Beyond the Beginner: Taking Muscle Growth to the Next Level
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 2, 2019
A Weightlifting Program to Avoid the Wall
When weightlifting progress stalls, we can only add more of the same up to a point. A periodic change helps us maintain an edge.
A beautiful part of beginning a strength training regimen is early workouts shock the body into change. Almost any workout, as long as you don’t injure yourself, is effective. By demanding the body to push, pull and curl, we create signals that begin adaptation—stronger muscles. We ask more of the body and the body responds. The challenge arises later for those that continue. When the body has adapted and no longer responds, change is required.
A common response to stalled progress at a plateau is to add to whatever was working, by adding sets, exercises, and more days of the week. Eventually this haphazard approach plateaus and there is nothing more to give. Six days a week of two-hour sessions leads to burnout and a downward spiral, losing those hard-fought gains.
The body has been taxed to its limit and will begin to draw resources from other areas. Longer workouts borrow energy by stealing from intensity and recovery. In effort to keep the work-outs relevant, we begin to sacrifice other important aspects of healthy strength and body building.
A healthy over-all program includes four ingredients—fuel, workload, intensity, and recovery. When major adjustments only include workload in this four-pronged approach, we limit success, narrowing gains and typically ending with discouragement.
"A healthy over-all program includes four ingredients—fuel, workload, intensity, and recovery."
Rotating workouts with a different focus can provide new stimulation to the body, challenging adaptations, and spark continual gains. We must understand the basics to design a healthy rotational program.
Fuel is essential. We need energy to work and energy to recover. Our bodies are a complex organism of chemicals and nutrients. Action events require food to perform efficiently. With decades of research in proper nutrition for athletic performance, I’m going to keep this simple for those just entering the arena.
A balanced diet is your best friend. Avoid high sugar and simple carbohydrates. These staples of the American diet create a chaotic blood-sugar balance and provide little sustained energy, often creating an imbalance of calories and movement that body socks away for stored energy—fat. A traditional weight-lifting healthy diet centers around proteins and complex carbohydrates. Sugary snacks, fried food, and greasy burgers will sabotage the best intentions in the gym.
Workload is your routines. This is your exercises, your day at the gym. Within workload, you can include form, focus, and number of hours. We will cover the routines and different areas of focus later in this article. Form is perfected through visual examples, a mirror, and a trainer or experienced workout partner.
As a beginner moving towards expert, form can no longer be dismissed. The heavier loads can and will injure delicate membranes and skeletal structures, leading to significant time off to heal. Early injuries are a prominent reason many give-up, never to return to the weight room. Most exercises achieve the best results with full, slow motions, achieving negative work on the way down, and demanding power on the way up. Quick repetitions allow for heavier weights, less work and greater opportunity for injury.
Basic Form Instructions
Shorter intense workouts can effectively exhaust the muscles. HIIT workouts, such as CrossFit, are built around intensity—short workouts that exhaust the muscles. Our bodies have built in limitations. No matter how fit you are, the last exercises in long sessions suffer. The body can no longer perform with intensity and the gains are minimal or even damaging. Lifting while tired introduces nasty habits of cheating on form and lacking proper intensity.
More is not better. We need the right amount of the correctly focused work to continue to make gains. Each repetition and each set should be challenging, nearing exhaustion. If your ten repletion is with a non-challenging weight, then it’s time to increase the load. If the load is too heavy for proper form, then drop a few dime plates.
Recovery is where the body adapts, the muscles grow, and energy is created. There are two primary types of recovery: between sets and between workouts. Each set that brings muscles close to exhaustion needs to be followed with recovery before the next set. We will address the basics of sets, repetitions, and recovery shortly.
We also need to recover in-between workouts. Generally, 48 hours is sufficient rest to recover. If your routine is muscle group focused, you can return to the weight room after 24 hours to target a different muscle group. Even with rotation of muscle groups, days away from heavy loads is necessary. Days off must be part of any program. A day off is not a day on the coach watching television, simply a day away from heavy loads of weight lifting.
Six Muscle Gaining Mistakes:
Basic Rotating Routines:
A standard rotation to keep the body engaged can be structured or determined by the body’s reaction to a routine. Since subjective assessments are difficult, a structured schedule often is a good starting place, moving to a new routine every 5-8 weeks. The individual routines can be slowly increased in intensity over the period, starting easier and then increasing the load week to week. This form of workout is based on a concept referred to as Periodization. This is a workout plan built around cycles.
Periodization is a structured rotational program to prevent the body from fatigue and overwork, while simultaneously keeping the muscles stimulated and engaged.
Periodization for Body Builders
The common guidelines are these:
Hypertrophy (size): 3-4 sets; 8-12 repetitions; 1-2 minutes recovery between sets
Strength: 4-6 sets; 5-8 repetitions; up to 3 minutes recovery between sets
Endurance: 2-3 sets; 15-25 repetitions; thirty second recovery
The best exercises target multiple muscle groups. These exercises should be the foundation of any workout plan.
The compound movements include:
When workouts center on these movements, dedicating high intensity and load to high level performance of each repetition, we can exhaust our bodies without all the peripheral small muscle exercises. Neglect or cheat on these staples and your workouts will suffer.
The Big Three
Early in my weight lifting career, I used a 6-week rotation build only of the big three (Squats, Deadlifts, and Bench Press). I experienced significant gains in strength and size with these much shorter workouts and lengthened recovery periods.
Other rotations can be built from a focus on hypertrophy for six weeks, moving to strength, then finishing with endurance. Each rotation can slowly be enhanced with super-sets, cycles, or addition of small muscle exercises. I find the change enjoyable, by the end of the rotation both mind and body are ready for something different.
CrossFit has variation built into their Work Outs of the Day (WOD). A HIIT style workout can also be used as one of your rotations, using WODs, Insanity, or P90x style routines. These routines can be tweaked to add more strength training or used purely for cardio. These are high-intensity workouts, challenging the core, large muscle groups and determination. The HIIT style burns fat—an excellent way to get cut.
A sample HIIT style workout
The styles of workout are endless, rotating through different styles allows for a continuous challenge to your system without hitting a wall from over-training. Variation is the key to healthy growth. Building components into these rotations that keep you excited and pointed towards your long-range goals will help determine how long and which workload to adopt.
The essential part of maintaining fitness for a lifetime is to keep the motivational fire alive. If a style of workout kills motivation, consider moving to something else. These basics are the building blocks that open to a world of endless styles. Enjoy the journey!
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