The Beginner’s Guide to Long Term Gains
Mapping the future is essential to your muscles and if you apply the same strategies you use for your career to your training, you’ll keep getting bigger, stronger and fitter
One of the quirks of being human is that you always want more. From the moment you punch out the birth canal it’s all you think about. And you’re damn good at it too. The evidence is palpable; every month there is more horsepower, more information, more sex, more calories, more money, more strength and more size. But as most lifters and athletes will tell you, these gains don’t last forever and your eternal quest for more will eventually hit a non-scalable wall… unless you adapt. It’s the same with your love life – sticking with the same routine day-in day-out, won’t fulfil your needs or make you happy. So keep reading to find out how to learn to apply the same flexible mentality you use for choosing a partner to your workouts.
It’s a gas
You want more muscle or performance and the reason you get it when you hit the gym is because your body is the most adaptable thing on the planet. Unfortunately, you don’t keep adapting endlessly or everyone would be eight foot tall and six foot wide. In fact, a well-established study in the British Medical Journal (1) calculated the exact speed and amount of adaptation your body is capable of – it’s a formula called General Adaptive Syndrome (GAS). You can use it to design your perfect body and its best explained using the ‘three-date rule’. You see the trick to long-term growth and performance is to treat your muscles like a player. Seduce them with a new fling every 4-8 weeks and their progress will keep you satisfied for as long as you’re willing to make them sweat. Keep reading to find out how and why it works.
A love affair of muscle
The GAS graph shows that your body grows and performs in peaks, troughs and plateaus that have a start and end point – much the same as a fling you had with that work colleague.
1. New stimulus
2. The alarm phase
3-5. The adaptation phase
11. The exhaustion phase
WEEK 1: THE NEW STIMULUS
A training cycle starts the moment your muscles are confronted with a new stimulus. So lets say you usually do 4 sets of 8 reps on all your exercises. The new stimulus would be to do 3 sets of 15 reps on a totally new set of exercises or even on all the same group of exercises. During the first week of this new training cycle your body will adapt and may actually make gains. It’ll be a refreshing change so you’ll be motivated and will want to see how far this new technique can take your physique and performance.
The new love interest
A new colleague starts at work who is very easy on the eye. You never mix business with pleasure but to be welcoming in their first week you strike up a water-cooler conversation and find out the two of you have everything in common. You can’t get this new member of the office out of your thoughts and consider breaking your own rules.
WEEK 2: THE ALARM PHASE
This is when your exercise performance might decline. You may not be able to push the same size weights you did the previous week or squeeze out as many reps. The sets of 15 reps may feel long, arduous and painful. Frustration can set in as you wonder if this technique is the right one for you. You’ll think about quitting, but may get a glimmer of hope in the final workouts of this week that will seem slightly easier and yield some strength increases.
The second meeting
After thinking about your new colleague non-stop you start week 2 off by striking up a conversation at their desk. As your about to walk away, your new co-worker asks you if you’re free next week for a date. You’re caught off guard but are flattered so accept.
WEEKS 3-5: THE ADAPTATION PHASE
During these weeks your body and brain make the adjustments you’ll enjoy. Your nervous system becomes more efficient at instructing your muscles. This helps you use larger weights, which inflict micro-tears to your muscle fibres. They’ll repair and grow back thicker and stronger making you add muscle. If you’re training for sport this is the time when you’ll become fitter and improve your overall performance. Each week sees an improvement and you’ll soon have arms so powerful you could throw a lamb chop past a starving wolf. The key to long-term progress is to stay in this phase for as long as possible. As soon as your gains taper off and begin to plateau (usually somewhere after week 5 or 6) you should take a break then switch programmes.
Let the dating begin
Date 1: Mid-week you meet up after work for a drink at the local pub. It’s a quick affair but you enjoy it nonetheless. The evening goes well, but you have to leave early so arrange another date for the following weekend.
Date 2: It’s Saturday night and you like to get a bit loose however the office newbie is the opposite and stops when they’ve had enough. This doesn’t stop you from getting a few drinks in but you feel like you’re being watched. There’s a kiss at the end of the night but there are no real sparks.
Date 3: You see the newbie at work and feel obliged to arrange another date. The two of you go to dinner and find that after all the work gossip – you don’t have much to talk about. You both realise this is where it should end – any courageous person would follow the ‘three-date rule’ and move on while things are amicable.
WEEKS 6-10: PLATEAU
This is when you reach a point where your rate of adaptation slows down and you hit a muscle building or performance plateau. The stimulus isn’t different enough to cause your muscles to develop and they become stale. You won’t necessarily lose strength or size but you will be lifting the same sized weights. It’s a bit like gym purgatory.
Dates no. 4-10
You’ve broken the ‘three-date rule’ and treated the fling as a relationship. You’ll go on the same humdrum dates and secretly detest them but can’t break up because things would be really awkward at work. When you first met your new colleague you were hungry for their affection, now you’re just fed up and too scared of change to leave.
