Back in my college days, the gym was my sanctuary.
I loved exercising so much I would sometimes spend four or five hours at a time working out. I would lift for two hours before heading to the basketball courts for some pick-up games.
I dreamed of getting bigger and stronger like some of the other guys I saw in the weight room. I would see others heaving up massive amounts of weight while I plateaued.
Why couldn’t I make those kinds of gains? I spent endless hours in the gym only to look and perform the same day in and day out.
My bench press never went up, and I couldn’t buy a pound of muscle.
At some point, we all face the dreaded workout plateau. We feel like we’re training hard, yet having nothing to show despite our tremendous efforts.
If you haven’t gotten any bigger or stronger, don’t worry. It happens. I’ve been there.
So how do you start making gains if it seems like nothing you do works?
I’m going to take you through the seven crucial questions (in order), you must ask yourself if you want to stop being a weakling and start building the muscle and strength you’ve always wanted.
1. Do you have a structured program?
Of course you’ve got to actually have a workout program. Still, so many gym-goers have no idea what they’re going to do each time they set foot in the gym.
Winging it won’t cut it.
Walking into the gym and bench pressing the same weight for the same number of reps every time won’t get you stronger.
You’ve got to make sure you pick a plan and stick to it.
When I was in college, I went to the gym often, but just did whatever I felt like doing that day. If I felt like doing some bicep curls, I did bicep curls. I had no way of tracking whether I was getting stronger in any lift.
If you have no consistency, you can never measure progress.
Whether your goal is strength development, muscle gain or fat loss, you’ve got to first get strong before worrying about anything else.
Drop sets, rest-pause sets and burnout sets will do you no good if you’re weak.
So how do you organize a proper strength training program?
While you can make gains doing a number of programs, the basics still apply to everyone.
Linear periodization works really well for beginning lifters. If you haven’t touched a weight before or have lifted improperly throughout your training career, even if you’ve been working out for 20 years, you’re still considered a beginner.
Rather than hitting your biceps and triceps from five different angles, you’re going to focus on progressively overloading your musculoskeletal system using compound exercises. That’s the fastest way to progress.
You’re going to focus on adding weight to the bar every time with exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift and military press.
You’ve got to earn the right to perform more complicated exercises by mastering the basics. Until you’ve reached a certain level of strength, you have no business adding in fancy exercises. By improving your technique, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of gains. Who wouldn’t want that?
As a beginner, you also have more potential to increase strength by performing exercises that allow you to move the heaviest load. You can increase the weight only so much doing front delt raises, while you can add a substantial amount of weight with a military press.
Some of you may be thinking – “I don’t care about getting stronger. I just want to get bigger.”
Even if your goal is increasing muscle mass as a skinny dude, you’re going to benefit far more from doing a program with predominantly compound exercises.
Come on, do you seriously think getting a “pump” from curling a 40-pound dumbbell with terrible form is going to do anything for you? How many big bench pressers do you see walking around with puny arms?
Your new workout program
If you’re looking for a program that’s going to get you stronger and set you up for a lifetime of gains, look no farther than this 5×5 routine.
Back Squat 5 sets x 5 reps
Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps
Deadlift 5 sets x 5 reps
Back Squat 5 sets x 5 reps
Military Press 5 sets x 5 reps
Bent-Over Row 5 sets x 5 reps
I know what you’re thinking – “I’m only doing five exercises!”
Remember, you need to master the lifts that are going to give you the most bang for your buck in the muscle and strength department.
Train three times per week, alternating between the “A” and “B” workouts. Start with an extremely light weight (for many people, this may be just the barbell) and focus on grooving your technique before adding weight. Add five to 10 pounds to the bar each workout. Use two warm-up sets for each exercise before doing three “working” sets at the same weight.
If you’re working up to 135 pounds for your three working sets in a particular exercise that day, you can do a warm-up set at 95 pounds and a second warm-up set at 115 pounds.
Keep a workout journal!
It may seem tacky, but how are you going to know if you’re making progress if you don’t know if you’re lifting more weight each time.
Don’t go off memory. Clearly, that hasn’t worked for you up to this point.
Get a sound program before worrying about anything else.
2. Are you truly following your program?
Nine times out of 10, you don’t need to go any farther than this step.
Adherence is the most important factor for making gains in your strength training program. If you’re not really doing the program, you’ve got to buckle down and stick to the plan.
Don’t change workouts every couple of weeks. You’re never going to know if you’re making progress if you never follow a program for a consistent period of time.
It doesn’t matter if your favorite bodybuilder releases a new workout that helped him gain 20 pounds of muscle. You’ve got to stick with your original plan to know if it’s going to work.
