Having worked in gyms and been around guys that are trying to build muscle for a number of years now, I’ve started to notice some trends that crop up week after week when I speak to people about their struggles with training.

One of the biggest complaints (usually from guys who already have a good foundation of muscle mass) is that they feel like their progress has completely stagnated and they can’t seem to move forward with their physique & training no matter what they do.

The thing is, I completely understand how frustrating this is because I’ve been there. You train for years and get great results, then you just seem to hit a brick wall and nothing responds anymore. You change training styles, rep ranges, try supersets, giant sets, circuits, anything – but nothing seems to work, right?

Well don’t give up hope just yet. In this article I’m going to try to outline just how many factors that are worth considering when it comes to getting the most out of your programme, and how you can make sure you keep making progress and getting those gains.

Factor 1 – Execution

Execution is by far the most important corner stone in ANY programme on the planet.

I don’t care if you do GVT, DTP, MI40 or whatever latest programme you’ve found on the internet (I’ve done most of them myself), if you don’t know how to execute movements with absolute PRECISION, meticulous focus on technique and the ability to contract your muscles as hard as you physically can on every single rep – you’re leaving so much progress on the table it’s not even funny.

So what does it mean to execute movements optimally?

Well, it’s all well and good saying ‘I use good form’, but I’m talking about digging a little bit deeper than that. You have to know your contracting your muscle before you even start moving the weight – even an inch.

Take a bicep curl for example. Before that dumbbell moves through space and time – even an inch, the bicep has to be consciously ‘switched on’ by the brain.

That means, in simple terms, you have to squeeze the motherf*cker like it owes you money and recruit every single muscle fibre possible before you start the rep. Try it next time you train. Contract your biceps to a point of cramping before you move, THEN move. You’ll get so much more out of every single rep you’ll want to write home and tell your great aunt Doris all about it.

As one of my influencers in the industry, Joe Bennett says:

“If it’s easy it’s not because you’re awesome. It’s because you’re doing it wrong”

Personally, I think execution of movements is that important it requires it’s own ‘phase’ of training. Every 12 weeks or so, I’ll completely drop my weights, intensity and just focus on purely perfecting my execution of exercises.

This works perfectly for me because it kind of ‘doubles up’ as a deload week, giving my body the chance to recover from the hard training I’ve been doing & help avoid injuries (or let existing ones heal up).

Once I’ve finished my execution phase, I know I’m contracting muscle on a much higher level than I was before, & I’m ready to attack another few months of hard mass building training.

Factor 2 – Frequency

The second piece of the muscle building puzzle to take into account when approaching your programming is frequency.

Frequency is a massive factor that is missed by so many guys, because they go in the gym and do chest Monday, arms Tuesday, legs Wednesday, etc…

This once per week for every approach will work if you’re a rank beginner. But as you’re reading this I’m assuming you’re not a complete beginner, so you need to think a little bit outside the box.

What I first want you to consider, is that if you try and grow everything at once, you’ll get nowhere fast. So prioritise one or two muscle groups, and up your frequency on those.

You can afford to drop your ‘strong’ muscle groups to once every 7-10 days and you’ll maintain the muscle you’ve already got, assuming you’re eating enough.

This means you have the time and energy resources available to then attack your weaker body parts with a much higher frequency than before. The law of repeated bouts then dictates you’ll see a much faster rate of growth than if you’d left it at simply once per week.

However, what you do need to consider is the size and recovery capacity of the muscle you’re trying to grow, as to the frequency that will be allowed in your programming.

For example, due to their size, muscles like the quads and muscles of the back will take much longer to recover than things like calves, biceps or shoulders. So you might only be able to hit quads every 4-5 days at the most, whereas you could hit arms or calves every 2-3 days (recovery permitting, see factor 8 for more).

There’s a whole host of different approaches you can take within a high frequency training programme, one example would be a heavy session on a weak body part followed by a lighter, higher volume session later in the week. This is just one approach and there are endless others that could work for you, I’ll go through as many as I can in the next few factors.

Factor 3 – Volume

Training or workout volume, refers to the amount of sets, reps and weight lifted in a workout.

