So far in this series, I’ve covered the best way to build muscle mass. In the Primer phase, you fix weak links, perfect the execution of your lifts, and learn to maintain form close to failure. This primes you for growth. Then, in the Build phase, you build on these foundations and gain muscle as efficiently as possible. Eventually, the Build phase comes to an end. At this stage, people often gravitate towards a cutting phase. This makes sense. To display your physique at its best you need relatively low levels of body fat.
Bulking up in the Build phase makes you look better with a shirt on but, there will inevitably be some fat gain. If you have an event, pool party or beach holiday coming up you’ll likely want to strip away the body fat to reveal your new more muscular physique.
The traditional bulk and cut approach is an example of how this process is most often performed. Most people simply bulk, cut, rinse and repeat. This works ok, but there is a missing piece of the puzzle needed for it to work exceptionally. The P.B.S. framework fixes this by including that missing piece.
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The mistake I see too many guys make (this is especially true of naturally skinny guys) is that immediately after finishing their bulk they cut aggressively. There are several reasons why this is not ideal:
- For hardgainers, this is likely guaranteed to mean they lose the final few pounds of muscle they built almost immediately.
- The training needed to effectively strip fat is similar to the training you did in your bulk. Switching straight to a calorie deficit and trying to use the same training style just means you are fighting an uphill battle. Trying to match previous gym performance with less fuel and a considerable amount of adaptive resistance thrown in. This makes the fat loss efforts harder than they need to be. This affects hardgainers but is a far bigger concern for people who tend to struggle to get lean.
- Taking a low-volume training phase where you maintain body weight solves these two issues. For the hardgainer, it means they can hold onto their hard-fought gains.
- As an added bonus, it means that the cut is a breeze. Hardgainers can get lean pretty easily. When you remove the obstacle of adaptive resistance and let their body settle at the new more muscular version they strip fat at an alarming rate all while retaining the pretty new muscle mass they built.
- For regular guys or even those predisposed to higher body fat levels, the solidification phase primes them for a more effective cut. The fatigue of high-volume training gets washed away and their fat loss training sessions are more effective. This length of this effectiveness is extended by the fact that they took the lower volume strength phase. In their case, it is like extending the runway for a plane coming into land. It gives them more margin for error, makes it a less bumpy ride, and means they can glide into their destination comfortably.
For all of those reasons, I urge you to take the last critical step needed to build your best body before beginning your cut. This final step is a Solidification phase and I genuinely believe it is the missing piece of the puzzle that prevents most guys from achieving the biggest and leanest physique possible for them.
A Solidification phase addresses two main issues:
- What to do when you hit a muscle gain plateau
- How to reduce the risk of muscle loss when you cut
What is Solidification?
Solidification is the name I use because this phase solidifies the gains you’ve made. It helps you to retain all of the muscle you’ve built when you transition to a cut. Without this phase, I’ve seen tons of guys pack on size in a build phase but then, lose much of this newfound muscle immediately when they transition to a calorie deficit as they begin cutting. Muscle gain is much slower than fat loss so it is a huge mistake to sacrifice muscle mass by aggressively cutting too soon. Instead, you should consolidate your gains and lock them in for the long term.
The solidification phase achieves this. The Solidification phase combines low-volume strength training with a diet designed to maintain your weight. Maintaining your weight at the end of a bulk makes the weight you’ve gained stick. It allows you to “own” the new higher body weight you’ve reached. Thus, when you transition to a cut after maintaining your body weight during the solidification phase you retain the muscle mass much better. This is a game-changer for the typical hardgainer who so often sees all of their gains vanish when they cut.
Why Can’t I Just Keep Building?
Incorporating phases of lower volume training is a smart move to help you to keep growing muscle long-term.
Sadly, this strategy is massively underutilized. Too many of us are scared that our muscles will vanish if we back off in the gym for a day. Let alone, a week or an entire month. This mindset is putting the handbrake on your hypertrophy!
When I first explain a Solidification phase to clients, I often get a response along the lines of, “But I want to pack on more size. Can’t I just keep bulking up with a longer Build phase?”.
While chasing mores size gains is appealing it is rarely a wise move if you’ve already undertaken several months of hard, effective, efficient high-volume training. This is exactly what you’ve done in a Build phase. The reason that trying to extend a Build phase longer is problematic is based on a few principles I’ve covered before in this series:
- Repeated Bout Effect
- Diminishing Returns
- Maximal Recoverable Volume
- Adaptive Resistance
Rather than cover these all in-depth again, here is a quick summary of why these factors combine to create a natural conclusion to a Build phase.
