How To Go From Beginner To Intermediate in Record Time (w/ 2 Techniques)
Lucky you, you’re a beginner. You can look at a barbell and your arms will grow.
Why? Because muscle building, in a nutshell, is a protective mechanism. For all your body knows, a wild animal is attacking you every time you lift weights. When you’re a beginner, your body basically gets scared and builds as much muscle as possible to protect you.
As time goes by, the human body gets better and better at handling the stress of weightlifting. That’s why now, as a novice, is the EASIEST time you will have building muscle. You better take advantage.
There are two methods that can get you from beginner to intermediate at a record pace. One of these methods you’ve probably heard of, and one you may have not.
Those methods are:
- Making sure you’re getting stronger, and
- Kaatsu training (Blood Flow Restriction).
Gaining strength is the single most important factor for the newbie gym goer. Think of the Blood Flow Restriction as icing on the muscle building cake.
How to Make Sure You’re Getting Stronger in 3 Simple Steps
Step 1: Write down EVERYTHING.
Before going to the gym again, go to the nearest store, and buy a small notebook. Take that notebook with you to the gym, and write down every rep, set, and exercise you complete.
“Do I really need to write all of that?”
Strength and muscle growth are highly related 4. If you aren’t getting stronger, you’re not building muscle. Strength is an objective test for your bodybuilding progress. You can’t test your strength when you have no idea if you’re getting stronger, which is why you need a notebook.
Let’s say you go to the gym and do four sets on the bench press. Each set is done with 200 pounds. Set one you complete eight reps, set two you complete six, set three you complete five, and set four you complete two. Plus, you do another three exercise in that one workout. Have fun remembering all of that.
But if you write down everything, memory isn’t an issue. You will be able to look back at month’s worth of workouts and see that you are or aren’t getting stronger.
*You may be wondering if you can use your note-taking app on your cell phone instead of an actual notebook. You can. But physically writing in a notebook tends to keep people focused on their training and not on the millions of distractions on their phones.*
Step 2: Keep doing the same exercises.
Whichever exercises you choose, do them for as long as possible. You also need to know that the slightest change in an exercise means you’re doing a completely different exercise.
Click HERE for a research-based approach to picking the best exercises.
“Why should I keep doing the same exercises?”
You probably noticed when you first try an exercise you get stronger quickly. You might have also noticed new exercises make you sorer than ones you’ve been doing regularly. The soreness and strength gains are because the nervous system is adapting to that exercise.
The strength gains you get when doing NEW exercises are not because you are getting bigger, but because your body is becoming better at performing said exercise.
Remember when you first started driving? You had to think before every move you made. A few months later and you’re switching lanes without thinking twice. That happened because your nervous system became more efficient at driving.
As was said earlier, strength and muscle gains are highly related, but they don’t have a cause and effect relationship partly because of the nervous system.
Researchers have reported that it takes about 8-10 weeks for a beginner’s nervous system to adapt to an exercise 4. After the nervous system has adapted, you can assume most additional strength gains are because your muscles grew.
If you are constantly changing the exercises, your nervous system is constantly in a state of adaptation, and muscle building is put on the back burner.
“You said ‘the tiniest change in an exercise.’ How tiny?”
Muscle fibers travel between 20 and 60% the length of a total muscle 5. Every time a weight is lifted, a twisting force (torque) is created at the joints involved in lifting that weight. The slightest change in an exercise will lead to a different amount of torque being placed on the joint. If the torque changes, then the muscle fibers being recruited will change 7.
If different muscle fibers are being recruited, then a COMPLETELY different exercise is being done.
For example, squatting one week with a narrow stance and lifting 200 pounds for 12 reps; then the next week squatting with a wide stance and lifting 200 pounds for 15 reps. You might have gotten stronger, but the form change may have given you better leverage during the lift. So you can’t say for sure that you got stronger.
Step #3: Use fair testing.
Fair testing is a research concept that helps the experimenters keep tight control of the factors. Using a fair test means only changing one circumstance at a time while keeping everything else the same. By only changing one aspect at a time, researchers know what caused a change to happen in the results.
If you change things in or around your workouts, you can’t know if your strength growing or decreasing is the result of your training.
During training, try to keep everything the same; use the same plates, barbells, and machines week in and week out. When something about your training is different, and eventually, something is going to be different, make note of it in your notebook.
“Why is keeping everything the same necessary?”
You’ve been doing squats for 10 weeks and writing down your numbers every week. You’re ready to build some major muscle. Over the course of one week, you go from squatting 250 pounds, to 275. That’s a pretty big jump, so your muscles must have gotten bigger. Or have they?
