Key Takeaways

  1. For your first few weeks of lifting weights, it’s likely that you’ll gain strength quickly without gaining much muscle.
  2. As you become more advanced, gaining strength becomes more and more important for gaining muscle, and vice versa.
  3. If you haven’t built much muscle in a while, chances are good you need to work harder (get stronger) and/or increase your training volume.

There aren’t very many people in the fitness space who I think everyone should follow, and Greg Nuckols, is one of those people.

I’ve been reading his work for about a year now and really appreciate what he’s doing. When I have a question, his site, Stronger by Science, is one of the first places I check for an answer before venturing off into literature.

As you can guess, I was really excited to get him on the podcast to talk about what he specializes in: the science of getting bigger and stronger.

And specifically, I wanted Greg to address a hot topic these days, and that’s the relationship between gaining strength and size.

In other words, does maximizing muscle strength also maximize muscle size, or as many people say, is strength training rather poor for making your muscles bigger?

I get asked about this all the time and there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and as expected, Greg knocks it out of the park.

As you’ll see, he breaks down the relationship between strength and muscle growth and gives simple, practical insights that you can immediately apply to your training to get bigger and stronger, faster.

Greg also touches on a number of other interesting topics such as how motor learning affects our progression in the gym, how important adequate sleep is to muscle growth, how to manage personal expectations and break through plateaus, and more.

So, if you want to get stronger and gain muscle as quickly and enjoyably as possible, then I think you’re going to like this interview.

Here it is…

(Rather listen to this interview instead? Click the play button below.)

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Mike Matthews: I wanted to talk to you about something you wrote about recently and that’s the correlation of size and strength. This is something that I get asked about fairly frequently, actually. I’m a guy or girl. I want to get bigger. Should I just get stronger? Should that just be my thing? Should I just follow a strength-training program? Just get on a barbell and get my big lifts up and is that it? Is that all it’s gonna take to get really big? That’s kind of like … that’s usually from the people what are newer.

Then I get questions from people that are a bit more experienced and a bit more intermediate advanced lifters who’s newbie gains are long, long gone and now it’s actually quite hard for them to continue to gain strength. They have to work … you know, you get to that point where adding 20 pounds to any lift, you have work very, very hard for it. So then that question kind of turns into so what does that mean for them? Are they just gonna plateau, basically? In terms of size? Because there’s not that much more strength they can gain, or do they need to dramatically change their training so as to gain more strength, or what to do? You know what I mean?

Greg Nuckols: In the general sense there is in most populations a pretty big … not like a huge disconnect, but a reasonably large disconnect between muscle mass and strength. In studies just looking at simple correlations between either fat-free mass and various measures of strength or muscle cross-sectional area and various measures of strength, you tend to see that muscle size explains roughly half of the variation in the data. If you take a simple correlation, you’d get a correlation coefficient of 0.7 to 0.75, and so to get an idea of how much of a variation that explains, you just square that number. So a nice, easy round number is that muscle size explains roughly half the variation in strength.

In general, if you’re getting stronger, you’re probably getting bigger, and if you’re getting bigger, you’re probably getting stronger, but it’s definitely not a 1:1 relationship. However, that does change a bit in people who are more well trained. In studies that look at the relationship between changes in muscle mass and changes in strength, with completely untrained people, kind of strangely, there’s basically no relationship whatsoever. So the proportion of the variance in strength gains and muscle size can explain like three to four percent. Basically no relationship. Some people get way, way stronger but don’t gain all that much muscle and vice versa.

However, in pretty much every study that I’ve seen thus far that’s been conducted in people who had at least six months of training experience, gains in size and gains in strength were pretty closely related with anywhere between 40 up to 80 percent of the variance in strength gains explained by gains in size.

Mike: Interesting. So for new people, I guess that would mean anybody that spent some time in the gym and just around people that are into weightlifting, that matches what you’ll see. People when they’re brand-new, they can do just about anything in terms of a program and gain a fair amount of size, at least for the first six months or so. Even though their whole-body strength may not even change that much because they’re just doing bicep curls and pec deck and stuff and whatever. But then, they approach plateaus and if they don’t-

Greg: Or vice versa. There are a fair amount of people who get interested in powerlifting and maybe get their deadlift up to four or five hundred pounds and still don’t even look like they lift.

