Following the advice of genetically elite lifters is misleading. Many top competitors have excellent physiques in spite of what they do, not because of what they do.
There are other types of genetic freaks as well – those who respond extremely well to PEDs. Their receptors have a great affinity for steroids and they seemingly grow non-stop. Does that translate into the kind of expertise that can help the natural lifter?
I've been on both sides. For years I coached top-level competitors who wanted to become national champions, but I walked away from that world. In the years that have passed, I realized what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. I'm now a natural, aging bodybuilder with battle scars and training limitations from those hardcore days.
This relatively new-found wisdom has allowed me to compile ten principles for the natural lifter who finds it hard to build muscle. If you apply these principles consistently, you'll absolutely benefit.
1 – Under-training is more effective than overtraining
As cool as some hardcore training tactics look, they can quickly take the natural lifter into the overtraining zone. There's a difference between optimum work capacity and maximum work capacity. There's often an overemphasis on methods to stimulate growth, but an under-emphasis on rest and recovery.
If you leave the gym and have to sit in your car for 5-10 minutes to gather yourself before you even leave the parking lot, you've tapped too deeply into stimulus and you haven't paid relative attention to recovery.
It isn't very sexy to be talking about rest and recovery, but most of the time the non-sexy details are the most relevant for producing results.
Under-training allows you to keep showing up. Consistency is more important than intensity. Furthermore, consistency is the building block of intensity – not the other way around.
Does this mean it's okay to never sweat and to sit on the end of a bench scrolling through your phone between sets? Of course not. But real success is less about "giving it all you got" and more about being able to show up every training day in a performance-readiness state.
2 – Do NOT train to failure
After I left the hardcore competition world, I had to revisit dozens of my training programs and write them to include fewer sets, along with removing training tactics that took muscles beyond relative failure – which no natural lifter could realistically recover from.
I took out heavy negatives, forced reps, strip sets, drop sets, and extended sets. Not only did I remove these tactics, I instructed all clients to avoid training to failure on any working set.
You have to pump iron, but you should always leave a good two reps in the tank on every set. This means picking a weight that challenges your target muscles for the reps indicated, but avoids taking you to failure.
3 – Emphasize both intra-workout and inter-workout recovery
You have to balance adequate training stimulus with adequate recovery, both within workouts and between workouts:
- Not enough workouts per week = not enough stimulus.
- Not enough recovery within and between workouts = overtraining and not enough time to complete an adaptive response.
- Intra-workout recovery and inter-workout recovery need to reflect one another.
"Inter" workout recovery has a lot to do with proper program design. "Intra" workout recovery has more to do with training within optimal work capacity zones and seldom pushing muscles into maximum work capacity zones.
For the natural trainee, establishing a consistent training pace and natural workout flow are important. And this has as much to do with intra-workout recovery as it does with the specified training stimulus of exercise selection, sets, and reps.
However, the workout pace should never be forced into specific windows of by-the-clock rest intervals. Obviously, it takes a lot more time to recover from a set of high-rep squats or lunges than it does to recover from a set of concentration curls, but using the clock to gauge intra-workout recovery just makes no sense. And neither does following some written-down instruction to rest for a specified time between sets.
No coach can know how close you are in the training zone between optimum and maximum work capacity in a given workout, and neither can a coach assume your current conditioning level. Assigning rest times between sets according to the clock or timer is like throwing darts at a dartboard while blindfolded.
That's not exactly a reliable construct. So how then do you know how long to rest between sets? That's where the next principle comes in.
4 – Determine how long to rest between sets subjectively
Your rest between sets should be self-monitored according to the concept of "subjective determination of performance readiness." After you've completed a working set, ask yourself this question:
"Can I do my next set with equal or greater intensity than the previous set?"
The answer has very little to do with timers or some kind of app you can download. This is about subjective self-assessment. And you're only going to get proficient at this subjective determination of performance readiness by practicing it regularly each and every workout, until how long you rest between sets becomes just another instinctive element to your training.
If you're training for muscle development, then NEVER artificially force shorter rest times. You rest for as long as you need to rest in order to resume your next set with the same level of applied efforts. And only YOU can determine that.
Sometimes I get people writing me telling me how they're down to 10-15 seconds between sets. That isn't a rest interval; that's just pausing to scratch an itch. It's an arbitrary decision to cut rest times and it doesn't work for building muscle!
As far as "inter" workout recovery, it has everything to do with making sure you don't consistently push your body beyond optimum workout capacity in any given workout. Not training to failure and not artificially forcing shorter rest times are two ways to ensure this.
Another factor to address is workout duration. No good bodybuilding program should necessitate workouts that last longer than 60 minutes, with 45-60 minutes being the sweet spot for the natural lifter. The only exception could be leg workouts, which may extend a bit beyond 60 minutes because leg work requires longer rest periods between sets.
As long as you heed these guidelines for inter- and intra-workout recovery, you can design programs that are anywhere from three days per week to six days per week, depending on where you are in terms of current conditioning for muscle-building workouts and current work capacity.
Don't train six days per week just because you can, and don't necessarily limit your training to three days per week because you want to.
5 – Emphasize ranges and planes of motion over how much you can lift
All advanced lifters who've built great physiques, naturally or otherwise, have done so by learning to feel a muscle in action.
Too often, training experts overemphasize musculoskeletal concerns while completely ignoring neuromuscular input that directly affects fiber recruitment. This mistake often leads to worshipping certain exercises and overemphasizing them at the expense of other valuable exercises that would contribute to muscle growth.
Think less about how much you lift and think more about planes and ranges of motion within which specific muscles function. Think more about horizontal vs. vertical forces and their gradients, and ground to ceiling vs. ceiling to ground gravitational forces.
