Ever wonder why some guys get more fit every year while others seem to take one step forward then two steps back? The key to continuous gains without setbacks is not found in a supplement, a routine or a drug.
It’s all a matter of sticking to a basic set of common-sense rules and habits that help keep you on track. It’s not rocket science, and you’ve probably heard some of this before. Put it all together, stay the course, and you’re guaranteed to get results.
Step #1: Don’t Get Injured
This would seem like a no-brainer. If you tear a muscle, you will not be able to train it properly. Worse yet, you may have to stay out of the gym for a month to let it heal, which will make you slide back considerably.
The good news is that it is relatively easy to regain lost mass, but this is where many guys repeat their mistake. They either start training again before the injury is fully healed, or they are so eager to get back in the swing of things that they immediately pick up with the same amount of weight they used before.
Either way, you’re back to square one in a jiffy. The remedy is simple enough: check your ego at the door, focus on good form and listen to your body. Don’t jerk or bounce the weights. One Rep Max attempts should be done very sparingly, if at all. If your joints are aching, it may be a good idea to cut them some slack. Training smart is more important than lifting heavy.
Step #2: Go With What Works For You
The magazines are littered with workout routines, fads and specific exercises that so-and-so professional bodybuilder swears by. Well, guess what? If squatting hurts your lower back, it is totally irrelevant that a pro gets excellent results from squats.
There will always be those who don’t benefit from certain exercises. Some typical examples besides squats: barbell curls with straight bar kills the wrists in some people. Behind-the-neck lat pulls forces those with stiff shoulders to hunch over and rob the lats from a large part of the load. While dips can be beneficial to tricep-development for some, others only seem to hit their pecs and delts.
You probably know a few exercises that just don’t feel right, even though you use textbook form. They either hurt in a negative way (as opposed to the positive pain you get from exhaustion) or you may just not feel anything at all in the targeted muscle. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you — the exercise itself isn’t working for you.
Simply put, don’t listen to the dogma. Use your own head and reject exercises that won’t do it for you. If your training partner happens to like one of your “bad” exercises, try to find a compromise, or simply agree to do those particular sets on different machines.
Step #3: Mix Up Your Training
This is the flip side of the coin outlined in step #2: The exercises you really like tend to become the mainstay of your workout routine, which negatively impacts your overall results over time.
Why? Even though you get good at pushing big weights with your handful of favorites, your body quickly figures out the pattern and get less and less inclined to grow in response.
Check your workout log every month. If a specific exercise keeps popping up, let it rest for a couple of weeks while you try something different.
Another issue is the reliance on either free weights or machines. You will find people arguing for sticking to only free weights or onlymachines, but the best results are usually found in combining the two. The trick is to get as much variation as possible.
Step #4: Use Periodization
In addition to changing the exercises around, you must also vary the weight and reps. This shouldn’t be a haphazard endeavor. By engaging in a carefully planned periodization strategy you will reap the benefits of low rep training without allowing your muscles grow accustomed to it.
In a nutshell, you alternate 4- to 6-week long periods of heavy/light training with 1- to 2-week transfer periods in-between. This shifts the attention between muscle fiber types, cranks up the intensity and offers other advantages.
Step #5: Keep Your Cardiovascular System In Shape
Running the treadmill or pedaling away on a stationary bike is boring enough to make a grown man cry. But it’s a necessary evil to both stay healthy and make consistent progress.
Cardio makes sure your heart and lungs stay efficient. This is good for heavy compound lifts such as deadlifts and squats, where you need a fully functional cardiovascular system to keep the steam up during the last few sets. Cardio burns fat. Body fat is not cool when you hit the beach. Furthermore, the extra weight increases the impact of your joints as you walk, run and do anything at all.
There are a few different approaches to cardio. Lately, lots of guys are leaning toward the Interval Technique: Alternate low-intensity jogging with full-speed running because of the dual benefits of fat burn and increased heart/lung capacity.
Step #6: Think Positive
If you keep doubting your ability to stick to a diet, fear lifting heavier weights beyond your comfort zone and otherwise undermine your resolve, it is no surprise your expectations become self-fulfilling. Your mind is what sets you apart from your dog–make full use of your mind, and have it work to your advantage.
Set challenging but realistic goals and commit yourself to achieving them. Be consistent. Take a “before” picture and put it on your fridge. Write down a specific goal 10 times a day before breakfast, be it to gain 15 pounds of mass in the next year or to lose 15 pounds of lard. Try to get your mind “inside” the muscles as you train them. Look in the mirror and visualize the goal you seek.
Always keep an eye open for new information that can benefit you. Listen to all advice, and then discard the BS while keeping the nuggets that actually work. If you ever hit a plateau in spite of the variation and periodization, one of those nuggets just may be the key to busting out and getting back on track.
Again, none of this is revolutionary. It’s like the Zen approach where we’re told the key to a good life is to “do the right things and avoid the wrong things.” The good news is that the steps above are pretty easy to stick to once you get in the habit.
Granted, you may end up injured in spite of using common sense. And sure, periodization is not an absolute guarantee that you’ll avoid plateaus. But all things considered, your odds of success increase dramatically, and if you stick to the program you are guaranteed to make slow but steady progress over time.
Contributing blogger Troy Meyers is a certified personal trainer and sports conditioner with more than 10 years of experience. He owns Atlanta-based JockBoyLocker.com and contributes to the site’s Lockerroom Blog.