Do you ever feel like you’re just spinning your wheels in the gym?
Are you having trouble remembering the last time you added any real weight to the bar on any of your key lifts?
Has your body weight and body fat percentage been hovering in the same range for what seems like forever?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I get it. I’ve been there myself and understand the frustration firsthand.
You see, the hard lesson us weightlifters have to learn is once our “honeymoon phase” is over—the first six to eight months in most people—continuing to gain muscle and strength gets harder and harder, until eventually progress becomes so slow you can barely measure it.
That’s not even the kicker, either. Not only is muscle and strength gain harder to come by the more you train, the more training you have to do just to continue eking out improvements.
In other words, as time goes on, you have to do more and more intense work in the gym for less and less reward.
This is one of the key reasons so many people get stuck in a rut, and in this episode, Dr. Mike Israetel explains why this happens, what else contributes to plateaus, and how to overcome these obstacles and keep the needle moving.
In case you’re not familiar with Dr. Israetel, he has been one of my most-requested podcast guests and for good reason. Not only does he hold a PhD in Sport Physiology, but he’s the co-founder of Renaissance Periodization, a successful blog, coaching program, and fitness platform, similar in many ways to my own company Legion Athletics.
So, in this interview, Mike and I discuss what a real plateau is, strategies for breaking through plateaus, the importance of deloads, exercise order, sleep hygiene, and more.
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
6:37 – What is a plateau and what are some strategies to break through plateaus?
14:39 – How do you determine if you’ve plateaued?
25:45 – What do you do after you hit a plateau?
52:34 – Is intensity important for muscle growth?
56:52 – Where can people find you and your work?
Mike : [00:00:02] Hello. Hello. Mike Matthews here from Legion Athletics, and welcome to another episode of the Muscle For Life podcast. Do you ever feel like you are just spinning your wheels in the gym? Are you having trouble remembering the last time you added any real weight to the bar on any of your key lifts?
Has your body weight or your body fat percentage been hovering in the same range for what seems like forever now? If you answered yes to any of those questions, I understand. I have been there myself and I know what that is like. I know the frustration firsthand. You see, there is a hard lesson that us weightlifters have to learn, and that is once our honeymoon phase is over, you know, the first six to eight months in most people, the newbie gains phase, as some people call it, after that point gaining muscle and strength or continuing to gain muscle and strength gets harder and harder until eventually progress becomes so damn slow that you can barely measure it.
And, you know, ironically, that’s not even the kicker. Not only is muscle and strength gain harder to come by, the more you train, the more training you gotta do just to continue eking out improvements. In other words, as time goes on, you have to do more and more intense work in the gym for less and less reward. And this is one of the key reasons so many people get stuck in a rut.
And in this episode, Dr. Mike Israetel explains why this happens, what else contributes to plateaus and how to overcome these obstacles and keep the needle moving. Now, in case you are not familiar with doctor Israetel, he has been one of my most requested podcast guests. I’ve gotten many emails from people asking for me to get him on the show and for good reason.
Not only does he hold a Ph.D. in Sport Physiology, but he is also the co-founder of Renaissance Periodization, which is a successful blog, coaching program, and fitness platform. Similar in many ways to my own company, Legion Athletics. So in this interview, Mike and I discuss what a real plateau is.
That’s the first question you got to be able to answer accurately and correctly is, “am I plateaued?” Many people think they’re plateaued when they’re not. We also discuss strategies for breaking through, legitimate plateaus, the importance of deloads, the order in which you do exercises, sleep hygiene, and more.
Mike : [00:04:45] Dr. Israetel, thank you for coming on my podcast.
Dr. Israetel: [00:04:47] Thanks for having me.
Mike : [00:04:48] You’ve been one of the consistently requested guests. So not only am I excited to talk to you myself today because I’m actually curious to hear your thoughts on what we’re going to be talking about. I know a lot of my listeners are going to be excited to hear your voice as well.
Dr. Israetel: [00:05:05] Oh, thanks so much. Yeah, I’m excited to hopefully say some not stupid things. I’m usually prone to saying plenty of dumb things, so hopefully, I reach a minimum there and then get some wisdom going.
Mike : [00:05:16] That’s fine. We can fix it in post and we can edit out whatever and we’ll make you sound super smart.
Dr. Israetel: [00:05:21] Perfect. It’s gonna be a lot of editing. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:05:26] All right. So what I want to talk to you about is breaking through muscle gain hypertrophy plateaus. Because as anybody who has a bit of weight lifting and muscle gain/hypertrophy, obviously those are the same things, but as anybody who has any weight lifting under their belts, any significant amount, at least a year or two, there’s no such thing as a plateau in the beginning. Right?
Like, basically, whatever you do is going to result in some muscle growth, it’s going to result in some hypertrophy, even if you’re just doing like, push-ups, and pull-ups, and air squats every day, you’re going to be, at least for the first few months, be like, “ooh, look at my biceps, look at my triceps, look at my chest.”
But that honeymoon phase, I’d say on average is what, about six months or so, some people it seems to be a bit less, some people a bit more. But definitely by the end of the first year, all of a sudden it’s not so easy anymore. You’re not adding weight to the bar every week, you’re not noticing such major changes in your progress pictures every month, and it only gets progressively more so as you continue.
And, you know, I would say then if you are someone like me or like you, I mean you’re far more advanced than I am. But take me where I’ve been lifting weights since I was 18. But for the first while I didn’t know what I was doing, I’ve been lifting weights properly for about six or seven years. There’s very little left for me in terms of my genetic potential and it’s very easy just to feel stuck.
And so that’s what I wanted to talk to you about is, hitting plateaus and I think the place to start there would be, we should probably talk about what actually is a plateau, because I often hear from people who think they’re plateaued, but they’re not. They’re actually still progressing, they’re just not progressing maybe as quickly as they once were, as quickly as they would like to be progressing. I don’t think that’s like actually a plateau. And then what are some strategies that we can use to break through legitimate plateaus?
Dr. Israetel: [00:07:19] Yeah, great place to start, because I had thought that I would start exactly at the same place. And you’re completely right, a lot of people think they’ve hit a plateau where they haven’t really sort of done the due diligence to come back and define what they mean by a plateau. And a plateau does not mean rates of gain you are unsatisfied with.
In that case, everyone always should be considering themselves plateauing, because unless I’m turning into Thanos, then I’m plateauing because I would love to be growing faster. You know? Let’s say you put on 10 pounds of muscle a month, I mean, that sounds absurd, but what if someone was like, “Hey, do you want to put on 15?” I mean, how many people would really say no?
They would probably say, “Yeah, sure.” So then sort of reflexively, we have to redefine a plateau as like, “well, anything under 10 pounds of muscle a month.” That’s completely insane. So the more direct concern here is that individuals will think that they’re at a plateau whereas they’re really, like you describe, just transitioning from very newb gains into intermediate gains.
Newb gains happen on a weekly and monthly order as far as wrap strength and lifts for the weekly and the visual changes that are pretty monthly. And then intermediate gains sort of happen more on the monthly and yearly timescales, right? So monthly, notice that you’re getting considerably stronger and then, you know, within several months, every year, sort of, you notice that you’re looking very different.
And that can be a shock. So one of the first things to do is to set realistic expectations and sort of benchmark your progress and figure out if you’re really on a plateauing. One thing that has to be said before we get into any more advanced critiques is that you’ve got to be measuring your rates of progress or at least benchmarks of how you’re doing in order to figure out if you are plateauing.
