It’s coming up to that time of year where a lot of people will begin to think about hitting the gym in preparation for the summer. If you’re one of those people – I’ve got some advice for you.
It’s – keep it realistic.
A lot of guys will go crazy in the gym, hitting it 5-6 times a week, and eating like crazy in the hope of gaining some muscle. A lot of girls will do the same, only they will reduce their food intake.
I’ve been over the idea a few times, that high-intensity training at the volume of 5-6 times a week is pretty much detrimental for most people – you’ll burn out (read that as, it’s going to go against your goals eventually). The argument here, would be that you’re only training like that for a short time, so it’s unlikely you’ll end up over-trained. And I agree, so that’s not what I’m writing this post about. Instead, let’s talk about the limitations of the human body.
The human body can only grow so much muscle in a period of time. At the last count, the (drug-free) maximum is about 23 pounds per year – that’s less than a pound a week. Some of you are probably going ‘but this one time…’ or ‘but my friend…!’, but seriously. This is science. If your friend didn’t get his exact muscle mass medically measured before and after his transformation, he can’t get the record. Yes, some people can gain a lot of weight in a short amount of time, but not all of that will be muscle. Increased body stores of fat, water (water-weight), and glycogen are likely answers to anyone’s sudden bulky look if the period is less than 3-6 months… or steroids.
Never actually doing the ‘hit the gym just before summer’ approach before myself, I’m guessing most people only allow in the region of 2-3 months to get their ‘summer body’. The problem with this is that if you have let yourself go a bit during the winter months (and who can blame you, shit is cold…) you’re going to have a bit of fat to burn off before those muscles show up in your ‘summer flex’.
Where most people go wrong is they don’t plan, they just go to the gym as much as they can, eat as much protein as they can and hope for the best. But you know better than that, or at least you will! You recognize that there’s a process to this. Here’s my version:
Step 1 – Work out where you are
What do you look like at the moment?
You might be skinny, and lean but with little muscle mass. Or maybe you’re carrying a few too many pounds, and just want to lean down for the beaches. You may have even been a casual gym-goer through the winter months, and you have some muscle but it’s hidden under your body tarpaulin.
Step 2 – Work out where you want to go
Now you know where you are, we can talk about where you can go by summer. If you’re that skinny guy, we’re going to focus on gaining as much muscle as possible. Carrying a spare tyre? let’s get rid of that before someone hangs you from a tree and makes a swing in their back yard. Casual gym-goer – you’re in the money. You can choose whether to gain some more mass, lean yourself out a bit, or go for the best of both worlds.
Step 3 – Action
It’s not a nice word, but you’re about to sort yourself out, so it pretty much doesn’t apply to you anyway. Actually, since you’re a little overweight – you’ve probably got a bit of muscle hidden under there. So what you want to do is get in the gym for some heavy weight sessions no less than 3 times (and no more than 4) a week.
This will maintain as much of your muscle mass as possible while you’re on a calorie deficit (diet), so that by summer, when that weight has come off – you may be looking at something Daniel-Craig-Casino-Royale-esque.
That might brighten your mood, but I’m recommending cardio and weights, along with a caloric deficit. You’ve got the hardest journey of the three ahead of you. But you’ll feel the best when you hit that beach, and start getting those ‘wow, is that YOU?’ comments.
For a sample week plan:
Monday – Weights 3 sets of 6-8 reps each exercise (bench, incline bench, triceps work)
Tuesday – Cardio (run, sprint – DO THIS, cycle, swim, whatever)
Wednesday – Weights 3×6-8 (deadlift, overhead press, biceps if you wish)
Thursday – Cardio
Friday – Weights 3×6-8 (squats, extensions, straight-legged deadlift, reverse curls)
Saturday – Off/Cardio
Sunday – Off/Cardio
Try to not get more than 3-5 exercises per session with weights. Cardio should be intense and short for better fat loss, but long and sustained is fine.
Get your diet sorted: cut out sugars, think about doing IF, and decrease your food intake by at least 20-40%. For optimal results work out your maintenance calories and cut them by 20-30%. If you’re really struggling, you can always dial your calories up a little bit.
If you’re tired of always being ‘that skinny kid’ (don’t buy it), now is the time to change it. Fortunately, you’re in a good place – because you’re lean already any muscle you gain will be instantly noticeable, and you’ll look twice as big.
Recommendations: Hypertrophy is your new favourite word, and the gym is your new favourite place. Put your ego to the side, because you’re not going to be breaking barriers, you’re not even going to try and break your own PRs often. The key to hypertrophy is continuous progressive load. More and more weight over time.
Get in the gym 3-4 times a week and base your sessions around ‘the big three’ – benches, squats, and deadlifts. These are your staples. Start with a weight you can handle easily, and then progress up and up as the weeks go by.
A sample week plan:
Monday – Weights 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps each exercise (bench, squat, bent-over-row, lateral raises)
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Weights 3-5×8-12 (incline bench, squat, deadlift, bis/tris if you wish)
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Weights 3-5×8-12 (dips/bench, extensions, reverse curls, overhead press)
Saturday – Off/Cardio
Sunday – Off
You only want to be doing Cardio once a week maximum, and it should be around 20-30 mins of low-intensity (like jogging, casual swim, bike ride). Your weights sessions should be intense, with rests between 1-2.5 minutes. Above I’m recommending basically full-body 3 times a week, which I personally think is the best program for a beginner, but pretty much any program will do – just please avoid doing a lot of isolated work.
For your diet; eat, and eat a lot. Meat should be in every meal, but you shouldn’t be worrying about calories too much. If you’re gaining more than 2-3 pounds a week, cut your food (calories) by 5-10% and see how it goes the next two weeks, then adjust up a bit or down a bit as required. Scales are fine, but the mirror will tell you if you’re really making improvements. Make sure you eat plenty of carbs on training days. If you don’t see changes within a month – up the calories.
You have the best opportunity here. With 2-3 months to play with, you can achieve an awful lot if you’re already in fairly decent shape. The best plan, in my opinion, is to lean yourself out – and then build some more muscle on top. That way you can guarantee that come beach time you’ll be in great shape – because once lean you can make sure you don’t put the fat back on while trying to gain a bit of mass.
Recommendations: So, start out on a caloric deficit. Cut your food intake (calories) by 10-20%, and keep lifting about 3 times a week to maintain your muscle mass. Don’t go crazy in the gym, you want to burn off – not burn out. Follow the routine (or something similar) I gave for people who are carrying weight while you’re in the deficit, but keep the cardio to 1-2 sessions a week, nothing too intense regularly.
Once you hit the level of leanness you want, you can switch routines to the ‘skinny guy’ program. It’s up to you how closely you watch the calories, but staying lean while building muscle can be pretty difficult without reasonable monitoring.
Since you’ve already been training, stick to what you know if it’s working – but if those scales are going up much more than 2 pounds a week in the muscle building phase, you need to eat a little less. Similarly, if the scales aren’t going down by around a pound a week when you’re cutting (dieting) – you need to reduce your calories a bit more.
Step 4 – Don’t make it weird
A diet is a diet, but getting stressed about it will just increase cortisol (stress hormone) and you gone get FAT. As this article will tell you, going a bit crazy every now and again can be a good thing. And having cheat days/meals is a key part of any program (and not hating life).
There’s probably a Chinese proverb that fits well here, but I’ll let you find one… or recommend it in the comments!
Step 5 – Sit back, relax.. and let the magic happen
If you follow the advice above – wherever you are now, and whatever your goals – you will get to where you want to be.