The purpose of part 5 is to highlight some of the nuances that pertain to lifters of all experience levels that have yet to be mentioned. Because humans are so different, there will always be outliers and exceptions to the rules. Because there are many ways to gain muscle (assuming you adhere to the overarching principles highlighted in parts II-IV) I would be remiss not to include an additional article that discusses some additional considerations that you’ll inevitably have to navigate at some point throughout your lifting career.
This won’t be an all-inclusive master class on genetics, PEDs, supplementation, and every nuance imaginable, but it’ll provide a general overview of some important factors and points to remember.
Exceptions to the rule
In the “expectation” paragraph of each previous article, I outlined the expectations for the average person. As with anything in life, there are genetic outliers that leave us scratching our head and wondering how certain things are possible. These genetic exceptions are present on both sides of the spectrum. Think of it as a bell curve. Most people will be somewhere in the middle in regards to their ability to grow muscle and gain strength. A small percentage will struggle mightily, and another small percentage will seemingly be able to ignore everything I’ve mentioned throughout this series and still be bigger and stronger than seemingly everyone.
Just like you’ll never be Michael Jordan if you’re 5 foot 8 with a 22 inch vertical leap, you also won’t look like Ronnie Coleman or Chris Bumstead. Genetics play a massive role in not only how one responds to weight training, but also how they respond to performance enhancing drugs.
There are people in this world that everyone thinks is a “fake natty”, or someone who looks like they take performance enhancing drugs, but are in fact natural. They’ve won the genetic lottery in regards to building muscle, or as some people like to jokingly say, “they picked the right parents”.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are essentially “non-responders”. There’s no one that doesn’t respond at all to weight training. But there are people who could follow every single piece of advice I’ve given in this series and still look like they’ve barely ever touched a weight. Again, people at these two ends of the spectrum are rare, but they do exist.
Another exception to all of the above rules are those who partake in performance enhancing drug (PED) use. PEDs allow you to train harder, recover faster, and put your body in a continuous state of anabolism (muscle growth). Even if someone on PEDs doesn’t adhere to most of the advice throughout this series, they’ll still grow faster than most naturals with average genetics who do adhere to most or all of the advice given. I’m not against PED use, nor am I pro PED use, but it’s something that cannot go unmentioned.
At the end of the day, people are going to do what they’re going to do, but I always try to stress that if you’re going to use them, waiting until you’re advanced and you’re close to or at your genetic potential for growth is a good idea. Jumping on performance enhancing drugs will affect you for the rest of your life in some way. For some, it’s a very negative effect, for others (usually those who start using them at the right time and don’t abuse them), the long term effects may be minimal. It’s not a decision to take likely and without doing your own research. If you do begin taking them as an intermediate, you’ll never know what you were truly capable of as a natural, and I think it’s a mistake. There are ways to mitigate the negative acute and long term effects of PEDs, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’ll get more into PEDs in a later section of this chapter, but these are some things to keep in mind.
A “newby” or “Newb” is someone who is at the very beginning (first few months) of their training career. Again, assuming the lifter is under the watchful eye of a great coach, the newb is not going to add muscle and strength at the same rate as a beginner. Although they’re certainly physically capable of fast gains, it’s paramount that a newb spends the first several weeks to months (depending on their natural athleticism and how quickly they catch on) of their lifting journey developing acceptable technique before they start adding weight to the bar each week. Although it may be boring, and the temptation to start progressing immediately will certainly be felt, this short period of time spent dialing in technique is a major factor in your long term success. If a newb doesn’t have acceptable form (it obviously won’t be perfect) before they begin adding weight to the bar, when they inevitably experience pain or injure themselves down the road, they’ll have to unlearn bad habits and engrain new good habits, which takes a lot longer than just learning good movement from the start. Do not ignore this paragraph if you fall into this category.
Although very uncommon, elite trainees do exist. There are two main reasons I don’t have an entire chapter on elites. First of all, they comprise such a small percentage of the population that it wouldn’t be time well spent. Additionally, elite trainees have already figured everything out. They don’t need the advice from a non-elite trainee in order to stay elite. Elite trainees usually include high level bodybuilders (usually natural ones), some of the strongest powerlifters in the world, and world class olympic weightlifters.