I’ve spoken to too many people at gyms and they say, you know, “I think my bench is plateauing.” I’m like, “okay, how is it plateauing?” And they’re like, “well, I’m just not getting stronger,” I’m like, “okay, what’s your best rep effort recently?” And they’re like, “uhm, I can’t remember.”
I’m well, “well, if you can’t remember how strong you are, how the hell do you know if you’re plateauing?” It’s completely insane. Right? It’s like asking a battlefield general to give a report of, you know, “how was this week in battle? Did you guys push the German lines?”
Mike : [00:09:23] “How do you feel?” [Laughing]
Dr. Israetel: [00:09:23] Right, exactly. “Did you push the German lines back or are the allies winning or are we losing?” And they’re like, “We don’t really know, we haven’t really collected a whole lot of data on where things are. I think they’re the same.”
Mike : [00:09:34] “I’m feeling pretty optimistic right now, though.”
Dr. Israetel: [00:09:36] Exactly. Yeah, that’s kind of how Hitler ran World War Two. He was like, “feeling good about it.” And the generals are like, “we’re losing,” he’s like, “na, we’re fine.” They’re like, “okay.” So it’s one of the things you don’t want to really …
Mike : [00:09:47] “Move those troops over there.”
Dr. Israetel: [00:09:48] Exactly.
Mike : [00:09:49] My favorite: “There are no troops there.” “Yeah, just move them anyway.” Yeah
Dr. Israetel: [00:09:53] Yeah, “just move, we gotta make more troops.” That’s where you get all the Nazi zombie movies that are the great, zombie troops. But in any case. So basically, you want to make sure you keep a good logbook, keep tabs on your appearance, generally speaking, taking pictures is good. Sometimes you feel like you don’t – pictures and body weight.
You look back, you weighed a 165 pounds and you looked like something, and then two months later you think you’ve plateaued but then you take a picture and you weigh 168 and you look a little sharper and you’re like, “oh well gee, I don’t even know what I was thinking.” Sometimes, you know, you look at enough Instagram pictures of other people and get ahead of yourself.
And then as far as rep strength that’s the easiest sort of golden ticket to a benchmark is, you know, how is your repetition strength? And that comes back to the importance of having good, basically identical or very similar technique from week to week, month to month on basic exercises so you can keep track and see if your squats are actually getting stronger, your pull-ups, your bench press, and so forth.
And if that’s the case, you may find that after analysis, you’re not really at a plateau. You’re actually at a small rate of improvement. Now, the cool thing is, all of the tips I’m going to share, plateau busting, so to speak, are applicable to just making your gains better. So there’s not any different tips because somebody could say, like, “well, okay, you know, Dr. Mike, fine, I’m not technically at a plateau, but I don’t want to gain five pounds on my squat every two months.
I want to gain 10 or 15.” Same tips, so no worries. But at least you can be assured that you’re not at a plateau. Technically speaking, a plateau in any definition is defined as a lack of ascension. So on any timescale, you want to measure, let’s say you’re measuring three months behind and to now, three months ago to now you’re looking at your rep maxes on, let’s say your quads are plateaued.
You look at your best rep efforts on squats, leg presses, and hack squats three months ago and you compare them to today and you see that there is no increase or a decrease, like any decrease is definitely a plateau or worse and no increase as well. That no increase, of course, there’s like, sort of a statistical boundary layer about that.
What I would say is, if a couple of lifts are up a little like, five to 10 pounds in strength, but some lifts are down, and you’ve been doing all of these lifts the whole time, it’s not just a learning thing, I would still call that a plateau. If all lifts are up, even if it’s all lifts are up by five pounds. For example, your squat turnaround used to be 350, now it’s 320. Leg press, 405 now it’s 410 packs.
Hack squat 365, now it’s 370. All the lifts are pointed up, that’s not technically a plateau. Right? Because you’re technically still gaining. It’s just really slow gains. Again, it doesn’t really matter because all the recommendations for faster gains are still the same. But what you’re really looking at in plateau is this: if you had to be a trial lawyer against your own gains and you had to prove to yourself that you definitely weren’t gaining and to a judge, could you do it.
Right? So you just stand in front, you know, your Southern lawyer, it’s like 90 degrees in the courtroom, you’ve got a white suit, you’ve got glasses, you’re padding your face with a handkerchief, right? You say “when I say,” and you point to the gains chart, you say, “look, you can say to me that you’ve been making gains and your squat reps have gone up by one rep at five pounds, respectively.
But your hack squat and leg press are both down by one to two reps. Are you willing to tell this courtroom that that is your idea of what gains are?” And of course, you’d have to come back to yourself and be like, “no.” Another way to think of it, if somebody asks you, somebody you’re close with …
Mike : [00:13:20] Then you just pull a Bill Clinton. “It depends how you define gains?”
Dr. Israetel: [00:13:26] “What do you mean by gains? What do you mean by if?” Totally. You know, and the thing is, you could pull a Bill Clinton and say, “what do you mean by gains?” But look, everyone’s gains means plus sign. Right? It means more. Now, there is a very fruitful, though pointless debate to be had about: does five pounds on your lifts over a year mean gains? Technically, it does.
There are some very advanced arguments for that, stochastic noise tear’s all that up and you can’t actually be sure that you’re making gains, right? But at least it’s up, right? But the thing is, if multiple exercises are up just a little bit, even one size is down, you’re no longer sure, right? And then if multiple exercises are down, even though some are up, you’re definitely going to say, look, “I’m not clearly making it.”
Fundamentally muscle size expansion is always in an equated fatigued state, going to mean you get to do more reps or do more weight. Right? If someone came to you and they’re like, “I think I put on size on my quads, but, like, I can’t see it because it’s covered by fat.” What are you gonna tell them? “Let me see your squat leg press, hack squat, lunge numbers?”
Right? And let’s say, all the numbers are up like 20 to 25 pounds for the same reps. What are you going to do? Say they didn’t gain size? Yeah, I believe you. Like, it makes sense. Ronnie Coleman doesn’t squat to 225 for 10 reps. You know what I mean? Like he squatted 585 for 10 reps. Like, that kind of makes sense.
So it’s one of those like if you’re getting stronger for reps, you’re doing super well. If it’s just not clear that all around and all exercises are getting stronger for reps, I don’t know about that. Right? So we basically have a definition of a plateau is, if you clearly just didn’t make gains all-around over whatever time course. And if you lost …
Mike : [00:14:57] And on that time, just punch up on that. I just want to get your thoughts on the timing, the duration specifically. Because I would think that matters depending on: let’s say they’re in the year two, three, four or something around that, I know those aren’t all the same, but let’s just say, you know, they’re not a 10 plus year veteran, for example.
So for someone who has a few years of proper lifting behind them, what type of time horizon should they be looking at? Would you recommend looking at their numbers over the course of a month or maybe a quarter or six months? In terms of determining, you know, obviously, if they were to look week to week, they’d be like, “oh, I’m stuck.” No, you’re not. The weekly gains, that life is behind you now.
Dr. Israetel: [00:15:40] Yeah. So there’s two problems with weekly gains. There’s a small problem of the fact that you no longer make weekly gains fast enough in order to be reflected accurately on a bar. For example, if you increase your squat two and a half pounds per week, that’s actually unbelievable. That’s really good. But every other week you’re going to think you stalled because the plates only add up to five.
