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You train hard, but does your physique reflect the amount of time you spend in the gym? Are you making steady gains in strength and muscular development? If you did not answer with a resounding yes to either of these questions, then you need to read on.
People tend to accept a lack of continual progress in the gym, referring to it as “hitting a plateau.” But for bodybuilders, being stuck at a plateau is simply an excuse for their failure to coordinate heavy training, adequate diet/supplementation, and sleep. After all, the top pros know that there are ways to tweak their training and diet to avoid plateaus—that’s one reason why they show up onstage larger and leaner every year.
So now you may be scratching your head and asking, What is it that the big guys are doing that I am not? Well, you’re in luck because we have compiled a number of simple but fundamental training, diet, and supplementation pointers that will work synergistically to maximize your time spent in the gym.
Packing on lean muscle mass requires a fine balance between workout intensity, workout duration, nutrition, and sleep. Here are some quick tips to help you balance your training regimen and maximize growth:
1) Overload Principle and Some Basic Physics
As bodybuilders we know that muscle hypertrophy (growth) occurs as an adaptive response to the stress of resistance training. This is the basis of the overload principle, where you must progressively increase the stress stimulus over time to create a condition of overload significant enough to induce adaptation as hypertrophy. Once the body has adapted, you must increase the stress further to avoid simply maintaining or plateauing. This is where many beginners fail, as they use the same weights and exercises throughout the year and wonder why they don’t continue to grow.
Overloading your muscles requires incremental changes in work. In physics, work (W) is defined as force (F) multiplied by the distance (D), or W = F x D. In the most basic sense, this equation tells us that in an effort to progressively stimulate muscle growth by increasing work, we must either lift heavier weights (i.e., increase F) or increase the number of sets and reps (i.e., increase D). This equation is especially helpful when you keep a training log, so you can go back and estimate the total work completed over the course of your training and make adjustments when your muscular gains slow down.
2) Periodize and Put on Size
If you are incorporating the muscle overload principle (see No. 1) properly, then you are likely using a periodized plan. Periodization simply means organizing your training over the year with specific goals in mind for different blocks or periods (e.g., bulking, cutting). This is based on the scientific principle that you must shock and exhaust the body for it to adapt. In a recent issue of FLEX we discussed the muscle-building benefits of using linear periodization, which is simply training to failure over several months, progressing from a regimen of high reps using moderate resistance to one of lower reps using high resistance. Research has shown that linear periodization can increase muscular development and strength two times greater than other commonly used schemes.
Most bodybuilders tend to be very good at following a plan of action whether they are bulking or cutting. How you decide to set up your periodization depends on your goals for that period and your diet. For example, it would be difficult to consistently use high-volume training (high sets/reps, moderate resistance) if you are undergoing a ketogenic (zero-carb/ high-fat/high-protein) diet. In this case, you would be better off progressively adjusting resistance upward to increase workload. The key is to match diet to the training program.
3) Feast Like a Beast
You have read everything so far and feel that you have been using a well-planned program of progressive overload; you are serious about your training and never miss a workout. But are you eating enough high-quality food? Ask any pro bodybuilder and they will tell you that eating to gain lean mass is hard work. That’s why inadequate diet is the most common growth-blunting factor in beginner to intermediate bodybuilders. In the most basic sense, you have to eat a lot to grow. In order to maximize muscle growth and gain weight, you must maintain a positive caloric balance (eat more calories than your body expends). However, just like your training, your diet must be well thought out, organized, and designed to meet your goals.
For a starting point, use a BMR calculator to estimate your caloric needs. Here is the Harris-Benedict Equation for BMR:
BMR = 66?
+ (6.23 x weight in pounds)
+ (12.7 x height in inches)
– (6.76 x age in years)
BMR = 655?
+ (4.35 x weight in pounds)
+ (4.7 x height in inches)
– (4.7 x age in years)
Once you know your BMR, then multiply that number to adjust your daily caloric need based on activity level:
(1–3 days per week) = BMR x 1.375
(3–5 days per week) = BMR x 1.55
(6–7 days per week) = BMR x 1.725
Very Heavy Exercise
(Twice per day, extra-heavy workouts) = BMR x 1.9
Finally, take the number you just calculated and add 500 to 1,000 calories to it.
