It's unfortunate but most people never reach their body goals. They purchase gym memberships, home fitness gadgets, diet plans and DVDs, yet remain unable to build muscle and/or get lean.
This isn't always due to a lack of discipline either. Gyms are packed with men and woman performing resistance training routines, and grinding out miles upon miles on treadmills. Most of these folks are very health conscious, and eat reasonably well, all things considered.
Despite this dedication, you don't see many fit, muscular and lean physiques. You do see a lot of individuals that are "in shape", meaning they aren't overweight and have added some muscle mass, but their bodies lack the muscular development and degree of leanness that they desire.
So then, the question becomes...now what? What to do when you are dedicated but don't know how to reach that next level? Such a broad question can be hard to answer, but I'll try to present some tips that may just be a game changer for you.
10 tips to help you build muscle
#1. Maximize every set
I don't believe in wasting gym time. By maximizing every set, I know that I am maximizing every workout and my muscle building results. Here's what I recommend:
Push every set for as many reps as possible.
Stop a set when you feel like you might fail on the next rep, or when your form starts to slip. By using this approach you will be challenging your muscles to a greater degree, and maximizing overload by adding more weight to the bar over time.
This seems like an obvious tip, but very few folks train in this manner. If you're looking to add muscle mass as quickly as possible, the act of pushing each set to its limits is the single best practice you can adopt in the gym.
#2 - Stop working out, start training
Many people work out, but few train. What do I mean? Let me explain.
How many times have you said: "Man, I killed it in the gym today! I worked up a great sweat and destroyed my body!" This is all good and well, but burning calories and punishing your body doesn't necessarily equate to a good bodybuilding workout.
Muscle building is not about burning calories, breaking a sweat, or necessarily punishing your body. To build muscle you need bodybuilding-specific goals.
Because progressive overload is king, I suggest the simple goal of trying to improve each set by at least one rep compared to your previous workout. This will allow you to continually push your body, get a lot stronger than you are now, and as a result speed up the muscle building process.
Train for the goal of progress, not pain or sweat.
Tip # 3 - Understand the lifting food chain
Training tools like drop sets, supersets, rest-pause training, slow negatives and burn sets are all good and well, but if you are not adding weight to the bar over time when using these tools, your body will adapt and gains will slow or stall.
Using advanced training techniques is ok, but they are not a replacement for progressive overload. No matter how you train, if you are not pushing exercises for more reps per set, and more weight over time, workouts will still feel "intense" but lack the potent mechanism that drives gains.
Tip #4 - Forget the idea of magic programs
One of the biggest mistakes I see is the obsession over finding a magic workout system. Magic training systems don't exist. Find a reputable workout plan, and stick with it.
Consistency and progressive overload are magic. The reality is this: most trainees fail not because of programs, but because they don't remain consistent, and don't push to add weight to the bar.
The best choice you can make is to find a workout system that motivates you to train, stick with it, and tweak it to fit your schedule and needs. Far too many times a lifter will try a program for a few days, dislike certain aspects, and move on to a new program.
If you don't like certain things about a system, change them. Remember, progress and consistency are more important than specific training tools.
Tip #5 - Try this simple 12 set protocol for major muscle groups
Don't know how to structure workouts for major body parts such as chest, back, legs and shoulders? Try this simple 12 set structure:
- Exercise #1 - Compound exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #2 - Compound exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #3 - Machine exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #4 - Isolation/finisher exercise, 3 sets
Here you start with the most impactful compound exercises, such as squats, barbell rows, military press and bench press. You then move on to a second compound exercise. This movement should be slightly different in nature, such as the incline dumbbell bench press or leg press.
You can finish out the session with a machine and isolation movement. Here you can insert some advanced training techniques if you desire, such as slower negatives or drop sets.
Tip #6 - Push away from "minimalist" protein and calorie intake
When it comes to muscle building nutrition, some sources will tell you that you never need to eat more than 150 grams of protein per day, or more than 200-300 calories over maintenance. Well "never" doesn't work well if you aren't making progress. It's important that you try new things and make changes and tweaks if your current diet plan isn't working.
If you're pushing hard in the gym, adding weight to the bar and remaining consistent, but gains aren't coming...then it's likely your eating plan is holding you back. Try bumping your calories up by an additional 300 per day, and increase your protein intake by 30 grams.
These small changes might be exactly what's needed to move you from slow gainer to steady gainer. You have nothing to lose by trying to increase food intake for a month. Food is magic for the natural trainee. It can bolster recovery and strength gains, which will only help add more muscle in the long run.
If walking the minimalist line isn't working, add a bit more daily protein and calories.