You know what I mean? So that is the small problem. The bigger problem is this: within the context of an accumulation phase of a mesocyclone, which means weeks, one through four, one through six, or one through eight in which are increasing the weight on the bar, decreasing the reps in reserve, trying to match the same reps, or going up in reps, adding more sets, right?
The accumulation phase means making things harder. Right? Just meat and potatoes training during one of those phases before you deload. Right? And really drop fatigue and sort of restart the next mesocycle, there is an increase in fitness, so muscle growth is occurring. Although I will say that growth occurs on multiple timescales.
There’s parts of muscle or components of muscle that don’t grow for weeks until you’re done training for a certain phase. But some muscle growth occurs on an hourly basis. So growth is occurring during that time. Your nervous system is expanding its ability to activate muscles and bring in good techniques. So your fitness is going up, your ability to do more reps and more weight is going up during that time.
But here’s the real kicker, concomitantly, fatigue is also going up during that time. And if you’re training properly, I would say that fitness and fatigue go up at roughly the same rate every single week until you deload. Once you deload fatigue comes down, fitness stays basically the same, and you reveal this new capability that you have. Right? For example, do you get better as an MMA fighter training for two hours?
Of course, yeah. That’s how you get better. The thing is, if you had to fight Jon Jones, I know, scary, would you choose to fight him fresh for after a two-hour session? Well, of course, after a two-hour session, let somebody beat up on him for a while and maybe he won’t kill you, he’ll just maim you. You know, something like that, he’ll be tired. But could you really say, “now he’s worse after …”
Aliens come down, they have someone fight Jon Jones before he trains, they have him fight after he trains for two hours, the person who fights and before he gets maimed worse, and aliens conclude, “oh, interesting, it seems that this training process makes him worse. We will do less training process and he will become the best.” Like, no, that doesn’t work like that.
He’s actually getting better during training, but he gets tired, too. So week to week measurements of “am I getting better?” are what my colleague, Dr. James Hoffman and I, RP+ we have a service like, ten bucks a month or something where you log in and ask us all the questions you want and we answer them on video webinar every week. What we like to say is weekly sort of performance analysis, week to week to week are almost completely pointless and sometimes worse because they just confuse the shit out of you.
Mike : [00:18:20] Yep. You can liken it to – I mean, I run into more women than men who make this mistake because women are so indoctrinated to live and die by the scale. But you have women out there who are just starting in their fitness journeys and they weigh themselves every day and, you know, they freak out when they wake up one pound heavier and then they’re super happy if they wake up one pound lighter, and it can just be very confusing if they don’t understand the bigger picture.
Dr. Israetel: [00:18:46] Super confusing. So I would say that when to benchmark your plateaus, when to do the analysis comparatively to see plateaus, at the earliest, mesocycle to mesocycle.
Mike : [00:18:57] That makes sense, yeah.
Dr. Israetel: [00:18:58] So basically, after you’ve done a deload week and you’re nice and fatigue reduced. You know, you do another month of training, right? Then you compare two months, right, or two mesocycle. So let’s say each mesocycle is five weeks of increasing accumulation, one week of deload, six weeks total. Then you compare a six-week period you had 12 weeks ago to the one you just had.
You look at the numbers, hopefully it’s the same exercises comparing different exercises is wholly pointless by the way, because people will be like, “well, I squatted this in this mesocycle, but I leg press this and that one. Am I making gains?” “I have no idea.” How are you supposed to, you know, like what’s the ratio there? So. Same exercise, two different mesos, fatigued reduced or the same average fatigue.
Basically, if you want to do a real advanced analysis or you really wanted to be curmudgeonly, you could do the average weight and reps for every single session you did of that exercise in the first mesocycle, add all that up, divide by the number of how many reps and then do the same thing for the second to see, okay, like what’s the average performance. Right? You don’t have to do that, you can just go on the end of week PRs.
Like, what PR did you hit that last mesocycle versus the one you just finished. Right? Like if you squatted 315 for eight one mesoscale ago, but you hit 320 for 12 in the last one, clearly you’re not stalling. Right? Now, could you have had a slightly better performance just by chance or you just got a little bit more sleep, or the first motorcycle cycle you were breaking up with your girlfriend, so it was on your mind?
Yeah, totally, that’s why the average system works better. But the average system is a huge pain in the ass to do. You can just work on PR’s and it works totally fine. And this brings me to my next point, because there is a little bit of a chance element even in comparing PR’s, even comparing averages, meso to meso, what you really want to do is compare probably what we would call block to block.
Two to four sequential mesocycles in a row, compared to one another to the next two to four mesocycles in a row, that’s probably a good basis for comparison.
Mike : [00:20:46] Yeah, that makes sense.
Dr. Israetel: [00:20:47] And even better basis of comparison, and this just gets more into the advanced lifting, is macrocycle to macro cycle. So, for example, you could have a fat loss block and you can have a muscle gain block. Each one three mesocycles long, one where you lose fat, one where you gain muscle. You can compare your rep PR’s from fat loss muscle gain and say, “oh, man, I’ve hit a plateau.”
First of all, of course, you’re gonna perform worse in the fat loss one because you’re at a hypocaloric condition. Did you actually lose muscle? That’s not really that clear. So what you want to do is compare macro to macro, which means this past fat loss block of three muscle cycles of fat loss and hypertrophy training, how does it compare to the last time you did a fat loss block?
If the comparison is, “gee, you’re just about the same strength,” you’ve had a plateau. If the comparison is like, “oh, you’re like up twenty pounds in every lift for the same reps,” you did not hit a plateau and no harm, no foul.
Mike : [00:21:36] Yep. Yep. That makes sense. Something else that just pops into my mind because it’s a mistake that I’ve seen people make is comparing, let’s say you’re comparing their squat, right? And you’re looking at a squat in one mesocycle versus another. But what they didn’t factor in is that in the first mesocycle, they were squatting, that was the first exercise, let’s say, of that workout that they did. And then in the next mesocycle, they moved it to their third exercise and they don’t think with that, they just see the number went down and think like, “oh, I’m stuck.”
Dr. Israetel: [00:22:07] Yep. That’s a great point. I mean, it’s just a very great point. And I’d love to segway off of that point of “use your brain”, you’re comparing like versus like to the next point I have about what to consider in all these factors and sort of solving your problem of plateauing. So let’s say you are plateaued. Right?
The next point, very similar to the one you just made as far as like, “come on,” like at least compare the same exercise order, you should know that you get tired through the exercises.” The next “come on, you could do better” kind of point, sorry to get pedantic is: do you deload? Because it’s funny, literally how many times have you spoken to guys at the gym and they’re like, “I think I hit a plateau.”
You’d be like, “you mean, even after your deload?” They’re like, “what’s a deload?” And you’re like, “oh boy, let me tell you that you’re onto some really good shit.” You know, fundamentally a deload is a phase of fatigue reduction that lasts roughly a week. And you get to maintain all of your muscle gains and your strength, but your fatigue goes down.
Because as you trained, like we mentioned earlier, through an accumulation phase, your fatigue goes up and up and up and it masks your ability to have your best performances. Literally, it’s like saying during the construction of a house, how much better is the interior looking? Well, while the house is being constructed, there’s like more and more sawdust and woodchips everywhere.
So it actually looks more and more like shit the entire time, or yeah, well, as you’re building a TV stand and the area where the couch should be and the cool roof, it sorta looks cooler because of that. But there’s more, more garbage that the builders are leaving there every day and stuff’s all hanging around. So it’s kind of like, on average, if you ask an interior designer to look at the house in month one and month eight of its construction.
