only way you can add more intensity to your training is with more effort. I’ve been there many times before where I’m in the middle of a set or a session but my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about what I’m going to cook later on that day, or what work I need to do after the gym session or something completely irrelevant or off topic! These sessions usually involve going through the motions and not pushing yourself hard enough.
But to get the best possible results, not only do you need to be following a plan, you need to put enough effort in and bring enough intensity into that session so you come out stronger. Effort doesn’t come easy. You will have to convince your mind to give your body what it needs. If you’re capable of doing 5 reps but your program has written down 3-5 reps and you stop at 3, you didn’t bring enough effort. This is something I’m trying to get out of doing myself and I’ve caught myself many times in the past settling for less.
But if you want to get stronger you have to be willing to push harder. It’s a tough thing to do. Whether that’s not stopping when you feel slightly fatigued, reducing your rest or pushing some lighter lifts to near failure – these are all things which require a high output but need the right input. As challenging and all as these things are, it’s such a rewarding feeling after completing a training knowing you gave it your all.
Less trained individuals will likely get more of a training stimulus out of training less frequently than more advanced lifters. In general, training 3-5x per week with 10-20 sets per bodypart is a good starting point.
Have you ever heard of Milos of Croton? His story is one worth reading and it’s the best example of how to progress in the gym.
How the Legend Goes
2,500 years ago in Greece, Milos became the greatest wrestler of his time, and according to legend, had superhuman strength.
The legend tells us that he developed that strength by picking up a baby calf and carrying it on his shoulder up a hill.
Every morning, Milos would go out to the field, pick the calf up, and carry it. He did this every day for four years. And over that time, the calf grew into a full-sized bull. But guess what else happened?
Milos and his body grew as well. It had to. His body needed to adapt so that he could continue hoisting the calf every morning and carrying it on his shoulder.
What Milos did is the same thing you need to do when it comes to lifting weights. You need to provide your body with something heavy, something worth adapting to. Do that and, over time, you’ll become stronger. This is something known as progressive overload.
The calf Milos hoisted every morning, grew in weight. And that increase in weight challenged Milos’s body to adapt and change over time.
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload involves continually trying to better yourself and do a bit more. It may not be realistic to get better every week, but throughout every training block, there is a need for progression.
Methods of Progressing Your Workouts:
Increase The Weight
Probably the most obvious way to increase the demands you place on your muscles is to increase the weight. If 20Kg is too easy when doing your goblet squats, try moving up to 22.5Kg. What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.
Increase The Reps
You don't necessarily have to add weight; alternatively, as you get stronger, you can simply do more reps with the same weight. For example, last week you did 8 reps with a 20Kg DB, this week you’re going to aim to do 10 reps.
Increase The Sets
Last week you may have done 3 sets of 8 reps with 15Kg, this week you could do 4 sets of 8 reps with 15 Kg.
Improve Your Technique
Previously, you may have gotten 10 reps on a certain lift but the last 2 reps were grinders and were a 10/10 in difficulty. This week, if you get 10 reps in again but the last 2 reps were much smoother and the set was an 8/10 in difficulty. The weight or reps may not have increased but your technique has improved and you’re presumably not as fatigued afterwards which is another form of overload.
How many people have been benching 60Kg for 3x10 without ever increasing? This is because of lack of progression.
However, I should note an issue can come when the pursuit of that strength comes while sacrificing your technique.
Don’t chase numbers at the expense of your joints and muscle health. Ensure you’ve earned the right to increase the weight of a certain lift through good technique and control before adding that extra plate to the bar.
When I’m programming for clients, the rep range they train in will depend on their overall training history.
Someone without much or any gym experience will not just be asked to put a barbell on their back and test their 3 Rep Max (3RM) on a Barbell Back Squat!
But, it doesn’t mean we don’t train for strength at all. Instead, they will perform a regression of a more suitable and easier to perform exercise for about 5 reps which would still be training within strength parameters.
4. Exercise Selection
Exercise selection refers to what exercises you perform in your given gym session. Not every exercise was created equal.
You will get a better carryover and more of a training stimulus from including bigger, compound and multi-joint exercises in your program such as the traditional big three of the bench press, squat and deadlift compared to single-joint exercises like bicep curls, tricep pushdowns or calf raises.
However, that’s not to say that exercises such as bicep curls or tricep pushdowns shouldn’t be included in your program. Nor does this mean you should only perform the compound lifts only.
What does matter is the order you perform these exercises in. In general, if your numbers matter to you it is best to perform the bigger, multi-joint and compound movements first and leaving the smaller, accessory and single-joint exercises until last.
It is safer and less taxing on your body to perform single-joint exercises to failure compared to bigger compound lifts. For instance, there’s a much less risk/reward benefit of going to absolute or near failure on a set of bicep curls than there is on a set of deadlifts.
5. Rest Periods
As I alluded to above, rest periods will primarily be dictated by the intensity. The higher the weight you’re lifting (and likely the less number of reps), the longer the rest you’ll need to take. The lower the weight (and likely the more reps you’ll be doing) the shorter the rest you’ll need.
As mentioned above, you might think that doing 8-12 reps will require more rest than 3-5 reps. But lifting heavier does mean your body (and nervous system) will need more recovery time if you wish to perform the same exercises with the same intensity.
On top of this, while you need full or near full recovery with the bigger, compound lifts for strength training, if you’re training for muscle-building, incomplete recovery is more optimal. Remember, muscles are built through tension so by taking incomplete recovery on say a set of bicep curls, you’ll build up more tension in the muscle and in turn, get more growth.
Tempo refers to the speed at which you lift the weight or perform the movement.
You cannot lift a heavy weight slowly. In other words, if you’re doing a 1RM on the deadlift, while the lift itself may take a couple of seconds for you to complete, that is not being done purposefully. You’re trying to lift the weight with as much force and speed as possible, just the weight is challenging you to a point where it’s not possible to lift it any faster.
For accessory exercises in particular, it is a good idea to use tempo to your advantage. For example, if you were to perform a dumbbell row for 10 reps and you banged out the reps as fast as possible, it might only take you 20 seconds to complete the entire set.
Studies show that upwards of 45 seconds of time under tension is optimal per set for muscle growth. So for the same exercise for 10 reps, if you were to do it with a 3s Lowering, 1s Pause and 1s Row, this would be 5s per rep x10 = 50 seconds of time under tension.
I like to add a slower tempo to accessory lifts while for bigger, compound lifts I like to perform them as quickly as possible.
In order of importance for building muscle and strength are:
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this beneficial.
References: Helms, Eric: “The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid.”
What To Do Next
If you found this post beneficial, then join my Free Facebook Group for more training tips.
If you’d like a coach to help put all of the above in operation for you, then book your free consultation call today to see if you’d be a good fit for my Online Coaching.
Having something the structure and accountability you need to get the results you’ve always desired will make your journey much easier and quicker.
What’s the purpose of the consultation call?
To deep dive into your health & exercise history, your goals and current struggles and from there decide if we’d be able to work together (note – I am not the right coach for everyone which is why I have consultation calls with potential clients of mine).
If we are a good fit, we can get working on your personalised program so you can finally make the changes you’ve always wanted.
Adrian McDonnell -
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