Sure, that new program may work great, but no program works well if it’s not carried out in its entirety.
Skipping workouts or adding in extra exercises will get you nowhere.
The nice thing about the gym is you get out of it exactly what you put into it. If you put in a consistent effort for a long period of time, you’re going to see results. Plain and simple.
If you miss workouts or don’t execute your workouts according to plan, you’re not going to like the results.
If you find yourself missing a number of workouts, you may need to ask yourself if you’re following a program sustainable for your lifestyle. Don’t try to train six days a week if you’re working two jobs or have lots of other commitments. You’re just setting yourself up for failure.
On the other hand, you may have the time to workout, you’re just not prioritizing it. If something is a priority, you should make time for it rather than find time for it.
Instead of waking up late every morning because you stayed up too late the night before, you may consider going to bed earlier so you can get up and train first thing in the morning.
Schedule a workout just like a meeting. Don’t let anything get in the way of it.
You’ve also got to consider whether your effort level is up to par. It’s easy to walk into a gym, but it’s hard to push yourself in the gym if you’ve lined yourself up with distractions.
When you’re lifting, you shouldn’t be doing any of the following:
-playing on your phone
-talking on the phone (just put your dang phone away when you’re at the gym!)
-checking yourself out in the mirror
-talking to others for extended periods of time between sets
-playing around with other equipment (i.e. dribbling a basketball when you’re supposed to be squatting)
Focus on your lifts! In today’s fast-paced society, it’s easy to get sidetracked doing just about anything. Don’t let technology or your laziness get in the way of a good workout.
How to improve adherence
In order to gain weight and build muscle, you’ve got to have a S.T.R.O.N.G. approach:
Specific focus – Is all of your training in line with your most important goal? If not, you better stop doing things that are wasting your time.
Time-sensitive goal – Do you have a deadline for your goal? Just like due dates for homework, they make you get things done.
Reason to change – Why is building muscle or getting stronger important to you? If you don’t know, you won’t change.
Organized lifestyle – Is your daily schedule conducive to your goals to build muscle or get stronger? If not, you better change some things.
Never-give-up attitude – Keep your head up. You’re never going to get anywhere with your goals if you don’t put in the work.
Great support system – Do you hang around people with similar goals as you? If not, you better find some new friends.
3. Is your form correct?
You can follow a perfectly designed workout and get terrible results.
The execution of a program is far more important than the program itself because if you’re not doing the exercises properly, you’re not going to make any gains.
It’s equivalent to showing up for school every day, but still failing all your tests. You showed up every day, but you obviously didn’t learn the material well enough to pass the test.
Is your form right? If not, you may consider hiring a coach.
You need to understand how you learn best.
If you’re a visual learner, you may be fine watching videos on YouTube to correct your form. You can check out the Luke Briggs Fitness YouTube page to find lots of free videos on exercise technique.
If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you may be better off hiring a coach to watch you exercise.
So how do you choose the right coach for you? Here’s what you should look for when hiring a coach.
1. Have others had a positive experience with him or her? In the age of the internet, you can search for feedback on just about anyone. If you don’t see any testimonials for him or her, you should be wary of working with this person. It’s even better if a close friend or relative recommends someone to you.
2. Does he or she specialize in the area in which you’re trying to improve? You wouldn’t hire a dentist to do your taxes. Along those same lines, you shouldn’t hire someone who runs large group bootcamps to prep you for a physique show. Whatever your goal, make sure you hire someone effective at training people precisely for that goal.
So get that form down because flailing your body around like you’re having convulsions won’t get you bigger or stronger and could get you hurt and make you look like a fool.
4. Is all of your training in line with your most important goal?
Ever heard the term “jack of all trades, master of none?”
Unfortunately, that term applies to far too many people in the weight room.
You can make only so much progress if you don’t have a focus with your training.
You’ve got to pick a goal and eliminate anything you’re doing outside of your training that negatively impacts your goal.
If you want to get big and strong, you can’t play basketball for two hours after a hard lifting session and run five miles the next day.
If your goal is to be able to lift as much weight as possible, don’t have too much volume in your program. Adding in drop sets and including lots of slow negatives will heavily fatigue your body and create muscle soreness.
If you’re an athlete, you shouldn’t be lifting heavy every single day because you’re lifting to improve at your sport, not to become a great lifter.
You’ve got to consider the purpose of your training. What’s the main reason you’re working out?
If you’re the type of person who likes to sample different types of workouts every week, just understand you won’t reach your potential on any one aspect of fitness.
