Getting results in the early phases of your training career is relatively easy. If you put in just a little bit of effort in the gym and eat halfway decently for your goals, you’ll build muscle, gain strength, and improve your body composition and confidence.
The reason for this is that novices have never experienced the demands of training and resistance training provides a novel, robust, and powerful stimulus that can transform the body. This is one of the main reasons individuals see such dramatic improvements in their strength and size development during the first 6-12 months after hitting the gym regularly.
However, the longer that you consistently train, the slower that the results can come. This is a natural part of lifting and life.
But, while the gains may slow, that doesn’t mean they stop forever.
Here is a 5-step solution to long-term muscle gain.
6-Steps for Long-Term Muscle Gains
#1 Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the driving principle behind long-term muscle gain, and it’s how you’ll continue to build both size and strength throughout your fitness journey.
The principle of progressive overload essentially boils down to forcing your muscles to “do more” than they previously have.
If we want to get a bit more technical, progressive overload can be defined as “the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.” The concept of progressive overload was pioneered by Dr. Thomas Delorme while he rehabilitated soldiers following World War II.
Many individuals have misconstrued progressive overload over the years in that it only means “adding weight to the bar.”
While adding weight to the bar is one way to implement progressive overload, it is by no means the only way to progressively overload your training.
There are, in fact, a multitude of ways to make your muscles “do more”, including:
- Increasing reps
- Adding sets
- Increasing range of motion while lifting the same weight
- Increasing time under tension by manipulating lifting tempo (eccentrics, 1.5 reps, isometric holds, etc.)
- Completing more reps in the same amount of time (which increases training density)
- Lifting the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps while resting less between sets (which again increases training density)
- Lifting the same weight with greater speed and acceleration
- Reducing perceived exertion (i.e. lifting the same weight for the same number of sets and reps while feeling less taxed after a set is completed)
- Increasing training frequency (how many times you train a particular muscle group each week which can help increase total training volume)
- Lifting the same load while reducing body fat (which increases your relative strength to weight ratio)
All of these can have a place in training, and which method of progressive overload you choose to implement will depend on a few factors, including amount of weight you have access to, the exercise you’re performing, training/injury history, etc.
The main point here is that to ensure long-term gains, you must chase progressive overload with reckless abandon. It doesn’t have to be every session and it doesn’t have to be every exercise or every set of every session, but over the long haul, you should be adding weight and reps to your key movements over the weeks, months, and years of your training.
Lack of progressive overload is why so many people don’t get results in the gym and why they continue to look the same year and year even though they’re “putting in the work” and “showing up” each week to the gym.
#2 Manage Training Volume & Stress
The more research looks into muscle gain (i.e. hypertrophy) the more the clear the link becomes between total weekly training volume and muscle growth.
In other words, there is a dose-response relationship between the number of sets you perform each week and how much muscle growth you experience...to a point, that is.
Generally speaking, research indicates that the “optimal” volume range for most people to experience consistent quality muscle growth is between 10-20 “hard sets” per muscle group per week.
Now, this can be done in a single workout (a la the classic bro or “pro” split) or divided among 2 or three sessions (such as an upper/lower split or full body 3x per week routine).
However, one other thing to take into consideration is the amount of life stress that you deal with each week.
Stress can manifest itself in many different forms -- financial, relationships, work, exercise -- but to your body, they’re more or less the same. When we’re stressed, cortisol levels rise, and when the stressor has passed cortisol levels decline. However, when we’re chronically stressed, cortisol levels don’t get the chance to return to baseline levels, which wreaks havoc on your physiology in a variety of ways, including increasing muscle breakdown, decreasing protein synthesis, and promoting fat storage (particularly around the abdomen).
Now, certain stressors are beneficial, such as resistance training. But, when you are stressed to the gills in every other facet of life, it doesn’t matter how “good” a certain type of stress is...it’s still contributing to elevations in cortisol.
All of this is to say that while you do need to perform a certain amount of training volume each week, you also need to be cognizant of other lifestyle factors.
If you’re going through a phase where you’re working longer hours, adjusting to life with a newborn, career switch, etc. then realize you have added stress in your life and you may not be able to handle as much training volume/intensity.
On the flip side, if you’re having a relatively stress-free life, feel free to ramp up the training volume/intensity/frequency since you have greater recovery capacity and energy to devote to hard training.
#3 Strategic Variation
Muscle confusion is a concept that’s been around for decades. It essentially states that in order to prevent plateaus, you need to continually expose the muscle to new stimulus. Over the years, the concept of muscle confusion has been bastardized to such extents that individuals feel the need to perform endless variations of essentially the same movement in a given workout and/or change their exercises every week.
The truth is that if you do expose your muscle to the exact same stimulus week after week, you will eventually hit a plateau. However, you don’t need to constantly change exercises each week and you certainly don’t need to perform 6 different variations of a bicep curl to build bigger arms.
You know how you “shock” or “confuse” a muscle...you make it do more work than it has previously done before...otherwise known as progressive overload.
You see, when you constantly change exercises from one workout to the next, the only thing you’re really doing is forcing your nervous system to constantly adapt to new movements. You’re not actually challenging your muscles as much as they could be if you were to perform the same movements each week while striving to add weight or reps where possible.
Now, this isn’t to say that you should only perform one exercise per body part as many “ultra minimalist” trainees will tell you.
Truth be told, research has shown that using a variety of exercises leads to better overall muscle growth than a single exercise.
For instance, you’ll build better quads if you use a mix of squats, lunges, leg press, and leg extensions than if you were to only perform squats for an equivalent number of sets.
