A few weeks ago I told someone what I do for a living and I found myself giving away hundreds of dollars in advice for free again. The young man was tall and very skinny, and told me he “just couldn’t put on muscle.” This was the conversation that ensued:
“How often do you squat?”
“Well… [looks at ground]”
“How much do you eat?”
“I eat like 4,000-5,000 calories a day!”
“Do you write it down or keep track of it in any way?”
“Then you’re lying to me and yourself. You can probably remember 1-2 times when you may have eaten that much in the past few weeks, but I can put dollars to the donuts-you’re-not-eating that you aren’t averaging that much food.”
I know that every scrawny-to-brawny, ectomorph, hard-gainer reading this blog is probably beginning to type the “It’s Not That Simple!” email, tweet, or Facebook comment to me right now, but look pa st your own struggles and read between the lines of this conversation. I think we can all agree that the two main ingredients to putting on lean mass are:
Everything else is tweaking. As a coach, I know that if you don’t hate squats yet and you don’t hate food yet, then we have no reason to move onto other alternatives like food quality, food timing, and other complex, full body lifts. I’m not saying those alternatives might not be necessary, but until you’ve gotten a handle on the basics of eating and squatting a lot, there’s no need explore them yet.
The reason I bring this observation up is that it points to something that applies to almost every fitness goal. People come to me because they aren’t making the kind of progress they want towards their goal and want to know what is limiting that progress. The first place I look to find the problem is the most obvious place. In the above case, squats and food. In the case of someone losing fat it would be food and daily movement (not exercise). But there is a common theme that appears with all my clients. No matter what the fitness goal is, the lower limit on progress is usually consistency; the upper limit on progress is usually recovery; and the common answer is always patience. These obvious limits show up even if we look at someone trying stronger. If an injury-free man tells me that he has been lifting heavy things for 6 years and but cannot deadlift 225lbs, then I suspect his training has been inconsistent. If the same man tells me he’s been stuck at 595lbs for two years, then I suspect he’s training too much. Yes, there are many alternative answers to the problems of these two hypothetical men, but these are the obvious places to start. And no matter what we find the answer to eventually be, there is a common answer that trumps all others. Any tweak to a program is going to require a great deal of patience to see through. 90% of my job is keeping a person motivated long enough to see that change through until we can assess if it worked. Only then will we be able to see if the change worked and then see if we need to tweak something else.
So when you look at your own limits, look in the obvious places first. Are you being consistent? How do you know? Are you giving yourself enough slack? How do you know? Now tweak, relax, and let time take care of your goals.