WEEKS 11-52: THE EXHAUSTION PHASE
Your training has now become detrimental to your goals. Every rep you do is a cancer on your muscles that bores them with the same tired stimulus. You’ll get weaker, lose energy and may even get ill. Your physique will deteriorate as you lose muscle and gain fat while your performance is in a slump. You need to take at least 2 weeks rest or do a totally new type of training that is the antithesis of what you were doing.
Dates no. 11-52
Continuing with this fling has left you feeling about as much love for each other as a Liverpool fan does for a Manchester United supporter. With this attitude, the best thing is a fresh start with someone else.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
For the best results you should treat your muscles like a harlot. Let them play the field of training techniques to keep growing and improving their performance. Bear in mind that athletes usually adapt into a new technique in 4 weeks while novices can keep making gains for up to 8-12 weeks using the same technique.
With that said, progress isn’t always linear or constant. Sometimes it comes in batches when you least expect it. You might train hard for weeks with no results then all of a sudden it slaps you in the face like an angry spouse and your best lift jumps up by 20kgs or you stack on 2kgs of muscle. The results can seem instant and almost seem effortless but they are actually the rewards of months of consistent and persistent effort. But the moment you feel the relationship with a training technique going sour because of a lack of gains (plateau) then you have a few options: use a new training technique, take 1-2 weeks rest from all training or dramatically reduce your workout load by at least 60%.
Rest is never a bad thing and it’s recommended that you take a break whenever you hit a plateau or switch routines. But if you’re very motivated and keen on getting fast results then feel free to jump straight into a new technique. Should you choose to do this then make sure the new technique is vastly different from the last one you’ve done or builds on a routine you’ve just done. Because starting a new routine that’s not different enough from the previous one is like falling into a trap – there won’t be enough variation to trigger growth and progress. This will keep you in a perpetual state of exhaustion that can lead to over-training and burnout. For constant progress, decide on your goals and take your muscles out on the town by gathering information on several different types of training that are specific to your goals. Once you have all that information then you can put it together in a long term training plan that glosses over the failures and builds on its’ successes. Always remember to mix things up to challenge your body and mind because variety is the spice of a muscular life.
The following is a progressive plan to help a beginner progress to an intermediate lifter in less than a year.
A total beginner’s yearly plan to add size
1. Starting off easy
The high reps of this endurance training will gradually accustom your muscles to being weight trained without any risk of injury. If you keep the rest periods low it will also help you burn fat.
Strength Endurance training
Strength endurance 1 (E1) = 2 sets of 15-20 reps per exercise. Rest 30 seconds between sets.
Strength endurance 2 (E2) = 3 sets of 12-15 reps per exercise. Rest 30 seconds between sets.
Strength endurance 3 (E3) = 4 sets of 12-15 reps per exercise. Rest 30 seconds between sets.
2. Picking up your game
By this stage your muscles and nervous system will be attuned to being put through their paces. You can now start gunning for size by decreasing the repetitions, increasing the size of the weights you use and trying to set personal bests.
Try a bodybuilding Hypertrophy Training
Hypertrophy 1 (H1) = 4-6 sets of 8–10 reps per exercise. Rest 2 minutes between sets.
Hypertrophy 2 (H2) = 5-7 sets of 6-8 reps per exercise. Rest 2 minutes between sets.
3. Playing in the big leagues
You will have now mastered the form of the basic exercises and can dramatically add weight to build strength and power with lower repetitions.
Try Pure Strength and Power Training
Power (S1) = 5-10 sets of 4-7 reps per exercise. Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
Pure Strength (S2) = 3-4 sets of 1-4 reps per exercise. Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
How to use it
In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a world of instants, just look at ATMs, overnight delivery and lightening fast Internet. This is why websites and magazines try to sell you 6-week plans that cough up a particular result, but you need to realize that training requires patience and time so you must always think long term. There’s no point thrashing it out for 2 months, stacking on muscle, shedding fat or bolstering your performance then doing nothing and watching it waste away.
But even if you’re a total beginner you don’t need a personal trainer to tell you how to schedule your long term training strategy. Lay the foundations by doing strength endurance training (or any other technique suited to beginners) for 2-3 months. Pay attention to your progress and when your performance starts to decline, take a week off and start training for growth using the Hypertrophy Training guidelines; when the scale tells you that you aren’t adding muscle then start a power or strength training programme.
You’ll notice that after this you’ll revert back to endurance training to shock your muscles into growing further. This seems counter-intuitive but your muscles won’t be used to doing such high repetitions, which can be a shock and spark the growth process again because you will have started a completely new cycle. And when you do Hypertrophy Training again you’ll stack on size faster than you’ve ever dreamed. These plans are just working examples so it’s important to tailor your plan to your goals because now that you know the rules of the game, you can play better than your competition.
1. British Medical Journal: 1950;1:1383-1392 (17 June), doi:10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383
Ray Klerck is a personal trainer who was Men’s Health’s in-house Fitness Editor for over 7 years and continues to be their chief fitness advisor, contributing on a regular basis. He was one of the first staffers to appear on their cover and currently writes freelance for a variety of men’s magazines and runs an online training and nutritional advice service.