If there were one simple and easy trick to building muscle like a load of magazines and the media tells us all
Then most guys would be jacked.
Because making gains does not happen overnight. It takes time, effort, consistency and smart training
Particularly if you’re past the ‘newbie gains’ stage when virtually anything you do in the gym will make you grow.
So instead of looking for some quick fix, stick to the basics and start consistently training smart.
^ That is what this series is geared towards and will teach you the tools you need to make gains in strength and size.
To start with, I’m going to breakdown the fundamental principles of lifting that if you fail to apply, you won’t make gains.
So, whatever you do in the gym, make sure you apply the following if you want to get jacked.
As intuition will tell you, you have to lift more over time to make gains. Whether that’s reps, weight on the bar or a combination of the two, something has got to go up.
The story of Milo of Croton, an ancient wrestler from southern Italy, explains this principle well.
It’s claimed that Milo made his gains in strength and size by picking up and carrying a baby calf around the city of Croton. He did this every single day and as the calf grew into a bull, so too did Milos strength and size.
The reason for Milos gains?
= Progressive overload.
You see, each time Milo carried the calf, he was putting a stress on his body/muscles. This stress his body saw as a threat and as a result, it adapted and Milo made gains so he was better able to handle that stress/threat in the future.
Because the calf grew and got heavier, the stress Milo put on his body continued to increase, meaning his body was being subjected to a mounting stress over time. This is progressive overload and is fundamental if you want to make gains in any area of fitness. If you don’t progressively increase your training stress, then you won’t give your body a reason to adapt.
Put simply: stress the body sufficiently and it will adapt.
The adaptations your body makes to training are not random though and they are specifically geared towards the form of stress you put it under.
Take Milos story for example; the adaptations his body made to picking up and carrying around the bull resulted in greater strength and size. Similarly, if you pick up heavy stuff in the 3-6 rep range, your body will make adaptations that make you better at lifting in that rep range. An example of these adaptations is increasing the number of the contractile proteins in muscle fibres used to shift the heavy stuff you pick up.
At the other end of the spectrum, the training of an endurance runner will lead to adaptations that improve their ability to run long distances. For example, keen runners will have a greater number of the energy making mitochondria in their muscle cells.
This specificity of adaptations is why different athletes have different physiques; their training puts a different type of stress on their bodies, leading to different adaptations.
Endurance Runner (Mo Farah – Left) and Lifter (Franco Columbu – Right)
So in a nutshell, you have to overload your body with a stimulus specific to the gains you want to make.
It’s like shooting a gun: progressive overload loads the gun and specificity aims it at the target.
We’re still missing one vital thing here though; the trigger.
To help explain the trigger, I’m going to introduce the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model, which explains how the body responds to stress, whether it’s physical or emotional.
General Adaptation Syndrome
The initial stress (eg: training session) put on your body causes your performance and resilience to the stress to drop. This may be as a result of fatigue, soreness and/or reduced energy stores. Think of squatting with high volume twice on the same day; once in the morning and then again in the evening. You probably wouldn’t fare all that well in the evening session due to the stress you put on your legs earlier in the day. This is the alarm phase of the stress response.
After this initial drop in performance, you enter the resistance phase. This is where your body combats and adapts to the initial stress/training, which enables you to handle greater stress in the future. So a few days after your squatting sesh, you should be ready to hit legs again.
Like Milo of Croton, you need to continue adding to the stress over time to make gains. What Milos story doesn’t tell you is that your body can go one of two ways as this stress builds:
- You continue to adapt and recover from the mounting stress. In other words, you continue to make gains as you cycle through the alarm and resistance phases.
- You’re unable to adapt and recover from the stress, leading to overreaching and eventually overtraining. This is the exhaustion phase.
Some form of overreaching is fine. In fact, purposefully pushing the boundaries for a short period of time before backing off a little may lead to a rebound effect where your performance/gains increase above baseline levels. This is the whole point of taking periodical dealods; you build up the stress over a number of weeks before dropping volume to allow for recovery.
However, the problem lies if you continue to push the boundaries at this stage, leading to overtraining. In reality, overtraining rarely happens with lifting though and it’s likely you’ll pick up an injury that leads to a natural drop in volume/intensity before reaching a state of overtraining. Either way, you obviously want to avoid any injuries and maximize your ability to adapt to the stress of training, and therefore make gains.
One of the main factors determining this ability to adapt is your recovery. Recovery is the trigger I mentioned earlier and encompasses both your nutrition and rest time (both psychological and physiological). Quite simply if you don’t get enough of either, you won’t adapt as well and will reach the exhaustion phase much earlier, resulting in compromised gains.
So what you need to do is apply and put all of the above together to overload the body, enable sufficient rest/recovery and therefore make gains. How you do this comes down to your programming of training variables such as volume, intensity (weight on the bar) and frequency. The changing of these variables over time is called periodization and the goal of periodisation is to max gains whilst minimizing the risk of regression and injury. I’ll be covering periodisation more thoroughly in the future.
For now, the take home is:
- Progressive overload loads the gun
- Specificity aims it
- Sufficient recovery pulls the trigger
This gives you a good schema to refer to with your training and if you’re struggling to make gains, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you doing more reps, sets and/or lifting heavier weights over time?
- Is your training (eg: exercises, reps, weight on the bar) geared towards your goal?
- Is your nutrition and rest on point?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you know something you can start working on.
Refs and reading
Optimizing Periodization and Program Design Muscle Performance Adaptations
Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid – http://muscleandstrengthpyramids.com/
Scientific Principles of Strength Training – http://store.jtsstrength.com/products/scientific-principles-of-strength-training
The Science and Practice of Periodization: a brief review
Applied periodization: a methodological approach
Periodized Training for the Strength/Power Athlete
General Adaptation Syndrome and it’s applications in sport training
NSCA’s Guide to Program Design