“What happens on Facebook, should stay on Facebook.”
Most people either take it way too seriously (you know the butthurt types) or they post without thinking, something I’ve been guilty of. And neither results in an illuminating discussion.
Still, I found myself in a thread about building muscle that led me to consider much bigger issues – genetics, knowledge, aging, and above all, the power of attitude.
I’ve an industry colleague named Fred. I’ll leave his last name out but let’s just say Fred’s well known in the Facebook strength training world, for reasons that are frustrating to some and amusing to others.
Fred and I had a civil discussion, although he maintained that my bro-science approach to building muscle is just that — bro-science.
The stuff I’ve learned after 20+ years in this salt mine – stuff like changing the stimulus and programmed variety — are completely unsubstantiated, he said, and that there’s just one scientifically “proven” way to build muscle: progressive overload, or adding more weight to the bar.
I, on the other hand, suggested he look beyond his own bias and maybe consider what many of us older meatheads do when we reach a plateau — cause at a point progressive overload always stops working. Then perhaps he’d start growing again.
His response was classic Fred:
“I’m 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds at 10% bodyfat. At 53 years old, how much better can I be? “
I didn’t know what to say. Now don’t get me wrong, those stats are perfectly fine, and Fred looks good for a guy his age.
But genetically tapped? At 5’10 and 175?
Maybe. I don’t think so.
However, it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is what Fred thinks. And in his head, he’s done.
So in effect, he is done.
Because he’s fallen into some of the mental sinkholes that many older, experienced lifters get trapped in.
Sinkhole #1. Know It All Syndrome.
It’s easy to confuse the years we spend doing or studying something with our level of mastery. While “I’ve been training for 25 years” or “I have my exercise phys degree” does earn you some credibility, it has to be matched with some visible, tangible accomplishments.
So if you say “I’ve been lifting since I was 13” and still wear extra medium t-shirts, I have to ask how effective all that time has been?
In my experience, the guys who make continued progress in their size and strength development well into their grey years don’t think they know everything.
Instead they approach this field with a sense of utter humility, almost childish wonder. This compels them to seek out any new information, including stuff that forces them to question what they believe, not just affirm what they already know.
Sinkhole #2. Screwed by Genetics
We do have a set potential for building muscle. But it’s a lottery, and whether you get to yell “bingo” is determined by the quality of the genes your mom and dad brought to the party when they decided to go watch the submarine races up at Inspiration Point.
I’ve touched on genetics before and it’s a loser’s argument.
Your genetics may determine how much muscle you can build and how fast — and it certainly decides whether you have a future as a professional bodybuilder — but anyone can still make dramatic progress in their physique.
Furthermore, I know many guys that were labeled “hard gainers” in their teens who went on to build very good physiques by their mid-30’s. The irony is, today they get accused of having “above average genetics.” Go figure.
To me, the argument “I’m genetically tapped out according to this random formula I read on the internet” really says you have no clue how to build muscle beyond a beginner to intermediate level. Or that you’ve just given up on even trying.
Sinkhole #3. It’s All About The Weight
I was speaking to powerlifter Dave Tate about ways for advanced guys to add new muscle. I said at a certain point, if you want to build more size, trying to get stronger just isn’t that effective.
Being a strength guy, Dave quickly corrected me – “Not unless you’re weak as fuck. Then strength is still really important. Otherwise, no.”
F-bombs aside, there’s serious wisdom there. If you’re at a level of strength that you can push some pretty big weights, then you’re already approaching the end of your strength development threshold — so unless you’re a powerlifter, why waste energy and risk injury trying to get just a few percentages stronger?
Why not use the strength you’ve already built to push significant weights for reps in the hypertrophy range, where you likely have far more room for development? That is, if your goal is to get bigger.
Now if you’re weak or a beginner and have a lot of potential to improve that way, then by all means, run with basic progressive overload until it stops working.
But remember, it always stops working. That’s why a teenager with a 115-pound squat can’t add 5 pounds to the bar every week forever — he’d be squatting a thousand by his 21st birthday with legs the size of Chris Christie’s waistline.
Sinkhole #4. Age
Fred did have a point – there’s no denying that muscle growth slows with age. Hormones dip, joints degrade, tissue quality suffers, and sleep isn’t as good – the whole “system” just starts to wear out.
With excellent training, someone who starts their lifting career at 20 could reach their natural muscular peak well before 30. However, had that same person waited until age 50 to start, they might be pushing daisies before they reach their potential.
Still, there’s no reason you can’t make gains later in life. They’ll just be slower, and if you’ve been at this a while, will require hitting your body with a stimulus it’s not accustomed to, whether through training or diet.
Sinkhole #5. Not Understanding Peaks and Valleys
Everyone builds most of their muscle their first few years of lifting. Some people literally explode, reaching their potential almost overnight before slowing to a gradual pace. For others it’s less dramatic.
Here’s the lesson: after that initial 1-2 year “boom,” ever notice how guys build muscle the next 10 or 20 or even 30 years?
It’s never linear.
It’s always long periods of stagnation, where they have to fight for every pound (some even lose mass) — and then they change something and suddenly build 5 new pounds of muscle in six months.
For me it was when I “discovered” deadlifting in my mid-20’s (10 pounds in two years), and then basically nothing until a decade later, in my late-30’s, when I was reintroduced to carbs and high volume training (another 10 pounds in two years).
The rest of the time, however, has been long periods of relative stagnation — huge valleys stretched between occasional peaks. And this can be demotivating when you try to force progress along and start suffering injuries.
The trick is to understand this and welcome the valleys as much as the peaks. See them as part of the process, like how a farmer will let his field “rest” for a season; your time to settle into your training and just do the best you can and not expect the world.
Then, when everything feels right and you want to make a push, you have the mental and physical resources available to pull out all the stops and make something happen.
However, it will never happen until you accept that you don’t know everything.
And above all, believe that you still have some good days, even some great days, left in front of you.
Some guys just want to look good. Others are willing to learn what it takes. Which guy are you? Click here to learn more about building the body you want.
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