When I started lifting weights, I remember being pretty underwhelmed. I had been ill with Crohn’s disease for some time and was terrifyingly small and weak. Plus the fact that I likely wasn’t absorbing nutrients properly (which is one of the things that leads to massive weight loss with Crohn’s) didn’t exactly lend itself to being in a great position to pack on slabs of muscle. And I didn’t. I got stronger sure, but it took years to make any kind of progress. While you might think I’d be bitter, I made peace with my illness and genetics years ago, so I don’t feel hard done by.
This is in stark contrast to what I’ve seen with clients, or from being in gyms for years. Some people only have to look at a barbell to get jacked. Once they’re training a few times a week, gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is so easy, they don’t even notice it happening. No fancy programming, no changes to their diet; just a bit of motivation, some decent genetics, and a few hours a week is all it takes.
I’ve watched people a similar size to me bench or squat more than my lifetime best in under 6 months, and make the kind of transformation that would sell a training product like a marketer’s wet dream. But, despite this astonishing transformative period, there is another predictable event. The inevitable slow down.
What was once easy suddenly becomes hard. That fuzzy six pack isn’t becoming much more visible, and it’s impossible to throw 5kg on the bar every session and still get all the reps. The problem isn’t the fact that things have actually slowed down, the problem is the failure to understand the inevitability of it.
What often happens next is the issue. Instead of rolling with it and adapting the training program, there comes a deep longing for what was once easy. The fix people try, almost always comprises some form of nutritional magic. This is usually because people come to nutrition after training. At first, it’s all about hitting the gym. Only later does how much protein to eat, or what kind of Calorie deficit to be in comes up. At that point, nutrition’s allure is it’s added complexity and making it even more advanced sounding comes next. Maybe you’ve tried one of the following:
- Complicated Calorie cycling strategies
- High carbs on training days followed by lower carb / higher fat rest days
- Protein sparing modified fasts dotted around during the week
- One week of bulking followed by one week of cutting
- A targeted ketogenic diet (god help you)
The aim is always the same. To experience muscle growth and fat loss at the same time. Just like in the beginning.
There are two things that are important to point out about these studies:
- In each one, the participants made pretty decent gains in strength. For instance, a whopping 40kg to the bench press in the Longland study, and 20kg of bench gains in the Garthe paper.
- Across all of the studies, there was zero dietary fanciness. None. No special Calorie cycling or recomposition magic tricks.
For me at least, this points to one thing. Strength gains.
Occasionally, I team up with strength and conditioning coach and powerlifting demigod Rob Rees. He takes care of all the training programming, while I do my thing with the nutrition. Below is is a quote from one of our clients that gives an idea of what happens more often than not:
Muscle gain is difficult to measure at the best of times once the trainee is past the newbie gains stage. But, using relative strength as a measure of progress is highly indicative of muscle gain with concomitant fat-loss. To put it simply:
weight going down + lifts going up = winning.
As much as it pains me to say it, diet isn’t that much of a big deal for gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time. If a Calorie deficit is in place, and protein intake is taken care of, there’s not much else to add other than a few special bits and pieces. Training, on the other hand, can have a massive impact.
Failure to progress with training often comes down to :
- Nostalgia: Sticking blindly to a favourite program downloaded from the internet as an 18-year-old because it evokes memories of the good old days of easy gains and a simpler life.
- Randomness: Deciding what to train based on likes, wants, and amount of pre-workout courage, rather than actual needs.
Either of these gym fails will bring progress to a swift halt after the beginning stages. Yet many people will never get out of the hole dug by a mixture of nostalgia and randomness. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I can’t write a “quick fix” or a “One secret to maximise gains beyond the beginner stages” piece. There isn’t one thing, or indeed one way. What I can say is be willing to change.
By being open, you avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia. By understanding the need for planning and progression, you avoid the booby trap that is training randomness.
- Avoid whacky nutritional strategies
- Seek help with training if you’ve got to the point where progress has slowed down to a snail’s pace
You don’t have to be genetically elite to get lean while getting stronger. Be open to change, be willing to implement, be optimistic.
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