Let's walk through them one by one. It's not rocket science, and you've probably heard some of this before. But put it all together and stay the course, and you're guaranteed to get results.
Step #1: Don't Get Injured
| This would seem like a huge no-brainer. If you tear a muscle, you will not be able to train it properly. Worse yet, you may have to stay out of the gym for a month to let it heal, which will make you slide back considerably.
The good news is that it is relatively easy to regain lost mass, but this is where many guys repeat their mistake. They either start training again before the injury is fully healed, or they are so eager to get back in the swing of things that they immediately pick up with the same amount of weight they used before. Either way, you're back to square one in a jiffy.
Kevin Levrone a few weeks before the 2003 Mr. Olympia. He pulled out and then re-entered to place 6th in the contest. Learn more about the 2003 Mr. Olympia weekend.
The remedy is simple enough: check your ego at the door, focus on good form and listen to your body. Don't jerk or bounce the weights. 1 Rep Max attempts should be done very sparingly, if at all. If your joints are aching, it may be a good idea to cut them some slack.
It's the same old litany you've heard before, yet a large percentage of especially young lifters seem hell-bent on getting themselves a nice ligament tear. Training smart is more important than lifting heavy.
| Improper Form
Not Stretching / Improper Warm-Up
Step #2: Go With What Works For You
The magazines are littered with workout routines, fads and specific exercises that so-and-so professional bodybuilder swears by. Well, guess what? If squatting hurts your lower back, it is totally irrelevant that a pro get excellent results from squats. There will always be those who don't benefit from certain exercises.
Some typical examples besides squats: barbell curls with straight bar kills the wrists in some people. Behind-the-neck lat pulls forces those with stiff shoulders to hunch over and rob the lats from a large part of the load. While dips can be a boon to tricep-development for some, others only seem to hit their pecs and delts.
You probably know a few exercises that just doesn't feel right, even though you use textbook form. They either hurt in a negative way (as opposed to the positive pain you get from exhaustion) or you may just not feel anything at all in the targeted muscle. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with you - the exercise itself isn't working for you.
Simply put, don't listen to the dogma - use your own head and reject exercises that won't do it for you. If your training partner happens to like one of your "bad" exercises, try to find a compromise, or simply agree to do those particular sets on different machines.
| Barbell Squats
Behind-The-Neck Lat Pulls
Step #3: Mix Up Your Training
This is the flip side of the coin outlined in step #2: the exercises you really like tend to become the mainstay of your workout routine, which negatively impacts your overall results over time.
Why? Even though you get good at pushing big weights with your handful of favorites, your body quickly figures out the pattern and get less and less inclined to grow in response. Check your workout log every month. If a specific exercise keeps popping up, let it rest for a couple of weeks while you try something different.
Another issue that falls into this step is the reliance on either free weights or machines.
You will find people arguing for sticking to ONLY free weights or ONLY machines, but the best results are usually found in combining the two.
If you're in the habit of hitting chest with free weights (flat/incline/decline presses, dumbbell flyes etc.) it will be beneficial to throw in some cable work and machines for a different resistance curve. Again, the trick is to get as much variation as possible.
| Every Week
Every Other Week
Once A Month
Once Every 12 Weeks
Once A Year
Step #4: Use Periodization
In addition to changing the exercises around, you must also vary the weight and reps. This shouldn't be a haphazard endeavor. By engaging in a carefully planned periodization strategy you will reap the benefits of low rep training without allowing your muscles grow accustomed to it.
In a nutshell, you alternate 4-6 week long periods of heavy/light training with 1-2 week transfer periods in-between. This shifts the attention between muscle fiber types, cranks up the intensity and offers other advantages. I have covered periodization in depth in a previous article.
| Yes - It Is Great!
No - It Sucks!
Step #5: Rest Between Workouts
Some degree of overtraining is common, especially among the more dedicated bodybuilders. It is easy to perceive time spent in the gym as something positive while the act of hanging out on the couch back home is laziness. This is mistake.
Unless you're doing cardio to burn fat, the sole purpose of going to the gym is to trigger a growth response. Once that is accomplished, you should go home and not come back until the muscle is fully recovered.
This means short but intense workouts (less than an hour) and enough rest to make sure you're not short-changing yourself. Think of it this way: training damages the muscle. Suppose the first 3 days afterwards are dedicated to repairing what you destroyed, and the last 2 days are used for overcompensation (growth).
That means you'll be good and ready to hit the weights again on day 6. You'll be stronger, bigger and better able to handle additional weight. However, if you're too eager and hit the muscles on day 4, there has barely been any time for rebuilding. Instead of growing, your body is struggling just to keep up with the damage you keep inflicting on it.
Again, the answer is a no-brainer: rest until the soreness is gone, get 8 hours of sleep per night and listen to your body. In addition to growing quicker, your body will thank you by being less prone to injuries.
Step #6: Keep Your Cardiovascular System In Shape
Running the treadmill or pedaling away on a stationary bike is boring enough to make a grown man cry. However, it is a necessary evil to both stay healthy and make consistent progress.
First of all, cardio makes sure your heart and lungs stay efficient. This is good for heavy compound lifts such as deadlifts and squats, where you need a fully functional cardiovascular system to keep the steam up during the last few sets.
Secondly, cardio burns fat. Body fat is not cool when you hit the beach. Furthermore, the extra weight increases the impact of your joints as you walk, run and do anything at all. Oh, and fit people tend to live longer and have less health problems as they age. Bet you never heard that before, huh?
There are a few different approaches to cardio. Lately, I'm leaning towards the Interval technique, where you alternate low-intensity jogging with full-speed running because of the dual benefits of fat burn and increased heart/lung capacity. Click here to read more.
| A High-Intensity Cardio Program.
A Low-Intensity Cardio Program.
Step #7: Think Positive
If you keep doubting your ability to stick to a diet, fear lifting heavier weights beyond your comfort zone and otherwise undermine your resolve, it is no surprise your expectations become self-fulfilling. Your mind is what sets you apart from your dog - make full use of your mind, and have it work to your advantage!
| Set challenging but realistic goals and commit yourself to achieving them. Be consistent. Take a "before" picture and put it on your fridge.
Write down a specific goal ten times a day before breakfast, be it to gain 15 lbs of mass in the next year or lose 15 lbs or lard. Try to get your mind "inside" the muscles as you train them. Look in the mirror and visualize the goal you seek.
Another aspect of putting your mind to use is to always keep an eye open for new information that can benefit you. Listen to all advice given to you, and then discard the BS while keeping the nuggets that actually work. If you ever hit a plateau in spite of the variation and periodization, one of those nuggets just may be the key to busting out and get back on track.
| Opposite Sex.
Watching People Bigger / Better Condition Than You.
Gym Atmosphere / Posters.
Not Wasting My Membership Money.
As I said in the beginning, none of this is revolutionary. I guess it's like the Zen approach where we're told the key to a good life is to "do the right things and avoid the wrong things". The good news is that the 7 steps above are pretty easy to stick to once you get in the habit.
Granted, you may end up injured in spite of using common sense. And sure, periodization is not an absolute guarantee that you'll avoid plateaus. However, all things considered your odds of success increase dramatically, and if you stick to the program you are guaranteed to make slow but steady progress over time.