If you don’t know what workout volume is, think of it like the volume on your car stereo.

You know that horrible feeling when you start the car in the morning after you were blasting music the night before and nearly burst your ear drums?

That’s essentially what you’re lining yourself up for if you start training for the first time (or after a long break) with a ridiculous amount of sets and reps.

Volume is something that you want to absolutely minimise in the onset, and build up ONLY as and when required.

I’m a lazy b*stard, so I like to do the minimum required to get the maximum results. Put it this way, a workout with 4 absolute max effort and perfectly executed sets will yield better results than a workout with 24 half arsed sets with 5 minutes of chatting about that bird on the treadmill (who thinks you’re a dick anyway) in between. Just sayin’.

But on the flip side, if your volume is too low for too long, you’re not going to give your body an adequate amount of stimulus to actually warrant growth.

Muscular growth isn’t something your body will just ‘do’ as soon as you pick up a dumbbell. You have to strategically progress week by week, month by month and adding an extra set in here and there, upping the reps (with the same weight) will represent some training progression and hopefully translate to growth, given you’re executing the movements properly.

Factor 4 – Tempo

When I take on a new client, the easiest way I can get them to increase tension on a muscle when they’re training it is by manipulating the tempo, or speed, of which they perform each rep.

If on certain muscles, you struggle to really contract and achieve that ‘mind-muscle connection’, tempo is something that can really change the game for you.

As I eluded to above, tempo basically refers to the speed of which you perform a rep. The easiest way to increase tension, is to slow down the speed of each rep (giving your muscles more time under tension, which is a big deal when it comes to growth).

Now, getting a little more technical for a second, a tempo consists of 4 numbers. Each of these numbers refers to the amount of seconds you spend performing each part of a rep.

The first number refers to the ‘negative phase’ (usually the way down, or the lengthening of a muscle).

The second number refers to the bottom part of the rep, the amount of time spent in the lengthened position.

The third number refers to the ‘positive phase’ (usually the way up, or contraction of a muscle).

The fourth number refers to the top part of the rep, the amount of time spent in the contracted position.

Now, given that we are much stronger on the way down of an exercise (think about loading 200kg on to a bench press, much easier to ‘lower’ it than it is to press it back up), we usually want to use a slower ‘negative’ than ‘positive’. Basically, we want to lower the weights nice and steady, and contract the muscle in a more explosive fashion.

The tempo I normally recommend to beginners for most exercises (this is just one example, there are endless changes you can make to this) is a 4-0-1-0 tempo.

This means there should be a 4 second ‘negative’, no pause at the bottom, a 1 second ‘positive’, and no pause at the top. 5 seconds of tension per rep. Given execution is on point, we’re looking at 40 seconds of continuous tension for just an 8 rep set. Hopefully you can see how manipulating tempo can completely change the complexion of a workout already.

To round off, let’s apply this to a bicep curl to give you a real example.

With a 4-1-1-1 tempo on this exercise, it would look like this:

4 seconds lowering the weight & extending the elbow joint.

1 second pause at the bottom (focus on achieving a maximal stretch and contraction of the tricep).

1 second lifting the weight & flexing the elbow joint.

1 second pause at the top (focus on achieving a maximal contraction of the bicep, try and ‘squeeze’ all the blood into that muscle).

Hopefully that makes sense, let’s move on to factor 5.

Factor 5 – Progressive Overload

Now this is an absolutely huge factor in continual progression, and to be honest, one that I neglected for too long (and it hindered my progress massively).

Before I explain progressive overload and how it can help you add size and strength, let me first explain that if you ignore the previous 4 factors I’ve laid out before this one, you’ll be getting nowhere fast employing this factor on it’s own.

Continuously adding weight on top of shit form, no tempo manipulation, poor frequency programming and zero attention to workout volume is the fastest way to make zero progress and probably get injured somewhere down the line (I’m speaking from experience here).

So if you’ve skipped over the first 4 factors hoping to see me telling you to do nothing but start stacking weight on the bar, it’s not gonna happen. Execution and the other factors I’ve laid out are the foundation of everything you do in the gym. Once you’ve laid the foundations, you can then get to work on building mass through things like progressive overload.

