If you’re training your body, you expect results over time. Many factors affect the return you get from your training, including genetics, diet, and the way you train. Still, you might wonder what the biggest factor is in determining how much strength you gain or how much muscle you gain in response to training. Based on a new study, researchers believe they have an answer and it might surprise you!
When researchers looked at 24 studies of 1,000 women that involved resistance training to determine the most important factors for success, they found the biggest factor that influenced the results was how frequently the participants worked out. Next in importance was the number of reps and the total number of sets.
What does this mean? It suggests that the most important factor for training success is consistency. You can’t extrapolate this data to men since all the participants were women. However, it does suggest that training consistently is important for maximizing strength-training returns.
You Need a Plan
What is consistency anyway? It means showing up for your scheduled workouts and giving it your best unless you’re sick or have an emergency that gets in the way. But it’s more than that! To be consistent, you must have a training program and schedule to follow. Too often, people “play it by ear” when they train. They do exercises they feel like doing on a particular day. It’s important to listen to your body and adapt your workouts based on what it tells you, but a disorganized approach won’t help you make gains. If you don’t have a planned approach, you’ll end up not using progressive overload and won’t maximize your gains.
To plan a training program, you must first understand your goals. Is it to build strength, hypertrophy your muscles, or get leaner and more conditioned? The intensity with which you lift will determine your approach. For example, if your ultimate goal is to get super-strong, you’ll lift heavy during many of your sessions and do fewer repetitions. For general conditioning, you would lift lighter and do higher repetitions. For muscle hypertrophy, it’s somewhere in-between with moderate resistance and volume.
There’s another option too. Many people periodize their workouts where they focus on strength during one cycle and hypertrophy or endurance during other cycles. Doing this helps reduce the risk of overtraining and adds variety for mental stimulation.
Whether you periodize or not, it’s important to have a plan and know what you’ll be doing before each workout. Your plan may be different from someone else’s based on your goals, your current body weight, your health history, the equipment you have, your current fitness level, and whether you have limitations such as injuries. Regardless, you need a plan to be consistent and must use progressive overload to increase the challenge over time. Research shows that increasing the weight by 5 to 10% weekly is ideal for maximizing the results you get from strength training.
Choose Your Time
Another factor that can impact how consistent you are is when you choose to exercise. Are you a morning or evening person? If you wake up ready to go, a morning workout might be for you. The other advantage of morning workouts is it is less likely something will interfere with you getting your workout in. That works for many people, but there are disadvantages if you’re lifting weights or working your body against resistance. You’re strongest in the late afternoon and early evening, corresponding to the time that your body temperature is higher. So, you may push yourself a little harder or lift a little heavier if you wait until later in the day to train. Try it both ways and decide which works best for you. However, consistency is ultimately more important than being able to lift a little more. Choose a time you can stick with.
Fix Your Form
Using sloppy form not only limits your gains, it interferes with consistency. How? Bad form contributes to injuries and an injury can keep you from training for days, weeks, or even months. The best way to prevent injury is to do exercises the right way and with intention. Get your form right before picking up heavy weights. It’s not just how much you lift it’s how you lift it.
Nutrition Matters Too
Although the study looked only at factors related to training, you need good nutrition to make consistent gains. People often think that exercise is the most important part of the physique-building equation, however, studies show that physique enhancement and weight loss is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. If you don’t supply your body with macronutrients and micronutrients, it won’t perform up to par and your muscles won’t have the nutritional support they need to repair and grow. Women sometimes fall short on calories and protein, and that can limit gains.
Even if you do everything right, it can take a few months to see significant gains in muscle size. Modest strength gains come a bit earlier, as strength training also involves the brain and nervous system adaptations, and these happen earlier. Be patient, be consistent, and give it time.
The Bottom Line
Being consistent and making each workout purposeful will help you make the greatest gains. Know what you want to accomplish, have a plan, be consistent about following the plan, and use progressive overload. Plan your diet so you’re getting enough protein and total calories to fuel your workouts and help your muscles repair and grow. It’s a simple concept, but it’s sometimes hard for people to be consistent and stay the course. Know where you’re going, how to get there, and then follow the path to success. It’s a recipe for success in many endeavors, not just muscle building!
- The Effect of Resistance Training in Women on Dynamic Strength and Muscular Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Amanda D. Hagstrom, Paul W. Marshall, Mark Halaki & Daniel A. Hackett. Sports Medicine volume 50, pages1075–1093(2020)
- org. “Pre- and Post-workout Nutrition for Strength Training”
- org. “In Training, Consistency Is the Key to Your Fitness Goals”