Over the last year I have gotten complacent in my resistance training.
I stopped progressively overloading as intentionally, reduced my training volume to three days per week, and didn’t focus as heavily during my workouts. In other words, I put resistance training on maintenance while accelerating other parts of my life like my business and relationships. But the line between maintenance and complacency is short.
And I have definitely crossed that line.
So over the last few weeks I have reignited my passion for exercise by doing a ton of research into how to effectively resistance train and diet for optimal hypertrophy. I feel like a kid set loose in a candy store again--it's so fun to reignite old passions. This article is an encapsulation of the most valuable things I learned/re-learned during my research into the principles of resistance training and dieting. If you are interested in accelerating your resistance training and diet, this will be invaluable.
The Four Levels Of Resistance Training
Let's start by bench pressing the four levels of resistance training, ehhh that makes no sense...
Along the resistance training path, there are different levels depending upon how long you have trained, and knowledgeable you are about how to do train effectively.
Level 1: Noob
This stage encompasses the first few months of lifting.
If you have never step foot in a gym, you could lift a twig and gain muscle. Pretty much all you have to do as a noob is lift weights and eat protein, consistently, with recovery. That's it.
Consistency is the most important part.
Unfortunately, you can't just step in the gym once, lift a barbell, and then look like Henry Cavil in The Witcher 3. I know, tragedy. You have to resistance train consistently to see results.
So the most important thing you should consider as a novice is how to make your resistance training *so fun you want to do it anyways.
I have made it fun and easy by fitting it into the morning, playing music, and being willing to reduce my volume if I'm just not feeling it.
Figure out how to make it fun yourself. If you want to learn more about making hard things fun, check out my article This One Question Made Me Addicted To Learning.
Recovery is also essential.
When I first got into the gym four years ago, I used to watch YouTube and play games late into the night inhibiting my sleep. My diet consisted of lots of bread, oatmeal, and milk--not much protein. Unsurprisingly this made it harder to gain in the gym. It was like giving a plant sunlight, but not the water it needed to grow.
Thankfully, I now have my recovery in order.
It's quiet simple. Generally most muscles need around 48 hours to rest before being trained again. However, smaller biceps like biceps can usually be trained more frequently then larger muscles like legs. You'll want to get good sleep and eat a healthy diet. Pretty damn obvious I know, but funnily enough often overlooked.
Level 2: Novice
Once you have been in the gym for a few months, you'll notice the lifts you once found difficult are starting to get easier.
They don't stimulate you in the same way you used to, and you begin to stagnate. This is when you need to start paying attention to the magic buzzword of the resistance training world: progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual increase of sets, reps, weight, bettering of form or mind muscle connection, or lowering of rest time in your workouts. Your body is an adaptation machine, and it will adapt to the stimulus you put on it.
To keep gaining muscle and strength you must stimulate it with progressive overload.
I like to use the video game Terraria as my analogy to understand progressive overload.
In Terraria, the goal of the game is to defeat ever more powerful bosses. In order to do this, you have to increase your skills, weapons, armor, and tools for every fight. You would never be able to defeat a higher level boss with beginner level gear. Progressively overloading is like preparing for ever harder boss fights in Terraria.
To keep reaching more muscle and strength milestones, you can't stick to old training routines.
Level 3: Average Lifter
Focusing on progressive overload is smart, but it still leaves a lot to be desired in the gym.
There will come a point when you must become an average lifter and ask yourself these questions:
“How HARD should we push it?”
“How many SETS should we do?”
“How many REPS should we do?”
“How HEAVY should we lift?”
“Which EXERCISES should we do, when, and how many?”
In other words, you start focusing on effort, volume, intensity, and frequency. Up until now, we haven't really been treading on controversial territory. But this is where we start entering the controversial minefield. Every fitness guide will give you different advice. I'll just do my best to tell you the principles I follow inside of my resistance training.
First, How Hard Should We Push It?
It's simple, you should feel like you are about to see God at the end of every set.
I'm just kidding--although some people believe this is true. My personal thought is you should aim for 2-3 reps in reserve (RER) on most of your sets and go almost to failure on the last set of every exercise. However, you should be more careful about going to failure on compound movements which have a higher risk of injury. On smaller muscle lifts like bicep curls you can go to failure or even past failure because the risk of injury is lower.
Second, How Many Sets Should We Do?
Once again it depends on your goals but I like to go between 3-5 sets on most exercises.
Third, How Many Reps Should We Do?