Mike: Yeah, I mean my brother actually ran into that, funny enough. We look very different. Genetically, I got one of those DNA, I think it was DNAFit was the company, one of the tests where you could look under the hood, so to speak, and so I would guess that our profiles would be different in significant ways in terms of athleticism, especially muscle building because he, in a year or so, he got pretty strong. He was, I want to say, pulling after a year … he was pulling in the mid threes. He may have squatted 315 up for reps. He at least got into the 295 range for reps and 225 on bench for at least four or five reps, but he barely looked like he lifted.

Greg: Yeah, and so that can happen as well. People who gain a lot of strength but not all that much muscle. But then, once someone’s lifting … when someone’s like benching four or five or deadlifting 600, they’re going to be jacked. People don’t get to that level without looking pretty big. So both in terms of just looking at a cross-section of people, not with training, the proportion of strength variance that muscle mass can explain is higher with well-trained people than untrained people.

So I threw out that roughly 50% of the variance explained statistic for general population before. When we look at elite athletes, on the other hand, a study was done on national and world-class powerlifters. Another one was on national and world-class junior weightlifters. They found that muscle mass could explain up to 90% of the variation of strength. So essentially, if someone’s lean body mass was the only thing … if you knew someone’s lean body mass and you knew that they were a really, really serious powerlifter, you could, just based off of that, you could predict their squat, bench, and deadlift within about 15 to 20 kilos.

Mike: So can we bet on these? Can you bet on powerlifting?

Greg: Unfortunately, no. I don’t know that that would see all that much action with the bookies. But yeah. So it becomes much, much more predictive in well-trained populations.

There are a lot of things that contribute to strength. One of the things that I think most people are aware of is that there’s a strong skill component to it. First time you try a lift, feels kind of weird, kind of unstable. Next time you do it, promise you your muscles haven’t gotten bigger just in that one training session, but you’ll probably already be able to lift more. And that continues for a bit and that’s just from learning the motor pattern of the new lift.

Mike: And people can think of that as any athletic activity. It can be throwing a football, whatever.

Greg: Yeah, there’s a skill component to it. People look at a deadlift like you’re just picking something heavy up off the ground and don’t think all that much motor skill goes into it, but there’s more to it than you may think. So, yeah. Learning the skills … here’s actually a good example from one study. A 2012 paper by Mitchell compared training just knee extensions, like the simplest movement in the world with 30% one-rep max versus 80% one-rep max. They trained these people. They were completely untrained and before and after the study they measured one-rep max on the extension and also measured maximal, isometric knee torque. Basically, how hard you could kick into the pad of the knee extension without actually moving it.

These people were doing regular knee extensions. Full eccentric, full concentric for the whole training period, and the 80% group did gain more strength with regular one-rep max knee extension because training at 80% was more similar to a one-rep max test than training at 30%. So unsurprisingly, their one-rep max increased score. But they actually had identical increases in maximum knee torque, so that’s something like absolutely no skill whatsoever, like an isometric. So yeah, you can see the influence there of the skill component of strength in something as simple as a knee extension. Obviously something like a squat, deadlift, and especially something like a clean and jerk or snatch is, way, way more technical than that. So the skill component’s going to play a much larger role.

So yes. People get more efficient with the motor patterns of new lifts. Something else that people posit is that you get better at activating more of your muscle tissue to produce force. That’s probably not true. You can study that by looking at something called percentage of voluntary activation. That sounds really technical, but it’s pretty simple. Basically, what you do is you get people in a lab, and you see how much isometric force they can produce just voluntarily. Again, if you were using leg extensions, you’d get someone in a knee-extension machine, make sure the arm couldn’t move, and just have them kick into it as hard as possible. And then you have electrodes hooked up to their femoral nerve, which is what enervates their quads, and you run a current through it to force their quads to contract as hard as their quads can possibly contract, which is about as comfortable as it sounds.

Mike: I was gonna say, that sounds like no fun.

Greg: Then you compare the force they were capable of producing voluntarily versus the evoked contraction from the electrodes, and even in completely untrained people, percentage of voluntary activation is like 95% plus. So yeah, it seems like untrained people can activate all of their muscle tissue just fine. They’re just not good at putting that together efficiently to move external load. A pure increase in muscle activation probably doesn’t explain the rapid increase in strength you see in training.

