Once upon a time, I penned an article for elitefts titled 5 Key Lessons From Contest Prep. Said article touched on the trials of getting truly lean, managing your expectations, the value in being stubborn as all hell, shaking the feeling of thinking you could have done more, and the importance of focusing on the process over the outcome. All valuable lessons for many a lifter, regardless of a desire to step on stage. Pivoting away from contest season with those lessons top of mind, it came time to put my head back down and tackle the improvement season.

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Fast forward to present day, where I’ve since had the experience of moving through my first true bodybuilding off-season, and I’m now sitting eight weeks (give or take) out from stepping on stage at Canadian Nationals. Given the advantage of hindsight and the progress I enjoyed during a productive six-month off-season, it's high time to share what I found to be the most valuable lessons from placing all my efforts on getting big, without letting my physique get sloppy.

If your goal is to build muscle, develop a “wow-factor” to your physique, and improve month after month, the muscle building principles below will chart your course on the right path.

And away we go.

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Lesson 1: Building muscle is a game of reps

I’ve said it before, and you can be damn sure that I’ll say it again: Consistency. Is. King.

We’re not just talking about the reps you put in at the gym, either. Your recovery, your health as a whole, your nutrition, your supplementation, and your levels of stress and anxiety all matter. All these variables play into the muscle tissue you’re trying to build and the physique you’re chasing.

For as important as it is that you’re in the gym training consistently, all the factors above are equally (if not more) important. Mailing in your nutrition for months at a time while not paying a single fuck of attention to your recovery will all but guarantee that you stranglehold your progress and don’t see the results you're chasing. It all matters, and it all requires a consistent, persistent attention to detail.

That being said, it doesn’t mean you have to be as strict as your third-grade teacher back when she forced you to read aloud the notes you were passing. But you do need to have a semblance of consistency established in your routine.

Allow yourself a little wiggle room to be lackadaisical, but don’t lose sight of your end goal.

Lesson 2: Size for the sake of size is NOT the way to go

There’s a tendency amongst many competitors and general population lifters to abide by the see-food diet when adding size is the goal. If you’re not familiar with the see-food diet, it’s essentially that anything edible you set your eyes on goes down the hatch. See food, eat food. 

This is not an effective, nor a healthy way to go about adding mass to your physique.

Not only will you increase the likelihood of losing symmetry, adding more fat than needed, and losing sight of your end goal, but continuously shoveling as much food down your throat as you can is a poor long-term strategy that can have negative impacts on your health. To name a few, you may experience blunted insulin sensitivity, appetite irregularity, and a poor relationship with food itself.

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To that end, you want to avoid eating as much food as you can physically stomach at every chance you get. The fact that you have more freedom in terms of food choices and amounts doesn’t mean you should abuse said freedom.

To sum this up, the operative point here is a simple fact that you can overdo your caloric intake. Should you end up accruing too much body fat, not only will you have to deal with the deleterious effects of systemic inflammation and rampant health markers, but you’ll make your diet that much harder on yourself.

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Lesson 3: Your Body has the final say

You can have the best-laid plan in the world, everything down pat, and every advantage in the world — meals prepped for you, no stress, healthy relationships, a robust social life, and the list goes on. But if your body has other ideas...well, to be honest, you’re fucked.

To share a personal example: In the midst of my off-season, it was clear that I was pushing the threshold for how much body fat I was accumulating, so we (my coach and I) set out to strip some of that away. With an initial cut of adding in three cardio sessions per week, and slashing carbs by 50%, we envisioned this only taking three to four weeks to reset before pushing back up again.

On paper, it was a great plan. In reality, my body had other ideas and raised two stiff middle fingers to the both of us. For what dragged out to a total of eight weeks, my weight didn’t budge (despite bringing carbs down even further), my appetite didn’t come back, and I only got marginally leaner. This was my body doing its own thing, regardless of the plan we had. This is why your body will always have the final say. Learn to heed its words.

The Final Reps

To use one of my favorite phrases surrounding muscle growth, tissue takes time. There is no silver bullet, no magic pill, and no shortcuts to adding quality mass to your physique, competitor or not. Your threshold for building muscle and developing your physique is capped by two things:

  1. Your genetic potential (of which there’s not much you can do to change that).
  2. Your ability to remain consistent, keep your head down, and put in the work, even when it may seem fruitless.

Remember the fact that building muscle is a game of reps across all facets of training, and always will be. Remember that doing whatever you can to watch the scale rise for the sake of doing so is not a healthy or viable long-term plan. Remember that your body will always have the final say on what happens, no matter what.

In closing, once more with feeling: tissue takes time.