Playing a game of tennis on Monday, going for a five-mile run on Tuesday, attempting a one-rep max on a deadlift on Wednesday and doing a CrossFit workout on Thursday may be fun, but you’ll never truly excel in any of these activities if you don’t have a focus.
The best tennis players play a lot of tennis and not much else. The top runners log a lot of miles and do little else. The best powerlifters lift weights and don’t do many other activities.
It’s fine if you’re an explorer who likes to try lots of different activities – just don’t get frustrated if your skill level never matches that of your competition.
Basic guidelines for building muscle
Regardless of your goals, you need to focus on getting strong first. Getting a “pump” won’t help you build muscle if you’re weak. Start with three full-body workouts per week and focus on getting stronger each workout. If your goal is to get as strong as possible, you may not need to add in extra workouts or more volume if you’re continuing to make gains.
To gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus, consuming more calories than you burn off. If you’re looking to add muscular size, you’ve got to be sure you eat a lot because nutrition is more important than training for gaining muscle weight.
Just like with anything else in life, consistency is king for building muscle. If you’re not going to the gym several days per week every week, tracking your progress or eating plenty of high-quality food every day, you’re not going to see much in terms of gains.
5. Is your nutrition and recovery on point?
Assuming you don’t have freakish genetics, you’ll find it rather difficult to make gains as a lifter if you eat like crap and sleep poorly.
Your body adapts to your workouts only if you provide it with adequate fuel and recuperation.
Things to consider
1. Are you sleeping at least 7 or 8 hours per night?
Your body releases its greatest concentration of growth hormone while you sleep. A lack of quality sleep can not only decrease anabolic hormone levels, but increase concentrations of catabolic hormones (Cook, Kilduff and Jones; 2014).
If you’re not sleeping enough, why aren’t you sleeping? Are you getting too wound up right before bed? Are you drinking caffeine too late in the day? Are you not getting enough done during the day and saving it until late at night?
Whatever the reason, figure it out because your lack of shut-eye is killing your gains!
2. Are you consuming the appropriate number of calories for your goal?
As long as your metabolism is balanced, the number of calories you consume is the most important factor in determining whether you gain weight, lose weight or maintain your current weight.
To gain weight, you must be in a caloric surplus (take in more energy than you burn off). To lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit (expend more energy than you take in). To maintain your weight, you should balance your calorie intake and energy expenditure.
Do you even know how much you’re eating each day? If not, you better figure it out. It’s going to be a bit of work, but you should start by tracking your food and liquid intake in a journal every day. From there, you can make adjustments to match your diet with your goals.
3. Are you consuming the right types of nutrients?
Are you eating whole, unprocessed foods? Loading up on pizza, ice cream and candy may satisfy your taste buds, but won’t do you much good over the long haul.
Protein has been, and always will be, the most talked about macronutrient for muscle growth. Increasing your lean body mass will help you build muscle, increase strength and burn fat. Be sure to include a complete protein source with every meal – foods like chicken, beef, steak, eggs and fish.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for your body, especially during high-intensity exercise like strength training. So if you want to build muscle and get stronger, add foods like rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa and oats to your diet.
Add some fats in to support the production of hormones. Cook your foods in healthy oils like coconut and olive oil and add nuts, seeds and avocados to your salads.
Sample muscle-building diet
Here’s a plan to follow if you’re consuming 3,400 calories per day.
4 whole eggs
½ cup broccoli
3 ounces lean ground beef
5 slices Ezekiel bread
1 cup spinach
MEAL #3 (1.5-2 hours pre-workout)
1 serving protein powder
1.5 cups raw oats
1 serving protein powder
100 grams maltodextrin
MEAL #4 (within 2 hours post-workout)
4 ounces chicken breast
2 cups white rice
4 ounces tilapia
1 cup quinoa
½ cup green beans
3 ounces steak
2 tablespoons natural peanut butter
½ cup cauliflower
6. Are you doing a little bit more each workout?
Bench pressing 135 pounds for four sets of 10 reps every time you set foot in the gym isn’t going to get you anywhere.
You need to lift a little more weight and work a little harder each time.
Hans Selye is credited with first describing General Adaptation Syndrome in 1950. A workout must have ample volume and intensity to cause overload, leading to fatigue (the alarm phase) and supercompensation. That’s a positive adaptation (Rosenblatt, 247).
That’s why having a training journal is actually beneficial. Instead of trying to guess what you lifted during your last session, you can just look at your notes. You need to progressively overload your musculoskeletal system to create adaptation.
