Here are the pillars that create gym success. I will explore them in detail shortly.
- Pillar #1 - Consistency
- Pillar #2 - Progression
- Pillar #3 - Patience
- Pillar #4 - Food
- Pillar #5 - Listen
What do these pillars mean? Simple...if you stop missing workouts, push each set for as many reps as possible and add weight when you can, understand that gains take years and not weeks, eat enough food to allow your body to recover and grow, and listen to your body and learn to evolve your training and diet based on needs, you will reach your strength and muscle building goals.
That’s the magic you are seeking. Always has been, and always will be the mechanism that drives gains. If you pick a reasonable and trusted workout program and apply these pillars, you will reach your goals.
The lifter who isn’t making progress is missing workouts, impatient and looking for quick results, has no concrete progressive overload approach, is afraid to overeat and gain one microgram of fat or isn't taking nutrition seriously at all, and jumps around from program to program thinking that someday one of these workouts will turn him into Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronnie Coleman.
Let’s look at each of the pillars and try to understand why they are important.
Pillar #1 - Stay Consistent
This is an obvious, but important rule. If you're missing more than a handful of workouts each year something has to change. Perhaps you're simply trying to hit the gym each week using more days than your schedule realistically allows. If so, it's ok to drop a training day or two per week and use a less demanding schedule. You will still make progress and experience quality gains.
Remember that results come from progression of weight over time. You don't need to live in the gym to reach your goals. Do what it takes to remain consistent.
Pick a program and stick to the program. Make sure your current program fits your lifestyle. If work or school is kicking your ass and you find yourself short on time, it doesn’t make sense to try and train 5 to 6 times per week for 90 minutes a pop.
Successful lifters get it done. They don’t make excuses and find a way to get to the gym. If you are making excuses rather than finding ways to lift, you are only shooting yourself in the foot.
Another point regarding consistency: you need to keep working out year in and year out. Too many trainees hit the gym hard for 3, 6, 9 or even 12 months and then fall away. They frequently take periods of time away from the iron and lose their momentum.
Far too many trainees place unrealistic demands and burdens upon themselves. They race out of the starting gate like madmen, only to fizzle and burnout a few months later. I've seen this happen way too many times over the years, even to the hardest and smartest working lifters.
Consistency is not just about getting your butt to the gym. Consistency is also about choosing a workout system that doesn't burn you out so that you can continue to lift week in and week out, year in and year out.
Find a way to keep lifting. Lifting is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.
Can you imagine the progress you would make during the coming year if you completely dedicated yourself to not missing workouts? I can. In fact, I can tell which lifters are going to make rapid progress, and which lifters aren't by their obsession with getting back to the gym. They live, breathe and dream of progress. They know what they want, and are motivated to get it.
Pillar #2 - Get Strong: Progress in Weight
Constant progression is essential for continual lean muscle gains. Your body is smart and adapts to change very quickly. If you are not continually challenging it, your body will not respond by growing bigger muscle tissue.
Strength is not optional. Though you do not have to train for one rep max strength, or necessarily use low reps, you do have to get a heck of a lot stronger than you are now.
Without progression of weight, or progressive overload, nothing else matters. End of story. No amount of mind muscle connection or muscle confusion is going to allow you to build muscle if you are not pushing for more weight on the bar someway, somehow.
Everything you do in the weight room hinges on progressive overload.
You can add drop sets to your routine, but unless you progressively add weight over time your body will quickly adapt to the specific demands of drop sets. You can't continue to add more and more and more drop sets. Therefore, drop sets (and other advanced training techniques) are a nice tool, but without progressive overload they soon become limited in impact.
You can decrease rest between sets, but unless you progressively add weight over time your body will adapt to the specific demands of limited rest. You can't continue to decrease rest between sets forever. Sooner or later you run out of rest to decrease and the rest pause approach will return right back to the need to add weight to the bar. If you don't believe me, do some research on Doggcrapp Training. DC Training utilizes rest pause sets, but preaches progression, progression, progression.
Remember this truth – there are no weak bodybuilders. Yes, I know you've heard bodybuilders say things like...strength doesn't matter. You know what happens next? They head to the gym and squat 405 for 12 reps, followed by 455 pounds for a 6 rep set. Strength does matter. These guys built their physiques on progressive overload.
The message they are trying to get across to you is that absolute strength doesn't matter. You don't have to get as strong as a powerlifter, nor do you need to necessarily perform low rep sets. You do need to get a heck of a lot stronger than you are now.
