Justin Roethlingshoefer is a strength and conditioning coach who works with professional hockey players, helping them to make improvements in their training both on and off the ice. One important aspect of off-ice training for many players revolves around getting bigger and stronger in the offseason.
According to Justin, one of the keys to helping players make size and strength gains lies in carefully monitor and tracking their performance over the course of each training session.
But what if you’re not a professional athlete with access to someone like Justin, who has all of the knowledge and resources to help you put on some serious size and strength?
Although millions of people report exercising regularly, many do not actively assess the efficacy of their training. Instead, many casual gym-goers simply assume that they are making progress because they are putting in time and effort at the gym.
If you are not tracking your performance over the course of your training however, it's ultimately going to be pretty difficult to determine whether or not you're actually progressing towards your goals.
Keeping track of your eating and training routines will allow you to accurately assess if what you are doing, both in terms of your nutrition and your training, is actually producing the intended results.
If your goals are primarily oriented around fat loss, you may need little more than a scale to track your progress — if your weight is continuing to go down over the course of your training, it is a good indicator that you are on the right track.
Building size and strength, on the other hand, is another story. Simply relying on a scale to assess the efficacy of your training is not going to give you a complete picture as far as tracking your progress goes.
For instance, after a month of weight training, you may find that you've gained 5 pounds, but if you are only relying on a scale to track your progress, it will be very difficult to determine how much of that 5 pounds came from lean muscle mass versus fat.
So what can you do on your own to evaluate whether or not you're actually getting bigger and stronger?
Keep a Training Journal
When it comes to weight lifting, journaling your workouts can be an incredibly effective means of tracking your progress over the course of your training program.
If you are not recording what types of exercises you are doing and how exactly you're going about performing them, you will not be able to accurately assess whether or not you are doing is working.
Keeping a training log will allow you to compare your performance across numerous training sessions, which over time, will help you to develop a better understanding of what approaches work best when it comes to building size and strength.
What Sort of Things Should You Track?
In order to accurately assess your progress over the course of your training, you need to record in detail what you did during each training session. On top of noting what exercises you performed, you'll also want to note the weight and intensity at which they were performed, as well as, the order in which you did them.
Furthermore, you should also be documenting how many sets and reps you performed on each exercise as well as your tempo and the duration of rest time between each set.
Consistency is key when it comes to getting bigger and stronger. The exercises you are performing in your routine should be as consistent as possible from workout to workout. This will allow you to make accurate comparisons of your performance across different training sessions.
For example, if you rested 90 seconds between sets on the bench press this week but only 45 seconds last week, the effects on your body are going to be different and therefore, it is going to be more difficult to assess whether or not your approach to that particular exercise is working.
However, If you maintain consistency across all of the variables mentioned above, you will be able to better assess how your training routine is affecting your body.
For instance, if you have been tracking your performance on the bench press for a couple of months but have not seen any improvements in the number of reps you are able to perform at a set weight, you can start to tweak some of your variables in order to make better gains.
On the flip side, let's say you started out doing 3 sets of 135 on the bench where you did 8 reps on the first set, 6 on the second and 4 on the last. Further down the road, however, you find that you are able to perform 8 reps at 135 lbs for all 3 sets. In this case, it is a good sign that you are on the right track and should stick with your routine.
Track Your Nutrition
Having a consistent diet is just as important as maintaining consistency in your training routine when it comes to getting bigger and stronger. Even if your workouts are completely dialed in, if your diet is not on point, all of the time you put into the gym will be for nothing.
One thing that you should be closely tracking is your calorie intake. If your primary goal is to grow, you need to make sure that you're consuming a caloric surplus, meaning that you have to be taking in more calories than your body burns off each day.
While this might sound simple enough, everyone’s body has different needs from a caloric standpoint, so finding the right amount of calories for optimal muscle growth and minimal fat gains requires some experimentation.
For instance, even two people who weigh the same and have similar levels of activity may require a different amount of calories to maintain their body weight. This is why tracking your diet becomes so important when you are trying to build size and strength.
Logging your caloric intake on a daily basis will eventually help you to figure out how many calories you need to maintain, gain or lose weight.
One of the best tools you can use to zero in on how many calories you should be eating is a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator. Simply enter some basic information, such as your age, gender, weight, height, and activity level, and the calculator gives you a rough estimate of your daily caloric needs.
Again, this requires some experimentation — the calculator will give you a rough estimate but you may need to adjust your numbers a few hundred calories in either direction in order to meet your body’s particular needs.
You Need a Calorie Surplus to Get Bigger and Stronger
Once you’ve figured out precisely what it takes to maintain your body weight, you can begin to add some more calories into your diet. Remember we want to put on muscle, not fat, so we don’t want to go too far over our maintenance number.
A commonly recommended target is somewhere around 500 calories, meaning you are taking in about 500 calories more than you need to maintain your current weight. This can be a good starting point and then you can make adjustments based on how it affects your training performance and body composition.
An easy way to assess how your diet is affecting your body composition is by taking progress pictures. Stripping down and regularly photographing yourself will help you to make comparisons and evaluate your progress.
For instance, if you are making some gains in strength but also notice that you are putting on quite a bit of body fat over the course of your training program, you may need to reduce your daily caloric intake.