Something else that’s curious is you don’t see an increase in muscle activation or at least not a meaningful increase but you do see a pretty big increase in what’s called normalized muscle force. Again, that sounds really technical, but again it’s pretty simple. So basically, you see what someone’s muscle cross-sectional area is. For example, your biceps. You’d take an MRI image at the midpoint of the bicep and it would roughly look like a circle, and you just see what the cross-sectional area of that is. So you see how much force a muscle can produce divided by its cross-sectional area and that does actually increase quite a bit with training, even though muscle activation doesn’t seem to equally increase.

That tells you that there’s some stuff going on in the muscle itself to make it better at producing force independent of muscle activation. Something that makes it even more curious is there’s something called specific tension, which is the exact same concept as normalized muscle force, just force divided by cross-sectional area, but of individual muscle fibers instead of the entire muscle and specific tension doesn’t change with training. Your individual muscle fibers-

Mike: What does that mean, Greg?

Greg: No one’s sure. That’s a super-interesting, open question that … the disconnect between specific tension and normalized muscle force, which are the exact same concepts but on different scales. So individual muscle fibers versus the entire muscle.

Mike: Just so everybody understands, if you’re talking about the cross-section, we’re talking about the size of the muscles or the size of the fibers individually.

Greg: The disconnect between the two was first noted in a paper in 2012, and when I first read that, I was like, “What? That doesn’t make any sense at all!” Just since then, no one else has really even looked at that, which is so frustrating to me. Anyway, no one’s quite sure why that happens.

Mike: But the takeaway is that we just know as you continue to train …

Greg: We do know that normalized muscle force increases.

Mike: Yes.

Greg: Looping back to what put us down this road to begin with, talking about why there would be a stronger relationship between muscle mass and strength in trained populations and untrained populations, the biggest reason for that is that there are these other factors that contribute to strength development beyond muscle mass. So you have the skill component, you have normalized muscle force. A couple other small things as well, but those are definitely the two other biggies apart from purely the amount of muscle you have.

Those adaptations take place really early in training, so the skill component can keep increasing with more training experience. I’ve been squatting for probably 15 years now and I’m still fine-tuning my technique little by little, but my squat isn’t … actually, no. Squats not a good example because I actually really sucked at squats for a long time. Bench press. I’m still trying to refine my bench press technique little by little, but for all intents and purposes it looks about the same now as it did when I’d been training a year. I may have made small improvements since then, but more or less you pick up a movement within a few months, maybe a couple years if it’s really technical. But then, past that point, the contribution of perfecting motor patterns, it still plays a role but it plays a much, much smaller role.

Mike: Right.

Greg: Exact same thing with normalized muscle force.

Mike: It’d be more relevant in a competitive setting as opposed to just kind of working out.

Greg: Yeah, for sure, and same thing for normalized muscle force. In the first month or two of training, you get really big, really rapid increases in normalized muscle force, but past that it’s pretty much flat. It can fluctuate a little bit on short time scales, so maybe it’s going to be higher after you’ve tapered and peaked for a competition versus just in normal day-to-day training when you’re kind of fatigued, but in terms of your average baseline level of normalized muscle force, doesn’t really seem to meaningfully increase with training after a couple months.

Mike: How does that work though, because for your first year, let’s say guys can gain probably somewhere about 20 pounds of muscle if their body responds well and they do a good job. It should be going up as they gain size, right?

Greg: Yes, but-

Mike: You’re saying though the relationship doesn’t … it just kind of tends to … it sits … once after a couple months you have now, as muscle size increases, it’s just going to go up in linear type of fashion?

Greg: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. The fact that those adaptations from skill development and from normalized muscle force, since those things mostly take place during the first few months to a year of training, that explains why you don’t see that strong of a relationship between gains in size and gains in strength in untrained populations because they’ll have different baseline levels of skill, different baseline levels of normalized muscle force, which really weaken the relationship between muscle size and strength.

But in more well-trained populations, their normalized muscle force is basically plateaued. Their level of skill maybe gradually increasing but it’s essentially plateaued. Then muscle size does explain much, much more of that variation in strength.

Mike: I’ve been in touch with thousands of people so I’ve seen a lot. Especially people new to weightlifting, where I’ve seen the scenario where they got in maybe doing some magazine workouts doing whatever and they thought, “Oh, this is easy.” You know what I mean? You can kind of just do stuff and you just basically … it’s just kind of like you just jump in and volume is out the roof and you just kind of do whatever and then they get confused because they come through the end of that, have made some progress, but they’re not strong at all. They’re not even used to training like that so they’re in a weird place where then they’re just confused. Do you know what I mean?

