Last updated on November 23rd, 2018
This is part 2 of the article about muscle gains and why you can’t seem to make any progress. Part one is here
What You Can Change to Succeed
Consistency is the key to success, but that doesn’t mean plodding along with the same old program day after day, week after week. That’s bound to get boring, and what’s more, it leads to stagnation of muscle growth.
There are some things you can implement straight away that will help you defeat those four gremlins discussed above:
- Social Media
- Motivation Hunting
- Too Much Information
- Shortcuts and Cheating the Grind
Here’s the major fix.
Setting Hittable Targets and Achievable Goals
I know, I know, you’ve heard this before. I understand, because I was once the person being advised to do this.
What we’ll do today, however, is go through a critical example of target and goal setting. You can then apply that example to your program, and you can even adapt it to many other aspects of your training.
For this example, I’m going to talk about the benchpress.
I’ve never met a dude who didn’t want to bench bigger, and have more developed pectoral muscles. Never.
Now, depending on where you are with your bench, you’re going to want to slide these numbers around to fit your current lifting experience.
It’s the methodology, the consistency and the progress that’s important, not the numbers. Numbers are relative to the individual doing the lifting.
So, with that in mind, men and women, young and old, small and massive…anyone should be able to apply themselves to this.
For a lot of guys, an awesome goal to reach is benching 225 lbs for 15 reps. I’m using that because if you’re in your first 6 to 18 months lifting, those two 45 lbs plates at either side of the bar are like the holy grail.
Now, it’s a beautiful day when you bench 225, but that 15 rep count is savage. It means you have to be strong, yes, but also efficient and enduring.
Looking at it from an aesthetic perspective, your chest muscles by default will have to be well developed to get through a set like that.
So, how do you get there?
The first thing I’d do is get the training schedule out and mess with it until I’m training my chest:
- Twice a week, with
- Two/three days between each chest session
A basic will look something like this:
Monday – Chest and Triceps
Tuesday – Legs
Wednesday – REST
Thursday – Chest and Triceps
Friday – Back and Biceps
Saturday – Shoulders and Traps
Sunday – REST
Research suggests there isn’t much hypertrophic (muscle growth) benefit to hitting a specific muscle group more than twice a week, hence the scheduling there.
This is step 1 of efficient resistance training. Don’t do extra work if it doesn’t translate directly to progress, but do go right up to that boundary point.
Training Volume and Intensity
Training the primary move first in your workout is important 95% of the time. There may be a case for pre-exhaust training if you are particularly struggling to break through at some point, but for this example we’ll keep it simple.
Training volume generally refers to the number of sets and reps you do in a given time. High volume = large sets and high rep counts.
Training intensity with respect to resistance training refers to the weight you are lifting. High intensity = heavy weight (roughly 70% of your one-rep max and above).
To bring up a particular movement, in this case your bench, you will want to work with varying rep ranges, which will be partly dictated by varying intensity.
Strength is improved most successfully with heavy weight and low reps, but hypertrophic muscle growth is stimulated by time under tension and metabolic stress.
Until someone says any different, maximum growth will come from training muscles to failure with controlled concentric and eccentric contractions. That covers the maximum time under tension side of things.
The metabolic stress aspect will be improved by limiting your rests between sets and pushing the envelope. This sets off the chain of anabolic reactions in your body to achieve what is the basic goal: growth.
Your anchor point must always be the flat benchpress, but it doesn’t always need to be the primary bench movement during this process.
So for example:
- Chest Day 1 – Flat Bench always the first exercise
- Chest Day 2 – Alternate between Decline and Incline bench each week
Every week, Chest Day 1 (preferably after the 3 day break from chest) begins with the good old, regular, flat benchpress.
Here, your will warm up without feeling the burn in your chest muscles with a gradually increasing load. Then you will be at your progress weight.
Each week, perhaps every two weeks, you will be looking to add a little bit of weight to your bar. This is the very essence of progressive overload – the bedrock of resistance training and bodybuilding.
This is also the point in your week where you see this process of target-setting come to fruition.
Targets, Goals and Timeframes
Your goal is 225 lbs for 15 reps.
But by when?
Let’s be reasonable here. There’s no point saying you want to bust out 225 x 15 in a month from now if you are struggling with 135 x 8.
You’d basically need to double your reps and double your plates in 30 days, which would be in 8 sessions at the gym. It ain’t gonna happen.
Instead, work backwards using common sense and logic.
And hittable targets.
Your targets are weekly/fortnightly increases of weight on the bar.
Let’s take one of the smallest plates in the gym: the 2.5 lb.
It may seem small but stay with me here. Adding 2.5 lbs to each end of the bar, every week, will give you 90 lbs in 18 weeks.
That’s 18 Chest Day 1s to add 2 x 45 lb plates to your benchpress. It’s between 4 and 5 months of consistent progressive overload.