Now, assuming you’ve taken all that on board, progressive overload is an incredible tool to have in your muscle building arsenal.

Essentially, the idea is to continuously strive to get stronger week by week, workout by workout, in some way, shape or form.

Some people like to monitor every lift they hit in the gym and progress them all, but I like to do things just a little differently.

I pick one or two lifts for each muscle (depending on it’s size), and I work on hitting as much weight as possible with perfect execution for 4 sets of 6 reps, at about a 4-0-1-0 tempo. Priority muscles will be hit more frequently than ‘strong’ points (notice how I included all the factors in that?).

Now, obviously at some point you’re going to hit some sticking points on your lifts by doing this. So here’s my thinking around plateaus in strength (and I’m no expert on strength, but this tends to work for me):

Let’s say you’ve been hitting a dumbbell chest press for about 5 weeks and you’re stagnating on 40kg. You can get 6×4 out but can’t seem to get the 42.5s up no matter what.

I’d stick with 40kg, and work on hitting 8×4. Then work on hitting 10×4. Then eventually, drop back to 6×4 with a heavier weight.

This rep variation tends to work nicely and still represents an increase in strength and some nice markers for you to hit.

If all else fails and you’re still not progressing on a lift, change the lift for an alternative that hits some slightly different muscle fibres but is similar (i.e. a machine press instead of a dumbbell press) and work on progressing that lift. Don’t get despondent if your progress stalls, we all hit sticking points and you can’t grow year-round.

It must be said, however, that I only lift this heavy for certain ‘staple’ lifts in my sessions and the rest of my sessions look more ‘metabolic/conditioning’ style, with a 12-20 rep range and a whole host of dropsets and intensifiers not being uncommon in my workouts.

This is just what works for me, though, so feel free to try bits and see how it works for you.

Factor 6 – Rest Time

Do you time your rest when you train?

I never used to when I first started. But when you do start timing yourself, you soon realise you’re (usually) over-resting between sets.

Now, it must be made clear, that this is all relative to the specific mini-goal of the exercise you’re performing.

If you’re employing a similar ‘progressive overload’ style I outlined in factor 5, you’ll need somewhere close to a 2 minute rest time to recover from the heavier load you’re using in that exercise.

If, however, you’re hitting a more ‘metabolic’ or ‘conditioning’ style workout, your rest times will need to be much shorter. For everything other than direct strength work (like the things I talked about in factor 5), I use no more than a 40 second rest time.

This massively helps in cell swelling, increasing your ‘pump’ and fatiguing the muscle you’re trying to fatigue and grow.

The take home from factor 6, is that the most important gym related purchase you can make is to buy stopwatch. I know, shocking that it’s not another gym-shark stringer vest, right?

Factor 7 – Intensity

We’ve all seen the motivational douchebag memes on Facebook talking about ‘Go Hard or Go Home’ and some absolute twonk posting ‘The only bad workout was the one you didn’t do’ < piss off mate, we’re going the gym not finding a cure for cancer and saving the world, have a day off.

I jest, of course, and to be fair these memes do have a point (although they’re rarely posted by people who actually live by them).

Let me put it for you in these exact words so as not to be mistaken:

“If you train like a fanny, expect fanny like results”

– Andy Clements, 2017

^^Yes, I just quoted myself in my own article. It’s my article I’ll do what I want. Not even soz.

But seriously, as important as execution, tempo, volume and all that other fun stuff is, it’s all a load of theory and over-thinking if you don’t have the John Stones to go in the gym and WORK.

I’m all about training smart, as you’ll no doubt have picked up by now, but there is nothing on this planet that can replace the ability to go to those dark places and embrace the absolute sheer pain you need to go through to build tissue.

Let’s be real for a second, your body doesn’t actually want a bunch of extra muscle to cart around all day.

We’re built for survival. Being a 300lb behemoth (not that I am, but we’ve all got aspirations right) isn’t something that comes naturally to us. So, to quote one of those unbearable Instagram memes:

“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done”

Yep. Andy’s one of those social media douchebags.