The body is an amazingly adaptive machine. The more you do something the more the body adapts and the less you get from it. Constantly hammering high-volume bodybuilding training is an example of this. After the 4 mini-phases that comprise a complete Build phase, you’ve had several months of grueling training. Your body has made most of the adaptations needed to survive the onslaught of the Build phase workouts. Adaptive resistance has set in and doing more of the same will yield little benefit and might push you beyond your capacity to recover.
In short, if you keep doing the same style of training it will eventually stop working. Doing more of the same will not overcome this fact. Yet this is exactly the mistake most gym junkies make. Avoid this mistake and make a strategic change to your training to set you up for success in the future.
At the end of a long mass gain phase, you accumulate a lot of fatigue, your body becomes less insulin sensitive, it adapts to the high volumes and requires you to do even more to overload the system. This all sets you up for a higher chance of fat gain, overtraining, and/or injury. Properly timed deloads can help mitigate these risks for a while but, they cannot compensate for months of hard training.
Once you’ve established that gaining more mass isn’t an efficient strategy short-term you then must consider what will allow you to build the most muscle long-term.
The solution is a Solidification phase. This is because a solidification phase could also be called a re-sensitization phase. It provides the perfect training stimulus at the perfect time to help you progress long-term.
Taking a minimum effective dose to total volume and focusing on strength in the short term is the best approach. It will allow you to:
- Gain strength
- Solidify the size gains you’ve made
- Reduce fatigue
- Re-sensitize you to muscle-building training
You see, it is possible to maintain muscle mass on relatively low training volumes. Reducing training volume and training for strength isn’t even a case of one step back to take two forward. It is more, “taking a step sideways to make two massive jumps forward”.
By reducing your training volume to maintenance levels for a month or so you can re-sensitive your body to volume again. This means you are more receptive to the style of training that makes a Build phase so effective. Then ramp volume back up in your next Build phase to push the muscle-building envelope even further.
Taking a Solidification phase allows you to overcome the fatigue accumulated from months of high-volume bodybuilding style training. This allows for fuller systemic recovery than is possible from a standard week-long deload.
Even better, you will also be stronger after a maintenance phase of training. Ever heard someone say, “fatigue masks fitness”? Well, it’s true.
During the Build phase, your fatigue levels climb higher and higher. At this point, you have pushed up to, or just beyond your body’s ability to recover. The huge levels of fatigue accumulated mean that you cannot display your true strength.
After a period of lower volume training, focusing on the strength rep ranges this fatigue dissipates and you can finally display your true potential in the gym. Do it right and you’ll be smashing PRs at the end of your Solidification phase.
This increase in strength then acts as a Launchpad for future mass gains. This means you can handle heavier loads for sets of 6-15 reps when you switch back to Build phase training. More weight at a given rep range equals a more powerful growth stimulus and more training volume.
That’s a recipe for faster growth!
Solidification Phase Training Guidelines:
- A Solidification phase should last 2-4 weeks (I suggest you make it 4 weeks for best results)
- Reduce training frequency to either 3 or 4 times per week (if doing 3 x week follow a full-body program. Use an upper/lower split if doing 4 x week)
- Focus on compound exercises (e.g. squats variations, chin-ups or pull-ups, bench press, & rows)
- Train for strength using rep schemes like 3x5
Solidification Phase Nutrition Guidelines:
- Eat enough calories to maintain weight (hint: not sure what this is? Try 15 x your body weight in pounds)
- If your weight fluctuates up or down by more than a pound adjust your calorie intake accordingly
- Have 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight
- Eat 0.45-0.6g of fat per pound of bodyweight based on preference
- The remainder of calories comes from carbs (hint: this is often about half of what you had at the peak of your bulk)
Putting It All Together
To give you an overview of how the whole P.B.S. sequence goes, here’s a good structure, assuming you’re currently relatively lean or approximately 10% body fat:
- Primer Phase: 4 weeks
- Build Phase: 12-16 weeks (aim to gain 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week until you reach about 15-18% body fat)
- Solidification Phase: 4 weeks (maintain new high bodyweight)
- Cut: 3-8 weeks until you reach 8-10%
Repeat until huge and ripped!