Tip #7 - Use the "if you can't get it done in an hour" rule
I am often asked if it's ok to train longer than an hour. My response is simple:
If you can't get a good muscle building workout done in an hour, something's wrong.
This is not to say you can't, or shouldn't train longer than an hour. My point is simple: if you don't feel like you've "got it done" within the first hour of training, extra time in the gym probably won't help you.
Focus on quality first. Once you know that each and every workout is effective, then analyze whether more time in the gym might be beneficial. More is not better if your existing workouts are lacking.
Tip #8 - Give rest-pause work a try
I am a huge fan of rest-pause work for muscle building. The premise is very simple: you restrict rest in between sets to 20-30 seconds tops, and push every set for as many reps as possible. This approach allows you to tax a muscle, and beat it while it's down (so to speak).
Rest-pause workouts will move along rather quickly, and work better with a higher set volume. Don't panic though, rest-pause training isn't the same as high volume training. If you perform 5 rest-pause sets on the bench press, with only 30 seconds of rest between sets, your rep volume will drop dramatically per set.
So even though you are performing 5 sets, your total reps will be less. You'll also likely need to perform fewer total exercises, as rest-pause training can be particularly brutal.
Tip #9 - Stop half-efforting your exercises
The 2 biggest sins committed in an average gym are:
- Low-rep, buddy assisted bench press sets. You know how these sets go; your training partner or spotter typically is rowing the weight for you.
- Half-squats. Lifters will slap on too much weight, sink 4 inches and call this movement a "squat." It's not, and is hard on the knees to boot.
You are far better off dropping the weight on these exercises and maintaining proper form (and depth). It's nearly impossible to build quality chest and leg muscle when you are not taking squats and bench press seriously.
Drop your ego, drop the weight, hit the Internet and learn proper form, and progress from there.
Tip #10 - Build a base from head to toe
Not sure if your workout program is decent, or if you are training properly? Build a base.
My advice to trainees during their first 2-3 years of lifting is simple: get everything from head to toe as strong as humanly possible using conventional hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep ranges. These rep ranges are primarily 5-12 reps per set for compound lifts, and up to 15 reps per set for machines, cables, and isolation exercises.
By building a strength base, you will also be building a muscle base. While you don't need to train for one rep max strength, if your body is a lot stronger than it was 3 years ago, your muscle size will have improved dramatically.
10 tips to help you strip fat
Tip #1 - Use resistance training to build, and diet and cardio to burn
When stripping away fat, you also want to maximize your existing muscle tissue. If you don't, you will risk losing fat and muscle as you shed pounds, and end up thinner but with an unathletic physique.
Don't use resistance training as a "calorie or fat burn." Instead, continue to train normally in the gym, pushing for more weight on the bar (or at least try to hold on to your current strength levels). Use cardio and your diet to knock off the fat.
This simple tip, more than any other, will assist you in building your dream body while shedding the pounds. The human body needs a reason to hold on to muscle tissue during a cutting diet. Resistance training is the mechanism that does just that.
Tip #2 - Drop your calories slowly; don't make big jumps
This is a huge mistake that most men and women make. When they decide to lose weight or go on a cutting diet, daily calorie intake is dropped substantially. Don't do this.
Instead, pull back your calories slowly. I recommend dropping calories by only 300-400 per day during the first 2 weeks. This minor adjustment may be enough to lose weight consistently. This small change, compared to a sudden 1,000 calorie drop per day, is much easier to stick to. Duh, right? Why make your diet more difficult than it needs to be.
If after 2 weeks your fat burning rate isn't where you want it to be, drop calories by another 200 per day and monitor weight loss for an additional 2 weeks. Set a goal to lose about 2 pounds of fat per week, 3 pounds tops. This is usually an optimal rate for individuals looking to hold on to as much muscle tissue as possible while shedding fat.
This combination will help give you the athletic and/or muscular body you are after.
Tip #3 - Don't overkill cardio
Your diet should be the primary driving force behind your fat loss. For this reason, you want to dial in you calories first before adding in extra cardio sessions. In fact, you may not need to add in any additional cardio at all.
Aim for 3-4 cardio sessions per week, of 20-30 minutes each. This is an excellent way to improve your overall health and cardiovascular endurance. Don't add in any extra cardio sessions unless your weight loss stalls on your current diet.
If you are losing fat at a consistent rate, there is no need to increase your cardio. Don't mess with what is working.
Tip #4 - Drop resistance training set volume when cutting
When moving to a fat loss diet, I recommend keeping the same workout intensity (weight and reps per set), but decreasing the number of sets you do per exercise or workout. Recovery will be more difficult when you are eating fewer calories, so a reduction in overall sets by 20-30% may be beneficial.
