If you’re just starting out at the gym or you’ve been in the gym for 6+ months but haven’t seen results, the first three places you should look at are: training intensity, protein intake, and sleep. In my experience, the clients that I coach generally underestimate the value of these three variables massively.
Lifting weights that are far from challenging may be helpful for some general health benefits when compared to being entirely sedentary, but if you’re not challenging yourself set to set when lifting weights, you’re leaving 95%+ of the benefits on the table.
So what does it mean to train hard? It means that you need to be training in close proximity to failure. Not in close proximity to the lift finally getting somewhat challenging. Failure can be described as when you are no able to lift the weight with proper form (i.e. you aren’t doing hip thrusts in order to finish your curls). It’s important to take exercises to failure a few times when starting out for a few reasons: First, you need to learn what failure actually feels like if you’re ever going to gauge your proximity to it accurately. Secondly, going to failure is, to a large degree, a skill. It isn’t easy being intentionally uncomfortable, and it’s actually pretty exhausting to put yourself through severe discomfort. However, if changing your body composition were especially easy, everyone would have done it already. Embrace the discomfort and use it to your advantage.
Some safe ways to test the waters of failure is generally with machines. The reason I prefer machines for this is due to not needing to worry about stabilization or form breakdown as much. With machines, you simply need to ensure you’re doing the entire range of motion. When beginning, I would heavily advise against taking things like deadlifts, squats, or bench press to failure unless you have a coach with you ensuring that your form is adequate, as these exercises are easy to injure yourself with you if you don’t know what you’re doing. Instead, try lifts like chest supported rows, lat pull-downs, bicep curls, tricep extensions, hamstring curls, leg extensions, etc., etc. Take some of these exercises to absolute failure, get familiar with the feeling, then try to tailor most of your training to be 1-3 reps shy of that.
Similarly, if you’re training hard but not eating enough protein (with calories also playing a big factor, but that’s for a different post here), you’re just going to be spinning your wheels. You might see some improvement, but you’re really leaving a lot of progress on the table once again if you’re not eating at least 0.7g/lb of body weight in protein (0.7g/lb of lean body mass for obese individuals).
This sounds like a lot of protein because it is. There’s simply no skirting around the fact that eating this much protein will take some intentional choices opting towards specific meal compositions, mainly that there will no longer be meals without protein. If you are serious about achieving your fitness goals in regards to strength or body composition, then each meal will only be complete once it has a lean protein and some fruits/veggies.
If you weight 150lbs, you’re aiming for anything between 105-150g of protein per day. To give some context for how much that is, 4oz of cooked chicken breast has roughly 30g of protein. It’s generally a good idea to space out your meals during the day, and anywhere from 3-6 meals with about 3-4 hours between each meal is great. The more meals, the less time between feedings. I personally have about 4 meals a day with my protein spread relatively evenly throughout the day (9am, 12pm, 3pm, and 8pm when I get home from work) with about the same protein for each meal, sans breakfast (35, 55, 55, 55). The only reason I don’t add more protein to my breakfast is simply because I like having a simple breakfast, and adding more protein would mean I’d have to add something else to cook in the morning… so I don’t. As long as you’re getting ~0.15g/lb of body weight each meal (which is 30g for me), you’re likely fine.
Eat your protein, eat your veggies. Buy some protein powder if you need it. It’s nothing special. It’s basically powdered chicken as far as nutrition is concerned (unless you’re lactose intolerant, then make sure you get a dairy-free one or use some lactaid pills.
Finally, sleep. Sleep seems to be when the body does the majority of its repairs and tissue building, and it seems to interact massively with body composition.
To my knowledge, sleep at least works against muscle breakdown and allows for muscle growth. I don’t think sleeping more will cause more muscle to grow (I haven’t read anything of the sort to date), but I do know that sleeping less interferes heavily with muscle retention. A recent study in humans compared two groups, one sleeping 8.5 hours per night and the other sleeping 5.5 hours per night. Both groups were aiming to lose body fat via dieting.
Both lost roughly 3kg (2.9kg for the 8.5, 3kg forthe 5.5) of bodyfat (~6.6lbs).
The group that slept 8.5 hours nightly lost 1.4kg (3.08lbs) of lean mass and 1.5kg (3.3lbs) of body fat.
The group that slept 5.5 hours nightly lost 2.4kg(5.28lbs!!) of lean mass and only 0.6kg (1.32lbs) of body fat.
Our goal in the gym is generally to get more muscular, and given that muscle gain comes very slowly, losing 5lbs of muscle for only ~1.5lbs of fat is a horrible trade-off.
It’s worth noting that this experiment was only testing the effects of sleep on dieting, so these individuals were not training with weights (which would have aided in retaining most if not all of the muscle with proper diet and training regimens).
All that being said, there’s a clear relationship between outcome and sleep. If your goal is to lose weight and retain muscle or grow as much muscle as possible, you are much better off getting more sleep.
If you’re new in the gym or haven’t given much consideration to the finer details, focus on these three things: Training intensity, protein intake, and sleep. If you can nail at least these three things, you will be well on your way to having a good amount of success in the gym. There are certainly finer details when it comes to training, but these three aspects are the bulk of the pie.