This once again depends on your goals and the exercise you're doing. If you're doing a compound lift lower reps is more practical compared to an isolation movement. I just can't see myself doing 20 reps of barbell bench press. But you can set your baseline rep ranges based on if you are training for hypertrophy or strength.
When training for strength:
- Aim for less reps than hypertrophy (between 1-8)
- 3-5 minute rest between sets
- Avoid supersetting--you'll be too fatigued
When training for hypertrophy:
- Aim for more reps than strength (between 8-20)
- 1-3 minutes rest time
- Supersets more possible
Another essential thing to note is your thoughts when doing a set shouldn't be "Oh, I have to complete 12 repetitions." It should be, "I'm going to give this set a hard effort while maintaining proper form." The recommendation for general repetitions are a guideline.
You won't grow muscle or strength no matter how many reps you do as an average lifter if you aren't adequately stimulating the muscle.
How Heavy Should You Lift?
This ones pretty easy to answer, because if you follow the rule of lifting within 2-3 reps of failure for most exercises, you have a heuristic for finding what weight to lift.
Simply find the weight where you are within 2-3 reps of failure.
Finally, What Exercises Should You Do, When, And How Many?
Answering this question could be an entire book in itself, so instead, I'll give you some guiding principles.
Firstly, remember that consistency is the most important thing. Ask yourself, what exercises do you enjoy doing and can perform with good form?
Second, ask yourself what your training routine looks like. Can you go 2 days a week, 3, 4, 5 or maybe even 6 or 7? This changes what splits you might want to do. The most common are full body, bro split, upper lower, and push pull legs. Depending on your training routine you'll want different sets, volume, and exercises.
Generally, you shouldn't be training the same muscle within 48 hours of last training it--except in rare occurrences like for smaller muscles that recover super fast like biceps. Ideally every muscle has 10-20 sets dedicated to it per week. And during your workout, you want to avoid training the same muscle back to back. Give it some time to rest, jeez. This isn't your fourteen year old self after you first discovered masturbation.
Finally, consider doing cardio in the morning or after your resistance training. If resistance training is your main focus this will give you the optimal energy to focus on that instead of cardio.
Level 4: Elite Lifter
Elite lifters are generally people who have been training for more then 5-10+ years in the gym.
It's at this level you can start seriously thinking about supplements, periodization, advanced lifting techniques like supersets, drop sets, and more. That's not to say you can't focus on these things beforehand. But as a beginner and intermediate lifter, the things stated up above will account for 80% of your gains. These things are the cream of the crop. Now, I haven't reached this stage yet, so I'm not going to try talking about it, but just know it exists.
The last thing I wanted to answer is how much muscle you can expect to grow over your years of lifting. As Yoda would say, patience you must have. Resistance training works on a logarithmic curve. At first you will gain insane muscle or strength because of "beginner gains." You might gain 15 pounds of muscle in a single year. But as you train longer and longer, your gains will get smaller and smaller. In your third year, maybe 6. Fourth, maybe 4, And so on and so on.
This is why getting muscular is way harder then just getting lean.
How do I say this? Gaining muscle takes a crapping long amount of time. It's going to be a while before you look anything like a Jayce Tallis from Arcane (if you know you know). Getting lean, however, simply entails you to losing some excess fat which doesn't require muscle.
Technically there is another level above this which is pro bodybuilder, but I'm assuming most people reading this aren't ever going to get to that stage nor want to.
Principles Of Dieting For Resistance Training
I have been between 155-165 pounds for the last four years.
While I gained a lot of muscle at first, I have started stagnating in the gym, and I don't think it's just because of my complacency in the gym--it's because I haven't been doing periodization. Periodization is the intermittent bulking, maintaining, and cutting of body weight to incentivize muscle growth. As a beginner or even early intermediate, you have to worry about periodization (losing or gaining weight because you're too fat or too skinny doesn't count, periodization requires intermittent bulking, maintaining, and cutting), but once your first few years in the gym have gone by you should.
So why haven't I ever tried periodization until now?
The truth is, I've been scared; scared of gaining too much weight and looking fat.
At the start of COVID-19 I was 185 pounds and looked like a baby Puff The Marshmallow Man. So I went on YouTube and searched up "how to lose weight fast." Yikes. It was there I found fitness YouTuber Greg Doucette who advocated the Anabolic Diet, a diet in which you eat as low calorie and high protein as possible to artificially fill yourself up. Greg promised if I stuck to this diet I would get dumb thick so I ate massive salads, protein shakes, and so much chicken breast I started clucking myself. However, after 3 months and 30 pounds of weight loss, I was left tired, estranged from my most important relationships, and still dissatisfied with my body.
