Ever heard the phrase, “a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous”? This phrase applies to training for hypertrophy. In my experience, many people develop a certain degree of understanding about training for muscle gain. Then, inexplicably they start doing all sorts of things which violate the principles they had learnt. I have done exactly the same thing. I wasted time with all sorts of rookie errors that I was supposedly too knowledgeable and experienced to make. You are probably making the same mistakes. Let me explain why…
If you want to build muscle you need to provide a training stimulus challenging enough to force your body to adapt.
This training stimulus should be directed purely towards your goal. It should be specific.
This stimulus needs to increase with time as you adapt. This is known as progressive overload. A specific progressive overload for muscle gain is to increase your training volume over time. So, in layman’s terms you need to lift more total tonnage weight from week to week.
If you do and you support this with good nutrition you will build muscle. Sounds simple, right? So, why do so many people struggle to build muscle? Find out the mistakes most people make when trying to apply this information and how to remedy these errors below.
First up, I’ll quickly define a few key concepts so we are all on the same page. Feel free to skip these if you know them already, but if they are new to you, or your knowledge of them is a little hazy, give them a read. It will help everything else to fall into place.
Definitions of Key Concepts:
- Progressive Overload
- Training Volume
In textbook speak, specificity means that training should tax and stimulate the underlying systems which drive the desired adaptation.
In simple terms, it means your training should be focused solely on getting the results you want. For the purposes of this article that means bigger muscles.
Progressive overload has two parts. Firstly, overload means that training must disrupt homeostasis enough to cause the body to adapt. Secondly, it must be progressively challenging. So, your training must become harder over time. On average, over the course of weeks, months and years you must continually strive to lift more weight, do more sets and reps.
Long story, short…your training has to be hard and it has to get harder.
Training volume is your total workload per exercise, session and week. A simple way to track it is the following equation:
Sets x Reps x Load
Where Most People Go Wrong
There are different stages of incompetence/competence within all walks of life. Psychologists have identified four stages. These are:
- Unconscious incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.
- Conscious incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
- Conscious competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.
- Unconscious competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
How This Applies to Training
In terms of this article we won’t worry about stages 1 or 4.
I’m guessing you understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle, training and nutrition when it comes to improving your physique. So, that rules out stage 1.
Stage 4, however, is where we all aspire to be. At stage 4 you probably have this stuff almost all figured out and are unlikely to be reading blog articles to improve your results. So, let’s look at stages 2 & 3. See if you recognise yourself here…
Stage 2 in the Fitness World
You want to get in shape (whatever that means to you), but you don’t really know how to achieve it. Don’t worry you are not alone.
Many guys and girls just follow the programs from their favourite website, fitness magazine, or Instagram idol. This is a mistake as there is no overarching structure to their training. No clear goal everything is geared towards. It ends up just being a random collection of training based on the whim of some Z-list celeb or the workout of the month in Flex or Men’s Health magazine.
Obviously, the above approach is flawed. People at this stage might get some results, but they don’t get great results. They don’t really know what they are doing or why. That’s why they just follow others and hope for the best. Along the way they are probably picking up some bits of information, but the pieces of the puzzle aren’t quite fitting together. As a result, they don’t consider writing their own program. Hence, the program hopping from one “best” program to the next.
Stage 3 in the Fitness World
I’m guessing this is you…
You understand the fundamentals of training. You are aware of progressive overload, body part splits, compound versus isolation exercises etc. You might also be pretty clued up on nutrition. However, this isn’t quite second nature to you. You have to concentrate pretty hard to try and bring the various elements of a good muscle building recipe into a coherent, flavoursome, tasty and reliably repeatable muscle meal.
While you understand many of the concepts you sometimes misapply them or you miss the woods for the trees. For example, majoring in the minors of nutrient timing and supplementation. Or perhaps, you progressively overload via intensity (weight on the bar) and take your eye off the ball of training volume. Basically, at this stage you do a lot of the right things, and so long as you concentrate on thinking logically you can maintain adherence to a specific, progressively overloading plan. But if you are not careful you can lose focus and drift away from what is optimal without realising it.
This seems to be a very real problem within fitness. People appear to have graduated to stage 3 yet all of a sudden, they hit a glitch. Often people seem to regress to stage 2 or they just suffer some kind of health and fitness amnesia where what they had learned is forgotten. In many cases, I think it might just be replaced. There is an overwhelming amount of info out there. People like me trying to help, educate and inform others. The problem is sometimes this info is of poor quality (not mine, mine is always A1! ;)), or it is misinterpreted/not placed in context.
Stage 3 is where the mistakes I am going to talk about here occur. When it relates to building muscle, these problems commonly revolve around how people apply the knowledge that training volume is good for muscle gain. So good, in fact, that is has been shown to have a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. More training volume = more gains.
The final sentence is true if, and this is a big IF…
…It is applied specifically, in a progressively overloading manner, considering fatigue management/recovery, adequate nutrition and your own unique physiology and psychology.