They’d be like, “yeah, it’s more cool stuff, but it also has way more crap in it.” So it’s just the comparison is completely masked. So I will make a claim here, the majority I don’t know what percent it is, but the majority, probably the vast majority of individuals in the early intermediate stage of lifting who are, let’s say, not superduper well-read on online fitness expert kind of stuff.
Probably, you know, maybe early listeners of your podcast and folks whom those listeners are gonna send your podcast to, “dude, you better listen to this,” I think the vast majority of those people, anytime they say they have a plateau, it’s really just that they don’t deload and they know-how. They just don’t even know it’s a concept. And it’s not a knock on those people.
Good God, I must have lifted five or six years before I knew what a deload was. But that’s how people get into that situation. Maybe even nine times out of ten.
Mike : [00:24:28] Or how many times have we just stubbornly, I know I have stubbornly not wanted to deload because like, “things are going well, things are going well,” just keep going. And then things just don’t go so well.
Dr. Israetel: [00:24:39] Things are not. And then you’re plateaued and then you deload and then next week, you’re like, “oh, my God, I’m a living God. I’m 50 times stronger than I thought I was” like ta-da, right? So my first recommendation is deload. If you don’t know what that means, look it up. Right? There’s tons of – just type in “deload definition” on Google and you’re going to get hit with a ton of stuff.
Mike : [00:24:56] You might even find an article I wrote on it. Over at Muscle For Life, if anyone listening, if you search for “deload”.
Dr. Israetel: [00:25:02] Exactly. Yep. You’ll find articles by you, by me. There’s one on juggernaut that my colleague and I wrote a long time ago, like fatigue and its causes or, you know, what is fatigue. And there’s just tons of stuff about how to deload, just the real simple basics that a lot of people just don’t do. Because you walk into a gym, 95 percent of the people won’t be able to tell you what a deload is.
So when those people say, “man, you know, I’m kinda hitting a plateau,” automatically labeled as a trainer or a coach or someone who knows stuff should come up in your head to be like, “this is probably just an accumulated fatigue issue.” You know, as soon as you remove accumulated fatigue, it turns out they were making gains the entire time. So I think that has to be the first thing that’s said.
Mike : [00:25:39] Yep. Yep. I totally agree.
Mike : [00:27:09] So let’s say that we have somebody again, they have a few years of weightlifting behind them and they have good form and they’re good at the exercises now. They’ve grabbed all the low-hanging fruit, now they’re going to have to work a lot harder for a lot less. The beginning of that, really the rest of their life journey, that’s the way it is. Right? You got to work harder and harder and harder for less and less. And so they’ve hit a plateau and it’s a legitimate plateau. They are deloading. What next? How does the flowchart play out?
Dr. Israetel: [00:27:40] Yeah, I got a whole list. No worries. So the next is still kind of a backdrop kind of thing, but it’s so important it has to be said and we don’t have to spend much time on it because this podcast today is probably about training. Right? But it’s just one of these things that has to be said, but that has to be said is innuendo for it’s really, really important, is your nutrition fundamentally sound, is your sleep fundamentally enough, are you gaining weight at a rate high enough for it to reflect itself on the scale which are actually fueling and providing substrates for the muscle growth process, and lastly, possibly, not least, are you managing stress and various stressors effectively?
Which can include other physical activity forms. So someone could say, you know, “man, I’m like, I’m really struggling to bring up my arms.” You’re like “okay, tell me about your life.” “Blah, blah. I eat. I sleep well. Blah, blah.” “What else do you do?” “Well, I’m a division one wrestler and I practice six hours a day.” Jesus Christ, I’m surprised you can do any weight training at all on top of that. Right? So that’s one of the stress management things and that’s not the only kind of psychological stress.
I’ve literally had these conversations and people often ask me how I come up with these examples on the spot. These are literally stories from my life. I’ve literally had conversations with people at the gym. Like, “I think I’m hitting a plateau.” I used to piss away like minutes and minutes and minutes talking to them about nutrition and stuff I’ll get into in a little bit, volume landmarks and all this crap.
And they’re like,”yeah, I’m going through a really rough divorce right now.” I’m like, “why the hell are we talking about anything else?” [Laughing] Like, of course, your divorce is going to make you super stressed, which increases all kinds of stress hormones, which literally at the molecular level interfere with muscle growth. In addition to that you say someone like, oh, you know, I’m just moving down the list here for weight gain.
Someone said, you know, “I’m really having trouble bringing up my quads.” One of the first questions I will ask is like, “how much do you weigh?” “Like 165.” “How much weight have you gained in the last year?” They’re like, “I haven’t.” Like, okay. Where do you think bigger quads come from?
Like, is there a 165 pounder that has the quads of a 240 pound bodybuilder? No, because they physically weigh more than that. You know what I mean? Like some people say, like, “oh, I’m not growing muscle.” I’ll be like, “are you gaining weight?” “No.” Where the hell is the muscle supposed to come from? So that’s one of the main things, is make sure to slowly gain weight.
Mike : [00:29:50] Got to make those lean gains, bro.
Dr. Israetel: [00:29:52] Exactly. Yeah, because all those huge guys are making lean gains everywhere. Right? So that’s a thing. The other one is sleep. Super important. There’s multiple studies now showing that if you don’t sleep enough, literally, when you lose weight, you lose mostly muscle and barely any fat. And if you gain weight, you gain mostly fat, and barely any muscle.
It’s really, really rough. So sleep is critical. And here’s the thing about sleep that I’ve been noticing more and more, even relatively good athletes under sleep and there’s an ethos to athletics, into the kind of people that are interested in being the best, there’s an ethos there that sleep is sort of for the weak. You know? And that it’s kind of optional. And there’s kind of some almost pride.
People will tell you like, “oh, you know, I don’t get sleep,” I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, right, and people find out that I like some shit. So they ask me questions and I automatically zoom in on sleep, at least at some point in the conversation, they’re like, “I definitely do get enough of that, but, you know, that’s life.”
And I’m like, “yeah, it doesn’t have to be life. You know, I see your bitch ass posting them Game of Thrones updates. I know you do some other shit. [Laughing] You know, you have free time. You know, the Dragon Fire fucking analysis you wrote on Facebook. I see it.
Mike : [00:30:58] Yeah, that took seven hours.
Dr. Israetel: [00:31:00] Exactly. Like I see you debating people on Instagram about Game of Thrones directorial debuts and stuff. So it’s one of those things where it’s like, I’m not going to be pedantic and tell someone what they need to do with their life. But like, there’s no honor in missing sleep. If you want gains, sleep is where to get them, combined with good nutrition.
So it’s one of those things where I think a lot of people say, “of courses, this person I’m speaking to that’s talking to me about plateaus gets enough sleep.” It’s just by no means clear if that’s the case. It often isn’t. It is funny enough. There’s this bodybuilder that I follow on Instagram and he’s a very, very good bodybuilder, you know, pro.
And he like made a post, he’s like, “just trained a bunch of clients, you know, and did a bunch of work and eat meals and I’m going straight to the gym, no sleep for me tonight.” Like, he literally missed a night of sleep. He’s like, “I gotta grind. I’ve got to make these gains.” I just want to find him in real life and shake the living shit out of him.
“What the hell are you doing?” It’s just the worst idea anyone’s ever had. But again, there’s an ethos there, right? Like, how does Elon Musk make all his money? He doesn’t sleep or whatever, even though I’m sure he does. You know what I mean? Like, does that resonate at all, where people think it’s just part of life?
