You don’t get to the highest levels of the sport without having the basics in order.
What if you’re doing everything you can to build muscle, but you’re still not getting the results you expect?
You don’t need a better pre-workout drink. You don’t need to hop on a new program from the latest fitness magazine. You don’t need to sprinkle more protein powder over your problem.
What you need is this article. (I talk big, I know.)
Are you ready to take the start of 2021 as a new beginning to upgrade your physique?
Then read on to learn three simple steps that can make your training three times more productive.
Step #1 – Make form your priority
I rant about the importance of proper form, or exercise technique, to anyone who’ll listen. Most of these (unfortunate) souls assume that I’m trying to keep them from injuring themselves or that I just enjoy pestering others.
While I don’t deny either of these intents, I also do it for the sake of an underrated benefit of proper form: It’s going to help you target the right muscles.
One of the most common reasons why exercise technique might fall by the wayside is ego lifting, or the practice of lifting as heavy as possible, regardless of form, in order to please your own ego.
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it.
When you have fantastic technique, every single rep looks exactly the same because you’re always using the exact same muscle to complete it. So that muscle gets stimulated to grow with every single rep.
When you ego lift, you take tension off the target muscle, which now gets stimulated for, let’s say, 8 reps out of 10. Those last 2 reps that didn’t look so good were a waste of time.
Think of a biceps curl. When someone has perfect form, the only movement comes from the forearm, with a sick biceps squeeze at the top. When they start cheating, their whole body swings up and down like they’re a crazed monkey. (I’ve done it; I know what it looks like.)
You can bet those biceps are now getting much less total stimulus than they did when they were the only muscle involved.
In short, using the right form ensures that every single rep of every single set provides the maximum stimulus possible to the muscles you want to target.
This makes your training efficient and effective.
Step #2 – Train hard enough
After form, the second most important thing to focus on is how challenging a set is.
One question I ask all my new clients at the consultation stage is: “When do you stop a set?”
The most common answer is: “If the program says three sets of 12 reps, I’ll stop when I hit 12.”
This approach comes from the outdated belief that 8 to 12 reps is a “magical” rep range that builds muscle. At the time, it was thought that more than 12 reps improved your endurance and fewer than 8 improved your strength.
In more recent years, we’ve learnt that you can build muscle if you’re performing at least 6 reps and up to 30 or 40… with an important caveat.
The caveat is that a set needs to be challenging enough.
Achieving the right level of what’s known as intensity of effort is going to generate an appropriate stimulus for muscle growth.
So what’s “challenging enough”?
In order to rate how hard a set is, I like to use the RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) scale or the RIR (Reps in Reserve) scale.
Both scales are used to give a subjective answer to the following question: “If you had continued the set, how many more reps could you have done?”
For instance, if you stop a set and rate it an 8 out of 10 on the RPE scale or a 2 on the RIR scale, it means that you could have only done two more reps before you hit failure, the point when you can’t perform another rep with good form.
What’s the right intensity of effort to build muscle?
The easier your sets are, the less stimulus they provide. The harder they are, the more stimulus they provide, with RPE 8 to 10 (RIR 2 to 0) giving you the highest stimulus, except RPE 10 also produces the most amount of fatigue.
So you could do super easy sets… but you would need a disproportionate number of them to stimulate your muscles adequately.
Getting closer to failure can help you increase the efficacy of each set.
In general, maintaining an average of two reps from failure seems to strike the best compromise between building as much muscle as possible and avoiding excessive fatigue.
In practical terms, you could be staying four or three reps from failure at the beginning of a training block, then end two or one reps away from failure in the last week before a deload.
So, the next time you’re doing a set, don’t think about: “I’ll do as many reps as the program says.”
Think about this: “I’ll do as many reps as it takes to get close to failure.”
As a rule of thumb, you know you’re three to four reps from failure when you hit a rep that feels slower than the others and you think: “Oh, wow, this is hard.” Get to that point, then do one more, and you’re likely to be in the ballpark of two reps from failure.
Repeat this process on every single set and watch those muscles grow like weeds!
Step #3 – Recover like a boss
Many think that you build muscle when you’re training.
But you actually build muscle when you’re recovering from your sessions.
During a workout, you’re literally tearing your muscles apart. Afterwards, the repair process begins.
If your recovery is on point, then this process will include muscle growth.
To be a Recovery Pro, you need to:
If you know you’re falling short in one or more of these areas, then you’re still a Recovery Disciple. Put as much work into becoming a Recovery Pro as you put into your training, and I can guarantee you big results (literally).
At the beginning of my journey into bodybuilding, my biggest downfall was technique. I trained as hard as I could, and I had a pretty decent recovery – thanks in part to being a university student with few responsibilities – but my form was a mess.
Two years and a half later, I’m much better at making it my top priority, but I’m nowhere near done improving. Even so, my training sessions are much more productive than they’ve ever been.
What’s your biggest problem at the moment and how are you tackling it?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
Want to work with me? Check out my services!