So if you are performing 4 sets of 10 reps on the bench press, drop a set. If you are performing 20 total sets on leg day, back the volume down to 14-16 total sets.
Remember...do not decrease the weight used. You still want to push hard in the gym, maximizing each and every set (see the tip above in the muscle building section).
Tip #5 - Break away from boring cardio
Cardio doesn't have to be boring. In fact, cardio SHOULDN'T be boring. Get off the treadmill or elliptical and do something fun.
You cardio sessions can involve any form of movement. Go for a hike or swim. Try rollerblading or ice skating. If you can't break free from the gym, then try complexes, circuits or HIIT sprints on the treadmill. Even kettlebell swings are far more engaging than grinding out miles staring at a wall or TV screen.
Find a form of cardio you like. Exercise shouldn't be tedious. A calorie burned is a calorie burned. It doesn't matter how you burn calories, as long as you do so.
Tip #6 - Move away from low-fat and low-sugar processed foods
Try to avoid eating too many "low-fat" and "low-sugar" foods while on a cutting diet. Low-fat foods usually have added sugars and ingredients (thickeners), etc., to make them taste better. Low-sugar foods often have fats added to them to improve taste.
"Low" anything is not an indication that a food product is inherently healthier. Instead of opting for these types of foods, stick to whole foods such as meats, veggies, fruits, dairy, eggs and grains. Whole foods are more nutrient dense and will help you remain satisfied when trying to burn off extra fat.
On the other hand, food that isn't as nutrient dense might trigger cravings, as your body seeks to obtain vital nutrients for every day bodily functions.
Tip #7 - Stop eating bland meals that make dieting hard to stick to
A fat burning diet doesn't need to be comprised of plain meat, carbs and veggies. It's ok to have food that tastes good. Check out the recipes section here at M&S for some tasty suggestions.
If you hate, or are bad at cooking, try placing some simple sauces on your meats. They are very easy to make, and pack a lot of flavor. I use some of the following combinations:
- Abodo sauce (found in nearly every grocery store, look for it) and a small amount of heavy cream on tilapia
- Sour cream and salsa over chicken
- Hot sauce and minced garlic over beef and pork
I also make spinach salads using a homemade dressing of red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Sauces and seasonings can be a game changer. Don't hesitate to purchase items like spice blends, garlic powder or hot sauces to add some taste to boring meals.
Tip #8 - Forget trends, bad advice and fad diets
Structure diet plans around your eating tendencies. There will be many telling you to eat "this way or that way", or trying to get you to use the latest fad diet of the month. While these folks (and even trainers) mean well, it's best to analyze your existing eating habits and structure a diet plan based around them.
If you are a big night time eater, save more of your calories for 5-9 pm. If you like to snack throughout the day, plan high protein, low calorie snacks that satisfy your cravings.
Spend a week documenting your eating times and food choices. Then, try to structure a high protein, healthy diet that best fits these habits. You will be more likely to stick to a cutting diet if it isn't leaving you hungry when you typically want to eat.
Tip #9 - Ignore week one weight loss
The weight you lose during week one indicates very little. Here's why... When you drop calories, you are also dropping your carb intake. When eating cleaner foods, there is also a strong likelihood that your sodium intake will drop as well.
Both carbohydrate and sodium intake encourage water retention. Less carbs and salt, the less water your body will hold. Because of this, you will flush a lot of water during your first week on a reduced calorie diet. This is not fat loss.
During the second and third week of your cutting diet, the water flushing process is pretty much over and your weekly weight loss rate will stabilize some. It is during these weeks that the true impact of your calorie intake will become apparent.
Tip #10 - Make your cheat windows flexible
Having a cheat meal (not a pig out) each week is a good idea. It will help keep your metabolism humming along smoothly. I recommend one of two ways to cheat:
- One hour of as much clean food as you want. This allows you to eat a little extra once a week, but keep your calories in check.
- One dirty meal per week of anything, as long as you limit the quantity of food to a single plate. This allows you to eat at family gatherings, holidays, etc., and relax a bit without looking like a "bodybuilder who brings their own Tupperware meals" snob.
I recommend keeping these cheat periods flexible. By this I mean instead of scheduling them, let life or cravings dictate when you cheat. If you are having a stressful day at work and want a little extra food tonight, allow yourself to have an one hour clean food cheating period. If your employer suddenly decides to buy everyone pizza for lunch, use your weekly cheat meal and put 3 slices on a plate.
I have found that when I plan cheat meals/windows I usually regret it. Something unplanned always comes up later in the week. For this reason I prefer to just let life happen and cheat as my week dictates.