A quick-study guide for those looking to build a more muscular physique
In this article, I’m specifically writing for those who are training to get bigger and stronger. If you’re someone who’s been hitting the gym for years but failing to progress, or perhaps someone who this is a new endeavour, this is for you.
I’m going to highlight key weight training principles that should be followed to build a truly exceptional physique. This article assumes that nutrition is on point and seeks to give a comprehensive attention to detail on the training side of things.
How do we even build muscle in the first place?
Let’s start with the basics. We know that weight training builds muscle via stressing the body through loaded resistance and creating an adaptation to that resistance, rinse repeat, so on and so forth.
However, training to build a truly excellent physique is largely determined by qualities and principles that people apply when planning and executing their workouts.
It isn’t as simple as do a few sets of this and that and voila! There are a few key things you need in place first:
- A training programme that is OPTIMAL (Context explained below)
- Nutrition to support that training
- Rest to allow adequate recovery
What is Optimal Training
Let me be clear on one thing, there are literally a million ways you could programme weight training, so the first thing I want you to forget entirely are questions like:
- What’s the best exercise for X?
- What’s the best training plan for Y?
The answer, boring as it may seem is, it depends.
Let’s look at two scenarios:
- Joe Bloggs – works long hours in an office, has young kids, doesn’t get much free time, get’s about 3 days’ worth of gym time a week for just under an hour. Is new to weight training. Joe is in his 40’s
- Fred Bloggs – Works flexible hours, doesn’t have kids or much stress, trains 5 days a week and has done for 6 years, already in reasonable shape and condition. Fred is in his 20’s
Now you may be asking what this has to do with weight training, well both individuals have a couple of things going on.
Firstly, Joe clearly has a lot of stress and not a lot of time. Having young kids, he might not get much sleep either. Joe’s training programme needs to reflect this and be able to fit into 3 days and take stress and recovery into account. Joe is also in his 40’s meaning his recovery might take longer.
Now Fred on the other hand has got more time if he wants to train, is younger and already fitter, so his programme can reflect this and be more advanced.
The obvious conclusion you should draw from this, is that neither of these two people should train the same, but the biggest mistake would be to assume that one will get better results than the other because of the difference in their programming and life circumstances….This is where the argument for training qualities and principles comes in.
You could have all the time in the world, the best programme, but if you don’t put the effort into the right areas, you’ll see below average results.
Now, let that sink in for a second.
I’ve seen people relentlessly train for years get nowhere because they fail to adequately master the basics. They become a frustrated mess, potentially injured and it’s always an on and off thing. I should know because this was me in my teenage years, had I known what I know now then, I’d be further along, but that could well be said for most people of course.
Training Qualities & Principles Defined
Let’s get into the nitty gritty, here is the very simple truth to building muscle.
Training Quality: Get stronger (Progressive Overload)
That’s it, in the vaguest sense. But that is the overriding principle and most important factor to understand. However, it is sorely misunderstood and often seen out of context. How we get there is another matter.
Getting stronger can also be interpreted as a term known as progressive overload, the scientific term for making “gains” in the gym.
This is achieved primarily 1 of 2 ways.
- Increase the weight lifted and matching the number of reps completed at a previous weight
EXAMPLE chest press machine 20kg for 12 reps completed, 2 months later you do the same on 30kg and it feels roughly similar in difficulty. That would be considered progress.
- Increase the number of reps completed on the same weight
EXAMPLE doing 100kg leg presses for 20 reps instead of 10 without the difficulty feeling much more.
Training Quality: LIFT WITH GOOD TECHNIQUE & SKILL
If I could go back in time, I’d have made sure I found a decent personal trainer for myself in my teenage years to teach me good habits since I picked up some pretty bad ones. If you can’t lift with good technique (which I can almost categorically guarantee you are not aware of what is and what isn’t unless very experienced) the whole thing pretty much melts down.
The ability to contract muscles correctly is a skill. A skill that many people don’t learn despite attempting to lift weights because of the cues needed from an external source such as a personal trainers who can see flaws and the need for modifications to movement patterns.
If you are a rank beginner in the gym without an experienced personal trainer to help guide you, the honest best piece of advice I can give to start with is to use a variety of machine-based exercises as part of a workout. Now this might seem like a cop out, but the truth is that most machines are low skill requiring, a beginner could go on them and see some early growth. They require less neurological adaptation from the brain to process how to move correctly and it’s easier to focus on the target muscle.
