By Praveen & Maheek Nair
Gaining muscle past the newbie gains is not easy. It takes a lot of time and effort. The last thing you want is to waste months barely making any new gains.
Proper training and rest management will get you far. You need to have a system and clear goals. Don’t try to wing it. Training is challenging. It tests your body and willpower. You’ll naturally want to hold yourself back.
This is why top bodybuilders structure their training. This means having an actual workout plan.
Knowing what you’re doing each day of the week. Having targets you need to hit. A good program also has some level of flexibility. Schedule changes, sickness, and travel can’t always be avoided.
Always going by feel is not a great idea. You don’t want to switch exercises all the time. Or to manage weights and reps based on subjective feelings. It’s a good way to have fun workouts. But you’re probably not building a lot of muscle.
The Most Common Training Mistakes
How to Measure Hypertrophy (Muscle Gain)?
Bigger muscles can handle more work. When your reps and weights keep increasing that’s a sure sign, you’re building muscle. It’s the simplest way to track progress. You know your program works when you’re consistently getting stronger (over a notable period of time). Nearly 90% of people don’t track their workout numbers regularly. Without feedback, you can’t adjust your training. You may spend months stuck on a plateau. It doesn’t really take that much effort to prevent that.
Multiple ways you can track your workouts:
- Keep a workout journal – Pen and paper, that’s the old-school solution. You can easily review previous workout performance and try to do a bit better. You can also analyze trends and figure out when it’s time to take it easy.
- Use a workout log app to track progress – Same idea. Just a bit more convenient. Some apps may even adjust your workouts. They may suggest new targets based on past performance.
- Do occasional strength or work tolerance tests – You can occasionally perform 1 rep max tests. Or see how many reps you can manage with a given weight. Though for such tests to be reliable they have to be preplanned. Even then a number of variables (e.g., sickness, poor sleep, etc.) can affect performance.
Self-monitoring progress by tracking performance is super easy. You only need a notebook or a smartphone. That’s why it takes the number one spot. It’s very accurate, time-efficient, and essentially free.
Do You Have to Lift Heavy: Is It Better to Increase Weight or Reps?
There are different ways you can evaluate progress:
- You may be able to handle heavier weights for a given number of reps.
- Do more reps with the same weight.
- Sometimes reps and weights might remain the same while sets increase.
As long as you can handle more total work (weight, reps, and/or sets) you know you’ve building muscle. Though other training variables like exercise execution, tempo, or rest times can also be manipulated to make things harder.
However, don’t hyper focus on the exact numbers. You may have been able to increase weights by 5 lbs. a week during your first 2 months of training. But progress slows down with time. It may take a couple of weeks to add 1 lb. once you get advanced.
Sometimes it takes a while to see changes in strength. You might have to analyze and compare mesocycles (~1-month periods) instead of weeks.
Can You Really Trust the Weight Scale?
The scale is one of the best tools to track diet progress. Body composition changes almost always come down to weight changes. Something you can easily measure using a scale.
However, bodyweight changes don’t always reflect body composition changes. Muscle growth is (usually) a slower process than fat loss. Regular scales register the total sum of muscle, fat, and water level fluctuations.
Total bodyweight might be increasing because:
- You’re gaining a lot of body fat and no muscle.
- You’re gaining a good amount of muscle and a bit of fat.
- Gaining both body fat and muscle.
Total bodyweight might be decreasing because:
- You’re losing a lot of body fat.
- You’re losing body fat and muscle.
- Pure muscle loss might happen sometimes, but it’s very rare.
Are You Gaining Muscle or Fat?
If you’re actively losing weight the scale can’t measure muscle gain. The total body weight change (muscle + fat) will always be a negative number. Let’s say you gained 1 lb. of muscle and lost 6 lbs. of fat. The scale will show a 5 lbs. change in weight. But you have no idea of the exact muscle gains.
However, you can trust the scale a bit more when bulking up. Note that some fat gain is inevitable. Gaining pure muscle is almost impossible.
Realistic weight gain goals:
- Complete newbies should aim to increase their current weight by 1% a week.
- Intermediate lifters should aim for 0.5% weekly increases.
- Advanced lifters can go for 0.25% weekly or 1% monthly increases.
By staying within those ranges, you optimize muscle growth. A more aggressive weight gain is not recommended. The rate of muscle gain is limited. Most of the increase will be fat tissue. However, going too slow may result in suboptimal gains.
These recommendations are based on optimal training and lifestyle conditions.
How Often Do You Need to Take Progress Photos?
Taking physique photos is a great way to measure progress. Though when it comes to muscle growth this isn’t a very practical strategy. At least not within the time frame of a single bulking cycle.
As you gain muscle you inevitably gain some fat. Over time you get less defined. Aesthetics are negatively affected. Taking pictures when bulking doesn’t help see muscle increases. You do see the fat build-up though. Or if you’re losing weight, photos really help visualize fat loss progress.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take pictures when bulking. You can compare results during different periods of bulking phases. You can focus on body composition changes at the same weight. Or notice how weight changes at the same body fat percentage.