My anabolic dieting experience taught me something really important: you should never let one thing take over all of your other values.
It also taught me the terrors of going on a bad diet.
I lost so much weight so fast, that a lot of it was muscle. I'm still recovering from the negative effects. Because of my anabolic dieting experience I have been scared to try another diet of any sort whether gaining weight or cutting. But after almost three years, I think I'm ready to take the jump.
So I started doing some research into periodization. And it led me to the question below:
Should You Bulk, Cut, Or Maintain?
To answer this question, we need to ask why we have to bulk, cut, and maintain in the first place.
Why can't we just do body recomposition at the same weight until we look like Jayce Tallice From Arcane?
To understand, we can use the analogy of learning an instrument. At first, we can learn an instrument with a basic piece of music and not that great a teacher. But once we’ve acclimated to that music that we’ve surpassed the teacher, we need other pieces of music maybe even another teacher to start improving again. The gym is no different..
There comes a point where we’ve been lifting for so long are body doesn't see a reason to put on more muscle at the same body weight.
Muscle is calorically expensive, why should our body put it on if we aren't in an energy surplus?
The idea behind periodization is it creates a artificial stage to incentivize our body to gain more muscle. While bulking, we are put in a anabolic mode where we put on more muscle. During maintenance, we allow our body to get used to our new weight and muscle gain, offloading the fatigue we built up while training hard in our bulk. While cutting, we lose most of the excess fat we gained while bulking and maintain most of the muscle we gained while continuing to train hard.
If done right, periodization allows you to gain more muscle over a long period then you would have if you stayed at the same body weight the whole time.
The reason this works is because it’s way easier to lose fat then it is to gain muscle. So when we enter the cutting phase, we lose most of the excess fat that weekend during the bulking face and if we’re still training hard, keep most of the muscle.
However, for this to work, you have to gain the right amount and lose the right amount.
It's not following this principle that accounts for most of the distaste in the resistance training community around periodization.
Many people gain way too fast causing a lot of fat gain. And many others lose way too fast causing a lot of muscle loss--like I did during my anabolic dieting experience. Finding the balance is where the art of periodization takes place.
I'll dive more into how much and for how long you should gain, lose and maintain in my dedicated sections for bulking, cutting, and maintaining, but first we have to answer the question, what phase should you start with?
It's more intuitive then you think.
Look at yourself in the mirror? Do you look like Puff The Marshmallow Man? Or do you look like a Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway? If you're heavier then you would like, you can cut and still gain muscle because the energy from your excess fat will be used to grow. And if you're skinnier then you would like, you can gain and use the excess energy to gain more muscle.
Let's start with how to do a bulk.
Each phase in your periodization should be between 1-4 months (almost never shorter then a month because that's not enough time to see the real effects).
As a general marker, you don't want to lose or gain more then .25-.5% of your body weight per week. This is where most people make their greatest error in periodization; they gain or lose way more then this percent. Common advice for bulking goes you should add 500 calories to your diet.
Let's do the math to see why this is idiotic.
There are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat. 500 extra calories per day equates to around a pound of weight gain a week. Over 3 months of bulking that's 12 pounds of weight gain. As an intermediate lifter, you're lucky if you can gain 6-8 pounds of muscle in a year. That means at best your 3 months of bulking might have given you 3-4 pounds of muscle and a whopping 8-9 pounds of fat! Not a good ratio. Instead if you gain around .25%-.5% of your body weight per week, your ratio should look more like 1:1 muscle to fat; a much better ratio. Since I'm around 167 pounds right now that means weight gain of around .5-.75 pounds a week if I'm bulking; a far cry from 1 pound a week.
So you know how much you should be gaining per week on a bulk, but how do you measure your weight, iterate, and what should you be eating?
Measuring simply comes down to weighing yourself at least 3-4 times a week at the same time and averaging to get a weekly weight. It's essential you take the average because your weight can easily fluctuate 0-4 pounds a day depending on a variety of factors like how much salt you had, water you drank, and foods you ate. Also, when starting a bulk or cut you should ignore your first week of weight gain or loss because it's going to be all water weight.
Every two weeks you should take a look at the trend line of your weight gain or loss and iterate your diet depending on if you're gaining or losing too slowly or fast. For example, if you're gaining too slowly--perhaps you're staying at the same weight after two weeks--up your calories by 10%. For a 2,500 calorie diet that would mean 250 more calories. You might have to do this a few times throughout your bulk or cut. Keep doing this until you reach your target weight goal.
