So many people entered the new year with good intentions, purchasing their gym memberships and swearing to make life long change. But if you’ve set foot in the gym lately, you know that numbers are already returning to their pre-January levels.
For those of us that train regularly, this can be blessing. It allows us to settle back into our routines, hitting our favorite exercises, and using our favorite equipment (often without having to wait at all).
But is this really any better than the New Year’s resolutioners? Are we actually doing anything different? Are we making change to better ourselves? Or are we simply settling back into our old routines?
To get bigger and stronger, we need to make change. Not because it’s a new year, but because it is why we go to the gym. To improve. For most of us, that means working hard with intent to build muscle mass and increase strength, developing a strong, well-rounded physique. And to do this, we need much more than our old routines.
Luckily for us, there are a number of things we can do to start seeing results. In this article, I will outline the key changes we can make to our program to maximize our training results and bust through our current training plateaus, allowing us to build muscle and increase strength.
Get in the Gym More
Most people tend to opt for bodybuilding-type training splits, where each individual muscle group is trained only once per week. While this is what is commonly recommended by supplement companies and health magazines, this is by no means the most effective way to promote strength development or increases in muscle mass.
Muscle tissue takes somewhere between 24 and 72 hours to recover after a workout. Obviously, this duration is dependent on the volume and intensity of that session, and subsequently, the amount of muscle damage incurred. But even if muscle damage is high, and it does take the full 72 hours to recover, we still have the capacity to train a muscle group twice per week without increasing the risk of overtraining at all. This means that most of us are only providing a given muscle group with 50% of the maximum volume it can handle, leaving a huge amount of muscle growth on the table.1
In terms of strength development, training only once per week provides very little neural stimulation. We know that strength development, particularly with heavy loads (above 80% 1RM), relies predominantly on the efficiency of the nervous system and its capacity to recruit muscle fibers. By training more frequently, the nervous system becomes more efficient, as it is provided greater opportunity to learn how to perform a movement. This means it will recruit a greater number of muscle fibers at one time, which causes a significant increase in force output.
By training a given lift 2-3 times per week, rather than just once, we can improve the function of the nervous system during that movement, which can cause massive increases in strength for that movement.
When it comes to developing both muscle and strength, compound movements are king (think squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and split squats). They require the integration of the entire body, producing movement at a number of different joints in the process. As a result, they use a huge amount of muscle mass, and a number of different muscle groups, at one time. This in itself provides additional work for those muscle groups, because ultimately, they are working during almost every movement we perform.
Furthermore, these large, compound movements allow us to use much more resistance than isolation exercises. When we use more load, we place the muscles under an increased amount of mechanical tension. Mechanical tension is a key driver for muscle growth,2 and by maximizing it through the use of large compound movements, we can promote additional muscle growth in conjunction with that caused by muscle damage.
Vary Your Loads
When discussing muscle growth, most people tend to think of moderate reps to stimulate metabolic damage, and subsequently, the development of new muscle tissue. This typically ends up as sets of 10 on repeat, for 3-4 sets.
I am not going to sit here and knock moderate rep ranges. I believe they certainly have their place in a well-rounded program. But I will go as far to say that they are by no means the be-all-end-all of muscle growth, and they are certainly not the best for strength development.3 While they do create metabolic damage to the muscle tissue, which is a key driver for muscle growth, they don’t induce a huge amount of mechanical tension, even if we are using compound movements.
As a result, we should use heavier loading patterns combined with both moderate and higher rep ranges to get the best of both worlds. By using heavy loading (sets of 1-5) we can create a huge amount of mechanical tension, which we know contributes to muscle growth. We can then utilize moderate rep ranges (6-12) to induce metabolic stress on the muscle tissue, creating further stimulus for muscle growth. And finally, if we are feeling really masochistic, we can finish with some high rep ranges (12-20) to induce further metabolic stress and promote growth of type I (slow twitch) muscle fibers.
By using different rep ranges within a single session, we can promote growth through a number of different mechanisms. Moreover, by prioritizing heavy loading at the beginning of our session we can maximize our strength development by performing all the ‘strength work’ at the beginning of the session when the nervous system is fresh.
This provides the greatest opportunity for the nervous system to improve its efficiency, while also increasing muscle fiber recruitment for the rest of the work out.
Get After It
Using the above suggestions, an example program may look something like this:
Monday: Lower Body
- Back squat 4×3
- Deadlift 3×5
- Front squat 3×8
- Split squat 3×10 (each side)
- Leg press 2×20
Tuesday: Upper Body
- Bench press 4×3
- Weighted chin ups 4×5
- Incline dumbbell bench press 3×8
- High bench row 3×10
- Seated shoulder press 3×10
- Lat pull down 3×12
- Arnold press 2×15
Thursday: Lower Body
- Sumo deadlift 4×4
- Back squat 3×6
- Romanian deadlift 3×8
- Bulgarian split squat 3×10 (each side)
- Front squat 2×15
Friday: Upper Body
- Barbell overhead press 4×4
- High bench row 4×6
- Barbell bench press 3×8
- Chin ups 3×10
- Arnold press 3×10
- Single arm dumbbell row 3×12 (each side)
- Decline dumbbell bench press 2×20
Now while the above example has no individualization whatsoever, it does provide a good demonstration of how to combine increased training frequency with compound movements and varied rep ranges to maximize muscle growth, while increasing strength development. I believe that these things will contribute to a strong and muscular physique, but they are absolutely useless if you cannot follow the final point.
Train With Intent
The gym is full to the brim with people going through the motions. Those same people haven’t seen a single grain of improvement in years. And while they may be exercising, they are by no means training. There is no intent to improve.
Don’t be like that. Attack every rep with intent. Work hard. Sweat. Grunt. And enjoy the process. If you put in the hard work required to actually make change, you will make change. All it takes is a bit of dedication, and at times, a considerable amount of discomfort.
Just because you read it in a magazine, doesn’t mean it will work for you:
1. Wernbom, Mathias, Jesper Augustsson, and Roland Thomeé. “The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.” Sports Medicine 37.3 (2007): 225-264.
2. Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872
3. Rhea, Matthew R., et al. “A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35.3 (2003): 456-464