I mentioned in a recent post that I have managed to gain about 15 pounds of lean body mass since I started lifting in July. This is a pretty big jump, and while this has a lot to do with the combination of newbie gains and the fact that re-building muscle is easier than building it in the first place, I would like to think that my approach is wildly different from what it was back then.
A bit of background:
- When I was 24, I had been lifting since I was 20 years old. In that time, I went from being 112 pounds to 210 pounds. I was about 12-14% bodyfat at the end (visible, but not defined abs). Compared to what I am now, I was pretty big and strong (I had a 500 pound deadlift, 450 squat, close to a 300 bench, 200 pound overhead press, and I think I pulled 650 on a trap bar deadlift). Some nagging injuries, feeling burnt out, and some major life changes really resulted in me stepping away from lifting (something I really regret)
- In my first year, I had no idea what I was doing. I did a ton of lifting but it had no rhyme or reason to it and I was severely overtrained. I went from 112 pounds to 119 pounds, though
- In my second year, I picked up Starting Strength, drank a gallon of milk a day, and got under the bar. I went from 119 to 135. Still a small dude, but I was off in the right direction
- At 29, being unhappy with my appearance, I decided to get back into the gym, determined not to suck so much
The point of this is that in 3 months as a 29 year old, I put on as much muscle mass as I did in 1 year as a 21-22 year old.
The point of this post is to reflect on what I am doing now versus what I was doing then in order to reflect on what’s working.
Following the 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule is that 20% of the work is responsible for 80% of the results. In lifting, the three things that matter are lifting progressively heavier weights, eating well, and getting enough sleep.
There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the results from minutiae. As a younger lifter, I cared a lot about things like dumbbell rows versus barbell rows, or what supplements I was taking and the difference between creatine monohydrate and creatine ethyl ester. I cared a lot about 5 reps versus 8 reps, how much time I rested between sets, and the tempo I was lifting at.
Honestly, none of that stuff matters. Maybe it does, but not enough to spend a lot of time worrying about it.
Right now, I am spending more energy on trying to get enough sleep than I am about worrying about getting a contrast shower in. I am making sure that my diet is nailed down and that I am putting the most effort into my training sessions.
Getting My Diet Right
In 2009, I struggled to add weight. To gain any weight, I was eating upwards of 3,000 calories per day. At my most, I was eating 4,500 calories to maintain.
I got a lot right back then. I ate a lot of meat, eggs, and milk. But on Saturdays, when I would do 3 hours of strongman events, I would eat a loaded pizza and drink some beers with it when I was done.
Outside getting a pre-workout meal and a post-workout meal, I had no sense of nutrient timing, so I might eat a 1,000-calorie meal and then not eat for 5 or 6 hours and I might go to bed hungry and then not eat for an hour after I woke up. I didn’t eat vegetables because they took up stomach space but didn’t add calories.
I also didn’t keep track of what I was eating and when. As such, when I was trying to adjust, I was going off feel and I had no data to support what I was doing.
Fast forward to today. I picked up the Renaissance Diet, which essentially is a classic bodybuilding diet. I dialed in my macronutrients because I have been tracking everything very closely:
- I started at 2,100 calories per day with 200g protein, 100g carbs, and the rest as fats regardless of training day or not
- From there, I dropped the carbs on non-training days almost completely out and increased carbs on training days slightly
- The result is my weight is going the way that I want it to go, I’m adding strength, and I have good energy
I am also focused on eating good foods. That means I am not counting on supplements to give me any nutrition that I am lacking elsewhere (more on that later). I am essentially following a paleo approach that mixes in some dairy and grains (again, more on that in a later blog). While I’m not worried about the occasional cheating, I am not making it a regular habit to eat a post-workout pizza.
I’ve also been sure to eat vegetables on the regular. I didn’t know that cruciferous vegetables limit estrogen when I was younger, for example, or that fiber supports good gut health. Speaking of gut health, I have also been eating fermented foods to support my gut health and ensure I am absorbing all the protein I’m putting into my body and I feel like it is helping.
So far, so good.
Supplements are Supplementary
This is a big one. I wish I could go back in time and get my money back for all of the Biotest Anaconda I took back then.
As a youngster, I felt I needed to take supplements to maximize my performance. I used to take:
- Various “natural” (read: bogus) testosterone boosting supplements like tribulus
- Mass gainers (i.e. protein powder with dextrose powder)
- Fish Oil
- Beta alanine
- Pre- and intra- workout supplements
- An ECA stack (even when bulking… to keep the bulk lean!)