Mike : [00:32:01] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, speaking of Elon Musk, I saw an article, maybe it was a month or two ago, where he was saying how the past year was pretty rough on him and was going into why and how he wasn’t able to sleep without drugs. I mean, it got that bad where if he wasn’t taking, I don’t know if it was prescription or over the counter, I don’t remember.
But if he wasn’t taking a sleep drug, he probably wasn’t going to sleep. So yeah, I understand. I read the Elon Musk biography and I’m sure the stories of him, you know, sleeping three hours a day on his beanbag are true. And he probably had to do it because he had to do it.
Dr. Israetel: [00:32:44] But he’s not jacked, you know? [Laughing]
Mike : [00:32:44] He’s not jacked. [Laughing] And it has taken a toll on his health. I mean, he talked about it. He talked about the toll that under sleeping has taken on him, both mentally and physically as well as working 100 plus hours a week, you know, for months on end. And so, yes, it’s admirable that somebody has the willpower to do that.
And I guess you could say in his case, there’s a big payoff, not just the money, but he probably is honestly driven by this mission to, like, get to Mars. So for him, he’s like, “fuck my health. I don’t care. I want to go to Mars.” And that’s admirable. I think it’s admirable. But let’s not …
Dr. Israetel: [00:33:19] Let’s not pretend it makes you jacked.
Mike : [00:33:20] You know, not only that, but it’s like, especially he’s sacrificing. He is making sacrifices. He could feel a lot better mentally, physically, psychologically, emotionally, if he weren’t pushing himself so hard. And for him, it’s worth it. But is it worth it if we’re talking about arguing with randoms on Twitter about Game of Thrones? It’s not the same.
Dr. Israetel: [00:33:41] Exactly. Right. Building a technological empire is not what’s keeping you awake, you know?
Mike : [00:33:45] Exactly. Exactly. And I can speak to this personally. I know we’re a little bit tight on time, so I don’t want to eat up too much. I want you to be able to keep going. But over the last couple of years – so over the last two to three years, my sleep has progressively gotten worse and stabilized at kind of a generally bad level.
And I don’t know if it’s a consequence of having another baby. It’s probably a number of things, having another baby who doesn’t sleep well, more stress as the businesses, as things get bigger. Yeah, it’s cooler, bigger numbers, but there are bigger problems, bigger headaches, the stakes are higher, more pressure in other issues that have added that have made my life more, I guess you could say just more stressful.
Fortunately, it hasn’t exhibited in the way of like, anxiety or anything. But I feel a bit less relaxed as a person than I did maybe five years ago. And I was sleeping great five years ago and I was one of those people. It was odd because I would naturally sleep about six and a half hours or so and wake up.
And I went four years like that. I was training hard, I was making progress, I was working hard. Like, I literally had no symptoms of undersleeping. I may have been. I probably was, but for some reason …
Dr. Israetel: [00:34:57] Almost certainly you weren’t. If you don’t have symptoms, you’re probably not undersleeping.
Mike : [00:35:00] So whatever it was, I would fall asleep in five minutes, and I would have blackout unconscious sleep, and I would wake up about six and a half hours later and that was it. And I’d rarely wake up at night. I even like, you know, wanted to see my deep sleep so I got one of those rings or something, and I was averaging around four hours, three to four hours of deep sleep.
So anyways, things seemed to be okay and then things are not okay. So I kind of have personal appreciation for the difference. Like if I’m not sleeping well, I’ll still go to the gym and I’ll still do my workouts, I don’t want to just drop exercise altogether, but I can appreciate now the difference that it makes. Like the RPE of workouts goes way up when you’re not sleeping well, so that alone can be the factor.
And in the case of my training, I have been a bit plateaued for some time now. I’ve made slow progress, but the number one reason is sleep and number two is the weight gain like you brought up. At least I’m cognizant of these things, so it doesn’t stress me out. I’m not like, “why am I stuck?” It’s that maybe I’ve been unwilling to, you know, lose my abs. And that doesn’t mean that I’m underfeeding myself, but it means that I’m not doing what it takes to make sure that I can progress.
Dr. Israetel: [00:36:10] Exactly. Absolutely. And you cover that last one. Fundamental, you know, weight gain. And then also just fundamental nutrition, because sometimes people are like, “Yeah, I’m gaining weight, but I eat like, a pizza day and a protein shake in the morning and that’s it.” If you go up to someone and you go, “do you deload?” “Yes.” “Okay, great.” If not, then you help them learn how to do it. Is your nutrition fundamentally good, are you sleeping, are you gaining weight, are you managing stress? If you x out all of those, most people, again, 97 percent, are no longer plateauing.
Mike : [00:36:37] It’s true.
Dr. Israetel: [00:36:37] You fixed their plateau.
Mike : [00:36:38] Assuming they have any sort of halfway intelligent workout programming.
Dr. Israetel: [00:36:43] 100 percent. Yep, totally. And now that brings us to the workout program. So the critical component of almost everyone who is concerned about plateauing is training hard enough in the sense that they bring their sets relatively close to failure and they’re trying to lift relatively heavy. Very few people. There’s the kind of people that don’t train hard enough, they’re usually just not concerned about plateaus.
Right? They’re just kind of read the newspaper between sets. So big factor in determining rates of gain is your volume, training volume. And that basically is on a spectrum from what we call minimum effective volume all the way to maximum recoverable volume. So here’s our trap people get caught in. They do their work out where they train their biceps every week, several sessions.
Total number of sets per week that they do for biceps, let’s say 10. When they were a beginner, their minimum effective volume was one set per week. You can get beginners to grow from one set of biceps per week. Like, literal first-timers. And after a couple of months, that might go to like six to eight sets a week, where you can make really good gains on just training your arms maybe twice a week for three or four sets at a time.
After one, two, three years, your minimum effective volume, the minimum amount of physical number of sets that it takes, hard sets, to grow your biceps might actually exceed 8 or 10. Right? And for many people – and your minimum effective volumes, slowly trends up through your entire lifting career.
So what you might be doing is running an amount of volume that is no longer sufficient to make gains for you and you’re sort of baffled and puzzled at the sort of details. It’s kind of like gaining weight from 100 pounds to 200 pounds to 300 pounds and wondering why like, an apple no longer fills you up. Well, you’re a different size now.
Like it’s going to take two, three, four apples, right? Same idea. So you’ve got to try to figure out what your minimum effective volume is and if you’re training above that. Second thing is, you’ve got to try to figure out what your maximum recoverable volume is and make sure you’re not training over that. The human body and every individual muscle can only recover from a certain amount of volume at a time. Period.
And if you exceed that amount of volume per week, especially, then your body spends all of its resources healing you from the muscle damage and has no resources left over to actually make you better. Recovery precedes adaptation. Right? So like, your body’s gonna try to fix you first and then it’s going to work on whatever it’s got left to make you better.
If you train so much that your body can only barely fix you or not even, you’re not recovering, then you essentially are in a position where you mathematically ruled out muscle growth altogether.
Mike : [00:39:13] Now, that’s pretty hard to do, though, right? I’m certainly very curious as to your thoughts. Something that I’ll often say is, for most people out there who want to be fit, take the average guy. To look the way he wants to look, he needs to gain probably around 40 pounds of muscle in the right places on his body.