The last question to answer, what should you eat on a bulk?
The answer is simple, eat what you normally eat, but a little more carbs and fats. If you're bulking, there is almost zero danger of you not getting enough protein because your eating in a surplus. Protein is usually more expensive and filling then fats and carbs. So it's cheaper, tastier, and easier on the stomach to add more carbs and fats.
However, this comes with the caveat you are already eating quiet "healthily."
What counts as healthy or not is often overcomplicated in the fitness space. Come on people, you know a Pizza from Dominoes is unhealthy and a dish of overnight oats, peanut butter, and banana is healthy. Let's not overcomplicate things. In most cases I advocate clean bulking, which just means continuing to eat healthily while bulking, but just adding some more carbs and fats. Dirty bulking, however, involves eating more processed foods for your extra calories.
Why do I generally advocate clean bulking?
Because clean bulking is:
- Makes you feel better
- Harder to over eat on
However, this doesn't mean clean bulking and dirty bulking are mutually exclusive.
I think it's healthy to sometimes dirty bulk for a weekend--maybe your at grandmas for Thanksgiving. Dirty bulking has it's advantages:
- Easier to stick to on the road
- More fun
- Nero zero chance you won't gain weight--especially useful if you struggle eating enough food
- Great psych break from too much clean food
So there you have it. Bulk for 1-4 months depending on your target weight goal. Gain between .25-.5% of your body weight a week. Iterate every two weeks by looking at your average weight trend line. And stick mostly to clean bulking with some dirty bulking every now and then.
After a bulking or cutting phase, your body needs a maintenance to adjust to your new weight and release fatigue.
Think of your maintenance phase like weekends during the week. It’s much more effective to work for eight hours five days of the week and then have two days off then it is to work for 6 hours a day all week. Humans weren't made to work every day, we need rest. Your maintenance phases are the rests between your bulks and cuts.
How do you do a maintenance phase?
If you're bulking reduce your calories by around 10% and if your cutting increase them by around 10%. Then continue to weight yourself and iterate every two weeks to keep around the same weight. In addition, reduce the volume of your resistance training. Continue to train hard but consider reducing every exercise by a set so you can give your body time to offload the fatigue your have built up. Do this four 1-4 months and your set for another bulking or cutting phase.
What should you eat?
Eat whatever you would normally eat but in enough quantity that you maintain your weight. You should be a little more concerned about eating enough protein because you're not in a calorie surplus, but you don't have to worry about it too much.
Finally how do you do a cut?
It's really simple, you essentially do what you do on a bulk, but the opposite. Instead of gaining .25-.5% of your body weight per week, you want to lose that much. So reduce your calories by around 10%, weigh yourself, and iterate based on your trend line every two weeks. Remember, ignore the first week of weight loss because most of it will be water weight.
What should you eat?
Instead of increasing the amount of fats of fat and carbs you are eating at every meal like in a bulk, increase the amount of protein you eat, and reduce the amount of carbs and fats. Protein keeps you full and is necessary for building and maintaining muscle. This is good because when you are cutting you want to keep yourself full and you are at a higher risk of not getting your protein needs.
And finally how should you train?
Honestly, no differently compared to if you were on a bulk. While cutting you are much less likely to gain muscle compared to a bulk--especially if you have been lifting for a while--so your goal is rather to maintain what you have while losing fat. This means you should continue to train hard. Heck, if you train hard enough you might even add some muscle.
Accelerating My Resistance Training And Diet In 2024
By integrating the concepts I talk about in this article, I hope to accelerate my resistance training and diet in 2024.
I'm currently on a bulk to 170 pounds--my first time above 165 in three years--and progressively overloading in the gym again. It feels amazing to reignite an old passion after putting it on the backburner for so long. I hope reading my research journey will help you in your own resistance training goals.
- How to Build Muscle AtleanX
- Junk Volume Why You Must Avoid It for Max Muscle
- Jeff Cavilier Huberman
- How to Create a Calorie Surplus Diet for Muscle Growth
- The Most Effective Way To Bulk For Muscle Growth (clean vs dirty bulk)
- Muscle Gain Periodization
- HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE (EXPLAINED IN 5 LEVELS)
- Ranges and Durations of Weight Gain and Measuring Progress Nutrition for Muscle Gain- Lecture 4
- Muscle Gain Periodization Nutrition for Muscle Gain - Lecture 5