- Cissus and glucosamine
- Glutamine and other BCAAs
Right now, I take:
- Fish oil
- Vitamin D
During workouts, I drink Gatorade. The supplements I take now have more to do with overall health than performance. For joints, I just do some mobility work and pre-hab work, smart exercise selection and listening to my body.
Aside from the dollars wasted on supplements, if I had spent less time staying up until 2AM researching supplements and more time sleeping (see the 80/20 rule from above), I would have been better off.
Building, Not Testing
A normal workout back then might consist of:
- Maxing out of a bench press for a single, double or triple
- A few super maximal lifts, i.e. bench press lockouts of a weight much higher than my 1RM
- Doing few sets of high rep bench press, to failure
- Doing some assistance exercises, up to a top set to failure
By always testing, after a certain point, I wasn’t building. I missed the concept that getting more time under the bar is very important. By this, I mean:
- Lifter A works up to a 405-pound single
- Lifter B works up to 3 triples at 385 pounds
- Lifter B is working with a submaximal weight, but because they are lifting 385 pounds 9 times, moving a total of 3465 pounds, versus lifter A, who moved 405 pounds. Lifter B is going to progress more
I am trying to harp on this principle more and more in my training. In my upcoming cycle, I am adding more volume to my big lifts and my compound assistance movements.
Likewise, with my assistance work, I used to go to failure. Let’s say I was doing curls for 8 reps. Reps 1-5 would be strict and 6-8 were usually cheated. Right now, I’m focused on mastering a given weight. By mastering it, I mean executing the lift so that reps 1-8 are all good. And, using the principle above, doing it for 3-4 sets instead of just one top set at a heavier weight.
As a younger lifter, I felt that rep ranges were very important. My big lift for the day would never be more than 5 reps unless it was a hypertrophy day. My assistance lifts were always between 8 and 12 reps. The only thing I ever did for more than 12 reps were high rep squats, ala 20 rep squat style.
As this really good article from Greg Nuckols points out, hypertrophy and strength gains happen on a spectrum that looks like this:
As such, in my current rep ranges I am doing a lot of different rep ranges. While it might not be apparent through my day to day training:
- I follow the 5/3/1 lift, which is ending up between 3 and 8 reps for the most part
- My assistance lifts are starting at 8 reps, then I progress up to 12 or 15 reps (depending on the lift) before adding weight and resetting down to a lower rep range
- I am doing singles and triples for lifts like the jerk and the snatch grip deadlift
- I am doing 5 reps for movements like the incline bench, rack pull and front squat
Compound Movements and Isolation Movements
When I first started seriously lifting, I was basically a diehard compound movement guy. I stuck to the big compound movements and didn’t do much isolation. That was until my elbows started bothering me and I realized my triceps were getting strong but my biceps weren’t, so I started adding isolation in to address these issues.
After switching from a 5×5 type program to a West Side style program, I almost went in the opposite direction. After I maxed on my big lift, I might do something like a row or chin up as a second compound movement, but then I would do isolation work almost exclusively.
Well, now I think I’ve found the happy mix. Right now, I am doing a 5/3/1 loaded big, compound lift. Then I follow that with some strength work on a compound lift. I do a third compound movement for higher reps, then I do 3-4 isolation movements to bring up the areas I worked in my big lift. For example, on bench press day, I do a flat bench press with a 5/3/1 loading. I move onto the incline bench and do 5×5 for some strength work and then I do 4 sets of dumbbell bench presses, before doing two movements for my chest and two movements for my triceps.
Worrying About Myself and Only Myself
As a younger lifter, I spent way too much mental effort on what others were doing and comparing myself to others.
This is a double edged sword. If you are competing against someone who deadlifts 500 pounds, it might push you harder to catch up to them. At the same time, it can get you to do the wrong things to get there, whether it is cheating on lifts to move more weight or trying to force the gains to come faster than they want to.
For example, a big part of why I “tested, not built” was impatience. I wanted to out-deadlift everybody I knew. Once I did that, I wanted to out-deadlift everyone on the message board I posted on. Because of that, I was working up to a max single on every deadlift day to try to set a new PR to beat more people.
Now, as I am older, I am more patient. Largely, I don’t have huge ambitions in strength sports anymore, so there’s no end game. But also, I have my goals and I am going to chip away as best as I can and get there as soon as my body lets me. I don’t really need to out bench the YOLO Bros at the gym to feel satisfied.
Thanks for reading!