An example of movement skill comparisons have been listed in the table below:
|Higher Skill Needed
|Lower Skill Needed
|Chest Flye Machine
|Barbell Row or Deadlift
|Seated Row Machine
|Barbell Back Squat
|Close Grip Bench Press
|Over Head Barbell Press
|Shoulder Press Machine
Now do higher skill movements yield better results than low skill? Not necessarily. However, many of our higher skill movements with practice do allow us to shift ever increasing amounts of resistance for continued growth and response. Lower skill movements are certainly still excellent for growth if the progressive overload principle is applied.
- progression is pointless if adequate technique is not established. You are trying to progress on poorly laid foundations.
- The best athletes still have trainers. The case for non-athletes and beginners to invest in such a thing is compelling if you want to excel. A trainer/coach is a no brainer for high skill movement patterns to be learned effectively.
Training Quality: CONSISTENCY IS KING
I’m a big fan of the C word, consistency that is. In a solid training plan, consistency is one of the key principles along with adequate technique and progressive overload. If you go to the gym just to “work hard” and break a sweat and get a pump, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed in the lack of long term results.
To see strength gains and progression, you need to pick exercises and STICK with them for a while.
That means if you chose to squat, you keep squatting for a while. If in the first session you hated what you picked then change it, but don’t go and change it randomly down the line during your programme.
Remember that progressive overload is measuring how much stronger you got, whether it’s more reps or more weight or lower exertion rate at the same weight, you can’t measure that if you change exercise selection randomly and do whatever you feel like at the time.
One of the great luxuries of being relatively new to weight training is that you can continue to make great progress on the same programme for several weeks, and perhaps even months. Conversely, an experienced lifter may need to adapt workouts every 2-3 weeks, and to a lesser extent even every few sessions.
Training Quality: DELOAD
If you’re training hard and progressing well, eventually you’ll hit a point where you need to do what’s called a deload. I like to think of this as an active recovery week where I halve the number of sets I do and drop my weights to a lighter rate of exertion. It’s a light workout basically.
Over time with training you’ll achieve a lot of nervous system stimulation, it’s necessary to intersperse weeks of recovery in a solid training plan.
It should be noted however that beginners probably don’t need to deload at all for a while. How long this is isn’t set in stone, but beginners are starting at very light loads that simply don’t hit the nervous system as hard as heavier loads. As the beginner becomes stronger and progresses, they may find occasional recovery weeks are required for getting past sticking points.
Training Quality: ADVANCED OVERLOAD TECHNIQUES
As you become more advanced in training, you can implement a greater variety of tools to boost your progress.
The beginner trainee can advance simply by doing simple routine stuff, practicing technique and slowly getting stronger on basic exercises as there will be plenty of adaptations for them to milk for a while. This is primarily aimed at someone with years of training under their belt.
In no particular order, some of my favourite overload techniques are the following:
- Rest Pause Training – Do a set of X number of reps – stop the exercise, recover 20seconds then crank out a few more. Repeat 2 or 3 times after the very first main set.
- AMRAP Sets – Do as many reps as possible on a given weight (best left until the last week of a planned cycle of training as an all-out progress effort)
- Tempo Training – At a stick point in a lift? Add tempo training in by adding a pause to the movement, for example on a bench press, instead of pushing the bar back up straight away, hold it on the chest for a count of 1 or even 2 before pressing back up.
- Cluster sets – Ideal for heavy strength training. You pick a weight that ideally you can do for say 6 reps but you’ll do 3 intentionally. 30 seconds then another 3, 30 seconds then another 3 and so on.
- Eccentric training – Your ability to lift the weight stops but the ability to lower it under control will still be there for a few more reps, have a spotter help you back to the start position and use lowering under tension as a finisher.
Training Quality – USE VARIETY IN YOUR REP RANGES
If you’ve looked at online training plans, you’ll see that many promote different things. Ultimately unless you’re planning on being a master at a craft, such as powerlifting, there should be no reason that you don’t use a variety of rep ranges in your training. The following graph shows what each of the rep ranges is responsible for. The best practice is to use combinations of the ones that work on more than one thing for efficiency.
I’ll be following up this article shortly with some example workouts you can take away to help build your size and strength. They are tried and tested and are popular. Many contain a mixture of high and low skill exercises and it’s worth getting some personal training sessions on ones you aren’t sure on or have struggled to progress.
If you’d like information on our online personal training programmes then please email email@example.com for further details.
Written by Roar Personal Trainer
James Castle Mason