If your goal is hypertrophy–building muscle–there are a great many variables to consider. And on some level, they all matter.
Consider the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid below. Putting aside nutrition–which has its own pyramid–this pyramid covers six (well, eight) variables that affect our training.
While the topics of sets, reps and how many days a week to train do get a lot of air time, a great many of you are still spending too much time worrying about the stuff at the top of the pyramid.
Stuff that frankly, unless you have your fundamentals in order, just don’t matter.
In case it wasn’t clear, a pyramid is used to signal that the most important things are at the bottom, with importance/influence reducing for each along with the size of the segments.
Some examples of questions I get asked all the time:
- What exercise should I do …
- to widen my back
- to shape my delts
- to thicken my lats
- How long should I be resting between sets? Between exercises? Between reps? Supersets?
- How long should each rep take?
- How long should I work the eccentric [negative] portion?
And the list goes on…
Now, if you have clear goals, a solid workout plan and strong execution, getting answers to these questions can definitely have a positive impact on your training results. But honestly, a great many of you are just not there.
In fact, the vast majority of people make only fractional progress toward their goals for two reasons:
- They do not adhere to their program over an extended window of time.
- Training volume is not increased over an extended window of time.
Consistency is king
If you’re follow me on social media, you’ve likely heard me say that consistency is king on more than one occasion. And I say this in direct support of the foundational tenet of adherence.
If you can’t consistently apply yourself to your training over an extended period of time, real progress will forever elude you.
And I’m not talking about 100% consistency either.
In fact, many of you are good at 100% compliance with programming (and diet, and almost anything) for very short periods of time. However, 100% compliance with anything is often at odds with “life” and quickly degrades to something more in the 0-50% compliance range.
Hence Uncommon Sense tells us that consistency means something more like 80%.
- That means making 8 out of 10 workouts stick.
- Sticking to your program for 8 of the 10 weeks.
- Making sure that 8 out of 10 meals are carefully balanced in support of your goals.
… and doing this for an extended period of time (many, many months, preferably years).
This is what we mean when we refer to the big rocks. i.e. making sure we are doing the most important and fundamental things right before we worry about the smaller, less impactful details.
But what underpins adherence? How do we achieve a sustained level of consistency?
In my mind, there are a great many things that affect adherence. So many, in fact, I think we could comfortably extend that pyramid by another three or four levels.
Putting aside (obvious?) things like actually having a plan, well defined goals, discipline, results etc, I’ve come to learn there are two foundational elements of adherence.
It goes without saying that you won’t do what you don’t enjoy. And while perceived competence can help with overall adherence, I have found that enjoyment is still the prime mover here.
So whatever program or training approach you pick, make sure you actually enjoy it.
And if [lack of] competency is interfering with your enjoyment, find a way to increase your competence quickly, through practice, self-instruction or in-person coaching.
Progressive overload equals results
Irrespective of whether you are training to improve strength or increase muscle size, the key to results is making consistent increases in training volume over an extended period of time. This fundamental tenet is known as progressive overload.
Now, given that training volume–the combination of loading, sets, reps and frequency over time–cannot increase indefinitely, the topic of progressive overload can get real complicated real quick. That’s why you routinely hear terms like periodization, training blocks and deload weeks.
But I am drawing your attention to the notion of progression because I see such fundamental and basic problems in this area, or at least significant results being left on the table.
- I see people completely winging their workouts, making-up splits and picking exercises seemingly at random.
- I see programs lasting just a handful of weeks before a new program is selected and programming changed.
- I don’t see you making notes during your workout, or recording your performance.
- And I see little to no consistency in your form, rep length, rest periods or workout duration.
With so many variables changing workout to workout, week to week, your ability to quantify your workout volume and leverage progressive overload is likely minimal to non-existent.
So what are the big rocks here? What Uncommon Sense can we apply to our training to jump-start progress?
- Keep a training journal
- Strive for consistency in your workouts
- Look to make small increases in volume over as long a window as possible
Rock one: Track your progress[ion]
Training journals and recording your performance is critical to making incremental progress over time. You’ll say you’ll remember week to week, and if your only exercise is bench press, you actually might.
But for everyone else, writing shit down is the only way. Personally, I use my phone and a Google Sheet, but literally anything works.
Rock two: Be consistent
Consistency with your workouts doesn’t mean doing the same exercises week in, week out (although there is advantages there too). It’s more about your discipline throughout the workout.
- Your consistency with form.
- Loading patterns (straight sets, pyramids, reverse pyramids etc.).
- Rest intervals.
If all the above variables are consistent, when you add one extra rep or move a couple extra pounds, Uncommon Sense tells you it was a real increase in volume.
Rock three: Maximize your window of progression
Finally–and pay attention now–look to make small increases over a long a window as possible.
Adding one rep to one of your sets is progress. Adding a pound or two to the bar and achieving the same number of reps as last session/workout/week is progress.
In all things physique related, you are looking for the minimal effective dose to maximize the necessary adaptations during your recovery periods. These small, incremental steps significantly extend the window of progress over many weeks and months, and help to avoid an early plateau in progress.
In short, leave the beast mode, spartan, warrior nonsense to the Instagrammers that already have the physique you want. That’s NOT how they attained their physique; they got there through Uncommon Sense and working their big rocks for a very long time.