For the average woman – at least these are the people in my orbit – the average woman, maybe 15 pounds, maybe a little bit more in the right places on her body. She’s pretty happy, of course, these people may at that point go, “hey, I want more. I want this. I want that.” But at that point, they’re probably at least 80 percent thereof like, “I look great and I’ll keep my body fat percentage around,” if the guys somewhere around 10 to 12 percent and the women 20-ish and they’re like, “cool, I look awesome.”
So those are the people I’m mostly speaking to. And for that, what I generally say is, 10 to 20 hard sets per major muscle group per week is like 10 would be closer to that minimal effective if you are not brand new and 20 would be closer to that maximum for recovery. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Israetel: [00:40:11] Yeah, I think that’s a very good place to start. But we just got to make sure that individuals are not left behind with that. So one of the newest pieces of research, which seems to be pretty solid, is that previously people who were called hardgainers or non responders in training studies, they were actually the ones with really high minimum effective volumes.
And it turns out training them more is actually more of a solution than training less. As you think like, “oh, it’s a recovery problem,” well, it’s probably not, they’re probably slower twitch individuals that just can handle a ton of volume and their hypertrophy signaling is just pretty robust in the sense they’re not robust, they just need a really big signal to grow.
So what I will say is, yeah, you could be one of those people from roughly ten is your minimum effective volume, but I’ll put it to you this way: if you’re training, let’s say, 12 or 14 sets per week for your whatever body parts and you notice that you don’t really ever get super big pumps, you’re not ever really like, remotely sore, and it just perceptively seems like just not a lot of effort, you’re like, “I’m breezing through it.” Man, it is a good chance you’re under your minimum effective volume or just really close to it so that you’re getting minimal effect.
Mike : [00:41:13] I would say that’s exactly me in that range.
Dr. Israetel: [00:41:16] Yeah. There you go.
Mike : [00:41:17] About, you know, 12, give or take, a few hard sets. It’s a good workout, but I didn’t feel like I had to work that hard to get through.
Dr. Israetel: [00:41:28] For sure. And then on the other side of the spectrum, there’s individuals that are basically, you know, people say like, “oh yeah, you have a MRV of 20, you should go up to 20 sets every now and again. You’ll be fine.” You know, some individuals at 16 sets per week, in the spend on the body part too, they could be like, just chronically sore what we call overlapping DOMS where you never actually heal, you just get sore and then get sore again and then get sore again on top of soreness, which people do and they expect results. Right?
Like, “oh, I watched a Kai Greene workout where he does 100 sets, I’m going to do that.” And crushing late-onset soreness, an inability to – basically get weaker and weaker from session to session or week to week – and they feel just completely overwhelmed, the amount of volume psychologically seems insane. Another one is to get a pump midway through the workout and their workouts are so voluminous that they lose their pump. Like the pump goes away or gets worse.
Mike : [00:42:16] That’s interesting. I’ve never had that happen.
Dr. Israetel: [00:42:18] Oh, yeah. When’s the last time you’ve done 30 sets for chest in one workout, right?
Mike : [00:42:23] Yup. Yup.
Dr. Israetel: [00:42:23] People do that kind of stuff, so that’s the thing. So it’s probably best to think of minimum effective volume and maximum recoverable on a per session basis actually than per week, although per week works just fine. So I would say anywhere between roughly three sets for an intermediate, three sets per session to about 10 sets per session per muscle group is where most of the best gains are going to be. But again, those modifiers have to be based on personal feedback.
If I’m saying, three, but you don’t feel a fucking thing at three do four, do five, do six. If I’m saying you should be able to survive ten productively, but at eight, you’re basically like a broken doll, like, Mr. Potato Head with his arm out. Yes, it’s probably too much for you, right? So it’s about finding your own volume landmarks and moving from your minimum effective volume to your maximum recoverable slowly over a mesocycle, deloading, and repeating that movement with heavier weights.
Fat is a huge thing because a lot of times when people have their ducks in a row for nutrition, sleep, weight gain, stress management, what they end up doing is, they’re just training below their MEV or above their MRV, trying to train above their MRV. I’ve actually had multiple people.
I’m sure you’ve had this experience where they’re like, “I’m trying this X, Y, Z program on musclebody.com again and I only made it through two weeks last time, do you have any tips on how I can make it more?” And I’m like, “what the fuck is wrong with you? Just cut the volume by half and try doing it again.”
“But then it doesn’t work.” Like, “works for who?!” You know, individuals vary in their recovery and adaptation proclivities, they just do. So you have to tailor the program yourself so you have to make sure you’re between everything, MRV. It’s not rocket science either, you know.
Mike : [00:43:53] At the same time, though, there aren’t that many people out there who are talking about it and who are explaining it in a way that anybody can understand it and actually do something with it and have a practical take away where they’re not just confused because of all the jargon. And, you know what I mean? So I think you’re doing a great job explaining it.
Dr. Israetel: [00:44:12] Well, thanks.
Mike : [00:44:13] I’m enjoying listening myself. It’s great.
Dr. Israetel: [00:44:15] Thank you so much. At the end of the day, it’s like, you know, are you getting pumps, are you getting a little bit sore, are you getting fatigued? If no, do more. Are you getting violently sore, is your performance going down session to session, do you feel completely crushed and overwhelmed by the amount of volume you do either per session or per week?
If yes, do less. There’s no way in which you can be getting crushed, “I’m super sore, and just unbelievably messed up.” And someone’s like, “oh, if you just alternate the way you move your thumbs on this exercise, you’ll get big.” Like, “What the hell are you talking about? There’s just no recovering from what you’re doing to yourself.”
There’s something we mention in our recovery book: if you train in excess of your maximum recovery volume, there’s nothing that’s going to save you. No amount of drugs, no amount of sleep, no amount of anything is going to save you. You’ve got to train less. On the other hand, if you’re not training enough, and by God, right, and brings me another quick point is a cool modification you can make to your program is to use frequency to modulate your volume landmarks.
So basically someone can say, “okay, here’s the deal. I’m trying to make my side delts bigger. I want to get those shoulder caps.” I can do 15 sets of side delts and I get a bit of a pump, I get a tiny bit sore, but the soreness heals like a day later. I train shoulders twice a week and I can do 15 sets each time, but I legitimately can tell you right now it’s not at my MRV. Like, I could do more per session, I just get too tired to do more and then I’m just using like the 10 pounds for laterals which I think is stupid.”
Mike : [00:45:34] I was trying to think of like 15 sets per session, no thanks.
Dr. Israetel: [00:45:37] Right, exactly. So then the response is, “well you do shoulders twice a week,” but they heal so fast that they are ready more than twice a week. “Well then just do them three times a week.” They’re like, “oh, okay.” So then you end up starting with 10 sets per session three times a week. And then because you’re baller enough to be able to do 15 sets per session.
Now you’re up to 45 sets per week. And look, if you don’t go from 45 sets, this shit is just not in the cards for you, right? Or your nutrition is wrong, sleep is wrong, so on, so forth. So it’s one of those things, if you discover that your minimum effective volumes per week are pretty high, or your maximum recurring volumes are so high that it’s hard for you to get into that range of main effect between MEV and MRV, then add sessions.
Okay? There’s nothing you can’t do with added sessions. You can do six workouts per week of shoulders with 10 sets each time. At ten sets for delts, you do five sets of laterals a minute rest between each one, and you do five sets of cable upright rows, a minute rest between each one. That takes like 20 minutes or something, that’s not the end of the world.