Based on these calculations, you will have a decent estimate of how many calories you should be consuming in a day. Now adjust your macronutrient percentages to 40/40/20 (protein/carbohydrates/fats). Remember, protein and carbohydrates have four calories per gram, and fats have nine calories per gram. Everyone’s metabolism is different, thus these percent-ages are not carved in stone. Keep a diet journal and make adjustments based on your progress.
Based on our recommendations, a 200-pound bodybuilder should be eating about 3,500–4,000 calories daily, coming from 350–400g of protein, 350–400g of carbs, and 80–90g of fat.
Eat six meals per day and remember that the body prefers to get calories from whole, unprocessed foods. That’s a lot of food!
4) Sleep Like a Bear
Bodybuilders commonly overlook the importance of deep sleep. This is a remarkable fact considering most of us know that this is when the body regenerates and recovers. Most important, your body releases growth hormone during deep sleep, which significantly aids in muscle growth, joint repair, and fat loss. Furthermore, getting at least eight hours of high-quality sleep per night will ensure you have enough energy on tap to push heavy weights and maintain workout intensity. Just remember, if you train in the evening, avoid large doses of stimulants, as they significantly disrupt deep sleep.
5) Strategize Your Supplements
Whether you are a pro or an amateur by decades of research—from cell bodybuilder there are a few key volumization, to mTOR activation, to supplements you should be using daily to support muscular growth. Whey Protein Isolate: This provides a boost to your protein intake, ensuring a constant supply of amino acids in the blood. To maximize anabolism, take 30–40g 30 minutes before and immediately after training. For an additional anabolic tweak, science has shown that adding 30–50g of dextrose to your post-workout protein shake will drive insulin release up, increase protein synthesis, and promote delivery of nutrients into fatigued muscles. Creatine Monohydrate: This anabolic activator is backed myostatin inhibition. You should be taking 5g twice per day. Take the first dose with breakfast and the second with your post-exercise protein shake. Multivitamin: Take as directed to ensure your cells have all the micronutrients needed for enhanced function. Fish Oil: These products are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve body composition by increasing lean mass and decreasing fat mass. Furthermore, they support cellular function under conditions of stress and improve health.
If you follow what we’ve prescribed, it’s implicit that you will notice significant increases in strength. Here are some tweaks that will help you maximize strength gains throughout the year.
6) Switch It Up
Remember what we told you. It is important to shock the body in order to maximize exercise stress and adaptation. This can be easily implemented by switching the order in which you do exercises and by alternating exercises from week to week. For example, one week use dumbbells and the alternate week use barbells. Be creative!
7) Keep Your Reps Low
It is well documented that the greatest strength gains are made using heavy weights and low reps (4–6). This is built into the end of a linear periodization program, and research has proved this to be an effective strength-building stimulus.
8) Back To Basics
In most gyms, you will notice that there are a lot of people doing exercises that seem complicated to execute and downright dangerous if done using heavy weights. These include standing on a balance platform while performing arm curls or lying across a ball while performing a bench press. Although these exercises may hold merit somewhere in the fitness world, they are not for bodybuilders. Watch a powerlifter work out and you will quickly see that to build strength you need to incorporate specific power movements into your program. Tweak your program to include bench presses, deadlifts, and squats. These exercises are known to result in significant muscle damage, increased anabolic hormone release, and augmented strength gains.
9) Strength Supplements
Here are the fundamental supplements to proved to support strength from one workout to the next.
Caffeine Anhydrous: With the popularity of energy drinks, there has been a surge of research on the ergogenic potential of caffeine. The current data show that caffeine decreases perceived exertion and increases strength and intensity during your workouts. For a boost, take 200-400mg of caffeine anhydrous 30 minutes before working out. However, in an effort to promote good resting habits and deep sleep, avoid caffeine after 6 p.m.
Beta-Alanine: This stuff increases muscle carnosine, which serves to buffer metabolites during muscle contraction. It can also decrease muscle acidity, act as an antioxidant, and prolong neuromuscular excitation-contraction coupling. All told, beta-alanine supports longer and more intense workouts. Of added benefit, research has shown that beta-alanine taken with creatine synergistically boosts muscle growth. For best results take 3–5g of beta-alanine with your pre- and post-workout protein shakes.
So there you have it, a back-to-basics approach to mass and strength gain. You’ll notice that there is no magic formula, just an organized plan that incorporates good diet and good old-fashioned work. If you follow the guidelines set out in this article, we guarantee you will bust through plateaus and see positive changes in your physical appearance and strength.