Now, I know, that’s a hell of a linear progression and .you’re probably asking something like, will it be that easy to add 5 lbs to my bench every week, particularly when you are edging closer to that 225 lb goal?
Consider this: if your goal was 205 lbs and not 225, would it get more difficult when you are approaching the 200-205 lb goal?
Perhaps, but that’s all part of the psychological game, not necessarily a physical limiter. There are people who will struggle the closer they get of course. There will one day be a goal you struggle to achieve.
In fact, the closer you get to your maximum potential, the harder each single pound is to add to the bar. That’s life.
I doubt 225 x 15 is that maximum potential though, and if it somehow happened to be the case, then you’d still make progress following a simple, consistent and progressive strategy.
What makes the difference between continued success and stagnation.
Well, that’s where a mix of controllable factors and uncontrollable factors come into play, the latter of which you are at the mercy of.
These are the things that actually make the most difference to your rate of success. Lifting heavy weights is just a stimulus.
The actual muscle growth happens when you rest, the raw material comes from the food you eat and the medium comes from the water you drink.
Those are your three most important controllable factors right there:
Beyond that, you’ve got supplements. Supplemental protein is an absolute must for anyone looking to add muscle mass. It’s too convenient and scientifically proven to be anything but mandatory.
Your training is another input you have complete control over.
Training and Adaptation
Follow the same routine for long enough and your body will adapt to it. Once it has adapted too much, your progress will stagnate.
That’s where program design comes into play. If you haven’t already begun to learn about different training methods, periodization, specific movements, rep ranges and set design then I recommend getting into it.
Training variations are how we can continue to improve and adapt to the stimulus of resistance and load, tension and metabolic stress.
Some people refer to this as “keeping your muscles guessing” but that’s a horrific bro-science term that comes up short in every way.
Constantly throwing curveballs at your muscles is not the way to go about things, and it’s not how muscles adapt. Career powerlifters integrate the squat, benchpress and deadlift into their workouts for years, but they switch up aspects of those vital stimuli to generate improvement.
It’s about mastering and tweaking aspects of your training – be it sets, reps, intervals, rests, duration, frequency, volume, intensity etc. – in order to stimulate progress.
One of the aspects you can tweak is the way in which you train your secondary, support and stabilization muscles.
If you want to bench bigger, you will need to develop all of the muscles that are involved, and the beautiful thing about that is that there are many muscles to train.
Those will help improve other lift movements, which will in-turn help develop more muscle groups.
Compound Lifts Before Isolation
I’m getting a bit beyond the scope of this article here, but it’s important to remember that your benchpress (for this example) must be the first exercise you do on the vast majority of your chest days.
The benchpress is a compound movement, or multi-joint movement, because it uses more than one joint and more than one muscle group.
It’s also the lift you’re trying to put the most effort into, and so should be the one you perform first when you have the most energy.
The triceps are a good group to hit after the bench, given that they are the main assistance muscles. They will also be partially fatigued after the benchpress so you may as well finish them off.
Others find success in splitting chest and triceps to different days so they can get the maximum output from both groups. That might mean changing to chest + biceps, and back + triceps days.
Your lats are stabilizers during the bench, as is the core. Even leg drive is important to maximize the lift.
Of course, there’s also the additional chest exercises you can do. Most people who are bringing up a muscle group in this way will also perform some varied dumbbell, cable, machine, unilateral and variable resistance work to really hit all the areas of the muscle group.
Examples include: dumbbell flyes, single arm press (unilateral), cable cross-over, resistance band pushups, dips, underarm benchpress etc.
Machines are great for really taking a group to failure without risk of injury. They are often more efficient than other equipment for drop sets because all you need to do is move the rack pin and start lifting again.
Hopefully, that’s provided a bit of an insight into how you can use your targets and goals to obliterate those weird obstacles you put up for yourself.
Social Media posts can now be a video of you hitting that weeks target, explaining how to people and/or giving them advice if they want to know more. How much more fulfilling is that than filtering through sixteen thousand booty pics.
Motivation is no longer a problem, considering you have a target to hit every week or two and that goal of yours is getting increasingly more attainable. Aimlessness is why we sometimes lack drive. There should always be a point to the things we do.
Doing nothing because there’s too much out there to do…that’s a thing of the past. You have focus now. An goal to get, targets to hit. Procrastination is dead to you.
Cheat the Grind???!! – You are in the grind now my friend. Grinding your way up to that goal weight with every tiny plate you add.
Can you see how this relatively easy change to your training program could make you progress so much more efficiently?
This is just one example of many as well. You could take the benchpress targets and apply them to other compound lifts you want to improve on.
Once each one is brought up to the standard you want you can shift focus to another, while maintaining that one.
Think of the amount of ground you will cover simply by incorporating these small incremental weight changes to your program, then start thinking what other types of targets and goals you can set out to hit.
As always, I appreciate feedback, and if you are looking for some help in any particular area, give me a shout.
Thanks for reading.