So would you say then that it’s best for people that are new to focus on gaining whole-body strength because they’re gonna gain size regardless, and then that’s going to become very important once their newbie gains are all washed up?

Greg: Yes, so with new lifters I think there are three basic things you need to focus on and to varying degrees based on what you’re athletic background is. I think the first is just developing full-body strength by learning the core compound movements. So squat, bench, deadlift, rows, pull-ups, overhead press, dips, push-ups.

Mike: All the fun stuff.

Greg: Yeah, just fundamental compound lifts. I think that that should be one of your top priorities early on. Another thing, especially if you’re focused on building muscle and hypertrophy, I really think you should get into isolation lifts relatively early on just so you get an understanding of what it feels like to use the muscles you’re trying to build. So many new lifters just don’t know how to feel their lats when they’re doing pull-ups or something like that.

Mike: I had that problem.

Greg: Something like pullovers or straight-arm pull-downs, which are going to be all lats, or essentially all lats, they can be good just to get a feeling of what it feels like to use your lats, which you can then kind of carry over into the compound lifts.

Mike: I had that with shoulders as well. Side raises, rear raises to actually get form and feel it where you’re supposed to feel it.

Greg: Yeah, for sure. That’s number two, and number three, and I have no scientific evidence for this whatsoever. Just my own observations on this is people tend to make better progress long term if they’re just generally athletic and have a decent proprioceptive sense and understand how their body moves and where it is in space. I think a lot of new lifters should also be doing some sort of calisthenics or …

Mike: I’ll offer up yoga. I felt like I got benefits from yoga.

Greg: I think stabilization work is also important, so things like unilateral carries, like a suitcase carry where it’s just like a farmer’s squat but you’re only holding a weight in one hand. Just, you feel what it feels like to … so you learn how to stabilize your body laterally. I think calisthenics or weird, off-centered or unilateral movements like that are good for developing an understanding of where your body is in space and how it moves. I think that’s important for building a good foundation for further development.

Mike: That’s a good point. I actually haven’t … I mean you’re the only person that I’ve heard talk about that actually, but it totally makes sense. I would say, also, something that helped me and I’m sure has helped you a lot over the years is working on camera so you can actually see what your body is doing as opposed to what you think it’s doing. I was a little bit surprised, even with a few … like squats and stuff where, at first it’s about reaching depth and then you finally get that but then you start honing in on some of the finer points and be able to see what did I just do versus what did I feel like I did, has helped.

Greg: Oh, for sure. With motor learning, there’s two … there’s a lot of things you can do. But two of the easiest, most basic things you can do is either have more feedback. So that would include things like videotaping yourself, comparing what it looks like on camera to how it felt when you were doing it and also less feedback. If you generally squat in front of a mirror, don’t squat in front of a mirror. And once you get reasonably good at doing any of the core lifts, try doing them with your eyes closed, and if possible with noise-canceling headphones on, just because that’s taking away audio feedback and visual feedback. So it will force you to rely on kinesthetic feedback more.

Mike: And really be aware of your body.

Greg: Manipulating how much feedback you’re getting, either by giving yourself more by taking video, or by taking some away can help with mastery.

Mike: That’s a good tip. That totally makes sense. Let’s shift gears now and talk more to the intermediate and advanced people. They’re at a point now where, let’s say, they’ve been training reasonably well for a few years and they’ve gained a fair amount of strength. You’ve kind of already answered some of the questions that they would come into this with, but they are, as you know, you do run into where it’s not as easy … it feels much easier to gain strength, at least for the first year or two where if your calories are at least in a range that makes sense, and your macros in a range that makes sense, and you’re recovering and so forth and you’re just kind of putting a lot of work into the barbells.

Where you gain reps every week or two and eventually you turn that into weight and so forth. That gets harder though as time goes on, so what advice would you have, or do you have, for those people. And how, because they need to make sure that they’re getting stronger even if it’s just a slight increase, but what got them there won’t necessarily get them to where they want to be if they really want to achieve, let’s say, a large percentage of what’s possible for them genetically.

Greg: The first thing is just patience. This is something that I have seen more times than I can count. It’s happened to me probably three or four times, just in my own training career. Someone will get to a given point in strength and or muscular development, and then they’re training hard. They’re training smart. They’re eating well. They’re sleeping well, and just for like six months or a year, just literally nothing happens.

Mike: I’ve been there.