Simple linear periodization (i.e. adding weight to the bar each workout) works really well for a while. Here’s what it looks like if you have the following workout:
Squat 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench Press 3 sets x 5 reps
Bent-Over Row 3 sets x 5 reps
Squat 135 135 135
Bench Press 125 125 125
Bent-Over Row 115 115 115
Squat 140 140 140
Bench Press 130 130 130
Bent-Over Row 120 120 120
Squat 145 145 145
Bench Press 135 135 135
Bent-Over Row 125 125 125
Simple, right? In this example, all you’re doing is adding five pounds to the bar each workout. But since you’re increasing the weight for all three sets each workout, you’re increasing the total amount of weight lifted during the workout and disturbing the integrity of your musculoskeletal system to a greater degree, leading to increased strength and muscle growth.
Obviously, a linear approach won’t work forever. Once you stop making gains with that approach, it’s time to make slight adjustments to your workout by manipulating the volume and intensity. You’re still going to try to increase the weight over time – just at a slower pace.
Since your body can now handle heavier loads, you’re not necessarily going to be fully recovered in time to increase the weight lifted for the next workout. That’s why you’ve got to have certain days of lifting heavy and certain days in which you reduce the load.
Your body can handle only as much volume as from which you can recover. Don’t train six days per week if you’re feeling sore and beat up constantly. You’re better off starting at three days per week. Only when you stop making gains should you add either more workouts or more volume to your current training days.
How to progress your workouts
Continue with linear progression for as long as you can because adding weight to the bar every time if the fastest way to make progress. After a while, you’ll reach a point in which you can no longer progress in that fashion. At this point, you’ve got to drop the weight slightly and begin using linear progression again.
For example, if you can’t bench press 185 pounds for five reps, drop the weight down about 10 percent to 165 pounds and continue to add weight each week. Hopefully, after a slight back-off period, you’ll be able to hit 185 pounds for five reps and continue progressing.
Once you stall multiple times, it’s time to stop with linear progression and manipulate the volume and intensity within your workouts. Since you’re now moving very heavy loads consistently, you’ve got to have workouts with lower intensity during the week. In other words, you’ve got to throw in an “easy” workout each week. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds, but you need to back off the weight a little bit and work on your technique.
For example, if your best back squat is 200 pounds for five reps, you should have one workout during the week in which you squat maybe 150 pounds for five reps to allow for recovery. If you follow a three-day-per-week routine, continue to progress with sets of five reps on Monday, have a light day of two sets of five reps on Wednesday and then go for a two- or three-rep max on Friday.
7. Are you in an environment conducive to your goals?
If you want to lift heavy, you probably don’t want to train at your local family gym.
To get serious results, you’ve got to place yourself in an environment conducive to achieving those results.
Lifting around people who don’t care about results or who come to the gym to socialize will hinder your progress.
If you’re struggling to get past a certain weight on a lift, you probably want a group of supportive folks surrounding you to push you to the next level.
Studies have shown people perform better when listening to music that pumps them up. In one study, researchers investigated whether resistance-trained collegiate men showed altered performance in the bench press and squat jumps when listening to self-selected music vs. no music. The study found improved performance during an explosive exercise and a better mood state when participants listened to the music of their choosing (Biagini et. al, 2012).
So picking your own jams can make your workouts better. Well, duh.
Another study found no difference in performance between stimulative music and silence, but found a decrease in performance when subjects listened to sedative music (Kravitz, 1994).
So that light jazz mix playing at your local health club is actually slowing you down. Either put on some headphones or find another gym – or both.
Take a look around your gym and honestly assess the situation. Is your training facility full of people you want to look like? If not, find another place to workout.
Tips for creating the perfect gym environment
Pick a gym in which people with similar goals as you lift. Don’t go to your local family Anytime Fitness if your goal is to train for maximal strength. You want to feed off the energy of your environment. If other strong people are around you, it will motivate you to be better.
Eliminate any distractions. Get rid of your phone and leave other thoughts and stresses behind.
Listen to your favorite music. You’ll feel much more energized if you lift to music that gets you going.
Biagini, MS, LE Brown, JW Coburn, DA Judelson, TA Statler, M Bottaro, TT Tran, and NA Longo. “Effects of self-selected music on strength, explosiveness, and mood.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(7): 1934-1938, 2012.
Cook, Christian J., Liam P. Kilduff, and Marc R. Jones. “Recovering Effectively in High-Performance Sports.” High-Performance Training for Sports. N.p.: Human Kinetics, 2014. 325. Print.
Kravitz, Len. “The effects of music on exercise.” IDEA Fitness Journal, 12(9), 56-61, 1994.
Rosenblatt, Benjamin. “Planning a Performance Programme.” High-Performance Training for Sports. N.p.: Human Kinetics, 2014. 247. Print.