You may be wondering why I emphasized natural bodybuilders. Although there are certainly some PED-using bodybuilders that fall into the elite category, there is a difference between having an elite physique and being an elite lifter. Remember the genetics piece? Some lifters with great genetics don’t need to have all their I’s dotted and T’s crossed in order to have elite physiques (in fact, many elite bodybuilders aren’t even what I’d consider advanced in regards to training alone).
As a high level natural bodybuilder, however, everything must be dialed in. Do they still have great genetics? Of course. But as a natural, great genetics will only take you so far. A natural trainee with average or even below average genetics that has climbed the ranks is even more impressive. This is a truly elite lifter.
Elite lifters are the cream of the crop, the top tier. The purpose of mentioning them is just to acknowledge they exist, and provide some examples and criteria. While it’s great to shoot for some day being elite, it’s not in the cards for most people. In fact, for the average person, becoming advanced may not even be in the cards, and here’s why.
Most people spend their entire lifting career (after their beginner stage) as an intermediate. Why? Unless you’re absolutely fanatical about training, or you’re lucky enough to have been mentored or coached from the start, the chances of you becoming a truly advanced trainee are quite slim. The biggest culprits that hold people in the intermediate category permanently are inconsistency and lack of continued education.
Nuances and advancements in training technique and the most effective strategies to gain muscle are constantly evolving. If you’re still doing what was considered optimal 10 years ago, you’re likely behind the power curve. More importantly, the average person goes through periods of their training career where they’re highly dedicated and consistent, and other periods where they “fall off” and lose consistency. This happens even at very high levels.
For example, I recently stumbled upon legendary bodybuilder Phil Heath’s instagram story. He was talking about how inconsistent he’s been since finishing 3rd at his last Mr. Olympia in 2020 (at 41 years old, mind you). If something like this can happen to one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time (SEVEN Mr. O Titles), I’d argue that it can also happen to your average trainee. Does this mean Phil Heath isn’t advanced? Not necessarily. He certainly has an elite physique. He also has arguably the best genetics of any bodybuilder in history, which earned him the nickname "The Gift". He won his first show 3 years after starting to train for bodybuilding, which is unheard of.
But it just goes to show that if you don't have Phil Heath's genetics (which you don't, if you're reading this) and your training career is littered with periods of inconsistency, your chances of being a truly advanced trainee are greatly diminished. To avoid spending your entire training career in the intermediate category, consistency is paramount, followed by continually improving your technique, re-thinking and revamping your routine, and keeping up with the current nuances that drive efficient training.
Same Person: Part Advanced, Part Intermediate
The final nuance I’d like to highlight is the fact that the same person can have two muscle groups with different levels of experience/growth potential at the same time. For example, if you’ve spent your entire life neglecting or incorrectly training your side delts, but you’ve reached advanced status everywhere else, your side delts are susceptible to beginner or intermediate gains.
Or, if you’ve spent your entire training career doing squats for quad growth but you do a low bar, hip dominant squat, your quads are likely undertrained, and will experience fast growth if and when you begin doing true quad focused work (heels elevated squats, hack squats, pendulum squats). This phenomenon is actually a lot more common than you may think, and the back squat example happens to be an excerpt from my personal struggles in the illusive hunt for quad growth.
Once I stopped relying on a low bar squat for quad growth and started to do more knee dominant squat movements (hack squats, pendulum squats, and heels elevated high bar squats), my quads started to grow. I actually lost strength in the low bar squat (due primarily to lack of skill/practicing the movement) AND gained size on my quads at the same time.
One thing to keep in mind is that if you introduce a new exercise into your routine that you’ve never done before but it still trains a muscle or muscle group that you’ve been training with different exercises, although you may experience some soreness, don’t expect sudden beginner-type gains. Novelty can be great to stave off boredom and mitigate overuse issues, but just doing a new exercise for an already well-developed muscle won’t magically spark new rapid gains (I wish it were that simple!).
An example of this: your gym installs a new chest fly machine that you’ve never used before, and you begin doing it regularly with hopes that it’ll spark new gains. It’ll probably result in some soreness and it’s certainly not a waste of time, but it’s not some magic pro tip that’ll blow your chest up. This concept is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, just something worth considering.
