I’ve been writing a lot about fat loss lately, and a few people have told me that they’d like to read more about how to gain muscle. Gaining muscle is, at its core, simple: lift weights, push yourself hard, eat food, and sleep.
Eventually though, you’ll plateau and stop gaining muscle. Muscle growth is a less consistent process than fat loss- you may not experience a fat loss plateau, which I’ve already told you how to deal with, but you’ll definitely experience plateaus in building strength and muscle.
There are actually two kinds of plateaus: whole-body plateaus, where you stop gaining muscle altogether, and single body part plateaus, where you keep making gainz across most of your body, but one body part stops gaining mass and strength.
Each type of plateau has to be handled differently, so today I’ll give you four potential solutions for each one.
Eat more, during or right after your workouts
The main reason people experience whole-body plateaus is because they simply don’t eat enough. If you’re not counting every last calorie, and absolutely certain that you’re eating a surplus of at least a few hundred calories a day, this should be the first place you look.
Increase your food intake by two or three hundred calories on workout days. Make those extra calories about 1/3 protein and 2/3 carbs, and consume them right after your workout. If your workouts are going over 45 minutes, consume them during the workout instead, in the form of a protein drink.
Sleep more and sleep better
The next possibility is that you might not be getting enough sleep, or high-quality sleep. For sleep quantity, make sure you’re getting enough sleep that a) you don’t “catch up” on sleep on weekends, and b) you wake up when your body is ready, instead of being woken up by an alarm clock. If you don’t meet both those requirements, start going to bed earlier.
To enhance sleep quality, have a small high-protein snack before bed, and make sure all light and noise is blocked out from your bedroom. Start following an evening routine that relaxes you before bed. And get plenty of light during the day, so your brain learns to recognize darkness as “sleep time.”
Take a monthly “variety day”
Over time, your body adapts to your workouts, and the gainz start to slow down. Eventually you have to fix this by switching to a different workout program, but there are ways of delaying this adaptation so you don’t need to switch programs every month. My favorite is the variety day, a monthly workout designed to throw off your body’s adaptive mechanisms by doing a bunch of stuff it isn’t used to.
Once a month, instead of your regular workout, spend one or two hours at the gym doing whatever exercises look fun, interesting, challenging, or you haven’t done in months/ever. Yes, that means you’re going to the gym with no real plan- this is the one case where that’s okay. Do a variety of exercises your body isn’t used to, push yourself hard, have a protein shake during the workout since it’s so long, and then eat a nice big meal afterwards.
Take a de-load week
Finally, if nothing else is working, it may just be time to take a week off to let your body rest. This is particularly advisable if you’re showing other symptoms of overtraining, like chronic fatigue.
Taking a week off allows your body to fully recover, while also un-adapting to your workouts so you can benefit from the training effect again. It’s best done in between two different exercise programs. Personally, I do this every 8-12 weeks, which I consider a good frequency for experienced trainees. Novices usually won’t need to do it as often.
Note that a de-load week doesn’t necessarily have to mean no workouts at all for that week- just a substantial reduction in both volume and intensity. Some bodyweight stuff at home, or even a couple of gym workouts with lower than usual weights, stopping well short of muscle failure, are both fine unless you’re severely overtrained.
Single body-part plateaus
Pre-exhaust it with compound-isolation supersets
If you really want to shred one specific body-part, it’s hard to get much better than compound-isolation supersets. What you do here is perform a compound exercise that uses the target body-part, followed immediately by an isolation movement. For instance, if you want to hit your triceps, you can do a set of bench presses, followed immediately by a set of triceps extensions.
If you go this route, do 3-5 supersets for the targeted muscle group, for a total of 40-60 reps. Round it out with 2-3 less demanding exercises that also utilize (but don’t necessarily isolate) that muscle.
Hit slow-twitch muscle fibers more often
Each muscle is composed of a mix of fiber types. You have your fast-twitch fibers, which provide maximal strength and need at least a few days- and sometimes over a week- to recover. And on the other end, you have slow-twitch fibers, which provide endurance and can recover substantially within minutes, and recover completely within a day at the most, if not a few hours.
By training a muscle group only once or twice a week, you’re prioritizing fast-twitch fibers while letting the slow-twitch fibers get deconditioned. To fix this, train that muscle on every day you go to the gym- but only at high intensity once or twice a week. On the other days, do 2-3 high-rep sets for that muscle group, stopping well short of muscle failure, in order to stimulate slow-twitch fibers without activating fast-twitch fibers.
End your workouts with a burnout set
One way to fatigue your muscles extra-hard is drop sets, in which you lift until you can’t lift anymore, then lower the weight and lift some more. A burnout set is just that, with the weight being lowered more than once.
These are easiest to do on a weight machine, as it allows you to lower the weight quickly and easily. Perform the exercise as usual, going to muscle failure. The lower the weight by one or two levels, and lift to failure again. Repeat until you reach failure at the lowest weight setting.
This is extremely taxing, and you’ll need time to recover from it. Do this only once, at the end of your workout.
This is the weirdest strength-boosting trick I know, and it’s surprisingly effective. What you do is touch yourself. Seriously.
To be specific, you touch the muscle that you’re about to work, immediately before doing a set. Or better yet, you touch it during the set- you can do that if you’re doing a unilateral exercise, or certain machine exercises. Feel it, the muscle, focus on it, imagine making it strong.
This develops your mind-muscle connection, helping your neurons fire and activate your muscle fibers more effectively.
There you have it- eight highly effective ways to kickstart muscle growth. May the gainz be with you.