That’s 60 working sets per week. Okay? And if you take those to relatively close to failure, gee you know, that’s enough stimulus to grow for anybody. So I think the sort of the more salient point here is that people say, “my legs aren’t big enough. I need more legs. I’m already training super hard.” “How many times do you train legs per week?” “Well I train once. Leg day.” That’s a really bad idea.
It’s been shown in the literature that one time per week training, unless you’re really, really big and really, really strong, you’re going to heal soon enough, but you can capitalize on training again. And if you train so hard that you don’t heal soon enough, you’re training too hard in that session and you overwhelm your recovery and adaptation abilities and just you’re barely surviving at that point. Right?
Can you imagine someone asking, like, “hey, I need bigger legs.” And you’re like, “okay what are you doing for legs?” And they list this workout of like 40 working sets, so on and so forth. And you’re like, “oh my God, you’re clearly training enough.” Like, “yeah, I do that once every four weeks, though.” And you’re like, “what?! You train your legs once every four weeks?” “Yeah, otherwise I can’t recover.”
“Why don’t you train them easier and train them twice a week?” Like, “I never thought about it like that,” because, you know, there’s again, this ethos, of like you’ve got to pour it out into your muscle groups, right? You’ve got to suffer, you’ve got to milk it out. People are obsessed with finishers. You ever hear that term, “finisher”? “This is a good finisher for pecs.” Like “finisher” in my idea, is just something people do in porn, [laughing] but lo and behold, apparently it’s a thing in training as well.
Like, “oh, I really finished hard in my workout.” I’m like, “are we talking about the same thing, here?” [Laughing] “Me too, but it wasn’t really a workout, you know, I was by myself.” But in any case, it’s one of those things where it’s almost this catharsis, this religious drive to just milk everything out and just destroy the muscle. And the thing is, as somebody said back in the day, “kill your workout bro.” I’m like, “is it like a 500 meter out sniper shot kill?
Are we talking about carpet-bombing kill? What kind of kill are we talking about?” It’s kind of – what is it, stimulate, don’t annihilate? There’s a lot of truth to that. And stimulate means it’s fucking hard. We’re not saying do sissy workouts. It’s hard, but it’s not the end of the world. And as soon as you start training hard, three to ten sets per session close to failure, then all of a sudden you can recover from more sessions per week and you get better growth.
So when people are saying, well, “you know, I’m already training hard,” a lot of times you can zoom in on their frequency and be like, “okay, are you sure you’re training often enough and not too hard per session? Are you spreading out your volume?” Let me give you an almost perfect analogy for this.
In another realm that’s very related nutrition, have you ever had people tell you that they’re already eating a ton and can’t eat anymore because they can’t gain weight? You’re like, “all right, what are you eating?” And they describe this monstrous meal and you’re like “holy shit, this guy maybe is a hardgainer.” But you’ve been around long enough to be like, “how many of those do you eat a day?”
And they’re like, “one really, because I get so full after I can’t eat anymore.” “Well, here’s your problem idiot,” right, “maybe you could cut that meal by half and have four of those per day, it’s that consistent eating …” How many times when Brian Shaw or Hafthor Bjornsson, when they’re gaining weight, how many times have they vomit full? Almost never.
How many times are they very full? All the time, right? You don’t want to get vomit full when you’re gaining weight because it’s going to burn you out for your next meal. You get heartburn, psychologically, you’re like, “I’m not going to be vomiting every meal. Fuck that, I quit.” Right? So you’re just not gonna eat enough meals. So how big should your meals be for you to gain weight consistently? Big enough to really be tough to eat, but like three, four or five hours later, for you to be like, “all right, let’s do this again.” Same thing for workouts.
Mike : [00:49:57] Yeah. You know, that often comes down to appetite. I find a lot of guys who think that they’re hardgainers, they actually just have small appetites.
Dr. Israetel: [00:50:04] 100 percent.
Mike : [00:50:05] 2,500 calories a day to them is like, “oh, I’m so full.”
Dr. Israetel: [00:50:08] Dude, it’s so funny, people ask me, they’re like, “what are your macros like?” I’m like, “I just finished a fat loss phase.” They’re like, “what are your macros?” I’m like, “oh, roughly 2,700 calories per day or something like that.” And they’re like, “oh my God, that’s so much!” I’m like, “I’m starving to death! Are you out of your mind?!” [Laughing] They forget I weigh like 230 pounds.
It’s not a lot when you weigh 230, just a scaling factor. But in any case, it’s one of those situations where going back to the workout stuff, it’s not how hard you train every session so much as it is, are you doing enough work over the week? And if you are training so hard that you can’t recover to do enough work over the week, then you should probably think about expanding your frequency.
So it’s all really, really actual down-to-earth kind of advice: if you’re training a muscle group only once a week, don’t come and talk to anyone about plateaus because you have nothing to say about them because you’re not training often enough. If you’re training a muscle two times per week, consider three times.
If you’re training a muscle three times per week and it’s one of those situations where every single workout you’re like, “man, either I would get really sore if I did more or I feel like I can really do more and be just fine,” you know, maybe experiment with four times a week, especially if it’s a smaller muscle that heals really quickly, like side belts, rear belts, biceps, abs, forearms, traps, a lot of times you can train those every other day, sometimes even every day and be just fine.
If someone training their legs hard, 10 sets per session three times a week, like quads, I’m not inclined to be like, “add a fourth session.” Like you’re probably at the very end of what you could do. But it’s one of those situations where if you’re training once a week, stop, start training twice. If you’re training twice, experiment with three, you might be pleasantly surprised. If you’re training every muscle at least three times a week, adding a fourth session might work for the small muscles, it probably won’t work for the bigger ones and then you can look at other factors.
Mike : [00:51:46] Make sense. I would just add that for people who don’t have the time, they’ll say that they have maybe three to five hours a week, that they can be in the gym training. You’re not going to be able to train everything multiple times a week in that time, or least not with many volumes.
So you’re going to have to think with you could say specializing or you have to think with each mesocycle going, “all right, I’m going to do extra pulling,” you know, “that that’s gonna be my three times a week,” or, “I’m going to do extra, you know, my pecs are behind, so I’m going to do a bit more chest.” Obviously, if you have endless time – because I’m saying that because I hear from people who hear advice like that and they’re like, “yeah, that makes sense, but I actually don’t have the time to train everything that I want to train three times a week.”
Dr. Israetel: [00:52:25] Yeah, you and I are on a seamless connection here. That was literally gonna be my next point, you have to consider your limitations and try to work within them to allocate volume where you want to grow. So there’s a couple of limitations. One of them is scheduling, like you just don’t have enough time. Another one is you’re reaching what’s called your syso.
In the MEV to MRV discussion you could reach your local maximum recoverable volume where you’re just training too much for your muscles to recover and training less is the answer. But there’s another kind of maximum recoverable volume called a systemic MRV, which is if you train chest, and shoulders, and back, and quads and you train them a lot, your total body system recovery starts to get really, really impinged and it becomes difficult for you to survive anymore hard training.
Once you hit your systemic MRV or you’re close to it, you can’t just add more volume for body parts because your whole body starts to rebel against you, just too much of a fight or flight state, you can’t recover from that much training. So a lot of times the answer there is the same answer, if your schedule is keeping you from doing more or if you’re schedule free, but you’re hitting your systemic MRV because you’re trying to grow everything all at the same time, it’s a matter of backing up to maintenance volume, which is actually quite low.