Don’t Be That Guy/Gal
Now, let’s get into some common mistakes beginners and intermediates tend to make that will hold them back and stall their progress. I’m going to briefly touch on the most common ones, without getting too into the weeds. If you’re aware of these mistakes, you’ll be better able to identify them, and hopefully avoid sabotaging your progress:
Mistake #1- Program hopping. Stop chasing squirrels. This is a really common mistake, and one that I’ve made plenty of times. The best way to maximize results is to follow programs as they’re laid out, especially if you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter. Just because you see a new program launch, go a week without making progress, or see your favorite IFBB pro doing an exercise you’ve never tried, doesn’t mean you should jump to a new program. There’s nothing wrong with cycling through different programs and having different goals throughout the year or over multiple years, but if you’re switching to a new program every 3 weeks, just be prepared to remain a beginner or intermediate for far longer than is necessary.
Mistake #2- Junk volume. More volume can lead to more gains - until it doesn't. More volume also elicits more fatigue, and managing stimulus vs. fatigue is key. If you love to train, it can be tough to stop your workout when you feel like you have more in the tank. I’ve been there, believe me. Assuming you have a good coach or are following a well written program, do your best not to add to what you’re doing. A gradual increase in volume over time is important, but only to an extent. There’s a point at which you’ll reach diminishing returns. Occasionally doing an extra set or two is no big deal, but don’t make it a habit. Best case scenario, you’ll waste time in the gym and make no extra progress. But the most probable case scenario is you’ll start regressing over time, and the worst case scenario is you’ll hurt yourself acutely, dig yourself into a deep systemic fatigue hole, or develop overuse injuries in your joints.
Mistake #3- Intensity techniques. Drop sets, supersets, rest-pause, cluster sets, myoreps, and forced reps are all examples of intensity techniques. There’s a time and place for them and they’re not useless, but the time and place is not every time you set foot in the gym. If they’re in your program, do them. But don’t buy into the idea that they’re more effective or they’ll “spark epic growth”, because they won’t. You’ll want to ensure you use them appropriately and in accordance with your experience level. For example, a beginner trainee shouldn't even know what an intensity technique is, let alone have them in their program. Most intensity techniques create a high degree of fatigue, which can be a good tradeoff for some people at some points throughout their training career, but certainly not every training cycle.
Mistake #4- Doing a classic “bro” or bodybuilding split. Beginners and intermediate trainees should aim to train muscle groups a bare minimum of twice per week. Bro splits aren’t optimal for most people, regardless of experience level. They’re certainly better than not training at all, or skipping certain muscle groups altogether, but if you want to continue to advance your training, a bro split is not ideal. Again, please follow a split that you enjoy (options provided in each respective article), but for best results, muscle groups should be trained 2-4 times per week (with some exceptions). If you’re someone that enjoys this style of training (I empathize - it can be a fun way to train), but progress is still a priority, an “educated bro split” or a “bro split +” (where you do additional volume for another muscle group on each respective training day) can be a great option. In fact, it’s such a good split that I made a program for it. It can be found here.
Mistake #5- Redundancy within a training session. A redundant exercise is one that trains the same muscle with the same or similar range of motion and/or the same movement pattern. Another example is just doing too many sets for the same muscle group in one session. For the former, an example would be doing pull-ups and lat pulldowns in the same session. Or doing flat barbell bench and flat dumbbell bench in the same session. For the latter, an example would be doing bench press, incline bench press, close grip bench press, flys, incline flys, dips, pushups, and machine press all in the same session. This may look ridiculous to some of you, but more people train like this than you’d think (for every body part). Not only does redundancy build unnecessary fatigue, but it also wastes your time and may even lead to overuse issues. Ensure you’re thinking through the way you structure each individual workouts.
Mistake #6- Adding volume too fast, or adding volume to one muscle group without subtracting from another. Remember, training results in systemic fatigue (not just local muscle fatigue), and more isn’t always better. If you do 10 sets per muscle group one week and 20 the next, the result will be tons of fatigue, no gains, and perhaps an injury or setback. Likewise, if you have a weak muscle group and you add 6 sets per week to your already high volume program without taking any volume away from the other muscle groups, fatigue will get in the way of actual improvements. Exceptions to this rule are adding minimally fatiguing movements like calf raises, bicep curls and lateral raises. Chances are, adding 3-5 sets/week of these movements will not put you over your recovery threshold.
