Fat is Easy. Muscle is Hard
Fat loss is easy to track. Muscle gain, however, is a different matter. With fat loss, you can see changes on a weekly basis. But past the absolute beginner stages, muscle growth is a bit like watching paint dry. It's a slow process and noticeable changes take months, not days.
This presents a problem. Your goal is to make visible changes to your physique, but these take place on such a micro level that it's difficult to assess progress day to day and determine whether your methods are solid.
Most people rely on the scale for feedback on their mass gaining efforts. This makes perfect sense. During a bulk when you're eating a caloric surplus and the scales are moving upwards, it means you're probably building muscle. But in a calorie surplus, the body is very adept at storing fat. How do you know that the ratio of fat to muscle isn't higher than you want it to be?
Here are nine ways to do just that, starting with the proper way to use the most obvious one, the scale.
1 – The Scale
While the scales aren't the be-all, end-all of monitoring muscle gain, they are your primary measure. If you aren't noticeably heavier on the scales after a bulk, then little to no muscle was built. To maximize your rate of progress while minimizing the risk of excess fat accumulation, shoot for a gain of 0.25 to 0.5% of your bodyweight per week.
Beginners should aim for the higher end of that range while more advanced guys should be at the lower end. Consistently hitting these targets will put you in a great position to build muscle at the fastest possible rate.
You'll gain some fat along the way doing this, but the good news is that fat loss is a much faster process than muscle gain. So, after a short diet, you'll have lost any unwanted fat and look much more muscular.
On a practical note, it's important that your weigh-ins are done under the same conditions – on the same scales, on the same flooring, at the same time of day, with roughly the same amount of food in your stomach and a similar hydration status. As such, weigh yourself first thing in the morning after taking a pee.
2 – Relative Strength
Relative strength is your strength relative to your bodyweight. The weight on the bar should be increasing quicker than your weight on the scales.
One way to use relative strength as a marker is to consider the ratio of your strength to your bodyweight in the big compound lifts. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and can squat 315 for 6 at the beginning of your bulk, that means you can squat about 1.6 times bodyweight for 6.
As your weight climbs, this ratio should, at the very least, be maintained. Ideally, you should be adding weight to the bar much quicker than you're adding it on the scales. If 6 weeks later you weigh 205 pounds and can squat 340 for 6, your ratio has improved to about 1.66.
So, a 5-pound increase on the scale translated to a 25-pound increase in the squat. That's a pretty decent muscle-building recipe!
Bodyweight exercises are also a great tool for assessing relative strength, particularly chin-ups and pull-up variations. If you gain 10 pounds throughout a bulk and are able to knock out the same number (or more) reps on these bodyweight exercises, then you can be confident you've built muscle.
3 – Stronger in the Hypertrophy Rep Range
The traditional 6-12 hypertrophy rep range is a great guide to monitor progress. There's a reason that bodybuilders have done most of their training in this rep range for decades. It's known as the "hypertrophy" range precisely because of its effectiveness at building muscle.
If you're consistently adding weight to the bar in this rep range, then you're doing a good amount of training volume and getting stronger while doing it.
Volume has a dose-dependant relationship with hypertrophy. So, more volume equals more muscle. Performing sets in these rep ranges also means you're getting a great combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress. These are two of the primary mechanisms for hypertrophy and hard sets in this rep range will cause high levels of muscle activation.
All in all, getting stronger in this rep range means you have an objective measure of how much hypertrophy-specific work you're doing. If your 8, 10 and 12-rep maxes are steadily climbing, then you're building muscle.
4 – Training with Increased Volume
An increase in overall training volume is a great indicator of added muscle. Volume is tied very closely to hypertrophy and the more you can do without exceeding your ability to recover, the better your results.
Of course, at an advanced level, it's not realistic to keep adding weight to the bar every session. So, here are ways you can drive volume up:
- Do more reps with the same weight
- Do more sets
- Do more exercises
- Use set extending techniques
- Train a muscle more frequently
If you start out hitting 315 pounds for 4 sets of 6 on squats and several weeks later you're hitting 4x8 or 6x6, then your volume has increased significantly. Likewise, if you're close to your maximum recoverable limit doing squats and leg presses for your quads, the addition of a couple sets of leg extensions will increase total training volume without eating into your recovery much.
Finally, you could increase volume by making the last set for a body part a drop set. (Reach failure, the lower the load so you knock out a few more reps.) Make it a double drop set a few weeks later, and in another few weeks a triple drop set.
Whichever strategy you use, you can be confident in the knowledge that added volume correlates with added muscle mass.
5 – The "Right" Tape Measurements Go Up
If your arms, chest, thighs, and calf measurements all go up without an increase in your gut, then you've gained muscle.
One quick and easy strategy to use is your arm-to-waist circumference ratio. If you have a 30-inch waist and 15-inch arms. That's a 2:1 ratio. During a bulk, you want to make sure the ratio doesn't increase. So, if your arms grow to 15.5 inches and your waist is 30.5 inches, then it's all gravy. But if your waist expanded to 32 inches, then you've been having too much gravy!
6 – Clothes Tighter in the "Right" Places
This one is basically a subjective version of the point above. It's still valid though, as physique improvements are inherently subjective.
If you find you look bigger, you're filling out your T-shirt sleeves better, your shirts are tighter round the chest, you can no longer squeeze into skinny jeans (seriously, were you really wearing skinny jeans?), and your belt buckle hasn't had to shift a couple of notches, then you've packed on quality lean tissue.
7 – The Mirror
The mirror can be a cruel mistress. We've all fallen victim to the gym mirror with perfect lighting, giving us an inflated post-pump opinion of our physique, only to be brought crashing down to earth by our bathroom mirror whilst brushing our teeth the next day.
With that said, you're training to look bigger and stronger. As such, your reflection is obviously a very useful gauge of your success. Just be aware that lighting plays a big role, so try to be as objective as possible and measure progress using the same mirror in the same conditions.
8 – Progress Pics
Progress photos are a bit more of an objective marker. While a mirror can lie, progress pics leave you with nowhere to hide. You can put several weeks of pictures side by side for comparison. Gauging your progress by the mirror, however, makes you rely on your memory of how you looked.
Furthermore, in a mirror, you can twist and turn and flex to contort yourself into looking better than you really do. Not so with a picture. It provides honest, unfiltered feedback. Progress pics can often be the harsh dose of reality you need to get you back on track. But no filters, bro.
9 – Callipers
It's true that you need a skilled calliper practitioner to provide you with an accurate estimate of your bodyfat percentage. However, you can measure a couple of key sites on your body by yourself to keep an eye on the trend/rate of fat gain.
I picked this tip up from John Meadows. To keep track of his online clients' bodyfat, he has them use callipers to measure the one or two sites they tend to store body fat most easily. If these numbers aren't changing much and everything else is moving up, then they're in a good place.
For practical reasons, the sites you choose to measure must be easily accessible. The two most useful are generally the umbilical (stomach) and suprailiac (hip). For most guys, this is where fat first gets stored. Keep these numbers in check while the scales move upwards and you're good.