Take chest work for example: A cable crossover has a ceiling to floor gravitational force in a vertical plane. A seated pec dec flye has a horizontal plane of motion, while a standard dumbbell chest press takes place in a vertical plane but with pressing from ground to ceiling rather than ceiling to floor like the cable crossover.
If you emphasize these kinds of ranges and planes of motion in all your workouts, you'll make a lot more progress than just focusing on how much you lift and writing that number down and always trying to exceed it. That one-dimensional approach will halt progress in its tracks.
6 – Surf the rep curve
Throughout the week, hit every target body part not only from a variety of angles, but from a variety of rep ranges that influence muscle recruitment and hypertrophy. Not many experts will tell you this, but a great muscle-building program will be more reps-oriented than load-oriented.
We know there are many rep ranges that influence muscle hypertrophy. Multiple sets of 5 are the lowest rep range you want to work in if your goal is muscle growth. Five sets of 5 is considered the "crossover" rep range for building both strength and muscle. But you don't want to just train in this rep range.
Rep ranges of 6-8, 8-10, 10-12, 12-15, and 15-20 have also been shown to grow muscle. Muscle fibers are recruited for action in various ways and not just via progressive overload of weight. Volume matters as well, as does neurological patterning through high-rep training that invites a muscle fiber to the recruitment party.
And while reps of 8-15 are considered the sweet spot when training for size, it's not complete by any means. If you really want to grow, then surf the rep curve of all these ranges listed above.
Stop thinking of reps execution in simplistic black and white terms like heavy vs. light. Think beyond these limited kindergarten concepts.
7 – Stop worshipping the Big 3
Building muscle is NOT powerlifting. Yes of course, the bench, squat, and deadlift can certainly have a place in bodybuilding, but they need not be the focus of these workouts – especially not in terms of max lifts.
Variations of these big 3 movements using machines or cables are often more effective for building muscle than the barbell versions... and they're often much less technically difficult to execute properly, making them far less risky.
8 – Thinking isn't the same thing as concentration and focus
Ever watch a pro athlete make an unbelievable play? In those split seconds of performance, do you really think the athlete was thinking about ten different things at once? Of course not. The athlete was concentrating fully but not over-thinking!
Fred Hatfield once said to concentrate on "every inch of every rep of every set." He was referring to concentration and focus. He wasn't referring to over-thinking a dozen different things that remove you from the essential biofeedback of feeling a muscle working.
Focus on the working muscle and let a simple "stretch/contract" mantra be your focus. Stop the paralysis-by-analysis nonsense of crazy rep tempos that detract from concentration and biofeedback.
Watch the training sequences in the original Pumping Iron movie. Nowhere do you see ridiculous rep tempos (e.g., 4 seconds on the eccentric, 2 seconds on the concentric) being used. Witness the beauty of actually "pumping iron" with a focus on concentration, not over-thinking – two different things often conflated as being the same.
9 – Practice "tweakology"
Many lifters are too skittish to vary from set-in-stone training prescriptions, but training tweaks can make a world of difference in muscle fiber recruitment and overload.
Consider that subtle variations in hand position or grip width can alter fiber recruitment for you in positive or negative ways. An obvious example is how a reverse-grip pulldown invites a very different neurological pattern and fiber recruitment stimulus than a wide-grip pulldown. And both of these movements allow you to vary hand width spacing to determine what grip width works best for you.
Other broad examples are training with dumbbells instead of a barbell, or using a cable variation or machines instead of free weights. All of these tweaks can offer different muscle stimuli and establish new lines of neurological patterns, as long as you're also sticking to the principle of "surfing the rep curve."
A more subtle variation for building muscle is replacing the barbell bench press with the dumbbell bench press with feet up on the bench. These two tweaks produce a joint stress transfer.
With the feet up on the end of the bench, you have a less stable base of support from ground/feet/hips/glutes. This transfers more stress to the shoulder joint and results in more effective fiber recruitment from the pecs.
Dumbbells also requires more stabilization, which means the dumbbell flat bench press is more effective for pec development than the standard bench press. You may not lift as heavy with this tweak, but that shouldn't matter if your goal is muscle growth.
The essence of tweakology is: It's not how much you lift, it's how you lift it. Tweaks can also be mentally stimulating because you get to feel what variations work or don't work, and practicing training tweaks keeps you more mentally engaged as well.
10 – Don't abuse tweakology
Bouncing around from one workout to the next with no program structure isn't "tweakology." It's just classic pinballing and you should avoid it. Too many lifters are still seduced by training and "shiny object syndrome."
They do random workouts from this expert, or that champion, or that celebrity, and they end up all over the place. There's no sound overall structure and this is reflected in their lack of results.
Keep in mind that a collection of exercises doesn't automatically translate into being an effective workout. Similarly, a collection of random workouts doesn't automatically translate into being an effective program either.
You wouldn't read a book and expect to understand it all by starting at page one, then jumping to page 86, then going to page 12. Proper exercise sequencing, workout tactical implementation, and overall program design should all demand the same considerations to logic.
If You Take Away Anything From This...
Your overall mantra for building muscle should be, "I'm going to the gym to train muscles, not lift weights." This will allow you to focus on feeling and engaging the muscle instead of how much you can lift.
Finally, think about this: "Train for strength and development will come" is a myth that's been around as long as I've been in this industry. It never worked for me and it likely won't work for the natural lifter who finds it hard to gain muscle.
Chances are you've already been down that road, and 1) you didn't get all that strong by just focusing on weight, 2) you didn't develop a great physique, and 3) you just ended up injured or frustrated.
You need to turn that stale mantra backwards and operate under the guiding principle of "train for development and strength will come."