Why your goal should be strength, not muscle
After you have been training consistently for more than 4 to 5 years you will find that progress comes a lot slower. The days when you could keep putting 5kgs more on the bar each time are long gone.
No matter what you do your weight in terms of lean muscle mass won’t go up.
If you have come this far with your training, and I mean actually beasting it in and out of the gym week-in, week-out (i.e. 5 years of training doesn’t really count if you have had months off at a time or been very inconsistent with pushing yourself when you’re in there), then you should have realised everything the supplement companies told you at the start is bullshit.
Without drugs, you’re not going to keep on putting muscle on year on year because you have a genetic natural limit that is your hormone level.
This is why for natural advanced trainers I don’t advocate a program that is geared towards putting on muscle. Sure you obviously can keep creeping closer to your maximum muscle mass but in reality there is not that much to look forward to in terms of getting noticeably bigger.
As I calculated in my post on How much muscle can you gain naturally? I myself maybe have between 5-10 lbs of potential lean muscle gain to possibly achieve, if my genetics allow it. But even then I better get there in the next few years or so before my testosterone level starts to naturally decrease.
Muscular limits are very real, and in truth if you are a narrow framed individual who struggles to gain weight (an ectomorph) your potential to gain muscle naturally is extremely low; maybe even as little as 20 lbs above your starting skinny weight over the course of your entire lifting career.
We all know people who don’t really train and eat huge amounts of whatever they want without their weight moving up or down by more than a couple of kilos.
Similarly there are people who only have to look at a doughnut to gain a few pounds.
As I explained in my post on body types everyone is different, and just as not everyone is clever enough to become a professor many people are never going to be that muscular or strong, no matter how hard they train. It is a genetic lottery.
Imagine your natural hormone profile and hence your muscle-building capacity is the size of the glass below, with the water representing lean muscle.
There’s only so much water it can contain, and the only way to have more water is to get a bigger glass.
Everyone, however, can significantly improve their strength
So what is the point of training? Don’t despair.
While muscle-building goals plateau quite quickly, the number on the bar is something that can keep going up.
Strength and size are related, but not in the way most people believe; just because someone is big does not mean they are strong and vice versa. A person with smaller muscles can out lift a bigger individual.
Powerlifters are often much stronger than bodybuilders, but can be much smaller.
This is because while the size of the muscle plays a part in its lifting capacity (i.e. the more muscle fibres present the more available to be recruited when it contracts) a big part of strength is actually the efficiency of the Central Nervous System and how well and how coordinated those muscle fibres are fired when attempting a lift.
This is a process that you can always improve on.
Every time you train a movement you are practicing the skill of coordinating your muscles to fire as simultaneously and harmoniously as possible to complete a lift.
Part of the reason an experienced trainer can lift more is because their CNS is more practiced and conditioned than the novices. Their balance and lifting efficiency is a lot better through development.
Therefore it is more productive to focus on getting stronger rather than worrying about getting bigger.
Again, some people will start naturally stronger and have more strength potential but strength is something that can be improved year after year no matter what your build, unlike muscle mass.
Moreover, in the beginning as a novice or early intermediate trainer as your lifts go up so will your muscularity: logically if your 10 rep maximum bench goes up from 60 kgs to 80 kgs then you will have added some muscle mass without a doubt.
Training for strength doesn’t necessarily mean 1 rep maxes
A one-rep max is when you see how much weight you can lift for just one repetition.
When you see a powerlifter going for a one-rep max what you are seeing is someone testing their strength. Training it is quite different, and in the run-up to the attempt that lifter probably has not touched a weight more than 85-90% of what he is trying on the day.
Until you have a decent amount of training experience testing your maximum shouldn’t be a priority at all.
If you are a beginner you need to stick to the 7-12 rep range, and focus on increasing the weight you can handle for that bracket: once you can do 10-12 solid reps, up the weight slightly, but not so much that you can’t complete at least 7 or 8. Then build up again.
Even as you progress there is an argument for never really training in the 1 rep max range, unless you compete as a powerlifter. The reasons are that 1 rep maximums put incredible amounts of stress on your CNS, affecting recovery times, as well as being risky in terms of injury- if it truly is the limit of your strength you definitely won’t be keeping perfect form.
Basically if you are just training to get stronger there’s no real need to go below 3 reps, and then only if you are an experienced, competent lifter.
Set yourself strength, not muscle goals and get results
The weight training industry is built around the idea of working out to build muscle. Most teenage boys who get into weights do so with the primary goal of getting bigger and looking ‘good’ in the Hollywood action movie star mould.
This is all well and good but the catch is that unless you take drugs you can’t actually build that much real muscle, certainly not in the order you are conditioned to believe.
PEDs and steroids are so prevalent in sports and fitness these days that even the general public who have no interest in weight training have been conditioned to believe that you’re not really ‘built’ unless you resemble Dwayne Johnson or Sylvester Stallone in the original Rambo movies, and that you can look like them without drugs.
It is the reason why so many ‘fake naturals’ on YouTube get away with claiming to be clean while being so obviously on a cocktail of drugs to anyone who knows what they are looking at; but plenty of impressionable people still believe them, because they don’t know enough about training to know any better.
If you dedicate your focus to trying to emulate 220 lbs, 8% bodyfat bodybuilders naturally then there is no doubt you will fall short of that goal: it cannot be done.
What is the point in banging your head against an impenetrable brick wall?
It is much better to forget about muscle and focus on something that you can develop year on year: your strength.
Not only is it more measurable, you will build muscle as well as not getting frustrated when you don’t achieve unrealistic results.
Don’t get obsessed with the mirror or the scale. Set yourself a challenging but achievable strength goal, like squatting 2x bodyweight and go after it.
With the right attitude, commitment and programming you will get there; what’s more is when you do you’ll find your physique has developed too.
Programming, discussions and templates are coming soon to help you plan how to reach these strength goals!