Greg: And then, out of nowhere, over two months you put on six or seven pound of lean body mass and your lifts go up 10%. I have no idea why that happens, but that just happens. You just grind away for a while and eventually you reach a breakthrough.

Mike: You break through.

Greg: One thing is just patience. Generally, if you keep training hard, good things eventually happen. In terms of things that are within your control, once the easy gains are in the rear-view mirror, stuff outside of the gym starts playing an increasingly large role. Making sure you’re sleeping enough, making sure you’re eating enough protein, trying to manage stress outside the gym. Oh, if I can give a quick sales pitch, really quick. My favorite thing for augmenting training is this thing called sleep. People so undervalue sleep, for everything.

Two quick studies to run by you. One, it was a metabolic ward study, so that means that the people were living in a lab so every part of their day was controlled. So you know there weren’t outside influences messing-

Mike: You’re not relying on journals and so forth.

Greg: Yeah, yeah. It’s a metabolic ward study. People living in the lab. All of their activity, all of their food intake very tightly controlled. And it was a diet study, so basically they had people in a pretty big calorie deficit. Like a 40% calorie deficit, and they compared sleeping eight and half hours a night to five and a half hours a night. When the people were sleeping, in either condition, they lost the same amount of weight. So the number on the scale went down the same amount, but for the group sleeping five and half hours a night that was something like 60% lean mass and 40% fat mass was what they lost. You just hemorrhaged lean-body mass. And the group sleeping eight and half hours a night, it was … again, this was in untrained populations, so you wouldn’t expect them to lose all that much muscle, but they essentially held onto pretty much all of their lean body mass and any of the drops that occurred were probably just water from glycogen depletion because it was a pretty low-calorie diet.

But yeah, they lost almost entirely fat mass and basically no lean mass. Same calorie deficit, same change on the scale.

Mike: Do you want to touch on quickly just sort of the same … why that is?

Greg: Just on a purely mechanistic level, one of the shifts that they did note is there’s this thing called respiratory exchange ratio or RER. Again, that sounds like a very technical term, but it’s pretty simple. Basically, when you breathe in oxygen and your body uses that oxygen to break down carbohydrate or fat or protein, the amount of carbon dioxide you exhale for every amount of oxygen you take in and utilize is different based on what macronutrient you’re using. With carbohydrate or protein, you essentially exhale one molecule of carbon dioxide for every one molecule of oxygen you take in. But for fat, it’s 0.7 molecules of carbon dioxide for every molecule of oxygen you take in, so that’s basically what it’s measuring.

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By knowing your respiratory exchange ratio, it gives you a pretty good idea of the fuel breakdown which you’re using. The people who were sleeping a lot had a lower respiratory exchange ratio, so what that tells you is at rest, day to day life, they were burning more fat and less carbohydrate and protein. The total energy expenditure was the same.

Mike: Sure. Just, where was the energy coming from.

Greg: Yeah. More of that was coming from body fat versus the group that wasn’t sleeping very much. They had a higher respiratory exchange ratio, which means less of the energy that they were burning was body fat and more of it was carbohydrate and protein. Sleeping not enough is bad. Hopefully people understand that. In terms of sleeping more, like more than the typically recommended seven to eight hours a night-

Mike: Taking naps, or whatever on top of …

Greg: Yeah. This is something that hasn’t gotten all that much research attention but the stuff out there right now is very, very promising. All of the studies looking at sleep extension so far, so going from 7 to 8 hours a night to 9 or 10 hours a night. All of the studies have been done at Stanford thus far, and a researcher named Cheri Mah’s lab, and all of her subjects are Stanford sports teams. So we’re talking high-level B1 athletes, and over the course of just like two to four weeks, they’re seeing really big improvements in performance with absolutely no change to training or nutrition or anything else. Just by getting the athletes to go from sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night to 9 to 10 hours a night. That hasn’t been tested on bodybuilders or powerlifters, but I would assume the same general thing. Like the same general factors are in play there. At the end of day, athletic performance is athletic performance.

Mike: Yeah, yeah exactly. That makes sense. Okay, so we have sleep more. Any other …

Greg: Oh yeah. Stress management-

Mike: So we have the patience and I think there’s also a bit of expectations in there as well. I don’t know if you … it’s related to patience at least, but I know I ran into that myself when … so after a nice kind of upward trajectory, especially for the first couple years of doing things right, and then when things slowed down, I had to consciously kind of reset my expectations and realize that year three is not the same as year two and year four is not the same as year three, and so forth.