I have personally interviewed, trained with and spoken to an army of professional natural bodybuilders. These are the biggest drug-free lifters in the world. There isn't a single one of them that is weak. Each of them is Herculean in strength, in a relative sense.
Bottom line – if you want to build muscle, dramatically improve your strength levels compared to where you are now. This is the magic. Progression drives gains.
Pillar #3 - Be Patient
You can't build 10 pounds of muscle in a month, no matter what anyone tells you. You might be able to build 1-2 pounds of muscle or add 1/4 inch to your arms in a month, but that’s about it.
Each workout is a step. If you don’t enjoy that step, and attempt to maximize that step, results will never come.
Over the years I’ve seen armies of guys hit the gym and neither enjoy, nor maximize their workouts. If this sounds like you, changes need to be made. It’s time to put yourself on a program you actually look forward too, and it’s time to learn how to maximize each set.
Once you are able to enjoy lifting, and appreciate where your daily progress is taking you, then you stand a chance.
Remain patient. Muscle and strength building takes time. Make a long term plan. Set goals to change your physique and strength levels over the course of 3-4 years, not 3-4 months. Enjoy the journey.
To be fully committed to reaching your potential you'll need to adopt a new lifestyle, not a 10 week “toning” program. Once you build muscle, guess what? It will disappear unless you keep training. Once you build strength, guess what? You will get weaker unless you keep training. Once you get ripped and carve out the perfect beach body, guess what? You'll have to work your back end off (literally) to continue to look that good.
Fitness and health isn't a “90 day magical program.” It involves commitment and completely changing your habits. You must be patient.
Most of us have seen magazine headlines that look like this: “Gain 30 pounds of muscle in 60 days!” This is nonsense. 100% pure bull crap. Unless you are underweight to begin with, it will take you at best 4 years to build 30 pounds of muscle. Naturally, that is.
The same goes for hitting a 300 pound bench press. There are some trainees who are gifted at benching. You'll get no argument from me on that point. But the rest of us will struggle reaching a 300 pound bench press. A bench press program might give us a 30-40 pound boost, but odds are it still might take you years and years to press 300 pounds off your chest.
Pillar #4 - Eat to Match Your Goals
One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced lifters make is the neglecting of nutrition. The human body is like any other high performance machine. It requires a quality fuel source to perform at its peak.
To maximize the muscle building process, you must maximize your nutrition. If you neglect your diet you will limit your results.
Eating “healthy” is not good enough. Guessing how many calories or grams of protein you eat per day is not good enough. You will need to have some reasonable grasp of calorie and protein intake.
Over the years I've heard the following comment hundreds of times: “I am eating healthy but not making any muscle or strength gains.” The problem with eating healthy is twofold:
- First, the concept of “eating healthy” means different things to different people. To some folks it means eating low fat, and for some folks it means eating reduced calories. "Eating healthy" is a worthless phrase because it is vague, and means different things to different people.
- Eating healthy is not the same as eating optimally to maximize the muscle building process.
Eating has become so complicated. The average skinny guy has become so afraid of gaining fat that they tend to eat far less than they should. No wonder why progress comes slowly.
On the other side of the fence, you have the average overweight 20-something. These guys are convinced that they need a radical or extreme dieting approach when all they really need is to stop eating junk and processed foods.
Eating is not rocket surgery. If you weigh 130 pounds and have the goal of being a muscular 200 pounds, you need to eat more food. If you weigh 240 pounds and have the goal of being a muscular 200 pounds, you need to start by making better food choices.
If you are thin, stop worrying that eating more clean food will turn you into a sumo wrestler. It won’t. Individuals who gain a substantial amount of extra fat have to work hard at it. They overeat crap and processed foods (and drinks) day in and day out for many, many years.
A little extra healthy food will allow you to build and get stronger. Will you gain some fat? Possibly, but if so, not much. During my prime gaining years I added 35 pounds to my frame. About 30 of that was muscle.
I went from a skinny-fat 150 to an impressively muscular 185. Despite adding this trivial amount of fat, I actually looked 10 times better.
The average skinny guy will only focus on the 5 extra pounds of fat I gained. He can’t picture what the addition of muscle will do to his body. This "hardgainer" fears a fat gain so much that he undereats and wastes time in the gym, never reaching his goals.
If you are overweight, your first goal should be to eat better. Drop the cookies, chips and sugary drinks. You didn’t gain fat because you were overeating steak and apples.
Don’t rush out to starve yourself. Eat better, start to lift, do a little cardio and see what happens. Reduce calories slightly (SLIGHTLY), or clean up your diet even more if the scale isn’t moving.