It’s sometimes a third of what your MEV to MRV volume is. Maintenance volume on stuff you don’t super care about expanding right now and then go on MTV to MRV, normal training volume progression on the stuff you care about. So like you said, if you want to really improve your back, your chest might have to be on a back burner, which means just a couple of sets of chest every other session is gonna be fine.
And then people say, “well, but then I don’t grow my chest.” Well, there’s no way around this. Just as a public service announcement, because I’m feeling like an asshole today, is one of most baffling things that I’ll hear, is people that are like, “I can’t train anymore than three times a week and I want to bring up everything, but I’m at a plateau, what do I do?” “I got nothing for you.”
It’s like, “I want to go 200 miles an hour in a Ford Focus, but I don’t want to soup it up or get a new car.” Well, it’s just not gonna happen. There’s no trick, there’s no quirk, there’s no hack. Sorry, you just have to do more work and or reallocate your efforts.
Mike : [00:54:19] The one question that’s still front of brain for me is intensity. Anything on rep ranges?
Dr. Israetel: [00:54:26] It’s not super important, but I think a spectrum of repetition ranges is a good idea. So there’s generally three spectra of rep ranges. There’s the 5 to 10 rep range, the 10 to 20 rep range, and the 20 to 30 rep range. Anything heavier than that is a waste of your time, anything lighter than that is a waste of time for muscle growth.
So I think that if you’re exclusively training in one of those ranges for a muscle group and you haven’t experimented the other ranges, try the other. So basically, your average mesocycle should have probably 50 percent of your volume in the 10 to 20 range, 25 percent of your volume in the 5 to 10 range, and 25 percent of your volume in the 20 to 30 range.
And here’s where this actually threads into another thing I was going to bring up, you should be watching your body to see where you get your best pumps, your best soreness, your best mind-muscle connection. Which rep range? Maybe do a bit more in that rep range less than the others. You know what I mean?
So some guys will squat their sets of six and their sets of six squats will just hurt their knees and nothing else. But when they squat for sets of 15, it blows up the quads like crazy and their knees are fine. You should probably just be doing more sets of 15 and less sets of 6. Not exclusively, but a little bit of a bias factor there.
And on that note, there is something – this is a very minor note, right, is maybe you don’t have a sufficiently strong mind-muscle connection or the exercise you’re using are really poor for mind muscle connection. This usually occurs at body parts like the back, parts you can’t see where there could be a technical issue.
So, for example, people will say, “my hamstrings aren’t doing so well.” “Do you know how to do a proper deadlift?” Their technique sort of looks okay but if you guide them through feeling their hamstrings on it, they’re like, “oh my God, my hamstrings are sore for the first time ever.” “Yeah, you were hinging at the hip and the knee too much. You should be isolating the knee a bit more.”
Mike : [00:56:02] Yup. I run into that with bench presses with guys sometimes too.
Mike : [00:56:05] All the time. Exactly. Benchpress doesn’t feel like anything. First of all, we improve your technique. We teach you how to arch and retract, all the sudden boom, your pecs are getting hit. Or maybe you are more of an incline dumbbell press kind of guy. So it’s searching for techniques that allow better mind-muscle connection and sometimes for exercises.
And lastly, every now and again, and for beginners, this is not a thing, but for intermediates every three to five mesocycles, your body just gets tired of training with high volumes and gets tired of growing. And this happens at a muscle-specific and probably a central level as well or systemic level.
So every now and every half a year to year, you should probably take a month of really low volume training, like literally maintenance volume, kind of like a powerlifter would train, a month of no pumps, no soreness, just lifting relatively heavy and just leaving the gym twice a week for each body part, two to four sets per session. That’s it.
And what that can do is, it can re-sensitize you to muscle growth because your body is just tired of doing it. It’s kind of like saying, “my work performance is really slumped, I feel burnt out.” Go on vacation. You come back and everything’s bright as ever and super new. So I think those low volume phases, we would call them desensitization phase in literature, maintenance phases, they’re really quite effective.
Their research is supported in a variety of contexts. So it’s actually been shown that if you take every for weeks, if you take two weeks off of training completely, at the end of that entire block, you grow as much as someone who never took any time off, which is kind of interesting. Right? So you’re not going to lose a crap load of muscle doing it. You’re going to lose zero muscle and it’s going to revitalize every sensitize you to grow more muscle.
Mike : [00:57:36] Yeah, that’s an interesting tip. I was reviewing that research with, I don’t remember, just recently. That’s something that I haven’t worked into my training. But I can think of times where I kind of worked out that way and it seemed to help.
Dr. Israetel: [00:57:49] Yep. Things just get really stale and the train of a little less and you come back and boom, you’re getting pumps and you’re getting soreness from way smaller number of steps than you’re used to getting. Sometimes, you ever feel in your training that you’re just spinning your wheels? You’re like, “I could just be doing squats forever. I don’t even get pumps or so anymore,” like that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Mike : [00:58:03] Yeah, yeah. It’s very true again. I’ve been there on and off over the last couple of years. I’ve had some periods where I’m sleeping well, everything’s okay and I’m making progress and then periods where I’m not sleeping so well and stress is higher and I’ve just accepted it and I just keep on going to the gym and I don’t let it get me down.
It is what it is. If I could snap my fingers, if I could wave my magic wand and all of a sudden, you know, and not have to experience the stress or the sleep disruptions, I would. Anyway, so this is all great information. I mean, honestly, touched on every point that I had.
Is there anything beyond where can people find you? My next question is where can people find you and what do you have new and exciting that is coming and what else do you want people to know about you and what you’re doing?
Dr. Israetel: [00:58:45] Thanks so much. Yeah, it’s been a pleasure. I think just work through, like, rewind the podcast and work through sequentially all the stuff we talked about because we talked about it and we had a really good alignment on what’s most likely to get you in trouble first. One, know what your plateau is or if you’re even having one.
Another one, make sure you deloading. Then make sure your nutrition, weight gain, stress management, etc. Then your volume landmarks, then talk about your systemic versus local fatigue, and do you need a low volume phase, and are you really targeting the lats like you’re supposed to?
Because a lot of people will start first with the last one. Right? Like, “I’m having trouble growing my lats, should I do underhand curl, or pull ups, or overhand?” “You’re not gonna point to me, someone with huge lats and say it’s for sure underhand pull ups that did it. So I can tell you that guy with huge lats probably sleeps pretty well, eats pretty well,” you know what I mean, “and consistently trains.”
So just going through that process and not thinking there’s any magic. And as far as where people can find me, RPStrength on Instagram is the company that I helped co-found, Renaissance Periodization, we got all kinds of digital products, tons of books if you wanna learn more about explaining all this much more in depth, we have an app that writes your diet for you and coaches you through AI.
It’s called the RP Diet App, it’s on Android and iPhone. Just go to Google Play iTunes store and get them. And then I’m at @RPDRMIKE on Instagram and I post videos and stuff and I’m on Facebook too and I post a lot of good stuff. I think? There may be mostly half naked pictures of myself, sometimes videos and I’ve got a paysite where I do much cooler shit. [Laughing] I’m totally kidding, but I should probably give that some thought.
Mike : [01:00:12] The premium Snapchat.
Dr. Israetel: [01:00:15] That’s all I’ve got. Exactly. Oh yeah.
Mike : [01:00:17] All right, awesome man. I really appreciate you taking the time. Would love to have you back, it was a great discussion.
Dr. Israetel: [01:00:21] Thank you so much. Take care.