There are more mistakes beginners and intermediates make, and there are a ton of outside the gym mistakes as well, but these are the most common and most impactful. If you read the “outside the gym” tips for beginner and intermediate trainees and stick mostly to those, you’ll be good to go.
Other Factors Worth Considering
Maintenance- Although making steady gains becomes harder the longer you’ve been training, there’s one upside to being advanced; the gains you’ve made before are significantly easier to maintain, as well as easier to regain following time away from training. For an advanced trainee to simply maintain previously gained muscle and strength, it requires significantly less volume than it did to gain that muscle. Just how much volume is required for maintenance will depend on age, as older adults will need a bit more volume and younger individuals will need less. For example, if you’re advanced and currently doing 15 sets per muscle group per week to make muscle and strength gains, you could reduce such volume to 4-6 sets per week, and so long as you’re training near or all the way to failure and supporting it with proper lifestyle habits (nutrition, sleep, stress), you’ll likely maintain your previously gained muscle and strength (at least the vast majority of it). This is a great point to keep in mind if you’re worried about losing gains during busy periods of your life in which training volume and frequency must decrease.
Cardo; Will it kill my gains?
Although there’s still a notion circulating throughout forums and social media that cardio kills gains, this is undoubtedly a myth. So long as you’re eating enough food to support your goals, not doing excessive cardio volume or too much HIIT, and obviously still emphasizing strength training, cardio won’t detract from your gains. In fact, in many cases, it’ll indirectly enhance your gains. There are many mechanisms by which this occurs, but to oversimplify it: a fit, healthy person (cardio makes you more healthy and fit) has more muscle gain potential than an unfit person. Your recovery between exercises and sessions, nutrient partitioning (using the calories you eat for repair and energy, not fat storage), and ability to push higher rep sets will all be enhanced when proper cardio is implemented. Cardio is also great for mental health (especially outdoor cardio), which won’t directly lead to getting jacked, but will improve your overall quality of life. It’s hard to argue that improved overall quality of life won’t result in more progress in the gym over years and decades. One thing to note is that not all cardio is created equal. Running lots of miles will not have the same effect as riding a bike, or going for a swim. Running is high impact, and eccentrically dominated, and compared to other forms of cardio, will interfere most. Nothing wrong with running if you enjoy it, But something to keep in mind.
Despite what you may have been told, or perhaps seen on social media, there are very few legal supplements that will move the needle to a significant degree. Since supplementation is used to achieve many different outcomes, I like to categorize them based on four different goals: training performance, sleep improvement, stress mitigation, and health.
Health supplements: Regardless of how perfect your training program is, if you’re not healthy, you’re not creating an environment to maximize your lifelong potential for progress. Assuming you’re following an appropriate training program, 98% of your health status will come from your habits outside the gym, which have been highlighted ad nauseam in each of the 3 previous chapters. The truth is, however, almost no one is able to achieve 100% perfect health without the use of some basic supplements. In the ideal scenario, you’d get labs done and interpreted by a credible doctor, and base your supplement intake on your individual nutrient/hormone deficiencies. This takes some pretty in-depth testing (more than just blood labs), and the reality is, most people won’t undergo all required testing to discover everything they’re deficient in. Because of this, there are some blanket supplements I tend to recommend. They include vitamin D3, an omega 3 supplement like fish oil, and a multivitamin. Although there are certainly others that are appropriate for some people, these are a good start. The required doses of each supplement are far too individual for me to make a blanket recommendation, and I’m also not a doctor. I suggest consulting with one before beginning a supplement regimen.
Sleep Supplements: Like health supplements, blanket advice is very hard to give in regards to sleep supplements. If you experience sleep problems, most of them can be solved or at least mitigated by improved sleep hygiene or habits (morning sunlight, consistent sleep/wake times, less caffeine, stress mitigation strategies, setting up an optimal sleep environment etc.). Sleep hygiene is far more impactful than any supplement in existence, but there are some that can act as complements for a good routine. Magnesium (specifically Glycinate) in the evening can help, especially if you train very hard or sweat a lot. Things like chamomile tea, L-theanine, inositol, glycine, lemon balm, and occasional use of low dose melatonin can also be effective. The takeaway for sleep supplements is to put the effort into your sleep hygiene first, and only take supplements as the icing on the cake.
