Am I foolish to believe I can still add up to 20 pounds of muscle on my frame naturally after I have been lifting for 10 years? Can we continue to make gains for a lifetime? Should you only increase the intensity or volume when you need to? Not just because you want to, because otherwise you will have nowhere to go when you need to change it up?
As natural athletes striving for maximum muscle, we are inundated with images of physiques that grow year after year to gargantuan proportions through the use of drugs. It’s hard to know what is naturally achievable and having grandiose expectations can lead us to chase the impossible. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to what we think is achievable we may never reach our true potential. There was a time we thought no one could break the 10 second mark in the 100 meter dash, but once that record broke sprinter after sprinter followed suit. It almost seemed that once an athlete proved that the impossible was in fact possible, others allowed themselves that same reality. I believe in mind over matter, especially in regards to a question that we can’t truly answer without testing for genetic muscle potential. So until a natural bodybuilder gets on board the human genome project, I doubt we will know with complete certainty how much muscle one can gain over a lifetime. That being said, there is a good bit of information out there to utilize to make educated guesses and plan our training accordingly.
Always remember the body is an adaptive mechanism, it operates by adapting to stress because that is the way we have survived as a species. Getting a muscular physique is no different; it requires a “novel stress” to create growth. Meaning that you must provide something the body is not totally able to handle so that it can adapt in order to handle it.
If a muscle is not big or strong enough to handle a certain workload, it will respond by becoming larger and stronger when given this stimulus (assuming it has adequate calories, rest etc). Once this adaptation is made, the muscle will need another novel stress for further growth. You may be thinking “So I have to provide ever-increasing levels of stress to make progress? At some point it’s going to get ridiculous!” This line of thinking is more or less correct. Before you get discouraged, remember this time frame spans multiple years, not months.
The level of workload needed to produce growth is dependent on what workloads you have already adapted to, your physiology and how long you have been training. The guy who went into an early maintenance phase, repeating the same workouts over and over after his first plateau 10 years ago, is not the same as the bodybuilder who has been training for a decade following the principle of progressive overload. “Training age” does not directly correlate to how long you’ve been in the weight room. You can spin your wheels providing the same old stresses for years on end and your body will still be that of a beginner.
On the other hand, if you adapt to high levels of stress early on, you may be shooting yourself in the foot in the long term. Following muscle-magazine workouts as a beginner is unnecessary; in reality a fraction of that stress would cause the same growth. Your body only grows so fast naturally and if you are doing more than needed for this maximal rate of growth it will be harder to produce gains down the road. Your body only responds to progressive overload. If you are already training like an advanced lifter, what will you do when you actually get there? I’m not saying train easy but rather train to your ability level for continued growth.
90% of us are not advanced lifters. We love to imagine we are and I see many lifters jumping on advanced routines that are unneeded at their level. Using templates that high level athletes are using will not make you elite, it will slow you down. The approach of adding weight or volume in a gradual fashion is all you need for your beginning years in the weight room.
As you continue to advance, the level of stress required to keep growing increases. Subsequently, the strain on your body and nervous system increases and the amount of recovery required increases. Periodization and programmed progression become necessary once you become an intermediate and advanced lifter. Sadly, how much you grow from it diminishes. Technically, you never stop growing as long as you provide novel stress. But you will get to a point where you’re training ten times as hard as you were as a beginner to gain miniscule amounts of muscle. So in a sense growth does drastically slow down, but technically doesn’t end. At what point do we reach this state of diminishing returns? It’s tough to say, but as an example of making continued, significant progress as an advanced lifter, I offer an example that always provides me a shining beacon of hope:
Doug Miller began training in 97’. Here he is in his first show on the left in 2002, on the right he is 20lbs heavier and leaner, winning the 2009 IFPA Yorton Cup.
Obviously Doug Miller is a world champion with the genetics to match, but he still has the same physiology we all have. Point being that he made these gains as an advanced lifter. Logic says that the amount of muscle you can gain is genetically determined, but the proportion and rate of gain at the advanced level is the same no matter your genetics. So even if you only gain half of what Doug gained from his first to most recent show, the progress would be dramatic.
So how should one train? Beginners grow no matter what they do in the weight room, so long as it has some element of common sense and effort. Rate of gain is very impressive in beginners, especially young men. At this stage you want to get familiar with lifting and build a solid foundation. You won’t be strong enough to burn out your nervous system and muscles recover in 72 hours. Thus, I would advise a full body 3x/week program focusing on compound lifts with a small amount of direct work for the arms, calves and abs. Volume does not need to be high, start in the higher rep ranges to learn form and then focus on getting stronger in lower rep ranges. Try to gain .5-1lbs a week, especially as a young male, half that can be expected for females.
Intermediate lifters have been in the weight room more than three or four years and already had that big spurt of 20-30lbs (if you’re a male) without getting noticeably fatter. The typical mistake an intermediate lifter makes is to keep attempting to gain .5lbs-1lbs/week, or trying an advanced program as a solution for slowed progress. At this phase gaining any more than 1-2lbs every few months is unlikely. A gain of 5-7lbs/year at this stage means you are doing everything right. Periodization is required to keep making gains. I would advise going through phases of strength focused work, hypertrophy focused work, and deloading when progress halts. Upper/lower splits and focusing on weak points will be the name of the game. Hitting each body part about twice weekly is recommended.
Lastly, there is the advanced lifter. Have you run out of space for your swords, trophies and records? Are you a professional athlete? Do you remember lifting with guys who are now retired bodybuilders from the 80’s? If the answer is “no”, you’re likely not advanced. At this level, you probably aren’t reading this. You’ve been in the gym at least a decade and at this stage, gaining 2-3lbs a year is phenomenal. At this point, training is a circuitous process in which you likely have to go a few months with non-linear programming to make 5lb jumps on your lifts. You may not be able to get much stronger and focusing on volume is a better approach. At this point, blocks of light training that maintain your development and allow recovery will need to come before and after blocks of highly intense training. You will spend time preparing for hellish cycles and after going through the fire you will spend time recovering to do it again. Your “easy” blocks look like “hard” blocks for intermediate lifters. Your overreaching blocks require poundage that has the entire gym watching and volumes that most consider overtraining. But you can still improve; don’t get lulled into thinking it’s time for maintenance. The last place finisher and the overall winner at the world championships are both advanced, but I bet the guy still trying to make improvements is the one with the title!
Are you making improvements?