There’s a secret code in our DNA that's hardwired into all of us. We all want gains.
Ok, I made that up, there isn’t a secret code in your DNA. Here’s what is true, though: there are countless people out there in the daily grind. Dedicated people up early to pump iron, meal prepping, protein shaking, and food guzzling...all in the name of gains.
With all the hype and hyperbole out there, the truth can get lost amidst the noise. Let’s clear that up and get down to the nitty gritty. Even a trainer may be holding back secrets by lying to you or because he doesn’t know any better.
1. You Don't Need a Magical Program
I know I am going to ruffle a lot of feathers with this one, but I’m going to give it to you completely straight. Your “secret program” with complicated training and rest days probably isn’t a magical combination of anything. Fancy programs aren’t needed to get results.
In fact, successful programs can be simple (think Wendler 5/3/1). If you aren’t making gains, the reason is simple:
- your program isn't hard enough, or
- it doesn't have enough volume.
When you look at the research on hypertrophy in detail, you see a common theme emerge. The key to gains is total volume and your work ethic.
Think I am full of it? Well how about the research study showing that a 2 day split and a 3 day split in elite level bodybuilders yielded the same gains.1 Or even better, a study comparing training at 25-35 reps or 8-12 reps yielded the same muscle growth.2
Go heavy and hard or…go light and hard? Either way, increased intensity and volume over time are the keys to making gains.
2. 3 Sets of 10 is not a Magic Number
We have all been there. Remember the days when you used to bang out 3 sets of 10 on the bench press in your old high school gym?
Well, it turns out there isn’t anything magical about 3 sets of 10 when it comes to muscle growth. When you look at the studies comparing rep and set schemes where total volume is held equivalent, 7 sets of 3 and 3 sets of 10 yield similar increases in muscle mass.
When you dig a little deeper, while there is no big difference in hypertrophy between 3 sets of 10 and 7 sets of 3, the 7 by 3 scheme led to strength gains in the trainee’s 1-RM.3
If you are trying to make strength and size gains, it might be helpful to incorporate more low rep, higher weight schemes into your training. Just keep in mind, you also have to increase the number of sets if you decrease the repetitions to keep volume equal. Hey, I never said gains would be easy.
3. DOMS/Soreness ≠ Progress
Not being able to sit on the toilet is a great story to tell your friends about how “hardcore” you are, but debilitating muscle soreness doesn’t equate to more muscle. Both research and anecdotes from the most successful athletes will tell you that DOMS doesn’t directly maximize growth.
Now that isn’t to say you should avoid DOMS. Sometimes your training session involves exercise that induces DOMS and that is totally fine. But, don’t be fooled into thinking you need to experience it after every session. You shouldn’t use it as a marker of an effective workout.
It might be the by-product of a heavy eccentric session, but don't go into the gym chasing DOMS, especially if it prevents you from training the same body part for 4-5 days.
4. Fasted Training is Dumb
For years it has been fitness lore that you burn more fat and get shredded training fasted. Sadly, that is not the case.
In a study comparing fed versus fasted cardio, training fasted showed no benefit for fat loss, and may have led to greater losses in muscle mass. Many people will train fasted during a fat loss cycle (a “cut”), but eating before training, especially whey protein, can preserve lean mass.
I don’t know about you, but I am not about to give up some hard earned lean mass just because I want to cut a few percentage points off my body fat.
Conversely, there are studies showing that if you eat before training you might elicit greater muscle growth than if you consume the same meal post workout or train fasted.4 Given that it is as easy as drinking some whey and eating a banana before you train, you should probably stop training fasted if you are focused on making gains.
5. You Aren't Eating Enough
When it comes to nutrition, the concept of calories is both the most and least well understood concept. There are big debates on the subject, but two very clear concepts remain:
- If you consume more calories than your body expends, you will gain weight.
- If you consume fewer calories than your body expends, you will lose weight.
Pretty simple, right? Well, truth be told, it is both simple and incredibly complex.
The Simple: When we boil it down, it really is balancing a scale. If you have more energy coming in than going out you gain weight (which is our focus). Likewise, if you have more energy going out than coming in, you lose weight (opposite of our focus).
The Complex: The balance of this scale is a quagmire. We know the 1 input to the equation: food. But what controls the output (energy expenditure) is dictated by more processes than you can imagine: exercise, non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), the thermic effect of food (TEF), thyroid hormone, cortisol, sex hormones, neural regulation (i.e. leptin signaling). Let me demonstrate with a figure.
Now you have 2 choices:
- You can freak out, try to control calories out by scrutinizing all the details (which is a bad idea because they are complex systems.)
- You can focus on the input (food).
Let's go with option 2. Dominate your food intake.
If you are hammering away in the gym, increasing volume (by increasing the weight, sets, or reps), not training fasted, and aren’t seeing any more progress, you aren’t eating enough.
Now I know you are going to say, “But I am eating enough, trust me, I eat so much”. Well, sorry, but you aren’t eating enough.
If you are a 6-foot, 185 pound male trying to put on mass you are going to need around 3,000 calories just to meet your daily energy expenditure. Add your training on top of that and the desire to put on muscle, and you will need to eat upwards of 4,000 calories day.
Trying to eat 4,000 calories in a day is not an easy task, especially if you adopt the chicken breast, broccoli, potato approach with your nutrition.
I mean, let’s say you go with a 30/40/30 ratio of protein/carbs/fat for your macros. That means you will be eating around 300 grams of protein and 400 grams of carbs.
That is an obscene amount of chicken breast and potatoes. If you want to reach your goals, you probably need to add in some more calorie dense foods (more calories per volume) like beef, eggs, rice, honey, nut butters, etc.
Bad Trainers or Just Uneducated?
I’ll let you make the call after reading this article, but in the end, does it really matter? That fact of the matter is, now you have the resources necessary to meet your goals.
The real question is, what are you going to do about it?
- Effect of Two- Versus Three-Way Split Resistance Training Routines on Body Composition and Muscular Strength in Bodybuilders: A Pilot Study.
- Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.
- Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men.
- Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise