Why Guys Fail To Build Muscle

See the arrow on the right? That’s right. It leaves other arrows to eat its sweet arrow dust of success.

See the arrow on the right? That’s right. It leaves other arrows to eat its sweet arrow dust of success.

Wander up to Sydney’s Oxford Street on a Mardi gras day in March to realise how Australia has progressed to embrace the LGBT community. Things were not always so rosy. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in New South Wales until 1984. And in Tasmania? 1997. It’s nuts, and sad, really.

Enter a peculiarly fascinating side note. As I was looking into the gay rights movement, I learned that in 1949 Victoria downgraded anal-sex from a crime punishable by death (!) to a casual 20 years imprisonment. Yep, you read that right. 20 years in the slammer for a ride on the brown train. One has to wonder if this rule applied to heterosexual couples.

Aaaanyway. The progress didn’t happen overnight. It was small, tedious steps to get to where LGBT community can now celebrate who they are. The parade is only the culmination of the painstakingly gradual progress that they’ve made.

To see progress in a society requires people to challenge the status quo. And to see progress in building muscle requires you to do the same for your body.

The mighty progressive overload

Keep challenging what your body can do. It is that simple. Because your body loves homeostasis it will progress in building muscle and strength when given the reason to do so. Once challenged the body will re-establish a new level of stability to adjust to the conditions it deems necessary for survival.

Hold on, surely gym is not about survival

Right you are. The word “survival” in the gym context doesn’t mean an actual life and death. No matter how much your pseudo-hardcore-militaristic-drill-sergeant trainer or group fitness instructor who’s seen Full Metal Jacket one too many times wants you to believe so. 

Rather, “surviving” in the gym setting means that the body perceives “a threat” from progressing challenge and will establish the new baseline of this challenge is expected in the future so better ready for it while you rest between sessions. You just tricked your body to believe that in order to survive it needs to build more muscle and strength to tolerate that heavy dumbbell bench you did earlier. You sexy beast, you.

Ways to implement progressive overload in training

Oh, the ways are many. But since Plant Strength is all about making things simple for you, we’ve combined a list of the techniques we use with our clients.

Increase the weight

“Go heavier” works well with beginners. The bodies are ripe for gainings since there’s often so much unused potential for strength and muscle gains. For a beginner this can be as simple as progressing from workout to workout in the following way. Let’s use a dumbbell bench as an example here:

20kg (10kg each hand) x 10 reps x 3 sets
24kg (12kg each hand)  x 10 reps x 3 sets
28kg (14kg each hand) x 10 reps x 3 sets

A beginner could just keep progressing as above until they hit their limit. For some it might be three sessions, for some it might be six. Coming down to the individual’s unused strength potential.

An intermediate trainee could use the same principle, but often with smaller increases in weight. However, once you’re past the honeymoon phase of being a beginner, there’s a galore of options for you to progress with.

Progressive overload doesn’t always have to mean going heavier 

In fact, it’s often the last way of progression we use with guys who have progressed beyond the beginner phase of their training age. Why you may ask? Because although not quite as sexy and Instagrammable, these are much safer options for your joints. 

If you only keep going heavy, your muscles might be able to keep up for a while, but the other tissues (tendons and ligaments) can’t rebuild themselves at the same rate. Neither can your nervous system recover quick enough once you start pushing some really heavy weights.

These techniques also work well with objects that are hard to load in small increments, i.e. kettlebells, dumbbells and like. So if you’re training at home with limited weights, worry not. 

Here’s how to progress without adding resistance.

Increase repetitions

40kg x 8 repetitions x 3 sets
40kg x 9 repetitions x 3 sets
40kg x 10 repetitions x 3 sets

Once you can’t add any more repetitions, you can still keep progressing with the same weight. Say you hit your limit and finish the fourth workout with this:

40kg
Set one 12 repetitions
Set two 10 repetitions
Set three 10 repetitions

Stick with the same weight until you can hit 12 repetitions on all the three sets.

Increase work sets

Simply add another work set to the workout. It’s likely that you’ll need a few workouts to hit four sets of 12 repetitions. Repeat the principle from the “increase repetitions” section until you hit all the four sets with 12 repetitions.

Increase time under tension

This is where shit gets fun. And by fun, I mean awful. But in a good way that keeps you progressing. There’ are plenty of ways to increase time under tension so let’s go through a few of our favorites.

Slow down

Exactly as it sounds. If so far you've taken 30 seconds to do a set, try adding an extra five seconds to each set. This can be done by, wait for it, slowing down the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift. In dumbbell bench this means the time you take to bring the dumbbells down to your chest. 