Regardless of your goals, focus on good nutrition and be patient. Remember you are enterting into a new lifestyle. Change will take time. Eat in a manner that is aligned with your new goals.
Pillar #5 - Listen To Your Body, Evolve Your Training & Diet Based On Needs
Have you ever noticed that no two experienced lifters train the same way? Why is that? The simple, but obvious answer is that each lifter is unique.
Over the years, successful lifters have learned to evolve their training style based on needs. They didn’t follow a cookie cutter template, but rather made changes based on body feedback and results.
Some trainees find that using a higher volume is too much to handle, while others made faster progress using a higher volume of sets. Some trainees make rapid progress using slightly higher rep ranges, while others find their progress groove after lowering the number of reps per set.
Instead of jumping from program to program to program, most seasoned iron vets have molded a program to fit their physical and mental needs. Part of this, believe it or not, involves enjoyment.
You might find rest-pause training to be a perfect fit, while another lifter enjoys training with a high volume of low rep sets using an extended period of rest in between. Or perhaps leg presses bore the living snot out of you, but walking lunges fit your bone structure better.
Each of us is a completely unique physiological package. We have different sleeping patterns, work demands, stress levels, coping mechanisms, recovery abilities, body types, bone structures, etc. It is far better to evolve your training based on what works and doesn’t work; what feels good and doesn’t feel good, then to just blindly try to follow some program designed by Lifter X.
Programs are a starting point. It's ok to try programs, but you do not have to remain chained to them. Take what works from each program, discard what doesn't.
Click over to any weight training forum and you’re likely to find several lifters remarking: “I have decided to use Smolov/the Texas Method/Doggcrapp/whatever.” One to two weeks later you typically hear: “I decided to dump (whatever workout system) because it was not right for me.”
Instead of trying to intelligently morph these programs to fit their specific needs, the lifter attempted to blindly follow the workout protocol, hoping everything would feel perfect. This is insanity.
Instead of dumping the program, our lifter should have assessed what about the program wasn’t working, and made changes. This is called training evolution.
Program hoppers continue to hope and dream of finding the perfect program. The “perfect” program doesn’t exist. Your needs are always changing. Instead of seeking perfection, learn to make adjustments.
If 4 sets of an exercise feels like it is too much, try 3. If six reps on the bench press feels uncomfortable, try 8. If 30 second rest-pause work feels impossible, try 45 seconds. If you can’t recover from the 10x10 protocol of German Volume Training, reduce it to an 8x8 and see how that feels.
Understand that I am not telling you to avoid trying new programs. Not at all. But if these programs don’t feel right, instead of dumping them after 2 days, try making minor changes. Evolve the program based on your unique needs.
Learning to evolve your workouts will help maximize gains and minimize injuries.
Excellent article Steve!
I admit that although I go to the gym everyday and desperately wish to see gains, I am also terrified of losing my long worked for six pack. I feel that my strict dietary habits are hindering my ability to make gains. Is it impossible to maintain a six pack whilst also making gains?
Hi I've just read your post and I feel so much better about working out, ive been so confused about what to do and really stressed over it. I've been working out for a month and now feel comfortable enough to relax into working out and as you mention enjoy doing it. I'm joining the army in 28 days I believe I'm fit enough to pass my training but if you have any pointers or any tips for cardio let me know , cheers darren
Thanks for all the beneficial information Steve,,I'm overweight at the height of 185cm and weighing 100kgs. I don't have time to do cardio and I like lifting heavy so if you could advise me on a programme. What do you think about Stronglift 5*5 , I'm now using this programme but I've heard that squatting 3 times a week is not good.
Could not agree more with the previous comments, Steve. A truly well-written and plain-speaking article full of excellent tips and common-sense. Stuff that can appied to newbies and pro's alike I'm sure. You should be pleased Steve - you've hit several nails right on their heads!!!
Thanks! Stay strong.
I've found your advice super useful, and this article is one I'll share with fellow lifter friends struggling to make since of it all.
Your insight is extremely beneficial, especially to someone like me who hasn't been weight lifting for very long. I always enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the good work!
Thanks Derek and stay strong!
Without a doubt the most spot on piece I have ever read on how to make progress. This should be giving to everyone who joins a gym anywhere wanting to get fitness results.
Amazing Article Steve, as always!! Especially Piller 5. Its so true...
This is probably the clearest, most complete and concise writing I've ever read on the subject of strength training.
Essential reading for all.
All excellent points which are of a tremendous help.
Thank you and keep up the great work
Thanks for the kind words James!