If you’re training and diet have taken your physique into a plateau, you may be committing one or more of these fatal flaws. Welcome to the era of “almost” – a frustrating period in every lifter’s life when your best-ever physique remains just out of reach. You can almost see your abs. You can almost hit that clean PR on the bench. You are almost at that benchmark arm measurement you’ve been chasing for years. Almost.
As inescapable as “almost” may feel and as tempting as it may seem to throw in the towel and plunder a box of donuts, a better approach would be to simply evaluate your current program for flaws. If it is marred by any of these common deficiencies, then you can take comfort in the knowledge that fixes exist.
1) NOT GOING HEAVY ENOUGH
Few would argue that progressively heavier weights build muscle. Still, there are those who fail to load enough weight on the bar to effect marked change on body composition, clinging to the misguided belief that lighter-weight sets burn more calories. A recent study showed that lighter-weight sets that induced failure near 30 reps triggered the same hypertrophy as heavier sets in the 6-8 rep range. That’s great news, however, the lighter work didn’t have near the same impact on net gains in strength, which is key to greater, long-term gains. Why? Because more strength equals more weight lifted for more reps – the cumulative effect of being stronger is simply undeniable.
And there’s a hormonal benefit to piling on the iron. Lifting heavier weight has been shown to have a much higher impact on the release of muscle-building, fat-nuking hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. Also, researchers found that using a weight that only allows for six reps increased resting metabolic rate higher and for longer after the workout than 12-rep sets. Choose weight loads that keep you below eight reps and set those rest periods to 60 seconds or less – even if this means you use slightly less weight than you might with longer rest periods – and you stand to burn even more calories in the post-workout period.
2) NOT DOING SPRINT INTERVALS
If your cardio is still stuck in 1985, you can expect your physique to be just as outdated. A multitude of studies have shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – most of those focused on sprinting – is better than low-intensity steady state cardio at burning fat, preserving muscle and maximizing workout efficiency. HIIT is noted for its effect on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Because of the greater level of recovery that must occur following intense sprinting, you stand to burn far more calories in the 48-72 hours following a workout. Happily, sprint work can increase post-workout fat oxidation by up to 75 percent. Sprints have also been shown to improve the quality and quantity of your body’s mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells responsible for energy production and use. This means that you’ll be able to more efficiently use fuel during intense exercise.
Ideally, you should sprint 2-3 times per week. You’ll still be spending less time than you would with the more conventional prescription of 3-4, 20-minute sessions per week. As for volume, those new to sprinting can try 6-7 20-second sprints, each followed by one minute and 40 seconds of rest. This is ideal because your body’s explosive energy stores are best trained with a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio.
3) YOU’RE TOO DEHYDRATED
It is baffling that so many people still deprive themselves of water for fear of retaining it all and looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The reality is you’re probably not drinking enough. By the time you get thirsty, you’re probably already suffering from diminished cognitive and physical performance.
As little as 2 percent dehydration can have a serious impact on how well you can muscle through that next set at the squat rack. Proper hydration also improves digestion (and therefore, nutrient absorption) and brain function and can help to keep hunger at bay. Also, a well-hydrated body tends to hold on to less water – in a dehydrated state, the body will tend to hold on to whatever water it can find. Aim for half your bodyweight in ounces per day, including the water that’s in your coffee and shakes.
4) YOU’RE NOT RECOVERING WELL
You’ve got to recover from training in order to burn fat or build muscle. Period. For that reason, you need to factor sleep into your programming as much as your training and nutrition. Sleep is the time for your brain and body to recover from the stimuli of the day – workouts included. As you slumber, your body builds – growth hormone peaks at this time and sets about its work of repairing damaged muscles and inflamed connective tissues. You grow while you sleep. But inadequate levels of sleep can interfere with GH release as well as the next day’s workout.
The common prescription is 7-9 hours but some can get by on slightly less and some need slightly more. If you’ve hit a wall with your progress, however, it will pay big dividends to experiment and find out what your body really needs to fire on all cylinders. You may find that eight hours of undisturbed Z’s is the magic number that gets you shredded for summer.
5) YOU’RE PROTEIN DEFICIENT
With the typical prescription of 5-6 smaller meals per day, the first macronutrient to fall by the wayside is protein. That’s because most of us are busy and portable protein is tougher to come by than, say, veggies, nuts and fruit. It’s also more expensive. Having enough protein at regular intervals makes you more likely to make the time-honored 1 gram per pound of bodyweight (or more) per day.
Do whatever is necessary to hit that goal each day – pack jerky, keep protein powder and your shaker in the car, mix protein powder with Greek yogurt and almonds and keep them in containers in your work fridge. Just make sure that you’re measuring enough to put you in the ballpark of your true daily requirement, aiming for at least 20 grams at each helping.
Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.