Stress supplements: Many stress supplements are also sleep supplements, because many people’s sleep issues stem from unmitigated stress. The best stress supplements are adaptogenic in nature, meaning they balance out your stress hormones. In simple terms, if your cortisol (stress hormone) is too high, an adaptogenic supplement will reduce it, and vice versa. The most widely used adaptogen is ashwagandha, and is generally safe to try and use when needed. Mushrooms like lion's mane, reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail, chaga, and a few more can also be beneficial. L-theanine (also mentioned above) can also be used for stress. There’s also been a rise in promising data on the use of CBD to help with stress and anxiety. But like sleep, having strategies (included in chapter 4) in place that allow you to control your stress without the use of supplements is going to make the biggest difference.
Performance supplements: These are everyone’s favorite, but in reality, with the exception of creatine, there are few performance supplements (legal ones) that are capable of moving the needle considerably. For most people, supplementing with 3-8 grams of creatine per day (bigger individuals can take closer to 8G, smaller individuals 3G - or pretty much anyone can take the standard dose of 5G) is a good start. Creatine has many benefits aside from performance and muscle growth, and many people predict it to be considered a health supplement in the future, rather than solely a performance one. It’s well studied (literally, the most studied supplement), safe, effective, and not a steroid. It can be taken at any time of day, and I suggest finding a time of day you can consistently take it, as it doesn’t have an acute effect, but a compounding one (it slowly saturates over weeks). It’ll move the needle ever so slightly, but you won’t gain 20 lbs of muscle in a month if you start taking it. Other supplements with ergogenic (performance enhancing) effects are caffeine, L-carnitine (injectable- don’t bother with the oral), L-citrulline, carbohydrate powders like cyclic dextrin, beet-root, pomegranate (you can just purchase pomegranate juice at the grocery store), electrolyte supplements, beta-alanine, and EAAs (different from BCAAs). The two on here that many people underestimate are carbohydrate supplements (cyclic dextrin in particular) and electrolytes. Although you can eat a lot of salt, take your magnesium, and consume ample carbs from real food, as you begin to cross into advanced territory, these two supplements in particular can make a massive difference in your performance if consumed in the peri-workout window (time period before, during & after training). If you want to skip the carbs, but still include electrolytes in your pre/intra workout drink, mixing them with 5-8 grams of L-glutamine can help your body absorb the electrolytes better and improve performance. L-glutamine can also be used as a gut health supplement, but doesn’t seem to have the muscle building effects it’s often touted to (although poor gut health can certainly affect nutrient absorption, and therefore muscle growth). Simply being well-hydrated during a workout and having full glycogen stores (which you’ll accomplish through ample carbs and electrolytes) are the two biggest performance enhancing considerations on this list. Caffeine, when used sparingly and strategically, will result in acute performance gains. If I could recommend the top 4 supplements to use, it would be caffeine, creatine, electrolytes (something with a high salt content- at least 500mg, more if you’re a heavy sweater) and a cyclic dextrin/dextrose powder. If you want to go the cheap, but still effective route for dextrose, Gatorade is great! Finally, if you have trouble hitting your daily protein goals, a supplement can be a good option (but isn’t magic by any means). I’m not going to get into dosing or brands in this article because everyone is different, but a simple google search can tell you everything you need to know. I will, however, tell you what I do for pre workout and intra workout nutrition/supplementation:
30 minutes pre workout- Coffee, occasional pre-workout (if training before noon). *Too much caffeine in the afternoon will affect my sleep (as it will for most people reading this, whether you’re aware or not)
Intra workout- 8-12 oz pomegranate juice, water (pomegranate juice is potent), ~30 grams of carbs from cyclic dextrin, 1 LMNT packet. Start sipping on the way to the gym, sip throughout the training session. This yields 70-90 grams of carbs (70 upper body day, 90 leg day - semantics for most people), 1000mg of sodium. Some days I mix my creatine with this, not because there’s an acute effect, but because it helps me remember to take it.
