For a beginner, embarking on a journey to lose fat, build muscle, or both, can be a confusing and daunting process.
Often times, people start this journey by researching fitness information on the internet. If they’re lucky, they’ll stumble upon some useful information from a trustworthy and independent source.
However, it’s far more likely they’ll end up in one of the dark areas of the fitness world, somewhere filled with broscience, that’s continually churning out bad information simply because it sells. It more than likely led you down an endless path of yo-yo dieting, unhelpful workouts, and unnecessary supplementation that has yielded you minimal results, if any, and led you to give up on getting the physique you really want. If this has happened to you, then on behalf of all the good guys in the industry: I’m sorry.
A couple days of days ago someone like this emailed me in frustration, and asked the following question:
If you could simplify the entire process of getting in shape right down to one sentence, what would it be?
I mulled over this for a little while, thinking about responding with the basics of nutrition and working out, but found it exceedingly difficult to fit all that into one sentence. After some more thought, I concluded that the underlying principles of nutrition and training are both exactly the same. In fact, I could boil the whole fitness thing down to just two words: Progress and Consistency.
To burn fat, gain muscle, and change your body composition, progress and consistency are the only two principles that must be in place in order to see excellent results. Nothing more – and nothing less – is required to get the body you want in the gym. If you only focus on these two things, you will get better results and be further ahead than 90% of people you see in your local gym, I guarantee it. Let’s have a look at what these two principles look like in practise.
Principle #1: Progress
The principle of progress, or more specifically for our purposes, progressive overload, is the idea of constantly improving in the gym over time. In other words, never doing the same thing twice. When you first start going to the gym, you’ll likely see results after a few weeks if you’re a beginner – no matter what you’re doing. However, these results will undoubtedly come to a screeching halt if you continue doing that exact same routine, with the exact same weights, for the exact same duration, on an ongoing basis. Your body will get used to what you’re doing, and no longer require itself to adapt to the stimulation you’re giving it. What this means in practice is that your muscles will not grow, your fat loss will stop (unless you start eating less), and you’ll be wasting your time in the gym.
In order for your muscles to grow (or to create any changes to your body for that matter), you must provide them with an incentive to do so. For our purposes, that incentive is weights at the gym. The weights literally tear the muscle fibres apart as you use them, and the ensuing process of reparation is what causes the muscle to rebuild itself bigger, better, and stronger than it was before (muscle growth actually occurs outside the gym when you’re recovering, which is why adequate rest periods between workouts are so necessary). However, if you keep using the same weights, for the same number of reps, and same number of sets, your muscle will no longer tear and no longer have the need to build up into a stronger and larger size. Obviously, to avoid this, you need to keep providing your muscle with new (more) stimulation over time to continue to see muscle growth.
There are a number of ways to provide this increased stimulation over time, but they all result in an increase in total volume:
- Increase the weights from workout to workout. For example, if you’re squatting 150lbs this week, you’d need to bump it up to 155lbs next week while using the same number of reps and sets.
- Increase the number of reps from workout to workout. For example, if you’re doing 150lbs squats this week for 3 sets of 8 reps, next week try squats at 150lbs 3 sets of 9 reps. The week after, try 3 sets of 10 reps, and so on.
- Increase the number of sets you’re doing. If this week you’re doing 150lbs squats for 3 sets of 8 reps at 150lbs, next week try doing 4 sets of 8 reps at 150lbs. Obviously, you can’t do this forever, but it is a useful method for advanced trainees to incorporate after a few years of training.
- Increase the duration of your workout. This can be done by adding additional exercises, or, in the case of cardiovascular exercise, adding a minute or so onto each workout.
It’s worthing noting that real world progression in the gym isn’t this perfectly linear, it's more like the above graph. For example, while it may be your goal to consistently add a rep to each set of each exercise (as it should be), some days you just won’t have it in you to do so. That’s ok, this is normal, and represented by the downward ‘dips' in the graph. Ignore it when this happens, and the next time you’re in there, try your best to hit your goal again. You will hit your targets more days than you won’t. Some weeks, just adding 1 rep to 1 set of 1 exercise might be all you can muster. That’s ok, as long as you’re progressing in some way from workout to workout, you’re on the right track.
Progression isn’t just limited to your training, either. It’s also an important principle when thinking about your nutrition. For example, say you’re working out properly, progressively increasing your weights from workout to workout. After a month, you manage to put on 5lbs of solid, lean muscle. This increase in total muscle mass will effect your daily calorie requirements (read more about calorie requirements here), and what used to be enough calories for you to gain muscle, suddenly became only enough for you to maintain your weight. At this point, it would be worth adding 100 or so calories to your daily caloric intake to start seeing noticeable muscle gains again (the reverse is true if you're dieting). This will be needed from time to time if you’re working out properly and using the principle of progressive overload as your body’s metabolism gradually increases or decreases along with muscle gains or fat loss, respectively.
Related Reading: The Definitive Guide: How Many Calories Should I Eat?
As you’ve learned, weight training and eating without keeping the principle of progressive overload as your overarching goal is a complete waste of time. However, if you diligently track your workouts and calorie intake in a consistent manner, you’re literally guaranteed to see results in the gym. Which leads me to the next principle.
Principle #2: Consistency
Without consistently applying the principle of progressive overload, week after week, month after month, you will see fairly small returns from your effort. In practise, consistency means hitting each day of your workout plan throughout the week, and then doing it again next week, (using your favoured method of progressive overload), and then doing it again the week after, and so on.
Going to the gym 3, 4, 5 times a week is great, but only if you do it on a regular basis. If you go to the gym 3 times this week, 1 time the next, 2 the next, and maybe only 1 or 2 times the following week, your results will be significantly worse than had you consistently stuck to an intelligently laid out workout plan every week, say, by going to the gym 3 times a week for the whole month.
This doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym the exact same days each week (something might pop up before your normal Wednesday workout, for example), but doing your best to allot at least 3 days each and every week is important. The odd day off or missed is fine, life happens to all of us, but try to make it up the next day to ensure you get all 3 workouts in that week.
If you can combine the principles of progression and consistency to both your training and nutrition regimens, you will see results that few do. That’s not to say that other people don’t put in a lot of effort, of course, but many are lacking in good knowledge of the basic foundations of fitness. With the knowledge provided in this article, all you need is a good training plan, a little willpower, and time to get the body you want.
As a final note, I highly recommend either getting a small notepad or a gym app (highly recommend gym hero) on your phone to record down your workouts from week to week, even if you think you’ll be able to memorize how many reps and sets and at what weights you use. Over time, it can get increasingly confusing to keep track of all the exercises, and what generally tends to happens is people tend to not progress as fast as they could. It’s especially important to not let how much you ‘feel’ or ‘burn’ to act as your guide in how hard you’re working out. Often times, in order to progress in a lift, you will have to work very hard, and push yourself far beyond the limits of your muscles ‘feeling’ like they’re being worked. This is hard work, but nobody said this was going to be easy.