In addition, The TDEE calculator mentioned above will also calculate your body mass index (BMI). It uses your height and weight to measure your body fat.
A person with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal weight, while those above this range are considered overweight or obese (obese = BMI of 30+). This is something you will also want to take into consideration as you are evaluating your nutrition and body composition.
Pay Attention to Your Macronutrients
While tracking your caloric intake is a good start, looking at calories alone doesn't provide enough information to accurately assess how your nutrition is impacting your progress. In order to get a clearer picture, it is important to also track macronutrients.
The term macronutrients refers to the three basic elements of the average diet — protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Each performs a specific and vital function within the body. While protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, fat contains 9.
Understanding how each type of macronutrient functions within the body will help to paint a clearer picture of how they tie into our training.
Protein primarily consists of amino acids. The body is capable of making a number of different amino acids all on its own; however, some are not capable of being biosynthesized within the body and must be obtained through our diet.
These are commonly referred to as essential amino acids and can be found in foods such as meat and dairy. Protein supplements such as Grass-Fed Whey are also an excellent source of essential amino acids and can help to assure that you are getting a sufficient supply of protein in your diet.
Protein is the primary tool the body uses to build muscle. In order to react and adapt to weight training, the body must have an adequate supply of protein in order to rebuild skeletal muscle tissue. For more information on protein and muscle growth, check out this article on Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS).
Carbohydrates are the body’s foremost energy source and are essentially sugars or starches that the body breaks down and turns into glucose, which is what provides our muscles with energy at a cellular level.
Carbohydrates can be obtained from an array of foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains and are the only macronutrient that your body can technically still function without.
Your energy levels become depleted in instances when your body does not have an adequate supply of carbohydrates. As a result, the body compensates for this by converting protein into sugar.
Therefore, if you are not consuming enough carbs, the protein that comes from your diet may be used by the body to produce energy instead of build muscle, which is obviously not what we want if we are trying to put on size.
While often vilified, fat actually performs a number of vital functions within the body. In addition to helping protect your vital organs and regulate your body’s temperature, fat also helps to promote cellular growth and development, which is what we are trying to induce with a weight training program.
You can essentially break down fat into 2 categories —"good" and "bad" fats. Trans and saturated fats, which can be found in foods such as high-fat meats, are generally referred to as bad fats and should be kept at a minimum in your diet.
Conversely, unsaturated fats, which can be found in foods such as olive oil and nuts, are referred to as good fats and should be the predominant type of fat in your diet.
What's the Right Macro Split for Getting Bigger and Stronger?
Now that we've gone over the different macronutrients, let's talk about how to properly incorporate them into your diet. By now you're probably wondering how much protein, carbs, and fat you should actually be consuming each day in order to build muscle.
Well, the short answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula. The reality is that everyone’s needs from a nutritional perspective are going to be a little different.
Once you have a good understanding of your basic calorie needs however, you can begin to split up your calories based on your macro goals. Allocating a certain percentage of calories to each macronutrient is perhaps the easiest way to go about doing this.
I recently spoke about this subject with Matt Minuth who in addition to being a world record holder in powerlifting, is also a personal trainer and former bodybuilder. When asked what a good macro spit is for the average person looking to get bigger and stronger, he replied:
“I am always a fan of a 40/40/20 split, so having 40% of your calorie intake coming from good carbohydrates, 40% coming from protein and 20% coming from fat, all of in terms of grams.”Matt Minuth
From this perspective, figuring out how many grams of each macronutrient you should be consuming then becomes a matter of making some simple calculations. For instance, let's say you are consuming 3000 calories each day and applying a 40/40/20 percentage split.
If 40% of your calories are coming from protein, that's 1200 out of the 3000 calories you are consuming. As we mentioned earlier, protein has 4 calories per gram, so if we divide 1200 by 4, we get 300, which means that your goal should be to consume 300 grams of protein per day. The same calculations apply to carbohydrates.
Fat is a little different however as it contains 9 calories per gram. So if 20% of our 3000 calories are coming from fat, that’s 600 calories from fat per day. If we take 600 and divide it by 9, we get 66.6, which means your goal should be about 67 grams of fat per day.
This is where tracking becomes very important because in order to make progress in and out of the gym, we need to make sure that our diet is consistently supplying us with the nutrients we need to rebuild and grow.
Recording your macros, will not only help to assure that you are staying consistent from day to day, it will also allow you to make adjustments to your diet if you are not seeing the results you are after.
For instance, if you are experiencing low energy levels throughout the day, you can experiment with introducing more carbs into your diet and reducing either fats or protein. Because you are logging everything, you will be able to tweak your percentage split until you figure out what best suits your body’s needs.
While you can certainly go old school and do all of your calculations by hand, several smartphone applications, such as My Fitness Pal, make calculating your macros and overall caloric intake incredibly easy.
Simply enter the type and amount of food you ate into the application and it will keep track of your daily calories and macronutrients, which makes maintaining a consistent diet that much easier.
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If you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, tracking your workouts and nutrition will allow you to accurately assess your progress over there course of your training.
Maintaining consistency in both your diet and training is important for evaluating the efficacy of your routine. Doing so will allow you to make adjustments if you are not seeing the results that you're after.