Post workout- Within 1 hour, either a protein supplement (if I’m on the go) with 30-50 grams of protein and a piece of fruit or 2. Or a full meal (if I’m going home after the gym) with 50+ grams of protein, some fat, and 100+ grams of carbohydrates. If I had protein and fruit post workout, this meal will often be later (2-3 hours post workout). It’s not essential to consume food/protein right after training, especially if you trained in a fed state and/or consumed carbs throughout the session. If your goal is maximum muscle or maximum athletic performance (or if you have a 2nd session later in the day), getting quality calories in as soon as possible is advised.
An important note on supplement quality: It’s a good idea to only purchase supplements tested by NSF International, US Pharmacopeia, Underwriters Laboratory, or Consumer Lab (among a few others). These companies ensure the supplements have been tested for efficacy, purity, and lack of unlisted ingredients and other unfavorable contaminants. It’s important to note that “3rd party tested” is not indicative of a quality supplement (unless the 3rd party is one of the above listed).
Again, supplements are not magic. They’re not going to be the deciding factor in your long term success, but they can certainly make a small difference if you’re otherwise dialed in. This means focusing on optimizing your training and lifestyle before you begin to consider supplements. Supplements work best when you sleep, eat and train appropriately, and they’re generally a waste of money otherwise.
Now that we’ve covered legal supplements, let’s touch briefly on performance enhancing supplements or drugs (PEDs). I mentioned them earlier in the article as they pertain to “exceptions” to the rule, but this will be an overview of more PED considerations. Let me say up front, I am not recommending anyone use these, regardless of fitness level. At the same time, I also don’t hold any negative judgment towards people who do elect to partake in PED use. When taken appropriately and not abused to enhance fitness, moderate PED use isn’t any worse (in fact, probably better) for your health than regular alcohol consumption, smoking, being inactive, eating in a perpetual calorie surplus, or never getting sunlight. Even still, PED users tend to be looked down upon, even though the people who look down upon them don’t usually have the knowledge prerequisites to do so, nor do they understand the irony of the fact that many of their own lifestyle habits could be just as, if not more deleterious to their health than running a closely monitored PED protocol. My general guidance on PED use is that they’re for advanced trainees only. Jumping on PEDs as a beginner is an absolutely terrible idea, and it’s not just because of the potential health consequences that accompany improper use and abuse. If you begin using PEDs before you’ve maximized or almost maximized your genetic potential, you’re short changing yourself. In my opinion, you should stay natural for as long as possible (or forever if you have no desire to dabble with PEDs). This will force you to develop the skills required to maximize your progress while natural, which in turn will allow you to maximize your progress once (if) you begin using PEDs. It’s a complete waste of money and potentially years of your life and vitality to not be all in when using PEDs. Inconsistency, poor sleep, poor nutrition while using PEDs will still result in progress and muscle gains, but what’s the point? The final thing I’ll note is that just like some people genetically respond well to weight training and some don’t, the same can be said about PEDs. Many many people on PEDs don’t even look like they train. For most, It’s because they did exactly what I said not to do in this paragraph (go on them too soon or half-assed training/lifestyle). But some people simply don't respond like they should to anabolics. Others just don’t take the right drugs or utilize the right doses. If you do decide to partake in PED use, this is an area of fitness through which you must tread carefully if you don’t want to ruin your health and wellbeing. I highly suggest doing your research and considering the long term consequences before committing.
Regardless of your current experience level, there are pros and cons to being where you’re at. I hope that after having read this series, you now have an understanding and appreciation for the differences in each category. I also hope that you’re honest with yourself about what level you’re at right now and that you're able to maximize your time both inside and outside the gym in order to create the best possible environment for continued progress. And finally, I hope that even if you’re a beginner (or anything other than advanced) you now know that there's no shame in admitting to it, and if you can self Identify and train accordingly, your lifting career will go a lot smoother. I certainly haven’t covered every single variable you’ll ever need to consider. At some point along the road, you’ll likely need to develop contingency plans based on your individual life circumstances. But in my opinion, there are few better things in this world than training and all its intricacies. I hope you’ve found this series helpful. I hope it motivates you to continue putting in the hard work, and doing so with the right mindset while leveraging your strengths and attacking your weaknesses.
Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear about your experience with different levels of training, or any questions you may have about navigating your own training journey. Leave them in the comments section below!