Before you worry about getting bigger, get stronger. “Strength is the foundation of fitness,” says personal trainer Sally Moss (strengthambassadors.com). “‘The stronger you are, the harder you can train and so the fitter you can get. You will protect yourself against injury and the effects of ageing by strengthening your muscles, joints and bones. Even endurance athletes will benefit enormously from a couple of strength sessions a week in the gym.” Here’s a quick guide to the basics.
Focus On The Big Lifts
To work on strength, focus on big, full-body compound lifts, using more than 80% of your one-rep max for one to three reps in any given move. If you don’t know what your one-rep max is, use the one-rep max calculator on the weight training page at exrx.net.
Once you’ve built a base of strength, you can up the amount of volume you’re doing – by increasing your sets and reps – to work on increasing your muscle size even more, or keep the reps low to continue getting stronger without adding bulk.
The king of the compound moves is the deadlift. “Performed correctly, it works the whole body, including your core muscles,” says personal trainer Roy Summers (bodylinestudios.co.uk). “It should be included in every gym programme.”
And before you head straight for the bench, there’s another barbell pressing move you should consider. “The most underrated exercise is the standing shoulder press,” says Moss of the move also known as the overhead press. “It works the entire shoulder girdle and the triceps very effectively and, when performed standing, recruits many of the body’s stabiliser muscles too. It’s also less punishing on the shoulder joints than the bench press, so if you are interested in keeping your shoulders strong and stable for the rest of your life, get pressing overhead.”
If all you do is deadlift, overhead press and squat, you’ll get strong and pack on size. Throw in some power cleans and pull-ups, and you’ve got a great strength-building routine.
Variety Is Essential
Muscles grow when they’re forced to adapt to new pressures, so to see any benefit from your training, you will need to vary what you do from session to session. “The basic principle is that you need to overload your system – whether that’s through bar weight, total load per session/set/training cycle, or increased cardiovascular demands,” says strength and conditioning coach Phil Learney (phillearney.com). “Do the same every session and you’ll stay the same.”
If you’re a beginner in the gym, by far the best strategy is to focus on adding more weight to the bar every week. This is known as linear periodisation and it’s the most fundamental way to get in shape fast, but there are other areas in which you can introduce variety.
“Varying the reps, rest periods, angles and range of movement will give your body enough stimulus to keep making progress for several weeks,” says Moss. “The bigger the movement, the longer you can do it and still make progress. So the squat, pull-up and overhead press, for example, can all be done for long periods.”
There’s also tempo, which Moss calls the forgotten variable. “Varying tempo is an excellent way to kick-start progress when your set/rep scheme is a little jaded,” she says. “Try lifting the weight explosively and then taking four to five seconds to lower it. This puts your muscles under tension for much longer, forcing them to adapt to the new stimulus. This tempo is effective whether you are training for fat loss or muscle building.”
And if you’re focusing on cardio, keep changing your routine. “If you normally do long sessions of cardio work, do interval sprints as well as longer efforts,” says Summers. “This will give you results faster.”
Nutrition Is Everything
You’ll find some trainers who will tell you that the real difference between training for fat loss and training for muscle gain is what you do in the kitchen. In reality it isn’t that simple, but it’s undoubtedly true that fixing your diet will at the very least help to accelerate your progress while eating mostly junk food will eventually see your gym gains stall.
“If someone spends a lot of time doing good things in the gym then, so long as their nutrition is also fine, that will be good enough to build a pretty impressive physique over time in most cases”, says Learney. “Have brilliant nutrition and brilliant training, though, and WOW.”
There is, however, one can’t-fail change every man looking to build muscle should make to his diet. “Eat protein-rich foods such as meat and nuts for breakfast,” says Moss. “It’s the best way to set your body and brain up for a productive day. Protein gives you better focus and concentration – the body uses it to make neurotransmitters that promote alertness – and, along with the good fats from the nuts, keeps your blood sugar stable throughout the morning so you won’t get that craving for a pastry mid-morning.”
Commit To The Process
Instead of looking for a programme that’s going to work miracles, pick a good, simple one and work hard at it – you’ll see strength results much faster. “One great way to stay motivated would be to make sure you have a target,” says Summers. “Otherwise, how will you know if you’re making progress?” Trying to get stronger on a small number of lifts – the squat, deadlift and bench press are all good choices – will make sure you’re progressing.
Above all, stick with it. “Be consistent,” says Learney. “The body is constantly battling to get to a middle ground in many of its systems. It will go backwards almost as quickly as it’ll progress.” That doesn’t mean spending every spare second in the gym – just training hard when you’re there.