Greg: I agree. I think expectations can cut two different directions. Largely based on a psychological idea known as locus of control. Essentially, if you have high expectations, I think that can pretty dramatically impact the results you see. Two studies on that. One, and these were both super-cool studies because they’re placebo steroid studies. So essentially, the researcher’s telling the participants they’re giving them steroids when they’re actually just giving them sugar pills. In one of them, they trained them for seven weeks, recorded their strength gains over that time period and then gave them a sugar pill and told them, “Hey. This is steroids. They’re going to make you jacked.” And they trained them for another four weeks.

Over the first seven weeks, across four lifts, which I think was squat, bench, seated overhead press and standing overhead press. Over the first seven weeks, they put an average of I think like 10 kilos across those four lifts. These were pretty well-trained guys to begin with. Average bench was like 275, and average squat was 360 or something pre-training.

Mike: That’s pretty solid.

Greg: Yeah, like not people you’d expect to make super-fast strength gains, but yeah. Ten kilos, 22 pounds across those four lifts for the first seven weeks. Over the last four weeks, when they thought they were on steroids, exact same training, they added 45 kilos, which is right at 100 pounds, across those four lifts. So they made more than four times the gains in basically half the time, just because they thought they were taking steroids.

And then, another study, and this is my all-time favorite study, I think, just because when you actually think through it from like a human perspective, it’s hilarious. It’s a 2001 Maganaris. That’s the year and author if people want to look this up, but basically one of the researchers was the coach for the Great Britain National Powerlifting team. Like the one they send to IPF competitions, so drug-tested powerlifting, supposed to be drug-free lifters. But, these guys decided, “Hey. We want to use steroids and get away with it.” So they trusted their coach enough to ask him, “Hey, can you hook us up with some steroids?”

So first, the basic premise of the study is the athletes are trying to cheat and they think their coach will help them get away with it. But the coach, also being a scientist, was like, “Oh these gullible fools, I will use them to study the placebo effect.” So he gave them sugar pills and told them they were fast-acting steroids. They tested their maxes and then two weeks later they tested their maxes again, being given these pills they thought were fast-acting steroids and they put an average of four to five percent across their squat, bench, and deadlift. Which, just to put that in context, these guys were strong. Like average body weight around 200 pounds, average squat and deadlift in the high fives, low sixes, average bench in the low to mid fours. They were strong, so adding four to five percent to that was like a 70, 80 pound increase in the total automatically, just because they felt they were being given fast-acting steroids.

Then they trained for two weeks, still being given these placebo pills, and at the end of those two weeks, the researchers asked them, or the coaches asked them, “Hey. How’s your training be going?” And everyone was like, “Oh, best two weeks. I’ve been hitting PRs. Been handling more volume and recovering better. Everything’s awesome.” And then the coach told half of them, “Psych. It was a placebo. Now time to max again.” So they knew that they were drug-free before, when they hit those four to five percent PRs. They knew they were drug-free over the intervening two weeks that they said was the best two-week training of their life, but their post-training one-rep maxes still regressed to the levels they were before that four to five percent increase.

The other half, they were like, “Yeah. You’re still on steroids. Things are awesome.” They hit more PRs on top of that. These are like world-class-

So these are world-class athletes making big, meaningful gains in strength automatically and then even more over just two weeks because they think they’re on steroids. I think those two studies do illustrate the power of expectations pretty strongly. That is something that massively boosted these people’s expectations, and their results dramatically increased because of it. If self-esteem didn’t matter at all, I think setting expectations as high as possible is probably the best thing for results, but then in terms of how that impacts people that’s where locus of control comes into play like I mentioned earlier. So if you have really high expectations and also an internal locus of control, so basically anything that happens in your life, whether good or bad, whether or not you actually had control over it you either blame yourself for it or take credit for it.

Mike: It’s like a sense of personal responsibility, right?

Greg: Yeah, pretty much.

Mike: As opposed to saying it was because of this or that, or it was this person or that thing or whatever.

Greg: Yeah, yeah. So high expectations, good for getting good results. But if you don’t live up to those expectations, and you have an internal locus of control, that makes it really easy to get down on yourself and-

Mike: And say, “I failed.”

Greg: Yeah, exactly. Versus like an external locus of control. Then it’s just like, “Oh, something else influenced this.” Purely on the psychological level, sometimes lower expectations can actually be beneficial for people who have an internal locus of control and also just aren’t gifted and so wouldn’t meet those expectations and would be kind of crushed if they didn’t. But purely on a, if you want people to make the best gains possible, high expectations are very good.