1.5 repetitions

In dumbbell bench you slowly lower the weights to tap your chest, then press them only half way up and tap the chest again before pressing the weight all the way up. That’s one rep.

A different, but more sucky, way of doing this would be the elevator repetitions. Starting at the chest push the weight 1/4 up and return to chest, then 2/4 up and return to chest, then 3/4 up (starting to see a pattern here?) and return to chest, then press them all the way up. That’s one rep. I got a chest pump from just writing that paragraph.

The key with both of these options is not to let the tension go at any point of the set. In other words, your chest is not a place to rest your weight on.

Pauses

Lower the weight to just above your chest (don’t touch it!) and pause for a given time. For a lovely pyramid, do the following:

Five repetitions - pause for five seconds
Four repetitions - pause for four seconds
Three repetitions - pause for three seconds
Two repetitions - pause for two seconds
One repetition - pause for one second

That’s one set. This is just one example of the pause technique. Your mind is your oyster with this. Use it to get creative.

Increase tension

A good one from Chad Waterbury. But this is a tricky one, so we tend to leave it for intermediate guys who have a decent level of mind-body connection. Because of that, I won’t explain it.

Ha, not really. Here’s how increasing tension works. With each moment of the lift try to squeeze the muscles you’re working on as hard as you possibly can. In dumbbell bench (what else) it means driving neural tension into your pecs as hard as possible. Think about pushing your arms together as hard as you can, without actually bringing them any closer together. Complicated? Yeah.

If dumbbell bench is too much of a mind fuck try this with push ups. Throughout the set think about crushing the floor between your hands. Like you’re trying to create a small mountain between your hands. As if your right hand is on the North American plate and left is on the Pacific Plate. And the mid point is the San Andreas Fault. And you are still making a mountain by pushing the plates together…. Goddamit, if you didn’t get it by now I really can’t help you.

Do more work in less time
If you took 10 minutes to complete 3 work sets of dumbbell bench, challenge yourself to complete the same amount of work in nine minutes. This works nicely when pairing two non-competing exercises. And why wouldn’t you? Saves you time so you can go eat and surf instead of spending excessive time at the gym.

Pair dumbbell bench with rear foot elevated split squat and alternate with a set of each. One caveat, give yourself enough time so it doesn’t turn into a cardio session. You’d be leaving tons of strength gains on the table going from set to set exhausted. 

Surely I can’t just constantly progress?

Sadly, there comes a time when a man can’t just progress every workout. Even if you sleep like Charles Darwin, eat like Takeru Kobayashi and feel as little stress as Keith Richards on fennel, you can’t keep doing more work years on end. The body will flip you the bird sooner or later.

Life is your deload

There are all sorts of fancy ways to deload. But these are often overblown scenarios for normal people. Life usually takes care of deloads with illnesses, family, work and whatnot. Unless you are a teenager, rich, or a famous person without life, work and family commitments and have the luxury to make training your “job” you probably don’t need to plan for deloads.

When life is busy and you’re stressed out of your mind, take it easier. When life slows down keep pushing it at the gym. When you go on holidays, take a week or two off and stay active in other ways. Hike, go sightseeing and have sex. Why make it more complicated than that. 

Simple way to break through plateaus

First and foremost, get your stress, eating and sleeping in order. If that’s all sorted and you’re still not getting nowhere it’s time for the world’s simplest plateau breakthrough. 

Look what you did three weeks ago and start again from there. Slowly build back up. Often that’s all you’ll ever need. The hardest part might be that most guys don’t like to regress because it’s tough on the ego.

Summary

Progressive overload is what makes gains magic happen. You need to keep challenging your body’s current capabilities. This can be done by increasing weight, training volume and our favorite, time under tension. 

At Plant Strength we recommend milking the tension part for all it’s worth. Although not sexy, it’s the safest way to progress. 

Planning deloads is borderline useless for a busy guy. Life will take care of it with illnesses, family and work commitments, and holidays. 

When you plateau and can’t break through it, slow down. Check your sleep, stress and eating. If all of those are optimal and you still struggle to progress, take a step back and rebuild.

Stick to these simple principles of progression, and who knows, maybe one day you’ll have your own parade down Oxford Street celebrating your training progress. Shirtless, of course.

Next step

Training is just part of the story. You can train as much as Rocky Balboa, but you’ll get nowhere without having food sorted. Conveniently, we’ve got it covered for you. 

How to Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet
Optimising Carbohydrates for a Fitter Body
You Need to Eat Fat to Look Good

Next

The Five Principles to Guide Your Training (And Life)