Let’s run through these factors quickly to identify where you might be going wrong.
“The goal is to keep the goal, the goal.”
That’s it! Read it again. It is simple, yet brilliant advice.
Repeat that phrase over to yourself whenever you consider making changes to your program.
Don’t get caught up in shiny object syndrome. Throwing in the latest exercise tip from T-Nation should only be done if it is specific to your exact goals and compliments the training you have been doing.
Trust me this is a mistake I made for years. Training became my passion. Learning more about the process was what I did for fun (yep I really am that boring!). Anyway, this meant any time I read something new I wanted to try it. I incorporated all sorts of different techniques, protocols, exercises, and methods into my “program”. I couldn’t really call it a program because it was just a random collection of cool looking methods.
It was less than the sum of its parts.
You see none of the individual pieces were “bad” or “wrong”. They just didn’t complement each other. In many cases they were not specific to my goals. In some cases, they were borderline in direct conflict with my goals. The problem was I was in love with the process of learning and training. I had forgotten I had goals I wanted to achieve. I trained for the sake of training (that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but I didn’t make much progress (that is a bad thing). It can be quite depressing when you make average (or below) progress despite being heavily emotionally and intellectually invested in a subject. It can be even more depressing when you realise the mistakes you’ve been making and are in a position to correct them on autopilot (conscious incompetence -> conscious competence -> unconscious competence).
Anyway, with that little side rant/sob story out of the way it is important to remember what you goal is. Everything in your training plan should contribute to you reaching that goal. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why you are doing it. Would you be better removing it all together or replacing it with something else?
Applying Specificity to Your Overload Scheme
The prime example of this mistake when it comes to training for muscle gain is the preoccupation with training intensity. People measure progress only by weight on the bar. They get fixated on this marker of progress. The problem is there is only so long you can keep adding weight to the bar before reps start to drop. Research tells us that total volume is more important than intensity for muscle gain though. So, why do we fall into the trap of adding weight, but reducing reps and, therefore, training volume?
Week 1 – 100kg x 8 = 800kg
Week 2 – 102.5kg x 7 = 717.5kg
Week 3 – 105kg x 6 = 630kgkg
It is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. You have provided the illusion of progress. You might even have got stronger, but did you adhere to the principle of specificity for hypertrophy?
Given volume is more important that intensity…no you did not!
Continuing on this theme…Progressive Overload
The main mistake here ties in with specificity and can largely be explained with the final point above. You need to do more. Your training, on average, should get harder. Given volume is the key driver of hypertrophy you should do more training volume over time.
The classic linear periodization of going from high volume and low intensity, to low volume and high intensity does exactly the opposite. Unfortunately, if you are applying any form of periodisation it is quite likely it is this one. While linear periodization works great for many sports it is not ideal for hypertrophy (as I covered in detail here and here). So, remember you must follow the principles of specificity and overload in tandem.
While I have talked extensively about how important training volume (here) is for muscle gain it is worth noting that there is such a thing as too much. Training past your ability to recover will be detrimental to your results. So, the more training you can do without exceeding your capacity to recover is a more accurate reflection of appropriate training volume.
This maximal threshold has been termed/popularised maximal recoverable volume (MRV) by Dr Mike Israetel. You should aim to spend most of your training time between the minimum effective dose (MED) and your MRV. Somewhere between these two points is what I like to call the “Goldilocks” zone of volume.
By taking care of factors such as sleep, nutrition, stress management and recovery strategies you can maximise your MRV and expand the Goldilocks zone. This will allow you to make better and/or quicker gains.
Finally, you should consider your own physical qualities/limitations, work, life, and family commitments, training history, and goals when building a plan (for more detail read this). These will all be fundamental to piecing together the optimal program for you at any one moment in time. While this is important I have placed it last on the list for a reason. That reason is that you must apply all the other elements before worrying about this. An extremely individualised program which is not specific, progressively overloading and doesn’t take into account recovery, is worthless. The above principles apply to everyone. Once they are in place you should tailor things to your needs. In essence, the principles are the same for everyone, but the minutia are individual.
To conclude this article, I will just remind you of that Dan John quote:
“The goal is to keep the goal, the goal.”
Assuming your goal is to gain muscle. Here are some guidelines to help you keep the goal the goal. If you find yourself deviating from these guidelines repeat the quote to yourself and honestly answer if what you are adding/taking from your program is specific, progressively overloading, within your recovery Goldilocks zone, and considers your unique individual needs and goals. If it doesn’t, guess what? Don’t do it!
- Do 40-70reps/muscle group/session
- For a total of 80-210reps/muscle group/week
- Lift loads heavier than 60% 1RM
- Train each muscle group 2-3xweek
- Most of your sets should be in the 6-12 rep range
- Most of those should be for sets of 8-10 close to, or to failure
- Use 1-3 exercises per body part (1 for smaller muscle groups)
- Begin with 2-3 sets per exercise
- Progress to 3-6 sets per exercise
- Lift with a moderate tempo (about a 2 second eccentric and 1 second concentric)