The reason for this is that different exercises (while still targeting the same muscle group) stress the respective muscle at different points, which promotes greater overall hypertrophy. Using a handful of exercises also helps prevent overuse injuries since you’re not constantly stressing muscles, joints, ligaments, and connective tissue from the exact same force vector.
The takeaway here is that some exercise variation is good in your training program. It allows you to build greater muscle mass while also reducing risk of injury. It also helps prevent workout boredom.
Just make sure that you’re not including excessive variation in your training.
If you need help figuring out a solid training plan that includes an appropriate amount of exercise variation for the best results possible, then make sure to check out the 1UP Fitness App, available on Apple and Google Play, where we provide customized training templates based on your age, gender, experience, and other factors.
#4 Eat for Muscle Gain
No matter what your goal is, nutrition is key.
In the case of building muscle over the long-term, you need to be in a calorie surplus, whereby you consume more calories per day than you burn.
Remember, at the end of the day, weight loss and weight gain are about balancing calories in vs calories out.
The most efficient way to build muscle is with a modest calorie surplus. In addition, you’ll want to make sure to consume enough protein each day (~1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight). The remainder of your calories can be divided between carbohydrates and fat as you please.
When combined with hard training, you’ve got the basics for efficient, sustainable muscle growth.
Now, it’s become popular in recent years to try to build muscle using the “gaintaining” or “maingaining” approach where you essentially eat at maintenance and try to recomp.
This approach may work for people who have never engaged in resistance training before as well as those who are very overweight. However, for individuals who have been training for years as well as those who are already in decent shape, maingaining can lead to frustration since it’s such a slow process.
You’re not really seeing noticeable improvements or body composition since you’re not feeding your body the food it needs to optimally grow.
And, if you’re worried about gaining lots of body fat, don’t. Remember, most individuals only need a modest calorie surplus (300-500 calories above maintenance per day) to build muscle. A good rate of weight gain to aim for when building muscle is 1-2 pounds per month. This keeps fat gain to a minimum and will allow you to build muscle for a long time.
After a good long bulk 8-12 months, you’ll have added a solid amount of muscle and then can do a short cutting cycle to strip off the small amount of body fat you’ve accumulated and then get right back to building muscle again. Remember, stripping off body fat is exponentially faster than building the same amount of weight in muscle. As such, most of your time should be devoted to building muscle.
#5 Deload When Appropriate
No matter how great your nutrition, rest, and recovery is, at some point, fatigue catches up to you, whether it’s due to training stress, life stress, or some combination thereof.
Deloads can provide a brief from the rigors of training, both mentally and physically. It allows muscles, joints, ligaments and connective tissue time to heal and help you to recharge mentally for the next phase of training.
A deload also helps to resensitize muscles to training, which potentiates muscle gain for your next training cycle.
Deloads typically involve a reduction in both volume and intensity. How you choose to deload is very individual and it may take a bit of experimentation to find out which deload strategy works for you. Some individuals have a hard time going to the gym during a deload week and “taking it easy.” They can’t help but push themselves. In this instance, a deload week may be an entire week away from the gym where you just go on some hikes, do some yoga, and eat really good food.
Others that can exercise restraint from going all out in the gym in a deload week can hit the gym, do some light pump work and call it a day.
Regardless of which method you choose, don’t neglect the power and importance of deloads.
#6 Get Enough Sleep
The final cog in the long-term muscle gain machine is sleep.
Sleep is absolutely essential; there’s really no other way to say it.
Sleep is when your body does the majority of its growth and repair. It also replenishes energy stores, heals damaged structures, and refreshes you mentally, physically, and emotionally for the next day’s challenges and training session.
Not getting enough sleep is also known to:
- Lower testosterone and other muscle-building hormones
- Reduce athletic performance
- Decrease motivation to exercise
- Reduce insulin sensitivity
- Decrease protein synthesis
- Increase protein breakdown
- Impair nutrient partitioning
- Alter energy metabolism
In other words, make sure you’re getting enough sleep each and every night.
If you need help getting better sleep, try some of these tips:
- Go to bed at the same time every night (yep, even on weekends)
- Establish a bedtime ritual each night to help signal to your body it’s time to “power down”
- Limit exposure to blue light (TV, LEDs, tablets, smartphones, etc.) 2 hours before bed
- Reduce exposure to acute stressors before bed ( texts, social media, work emails, news outlets)
- Write in a journal
- Read a book
- Take a warm bath/shower
- Listen to relaxing music
- Make your room cool & dark
- Wear loose fitting clothes
In addition to the above tips, it can also be helpful to use a nighttime relaxation and recovery aid, such as our men’s and women’s sleep formulas -- Recharge PM & Beauty Dream PM. Our nighttime formulas contain natural ingredients that promote feelings of calm and relaxation, thereby helping set the stage for the deep, restorative sleep you need to maximize muscle gain without leaving you feeling groggy the next morning.
Important Takeaways for Long-Term Gains
Building muscle is a life-long process. There are no shortcuts, and anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t being truthful.
It takes dedication, hard work, consistency, and a willingness to continually strive to be better. But, if you put in the work and commit to eating right, training hard, sleeping well, and using the right supplements, you’ll build all the muscle you could want and then some!
And, if you need help figuring out a training program to help bust through plateaus and keep making gains in strength, make sure to check out the 1UP Fitness App where we provide FREE weight training programs customized to your experience level, age, sex, and training equipment (e.g. home gym, commercial gym, etc.)
Also included in the app are complete core training workouts as well as cardio routines and access to our extensive exercise video library (including 300+ exercises!) and 250 + recipes to help avoid diet fatigue during your transformation challenge!
- Kraemer, William J.; Fleck, Steven J. (2007). "Progressive Overload". Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts. Human Kinetics. pp. 33–6. ISBN 978-0-7360-6068-4