Mike: I like that. That makes sense. Anything else that you would add for this intermediate or advanced person that is now going to go, “Okay, I need to continue working on gaining strength.”

Greg: I also, I have a little flowchart that will help people navigate pretty much any training decision they ever need to make.

Mike: Nice.

Greg: It’s the simplest thing ever, but it works. First question to you ask yourself, “Am I making progress?” If the answer is yes, what you do is nothing. Don’t change anything. Even if it’s slow progress, slow progress over months or years adds up to a crap ton of progress. Slow gains are still gains. If you’re improving, don’t change anything.

If you’re not improving, the next question is, “How do I feel most of the time?” If you’re not improving, and you constantly feel pretty fresh, the issue is probably that you’re just not training hard enough. So whatever that means for you, make your training harder. It could be increasing intensity, increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting. It could be increasing volume, doing more reps, more sets, more exercises. It could be increasing in frequency, so training more times per week or hitting each muscle group more times per week. Just, if you’re not making progress, but you generally feel good and fresh all the time, you just need to train harder. That’s what’s going to do it for you.

If you’re not making progress, and you generally feel worn down, then the next question is basically, “Am I taking care of stuff outside of the gym as well as I can?” If you’re like a new father or a new mother, you’re not going to sleep for two years and that’s just how it is. So that’s something that’s impacting your gains that you can’t really do anything about, but if you’re not sleeping enough but you could sleep more, if your diet isn’t great, and it could be better, then if you’re not making progress, you feel worn down all the time and there’s stuff like that outside the gym that you can address, that’s where you want to put your focus.

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But maybe you’re taking care of business outside the gym, or at least doing so as well as you can. If you’re not making progress, and you’re feeling worn down all the time, then basically what you need to do is make your training a little bit easier in some way. We’re not talking cut volume by 80% overnight, but drop a set here or there. Maybe don’t train quite as close to failure. If there are a couple of accessory exercises that don’t really give you that much bang for your buck in the first place, drop them out of your training program. Just small tweaks to make your training a little bit less stressful so it matches your recovery ability. That’s really all there is to it.

Mike: That’s great. That’s perfect. Okay, let’s just end with where can people find you and find your work. You also just released a research review and so if you want to tell everybody about that. This is obvious, but I’ll say it for everybody that I highly endorse Greg and his work and again I’m a fan of his. I check his site at least once a week to see what’s new. So, I’m gonna give you the soap box.

Greg: All right, so you can find me at That’s where all of my content is. In terms of social media, I mean I’m pretty active on Facebook. Just Greg Nuckols and then the business page is Stronger by Science. I’m also on Instagram, also just Greg Nuckols but don’t really follow me there unless you care about seeing pictures of my dog. So yeah. Website and Facebook.

The research review is called MASS, which stands for Monthly Applications in Strength Sport and essentially it’s me, and Eric Helms, and Mike Zourdos. They are much more qualified than I am. Eric is defending his dissertation soon, so he’s soon going to be Dr. Helms, and Dr. Zourdos is Dr. Zourdos. They’re active researchers in the field of exercise science. Zourdos is also a powerlifter and Eric is a powerlifter and natural bodybuilder. We have experience reading and doing research, and also from a practical perspective as well, all three of us are coaches. We know how to read and interpret research, and we know how to identify the research that’s most useful and relevant for people who their primary goal is getting stronger, building muscle or losing body fat. It’s a very narrow research review. If those are your training goals, it’s perfect for you. If your training goals are anything else, it is entirely irrelevant to you.

We go through 50, 60 journals every month, screening close to 1,000 articles and pick out the nine studies that are going to be most useful, relevant and applicable to people trying to get stronger, get bigger, lose body fat and break them down on a technical enough level that you get everything that you could possibly want out of a study but also in a very readable and understandable and reader-friendly format with practical applications to help you improve your training. Or if you’re a coach, improve how you train your clients. Basically, trying to bring the research to everyone who either just doesn’t have the time or the ability to follow it for themselves. So they can stay up to date with the latest science, but not have to be overwhelmed with trying to read a bunch of studies and burn dozens of hours of their own time doing that on their own.

Mike: Okay, good. The first issue you’re giving away, which I think is a great idea, just to get people in and so they can see how high quality it is.

Greg: Yeah, absolutely. You can find it at

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