This factor is gonna be kinda short because there’s not really any ‘tips’ or ‘tricks’ I can give you for how to train hard. You’ve just got to take your balls out of your purse and get after it. Simple as that.

Factor 8 – Recovery

So we’ve gone through 7 factors that you can directly apply to your current programming and put into action in the gym straight away, hopefully they helped.

But the one missing piece of the puzzle is arguably the most important, so those of you that have made it this far down the page well done!

See, muscle isn’t actually built in the gym. Did I not mention that?

Muscle tissue is broken down through training, and built back up, repaired and grown through your recovery mechanisms. These recovery mechanisms are vital to your progress so it’s really important you start paying attention to them if you’re not already.

To be honest, recovery as a topic probably warrants an entire article to itself, but for the purposes of trying to keep this relatively short I’ll just give you the highlights.

The first thing I think about in terms of recovery – and the thing I always try to optimise with myself and my clients before I even consider training or nutrition is sleep.

Sleep is the human body’s best recovery mechanism and probably the most important thing you can do outside of the gym to aid growth.

Not getting enough sleep will mean you’ll be sorer for longer, increasing the amount of time you’ll need to take between sessions in order to get effective workouts in.

You’ll also notice a decrease in energy (obviously), a decrease in strength and a general ‘can’t be arsed’ attitude to training. Not good if you want to add muscle.

Sometimes a lack of sleep can’t be avoided, I understand that. However a lot of the time, and for a lot of people, it’s a very avoidable problem.

Simple things like making sure your room is as dark as possible, stop scrolling through facebook in bed and make sure you put all electronic devices to one side at least an hour before bed.

Other (more debatable) things that have worked for me and a few clients are things like eating carbs in the last meal before bed (this helps to release the hormone serotonin which can have a relaxing affect on the brain), including zinc & magnesium in your supplement stack, and generally just training your b*llocks off during the day so you’re more sleepy at night.

I’m not claiming to be an expert on sleep optimisation, again, these are just some things that seem to have helped me and some of my clients.

Next on the recovery check list you’ve got nutrition and hydration.

The first thing I do every single morning (in fact it’s written in my morning routine schedule) is to drink 4 pints of water in the first hour of being up. Yes, I do p*ss like a racehorse early in the morning but you won’t believe the energy I have compared to days where I don’t hydrate. It also massively helps my strength and endurance in the gym, which is a big deal.

Nutrition, again, is an absolute minefield of a topic so I’m not going to go too in depth with it.

Just make sure you’ve got a sufficient amount of protein and overall calories in to recovery from the workouts you’re doing, and to fuel future workouts you’re going to hit. If you need more advice on nutrition – there are seriously millions of articles, videos, posts, arguments, message boards etc… it’s all at your finger tips. Of course, if you’d like to pick my brain (I’m no nutritionist but I’m happy to have a discussion) feel free to message me.

The last recovery mechanism I’m going to talk about (and there are more than this, but as I said I’m giving you the highlights) is mobility.

Now, everyone always switches off when I talk about mobility, eyes glaze over and you can see that familiar “I don’t need mobility” look etched all over their face.

But let me be absolutely clear: The biggest game changer in terms of physique progression and injury prevention of 2017 has been my attention to mobility.

Foam rolling, massage therapy, chiropractic treatment, strengthening exercises for things like the lower traps, rotator cuffs, hip flexors, stretching religiously…

It all loosens the fascia that surrounds muscle tissue and allows your muscles more room to grow. So why wouldn’t you pay attention to it?

Wrapping Up

So there you have it. My 8 most important factors in making your programme the best it can possibly be, and ultimately get you more muscle and a better physique.

Remember, although this was a behemoth of an article this list isn’t exhaustive. Take what you can from this piece and revisit it when you need to, but most importantly APPLY.

Put things into practice and see how it works for you. Keep an eye on how your body is responding, and if something isn’t working change it.

What works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else, but at the same time we are all human beings and our bodies aren’t all THAT different from each other.

Good luck, and if I can ever be of any assistance don’t hesitate to let me know.