PUNCH UP YOUR MASS
When it comes to training, are your gains coming faster than an Ali one-two combo? Or are you getting worked over in the corner like some washed-up pug, folding up under a rain of body blows?
While you probably don’t want to admit it, chances are it’s the latter. You see, so many of us find ourselves making zero progress after months, even years of battling in the weight room. Unfortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, building your body is not an endeavour of brute force. When you aren’t making progress, simply dropping your head and powering through the same workout regime week after week won’t eventually wear down the forces that halt your growth. But that’s what many of us do.
Just like in boxing, the man usually left standing is the one who knew his opponent – he knew when to jab, when to duck and when to go in for the kill, not the one who tucked his chin and came out flailing. You need to take the same type of strategy to your training: fight smart.
To help you strategize, I present 18 tips on gaining and understand the “sweet science” of resistance training. I hope that as you incorporate this advice into your own regime, you realise that the bout for more muscle isn’t about one swift knockout punch; it’s about going the distance and slipping in some well-timed blows. Keep your gloves up!
- PUSH yourself. If you’re lifting about the same weights now as you were a year ago, don’t expect to be much bigger. While the biggest muscles aren’t the strongest muscles and the strongest muscles aren’t the biggest, a substantial link exists between strength and size, providing you avoid very low reps, the rest/pause technique, partial reps and long rest periods between sets. Those techniques generally yield lots of strength, but little or no size gains.
- MAKE “good form” your mantra. Don’t just give mere lip service to the cliché “use good form”. Permit absolutely no bouncing, heaving, exploding or excessive range of motion, and never get so greedy for poundage increases that you sacrifice good form. Good form is needed not only to avoid injury but also to stimulate optimal muscle growth. In addition to proper form, avoid high-risk exercises such as any squat with your heels raised on a board or plates, bench presses to your neck or upper chest, or behind-the-neck shoulder presses with very heavy weights. Also, use a controlled rep cadence: about 2 to 3 seconds for the positive phase of a rep and three seconds for the negative phase.
- INDIVIDUALISE your exercise selection. If an exercise hurts, and you’ve been performing it using good form with a controlled cadence and have tried sensible modifications, drop that exercise. The first rule of exercise selection is “do no harm”. Discard the reckless “no pain, no gain” maxim.
- SQUAT. Do your utmost to squat well and intensively. The benefits aren’t just limited to the thighs, glutes and lower back; the squat stimulates muscles throughout the body. While some people truly can’t squat intensively in a safe way, most can. Reverse the squat, improve your squatting form and pay your dues in the rack, and you’ll reap the rewards.
- DEADLIFT. The deadlift is one of the most productive exercises for bodybuilding mass. Master the technique – conventional style, sumo or stiff-legged – and slowly build up the weight to something very impressive. Impeccable flat-back form is imperative; avoid any exaggerated range of motion. Deadlift properly, or don’t do it at all.
- TRAIN hard, but smart. Do enough to stimulate growth, then get out of the gym and give your body the chance to recover and grow. The bottom line is progress, not training intensity. If, however, you always cut your sets short by a couple of reps, stopping even though you know you had more in you, get serious, pull out all the stops and put 100% effort into finishing what you start.
- LOG it. You’ve heard of the importance of keeping a training log, but how many people actually do it? Accurately record all your reps and poundages. As the weeks go by, you must be able to see small but gradual improvements in weight lifted and/or the number of reps performed. If not, you have clear proof that you need to alter some aspects of your training regime.
- HARNESS the power of one. Get a couple of half-pound discs, home-made weight increments, or some creative alternatives such as wrist weights or large washers so you can add just 1 pound to the bar at a time. Adding a minimum of 5 pounds to an exercise at a single shot when you’re at your current best weights, as many people try to do, often leads to a breakdown in form and injury. Instead, nudge up the weights. Strength is built slowly.
- PARTNER up. Find a training partner who has similar recovery abilities to yours, so you can use a similar training programme. Then push each other to deliver perfect workouts every time – intensive, progressive and always with good form. But, just as a good training partner will help, an inappropriate training partner can be your undoing. If he or she can recover more quickly than you, can tolerate more sets and exercises, and pushes you to abuse forced reps and other intensity enhancers, cut your ties pronto.
- BE consistent.
Bodybuilding success is about getting each rep right, each set right, each workout right, each meal right and each night’s sleep right, week after week, month after month. Compromise a little on this and you’ll reduce your rate of progress; compromise a lot and you’ll kill your gains. Keep in mind, there are no “small” victories. Set no limits on yourself, but don’t expect the impossible. Just live for the next bit of progress, and then the next, and then the next. Bit by bit, you’ll build bigger muscles.
- MAKE your training time sacred. Protect your privacy while you train. You must be totally in charge and say no to intrusions, whether human or otherwise. Don’t do this to become a hermit or to alienate your family and friends; do it to honour your need for the focus required to do your very best at something you’ve committed to.
- FOCUS. Only highly gifted bodybuilders can build mass and refine it at the same time. The rest of us need to focus on building mass by concentrating primarily on the tried-and-tested compound exercises for a year or more. Only then does detail work such as cable crossovers, dumbbell laterals and triceps kickbacks have real practical value. If used earlier on, detail exercises stymie progress by putting a heavy drain on your recovery ability and reducing the level of effort you can dedicate toward compound moves.
- PERSONALISE your training programme to find what works best for you. No single programme works well for everyone; even good programmes have to be fine-tuned to fit the individual user. Personalise the factors of exercise volume, training frequency and exercise selection. Once you find a good programme, don’t chop and change it haphazardly. Stick with a given set of exercises long enough to make substantial progress in the weight you can lift.
- FOLLOW excellent nutritional habits every day. No matter how well you train, rest and sleep, if you cut corners with your nutrition, you’ll impair – if not stop altogether – your muscle growth. Take your nutrition very seriously. Divide your calorific and nutritional needs over five or preferably six meals per day. Eat more, and eat more often. If you weigh the same now as you did a year ago, you can’t expect to have bigger muscles unless you’ve substantially reduced your bodyfat.
- NOT progressing? Cut back. If your bodybuilding has stagnated, chances are you’re spending too much time in the gym. Cut back and give yourself a chance to grow. Try reducing your weight training to just three days per week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, alternating two different routines – chest, shoulders, triceps and abs in one routine, and legs, back and biceps in the other. Perform no more than three works sets per exercise and a maximum of eight exercises per routine. If you can do more than three works sets per exercise, you’re loafing – train harder. Never battle through warning signs of overtraining. Symptoms include loss of training zeal, stagnant exercise poundages, reduced appetite, and nagging aches and pains. Whenever you feel any of these symptoms, take action by increasing recovery time and sleep, reducing training volume and improving on the nutrition front.
- STRETCH. Follow a programme of a dozen or so stretches three times a week. Stretching won’t make you bigger, but it will help keep you resistant to injury. Stretch only after warming up, hold stretches for 15-30 seconds, never do ballistic stretching, and don’t try to improve your abilities too quickly by forcing a stretch past your limits.
- REST generously between workouts. Despite adequate recovery time being so pivotal, many bodybuilders make the mistake of minimising recovery time and maximising workout frequency. If you still feel tired and are due to train today, rest another day. Then modify your training programme and lifestyle so that you recover adequately between workouts without having to take unscheduled rest days. Also, get at least eight hours of quality sleep each night. If you have sleeping problems, find solutions; consult a sleeping clinic if need be. Short-changing yourself in the sleep department can arrest bodybuilding gains even if your training and nutrition are in good order. If you rely on an alarm clock most mornings, you aren’t getting enough sleep. Give your bodybuilding recovery greater priority than late-night socialising.
- APPLY the central creed of bodybuilding: progress. Gear your training and entire package of recovery-related factors so that progress in muscular mass is a reality. If gains aren’t happening, make changes until they do happen. The buck stops with you. You select the exercises, volume and training frequency you use. You decide when to quit on a set. You must discipline yourself to use good form. You determine your sleeping hours. You are responsible for your nutrition. Take advantage of the tremendous power you have to change your physique!
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