Building eye-catching muscle takes a long time. As most of you already know, seeing more gains in your strength and physique starts to fade quickly especially after you master the novice stage when every time you lifted it was a matter of just adding more weight to the bar.
Yet for the more advanced trainee who takes their training seriously, there comes a point when you need to assess if you’re doing the right things to maximize the time on investment into your physique.
If you’ve stopped seeing visible progress, are NOT increasing your strength, and keep finding yourself hitting training plateaus consistently, then keep on reading.
For the vast majority of lifters, reaching this point rarely happens mainly due to a lack of consistency and poor work ethic.
Since you’re here, you’ve reached a certain level of performance in your training and are looking to fine-tune things so you can get back on track.
Here’s a simple checklist you can run through to make sure you keep growing consistently:
1. Eat more
One of the most easily overlooked concepts for consistent muscle growth is maintaining a consistent caloric surplus. Without a steady flow of extra calories in your diet, the chances of building muscle are slim to none.
However, this isn’t a call to action to eat everything in sight. The way to building muscle can be broken in 3 paths.
Dirty Bulk: The traditional muscle building path, this has lead to countless generations of bodybuilders who stacked slabs of pounds each year as the winter season rolled around. While catered as the optimal path towards building a stronger, more muscular physique there are some potential downsides to going this route in your fitness.
The first reason is although you’ll put on extra weight and build muscle at a slightly faster rate, the percentage of fat to muscle ratio will become disproportionate. What that means is if you’re prepping for a show, meet, or just want to get shredded in time for summer, you’ll have a much harder time stripping off the extra body fat in order to be ready on time.
The other reason that most people forget is that you can only drop fat at a certain rate without losing lean muscle gains. In other words, if you started your dirty bulk in November and dirty bulked your way all the way till April, this only gives you 1-2 months to be beach-ready before May and June roll around.
Let’s say you put on 20-24 pounds in the 6 months of training prior (consuming an extra 500 calories a day x 7 days which gives you an extra pound a week; 4 weeks x 6 months leaves you at 24 pounds).
Now you only have 1-2 months to shed off the extra weight as fast as possible without sacrificing your hard-earned gains. The rapid weight loss due to the severe cut won’t bode well with your lean muscle tissue.
This is where most guys get stuck when they’re trying to go too fast and too hard without seeing the big picture.
Lean Bulk: The lean bulk is the middle path. Instead of adding stacks of pancakes and downing 5 extra smoothies a day, you choose the path of moderation and steady incremental growth.
It’s a path that requires discipline and consistency but one that can reap high-end results for the person who sticks through.
Rather than adding a ton of extra calories to your daily intake, you increase by an extra 200-300 calories per day while maintaining your training volume. Every 4 months you’ll go on a steady lean bulk while the 5 month you can use as a mini-cut where you shed the extra fat that was accumulated while retaining as much lean muscle as possible.
Using the 4:1 month ratio gives you a brilliant advantage over the dirty bulk in that it allows you to steadily increase your strength and muscle gains consistently while giving you the freedom to be ready to cut back quickly in case of an upcoming event.
This path does require you to be diligent in your tracking and not put your nutrition on the back-burner while hoping that eating more will lead to more muscle gains. But done intelligently, it can be the difference between ripping off your shirt on the beach in June while turning heads or not going to the beach all summer long because you dirty bulked way too long.
Slow Bulk: The uncommon path, this bulk is mainly for advanced trainees and those lifters who are advanced enough and lean enough to choose to go a slow journey towards building muscle.
While tedious, it can be useful for fitness models, physique athletes, or athletes who need to maintain certain body weight. Ideally, this bulk is very slight between 100-200 extra calories a day and the rate of progress is very gradual.
In fact, because lifters who choose this route tend to be of advanced nature, the progress is almost so insignificant it can drive a person without high levels of discipline a bit mad.
Rate of muscle growth is again so slow that while being great for the athlete who wants to stay as lean as possible while minimizing fat gain, it’s certainly not ideal for the athlete who recognizes that muscle growth and fat gain are part of the game and choosing a moderate approach is more balanced than either of the 2 extremes.
2. Add more training volume
The next step to consistent muscle growth?
Training enough times a week. Far too often what separates the novice trainee from the intermediate trainee is a lack of training consistency. Read more about training levels here.
Once your consistency has reached a steady flow, you can begin to adapt your training volume to maximize your muscular potential. The key here is using the right progressions schemes to make sure you progress steadily without overtraining.
A simple way to check if you have enough training volume is the check your sets x reps x volume averages. Remember, muscle growth is stimulated by a certain amount of work ratio.
