There was a long time when I couldn’t get stronger in the gym in the lifts I was chasing.
For example, with the bench press, I’d lift and go right to literal failure. I’d struggle each set. Then next week, I’d struggle even to match what I did the last week.
I had hit a plateau, and it felt like hard work to keep treading water. So I started problem-solving.
- I’m lifting consistently, 3x a week
- I’m sleeping 8–9 hours a night, and feel like I’m recovering well, so there’s no problem there
After ruling out training and sleep, the next problem I thought would be that I wasn’t eating enough protein.
I’m lifting and sleeping well and not getting stronger. Must be protein intake, right?
So I started doing 90g whey isolate protein with a scoop of maltodextrin as a workout shake before the gym.
Then, I had read one study where researchers took already strong college guys, and by having lots of whey, they were building muscle and getting leaner at the same time.
On average, these strong college lifters lost 2 pounds of fat and gained 6 pounds of lean mass in six weeks. They had been working their way up to 150g of whey every single day. From the study:
Week 6: 4 scoops [of whey] with 500 ml of water post-training on training days, 4 scoops with 500 ml of water between meals on non-training days, 2 scoops prior to bed each day (6 total scoops each day)
So I started having 150g of whey daily—75g whey shakes twice a day.
Did I start getting better results?
Even after months of having tons of whey every single day and training consistently—I didn’t get the results I wanted. I was confused.
All I knew was that my whey protein habit was getting:
- Expensive. 150g a day is 1kg of whey a week, or basically a huge 5lb tub of protein every two weeks. (Close to $150 USD a month just in protein powder.)
- Annoying. Drinking two huge shakes of protein powder every single day isn’t exactly as enjoyable as lying on the beach with a cold beer.
Unfazed, I then tried other methods like protein spacing for maximum protein synthesis. I started having 30g of protein every 3–5 hours without fail. That would give my body a steady delivery of the building blocks it needed—more gains, right?
But still, my plateau remained.
I didn’t understand what was happening.
- Lifting 3x a week with enough effort—check
- I was eating at least 80% whole foods—check
- I was eating enough high-quality fats and carbs—check
- Sleeping at least 7.25 hours every night (I was sleeping 8–9 hours per night)—check
- Recovering properly (I had one rest day between each workout)—check
- Showed up consistently for months and months on end—check
- Eating at least 1g per bodyweight of protein—double-check
What would you have changed?
Well, I hope you wouldn’t go do what I did. I started buying more even more supplements. Beta-alanine, citrulline malate, l-tyrosine, and caffeine for pushing myself, and I had re-ordered another tub of creatine.
I won’t bore you with too much more detail. But it’s safe to say I’ve spent thousands of dollars on useless supplements, and also I’ve wasted legit supplements (whey) by having too much of them when there were other problems to fix.
So what was my problem?
I needed to change things up training-wise.
Believe it or not, but lifting is one of the best ways to activate muscle-protein synthesis.
I thought that I could just eat enough protein, and my body would tack it onto my muscle.
But my body needed a reason to add that protein to my muscle. Unless my body got the stimulus from lifting it needed to signal to put that protein into my muscle, it would just burn up that extra protein as heat.
But I was already lifting 3x a week—right? Well, my body needed a change to force an adaptation. I had already adapted to what I was currently doing, so my body didn’t need to get bigger and stronger.
Even though I was fighting to keep my strength, I made the counter-intuitive change to work out more often by training 5x a week. This was a huge step in getting back to seeing rapid results. There are a few reasons this could have helped.
- Training 5x a week could have been a novel stimulus for me.
- Training 5x a week allowed me to radically and easily increase my total “volume” of work.
- I likely had a fairly bad “work capacity.” When you only work out 3x a week, you need more sets per workout. My bad conditioning was likely making the sets at the end of my long 3x a week workouts pretty useless (and perhaps making recovery harder than it needed to be.) I didn’t exactly have the best cardio. Even today, after working on it quite a bit, I definitely couldn’t run a half-marathon tomorrow (good nerd article on cardio and how it impacts lifting by StrongerByScience). Getting in fresh sets every day by working out more often allowed me to get in higher-quality reps and build my work capacity (while putting some focus on increasing my aerobic capacity.)
- I started playing with a larger variety of rep-ranges. Instead of just sticking in the 8-12 rep “hypertrophy/size” zone, I started going as low as 1-rep sets and as high as 30-rep sets. Your training style impacts your muscle fibre adaptations (study), and so I needed some variety there. Your muscle can have mitochondria, myofibrils and sarcoplasmic adaptations. Plus, new research is showing that certain genetics may make some people get better gains in different rep ranges compared to others. (study)
I fixed more in my training. It wasn’t all about the frequency of working out.
For example, there’s a 2019 study from Dr Schoenfeld showing that you shouldn’t go to failure on heavy lifts (it impacts recovery and reduces gains while introducing risk of injury), but you could on lighter lifts as it may be necessary for full muscle recruitment. And going to failure on lighter lifts doesn’t seem to impact recovery the same way going to failure on heavy lifting does.
The big picture matters
Anyways, all this to say if you’re stuck right now—supplements likely won’t be the solution. Overdosing on protein powder wasn’t enough to change the fact that my weak link was in my training.
To be totally clear, I still think protein powder can be incredibly helpful for reaching daily goals necessary to build muscle. But overdosing, like I was, won’t fix the other gaps in what you’re doing.
If you’re feeling plateaued, perhaps take some time to look at your training program.
- Does it match your goals and interests? If you don’t “buy in” to the program, you may hold yourself back.
- Does it match your current level? Beginner, intermediate, advanced? If you’ve been lifting awhile, you might need something more challenging to continue to grow.
- Does your current program get you results? If not, you might want to try switching it up to a new professionally designed program that aligns with your goals and experience level and see how it goes.