In my hierarchies of priorities for nutrition and training (The Muscle and Strength Pyramids), consistency is the foundation of each (behaviour and lifestyle for nutrition, adherence for training). This is not a platitude to be ignored by the “dedicated” or “hardcore”, who assume they are not the target audience of such a distinction. Rather, this is an intentional call to action I hope even the hardest of the hardcore gives serious consideration.
Being a bodybuilding and strength coach for a decade, I’ve seen time and time again that an “all or nothing” attitude is mistaken for dedication. “Coach, I’m ready to do ANYTHING, you say the word and I will do it, I’ve never been so motivated”. That’s an alarm bell for me these days. But I used to identify with such statements and thought such a mindset was necessary for success.
Those who can crash diet off 30-50lbs in a few months are impressive in the short term…but are a dime a dozen. It’s not that this doesn’t take hard work, will power, and isn’t effective (in the short term). But it’s not the right tool for the job. For most dieters, the goal is to achieve and then maintain a healthy body throughout the lifespan. That isn’t achieved with a short term, hardcore diet, but by the steady, and consistent adoption of new habits. Doing so is only possible by those who are ready, willing, and able to make a large shift in perspective.
This is a truth relevant to those who struggle with obesity, and novice competitive bodybuilders who struggle with the contrast of contest prep and the offseason, bouncing between bingeing and restriction seasonally. In both cases, these individuals need to look at their goals as a lifestyle that supports their endeavours long term, rather than tests of willpower to achieve a specific short-term goal.
With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were nodding your head but thinking “tell me something I don’t know Eric”. Well since you asked, I will! Adherence is rarely talked about in the context of muscle gain. People don’t struggle with a calorie surplus the same way they do with a deficit, and the barriers of combating hunger, social pressure, and physiology don’t occur when trying to gain muscle. However, consistency is still very much the most important thing for putting on mass, just like it is for taking mass off.
Consider this study of highly trained competitive bodybuilders where no measurable progress in muscle size was observed over six months while they trained. To add insult to injury, half of them were using anabolic steroids during the study. In another study, professional rugby players increased their strength by 6.5-11.5%. Not bad right? Well, not for a stock standard 8-week intervention, but this was a two-year study. Furthermore, the magnitude of their improvement was negatively associated with initial strength. Meaning, the stronger they were at the start, the less strength they were able to gain.
The hard fact is, once you are no longer a novice, getting stronger, and putting on size takes not only effort, but time. Meaning, you can’t have the same “bomb and blast” attitude toward training, follow the “see food” diet, or program-hop from influencer to influencer and expect much to happen. Don’t believe me? Check out this study, where a group of athletes with the goal of putting on muscle were put into two groups: one followed a “bulking” approach where they ate 600kcals on average more than the second group, which just ate at a slight surplus. What happened? The group eating 600kcals more (“gotta force feed those gains brother!”) gained 5x as much body fat, but their gains in strength and lean body mass were not significantly different than the group eating a more modest surplus.
There is no bio hack, fast track, or magic routine that will take you to the next level. What’s left? Consistency. Gain 1% of your bodyweight per month, consume at least 1.6g/kg of protein daily, sleep at least 8 hours each night, make small increases in load or reps mesocycle to mesocycle rather than doing a different program each mesocycle, remember to take your creatine every day, don’t go out drinking on the weekends, get in your fruit, vegetables, and water despite feeling bloated and full. It isn’t sexy.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy to eat everything in sight and let your ADHD lead you to the next program and bust your butt on it until you burn out or get hurt. Feel free to then brag about how hardcore you are. But guess what? That only works so long. I can tell you from experience, I “cave manned” successfully for 2 years. I gained ~30lbs of bodyweight without much of a change in body fat, squatted 405, benched 320, and deadlifted 495lbs in that 2-year time span. I thought, “man, at this rate, I’ll be at 495/365/545 by next year!” Know what actually happened in the next 2 years of cave-manning? A lower back injury, a rotator cuff injury, another ten pounds of fat gained, and a lot of money wasted on supplements that didn’t do anything. Fast forward to now, 15 years in the game, and I’ve squatted 495lbs, benched 363lbs deadlifted 556lbs, and I’ve added another ~10lbs of lean body mass.
Putting 90lbs on my squat, 43lbs on my bench, 61lbs on my deadlift and ~10lbs of lean body mass was the dream when I was that caveman intermediate. However, I didn’t understand just how unsexy it would look stretched out over 13 years. That’s adding 5lbs to a lift and less than a pound of lean body mass per year (not that it came on in a linear, predictable manner mind you). Think about that for a second. Does that match up with the go hard or go home attitude of get it all now by doing anything and everything it takes? No.
What it does match up with, is paying attention, taking notes, and being strategic. It means steadily modifying your habits so that you optimize more and more each year and making small tweaks to your training and nutrition to get closer and closer to ideal. Oh, and getting less dumb you avoid getting hurt. Simply put, lifestyle and mindset changes accumulated over years are what help you maximize your potential. Remember, whether you are dieting or gaining, consistency is always the answer.