Ideally, you’ll need to be averaging a range of 10-20 sets per week for each muscle group in order to properly stimulate muscle growth consistently.
This is where training volume comes into play. If you find that you’re lacking muscle growth in a specific area of growth, adding more sets without increasing the intensity can effectively add more growth to your physique without adding more exercises or weights.
Remember to leave the principle of progressive overload at the top of your mind, keeping in mind that increasing the number of sets compounds the amount of volume (sets x reps).
3. Sleep more
This step is straightforward. Sleep more every night and you’ll wake up feeling fully recovered and ready to train hard again. Although simple enough, this still seems to be one of the most overlooked parts of muscle growth, so it bears mentioning once again.
Aim for 7-10 hours of sleep every night with 8.5 hours being the sweet spot. There’s an interesting study that was done on the effects of sleep deprivation which tested subjects on muscle gain and recovery.
The first group of subjects slept only 5.5 hours of sleep after training, while the second group slept 8.5 hours of sleep afterwards.
“What researchers discovered was that the individuals who slept only 5.5 hours had 60% less muscle mass at the end of the study, while those who slept 8.5 hours had 40% more muscle mass.”1
The main takeaway? Get your z’s or lose the gains.
4. Check protein intake
Getting the right amount of protein is easily misunderstood especially with so much rif-raf going on in the industry. Yet without protein (or rather amino acids), you won’t have the building blocks needed to rebuild new muscle tissue and keep growing consistently.
Without going into a full-blown protein dissertation, recognize that protein is the stimulus for all new growth.
A simple way to calculate your daily protein intake is to take your bodyweight and convert it to grams per body weight (1 gram/per lb)
So if you weigh 160 lbs and aren’t sure how much protein you need to consistently rebuild new muscle, take 160 pounds and convert it to 160 grams. This is the base minimum you’ll need to preserve lean muscle tissue and help stimulate more growth.
Is more protein better?
Not necessarily. Although there may be situations where having a higher protein intake would be more optimal, building muscle tissue consistently can be done effectively by maintaining your base numbers.
Focus on consistency and add variety to your nutrition to keep things interesting. This will help build long-term habits and enjoyment, which allows you to stick to your plan and make gains repeatedly.
5. Add deload weeks
This was touched on briefly in another article here, so to recap, adding recovery weeks or deload weeks as more commonly known in the strength and conditioning world, can allow you to recover physically and mentally from the training stress which accumulates rapidly from each training cycle.
What the deload weeks do is allow you to dissipate the fatigue which is slowly building up as you train hard in each workout. Without taking the time to allow the fatigue to slowly reduce, an interesting phenomenon called overtraining could occur.
While not common, mainly because most people stop pushing themselves before it’s too late, overtraining symptoms could occur even before the actual burnout.
Depending on the length of your training cycle, you can add a deload week to every 5th or 6th week to reduce load intensity and training volume. The added benefit of doing this can give your mind a mental rest while giving your muscles a much-needed break as well.
Think of this as the slow jog right before you go into the next sprint.
The added recovery from the deload week will increase your enthusiasm, help you stick to your program longer, and ultimately set you up for more gains in the gym.
6. Use strength and muscle days
One of the most effective ways to ensure that you’re consistently building muscle without sacrificing your strength is to split up your training into different training days.
Instead of trying to mash an entire total body workout 3 times a week, including strength, power, hypertrophy, and fat loss bundled into a two-hour sweat-filled mess, a better way can be simply changing the focus into 4 separate training days.
So how would this look on paper?
Monday, Tuesday you can focus on pure strength keeping your reps low between 3-6 reps and focusing on compound lifts.
Use this guide here to help you create your program if you’re not sure.
Monday can be your Lower Body Strength Day where you’ll go all-in on your lower body strength movements like squats, deadlifts, and heavy lower body movements.
Tuesday can be your Upper Body Strength Day where you smash it with the bench press, rows, and presses.
Give yourself a day of rest between your strength and muscle days in order to regenerate more effectively (refer to sleep principle above) and then jump back into the next two days of your program using muscle workouts as your main focus.
Keeping the weekly schedule above in mind, you can use Thursday as your Lower Body Muscle Day and Friday as your Upper Body Muscle Day.
Use reps in the hypertrophy (muscle-building) ranges using 8-12 as your guideline. This can be more of your typical bodybuilder split where you keep your RPE lower between 6-8 while adding poundage to your physique.
Using these 6 principles, you’ll be well prepared to slide past any stubborn muscle building plateaus. Remember knowledge is useless unless applied, so make the investment into crafting a program based on the principles laid out here.
Apply these principles consistently to your life and you’ll reveal your best plant-based physique ever without living in the gym.
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References and Further Reading: