Many beginner bodybuilders will enjoy some fairly rapid gains within their first six months of training. Their body is being assaulted from every angle; it’s being forced to adapt to a new set of physical requirements and hopefully that beginner’s diet is sufficient enough to sustain that adaptation on an ongoing basis, thus allowing significant lean muscle mass gains.
What about beyond that first six months though? Your gains start to slow down, you notice reduced muscle soreness between workouts, maybe you sweat less during your workouts, and you feel less tired in general. Well, the fitness guru would tell you that you achieved your goals; you are now on a healthier path. Your heart is stronger (hence feeling less tired), your cardiovascular system on the whole is operating much more efficiently (the reduced sweating), your muscles are far more efficient at repairing damage due to strenuous exercise (lack of soreness), and your body is adapting well to the rigors of regular strenuous exercise (the reduced gains). This, however, is obviously counterproductive to your actual goals as a bodybuilder.
What you have reached is your first training plateau. Beyond this point is where you will have to commit the resources of your greatest muscle to this endeavor...your brain. If you were to continue to train as you have been, you wouldn’t necessarily do yourself any harm, but you would certain experience some greatly reduced gains. The human body is a marvel of adaptability; it will find a balance between energy out put and energy intake, and will adapt itself to fit those levels, all in an effort to maintain the status quo. In order to make continuous and efficient muscle gains, you must continually push your body to its limits.
We’ve all heard the colorful and memorable idiom, 'go heavy or go home'; and while often misunderstood as a male bravado excuse to grunt loudly and impress women, it is actually an intelligent gem of advice. The only way muscle will be gained is by stimulating the muscle group in question through increasing resistance training (essentially tearing the muscle fibers with each movement and causing the body to repair those muscles, in turn making them bigger). The problem lies in the adaptability of your body. Over time, your muscles will become accustom to the demands of your regular workout; your muscles will grow to be strong enough to handle the normal amount of weight you train with and will no longer need to repair themselves afterward. To counteract this is to continually lift heavier weights and rearrange your daily regime. You will find that most bodybuilders have no difficulty with the concept, though a great many do not understand why. The rate of adaptability you experience will be unique to you, so therefore the rate at which your weights increase will also be unique to you. As stated previously, bodybuilding is a sport in which you compete only against yourself (even on stage in actual competition, which we will discuss later). This is why it’s important to maintain a log book of your daily workout routine. Marking the reps, sets and weights lifted for each exercise will allow you to review your training history and determine if you have been increasing your weights at regular intervals and correlate those figures to your muscle gains.
The short story here is...lift as heavy as you can as often as you can; though that's not the whole story.
If your gains have slowed over a period of time, adapt your plan to not only increase your weights, but also change the specific movements and the order of the movements in your daily routine. Your body will adapt so well that staying with the same exercise order and workout schedule will also begin to reduce your gains. A general rule of thumb is to change your routine every three weeks to six weeks. You don’t need to make drastic changes, and in fact you can simply rearrange the order in which you perform exercises on each day. The level of change necessary will depend on how drastically you need to increase your gains.
By now you know what a rep is and a set is. A rep (repetition) being the unit of measure for each exercise movement (each time you lift the weight), and a set being the grouping of total reps for that exercise. A typical exercise will be comprised of three sets of eight to ten reps. More advanced bodybuilders will play with these numbers in an effort to customize their training for their specific circumstances in any given week or day, but generally 3 sets for 8-10 reps is normal for most bodybuilders.
A typical exercise will begin with a warm up (a very important beginning set at a lower weight), which is not usually counted as one of the three planned sets. Then the first set will normally be ten reps at an easily manageable weight (meaning that ten reps can be managed with little strain, but not much more), and then the remaining sets will be of incrementally greater weight, with the third and final set being of a weight that can only just be managed for between eight and ten reps (or as low as 6 reps for more advanced bodybuilders).
The terms failure and pump are often used to describe the feeling within the muscle at the completion of that third set. Often these terms are confused among each other, though each term describes its own distinct characteristics.
Before outlining those characteristics, understand that training without a spotter is dangerous and not recommended. (A person capable of lifting the weight you are using, who stands ready to assist in the event that you are unable to lift or become injured during the movement) Always use a capable and trusted spotter to prevent injuries and to assist with your form for each movement.