The night before you squatted 250 pounds you got 6 hours of sleep, and the night before you squatted 275, you got 8 hours of sleep. The extra two hours of sleep would mean that your nervous system and muscles are more well-rested, which would explain why you made a 25 pound jump on your squat.
There are tons of things that could potentially throw off the numbers of your training sessions. Here are a few to consider,
- Amount of sleep.
- Amount of food prior to lifting.
- Warm-up (or lack thereof).
- The weights you use (if you use different plates then they may be heavier or lighter than the plates you used before).
- Form improvement (or break down).
A Novice’s Secret Weapon
Occlusion/ Kaatsu/ Blood Flow Restriction
Grab some bands or knee wraps from your local sporting goods store.
Take the bands or knee wraps and cuff off your arms or legs (depending on what body part you’re training). You’re going to need to experiment to find the proper tightness, as there are no hard rules to how tight the cuff should be.
If you feel tingling or numbness in your limbs, the cuffs are too tight. But, if the sets aren’t really painful (and I mean REALLY painful) then the cuffs aren’t tight enough.
On the first set of whatever exercise you’ve chosen (could be compound or isolation) perform about 30 reps, on the second set perform about 15, and on the third set perform about 15. Rest around 30 seconds in between sets and DO NOT take the cuffs off during your rest periods.
Use Kaatsu on a body part’s rest day(s).
“Should a beginner really be doing blood flow restriction? Seems kind of extreme.”
There are a couple of reasons.
Reason #1: For a beginner, the intensity, frequency, and going to muscular failure aren’t that important. What’s important is total volume.
Specifically for beginners, volume (the amount of work you do for one muscle) has been reported to be a more important factor than both frequency (how often you train a muscle) and intensity (how close you are to your one rep-max) (intensity and frequency cites) 1, 2, 3, 6, 8.
Kaatsu training is one of the smartest ways of adding additional volume to your training. Occlusion training does a fraction of the muscle damage that regular heavy training does, while still recruiting all the muscle fibers of the working muscle.
Not only will you have added more volume to your training for that week, but you will have done so without causing your body additional stress.
Reason #2: Kaatsu training is safer than normal training.
*This is not applicable to those with vascular (blood flow) issues*
Blood Flow Restriction requires that you use about 20-40% of your one rep max on an exercise. The restriction in blood flow, combined with the light weights, does similar amounts of muscle damage as heavier (70% of one rep max) weights. The lighter weights also mean less stress on the central nervous system and the joints.
By using Blood Flow Restriction, you will have added additional volume, while causing nearly no stress on the nervous system and joints. Occlusion training is a win-win for a beginner.
Plus, occlusion training was created for the injured and elderly, so you’ll be perfectly fine.
Here’s everything you need to know,
Making sure you’re getting stronger in three simple steps.
- Write down EVERYTHING at the gym.
- Keep doing the same exercises.
- Use fair testing to make sure other factors aren’t affecting your training.
Occlusion training is perfect for the beginner.
- Kaatsu causes about the same muscle fiber recruitment as heavy training, while causing less damage.
- Protects beginners from overuse while still letting them increase their volume.
- More safe than regular heavy training.
- Arazi, H., & Asadi, A. (2001). Effects of 8 Weeks Equal-Volume Resistance Training with Different Workout Frequency on Maximal Strength, Endurance and Body Composition. Int J Sports Sci Eng, 5(2), 112-11
- Benton, M. J., Kasper, M. J., Raab, S. A., Waggener, G. T., & Swan, P. D. (2011). Short-term effects of resistance training frequency on body composition and strength in middle-aged women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(11), 3142-3149
- Candow, D. G., & Burke, D. G. (2007). Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(1), 204-207
- Kenney, W. Larry; Wilmore, Jack; Costill, David (2011-11-18). Physiology of Sport and Exercise, Fifth Edition (p. 351). Human Kinetics. Kindle Edition.
- Lieber, R. L., & Fridén, J. (2000). Functional and clinical significance of skeletal muscle architecture. Muscle & Nerve, 23(11), 1647-66
- Loenneke, J.P., Skeletal muscle hypertrophy: How important is exercise intensity. Journal of Trainology, 2012. 1(2): p. 28-31.
- McGinnis, Peter Merton. Biomechanics of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2013. Print.
- Nóbrega, S. R., & Libardi, C. A. (2016). Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary? Frontiers in Physiology, 7, 10. http://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2016.00010
- Scott, B. R., Loenneke, J. P., Slattery, K. M., & Dascombe, B. J. (2015). Exercise with blood flow restriction: an updated evidence-based approach for enhanced muscular development. Sports Medicine, 45(3), 313-325.