These terms describe the end result for a given exercise. For instance, performing three sets of incrementally greater weight on a particular exercise, ensuring that the cumulative effect of those sets is that you are unable to lift the weight even one more time without assistance would be known as 'working to failure’. Pump or tightness describes the size of the muscle following the movement, speaking to the volume of blood that can be 'pumped’ into the muscle through stimulation.
Many bodybuilders argue the validity of working to pump or failure for maximum muscle gain, with groups advocating either one or the other. Technically speaking, training to failure would be the most advantageous for the person most interested in gaining raw lean muscle mass, and working to pump is best reserved for times when shaping and trimming muscle groups is needed.
The general tone in this is simple, lift as heavy as you can while remaining safe and you will experience gains. When you’ve reached a plateau and feel like you aren’t making gains in muscle mass or in weights, use an experienced spotter and increase your weights deliberately beyond your failure threshold, to be certain you are stimulating the muscle group deeply enough to push past the plateau.
Now, the term 'form’ was used earlier and likely many were hoping to avoid another lecture on maintaining good form in your movements, but you have no such luck today. One of the most important factors for safety and effectiveness in weight training is form. The next time you're watching some He-Man at your gym lifting a ridiculous amount of weight on flat bench or push downs or even preacher curls, take a look at how he's getting the weight up. Is he moving slowly, in a controlled fashion and deliberately pushing or pulling the weight in a specific arc or direction? Or is he squirming, bending and manipulating the weight to its top point? The former would quite obviously be the safest and most effective method, but when looking around your gym, take note of the numbers of people employing the latter technique.
Form is important for two reasons; first of all, safety. Controlling the movement is the best way to be sure that weight goes where you want it to, translating to a safe movement. If you squirm and wiggle under the weight (or over it), you create opportunities for your joints and muscles to move in unnatural or dangerous ways in response to the stress. Most commonly, bodybuilders will suffer back, knee and shoulder injuries as a result of poor form combined with heavy weight.
Paying attention to form is one of the most effective ways of maximizing your gains. Another highly effective aspect of training to focus on for increased gains is the type of movements you perform. In the world of bodybuilding, there are many hundreds of exercises, movements and combinations of movements at your disposal, and likely you have chosen some of the more popular ones for your training arsenal. In order to maximize your gains, it's important to ensure that your movements or exercises are core focused, or core exercises. As stated previously, every movement targets a specific muscle or muscle group, but it does no good to focus your training on developing smaller, or incidental muscle groups when you could be focusing on the larger groups that are more capable of advanced growth.
For example; one would not expect enviable gains from a training plan whose exercises focus on quadricep adductors only. The adductors are capable of lifting only small amounts of weight in a very specific movement and would provide very little incidental benefit to the rest of your quad in the process. Why not focus your leg routine on the quad itself, which is capable of lifting far more weight and through its movements, will provide ample incidental stimulation to the adductor and the other muscles of the leg. Whenever possible, which should be most of the time, use core movements such as: flat bench press, shoulder press, squats or leg press, deadlifts, rows, dips and pull ups (or downs) to provide appropriate stimulation to the major muscle groups, as well as good incidental stimulation to smaller, supportive muscle groups.
Core movements can be identified as those exercises in which you can lift heavier weights, and should be the focus of your training per body part each day. Augment core exercises with isometric movements and get good overall stimulation.
Beyond training there are other ways to optimize your muscle gains, not the least of which is ensuring that your diet is engineered appropriately for your lifestyle, size and body type (See article on Creating a Diet Plan); but also drinking enough water through out the day and making sure you get enough rest.
The one possible element of your overall bodybuilding plan that may be more important than training or protein intake is rest. Muscle grows when your body is at rest...it's as simple as that.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was once quoted as saying “If you don't have to run, walk; if you don't have to walk, stand; if you don't have to stand, sit; if you don't have to sit, lie; and if you don't have to be awake, sleep.” While possibly not practical for the non-professional bodybuilder / movie star, his words are poignant. If you plan to work hard, train hard and play hard, when do you plan to grow?
These are seven of the easiest and most commonly used (or misused) bodybuilding concepts for maximizing lean muscle mass gain in your training plan. Lift heavy using core exercises and good form; eat well, drink lots of water and get lots of rest; and when ever you feel that your gains are slowing down, change things up.
There is nothing random or lucky about large muscle gains, it is a very scientific process that can be controlled, documented, and adapted to meet your own personal requirements. The number one element in every training plan that will lead to either failure or success is easy...it's you. Believe in yourself, be dedicated and smart and you'll make all the gains you're looking for.