12 Little Changes For Big Gains

Training, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Tweaks You Need

Get bigger, get leaner, and build strength without overhauling your whole dang life. Make these simple changes and tweaks.

The Question

What’s your favorite simple change that leads to major progress?

Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Go to bed.

I have a soon-to-be one-year old at home. Before he was born I remember my wife reading anything and everything in order to best prepare us for Babypocalypse.

  • What do we feed him?
  • How often do we feed him?
  • What needs to be baby-proofed?
  • How long before I can start training him for the 2040 Summer Olympics?

There was one topic, though, we were most interested in: sleep. When, where, and how the heck were we going to get him to sleep? I kid you not, my wife read a 500 page book on that topic alone and it saved us. Saved us.

In short, when your baby or toddler is being a whiny, cantankerous a-hole and you’ve addressed the obvious – not hungry, diaper isn’t a disaster, isn’t running around with a pair of scissors – the likely culprit is sleep, or lack thereof.

The same idea can be applied to adults. Time and time again the one thing I adjust the most with my athletes, especially when they’re not seeing progress in the gym, is their sleep habits. The answer is usually not cryotherapy, submersion baths, rubbing melted cacao nibs on your junk, or whatever kooky modality you can think of.

Sleep is the one thing that’ll singlehandedly have the most profound affect on your ability to get shredded, deadlift a bulldozer, beat Jason Bourne in a fist fight, or any other fitness/performance endeavor you can think of.

That being said, here are some other random tidbits of badassery:

1. Nutrition

Focus on process goals, which is a nifty trick I stole from strength coach Greg Nuckols. These are tiny, bite-sized, manageable goals that will help “supplement” the bigger picture. Revamping one’s nutrition or dietary habits is often the first hump to tackle with any fitness goal and can be a daunting task to say the least. So daunting that people are quick to abandon ship and get frustrated if they don’t look like The Rock within three months.

I work with a lot of guys who are looking to add size. Something I’ll tell them to do is to think of 2-3 process goals they can achieve daily that will help them hit their larger goal. Some examples might be:

I’ll then tell them to print out a calendar and post it where they’ll see it everyday. From there I’ll tell them to write down their process goals so that each day they follow through they can place a checkmark or cross them off on the calendar. The idea is to achieve 90% compliance each week.

There’s something magical that happens when people are able to see legitimate proof that they’re nailing their goals. It helps to keep them accountable and on task. And, after awhile, the law of consistency will take over. Granted, they still won’t look like The Rock, but it stands to reason they won’t look like Screech either.

2. Training

I had a male client express frustration that he wasn’t seeing the strength gains he’d hoped for. I looked at his program and noticed it was blank. The exercises were listed of course, along with the number of sets and reps requested, but that was it. No creases in the paper, chicken scratch, or even stick figures to remind him what a pull-through was. It was as if I had handed him his program an hour ago.

“So, uh, how much weight did you use for you squats last week?”
(Crickets chirping)
“There’s your problem.”

He was more or less guessing and going off memory each week. Sound familiar?

Simple Fix: Write your shit down. Track it. Stop playing the guessing game. I know we live in a tech savvy world now and there’s an app for everything, but I still find using a regular ol’ notebook and pen my preferred way to log workouts.

Along with tracking sets/reps I’ll also make note of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and even write down general observations of how I feel on any given day. All of it provides pertinent information which allows me to gauge progress and make necessary tweaks to programs moving forward.

Do it. DO IT.

Tom MacCormick – Personal Trainer, Online Coach

Avoid distraction. Especially at the dinner table.

Ever inhaled your lunch at work while checking email, Facebook, or working on a report for your boss? In our hyper-connected world, I’m sure you’ve found yourself doing something similar. This distracted eating is a physique-ruining habit you need to break. How? Hara hachi bu.

It’s a Japanese phrase which roughly translates to “eat until 80% full.” So when helping someone get lean I ask them to say (or think) this phrase at the start of the meal. The purpose is that they eat until comfortably full, not stuffed.

This advice works on two levels. First, it helps them to eat less and reduce calories. And second, it encourages mindful eating. Mindfulness helps people avoid going beyond what they really need, and actually helps them enjoy their food.

When you’re distracted it’s easy to over consume food without even noticing that you’re getting full. Research proves this too. Studies show that people eat considerably more calories when dining in front of the TV. Mindful eating helps to address this.

It takes your mind about 20 minutes to receive the signals from your stomach that you’re full. So eliminating distractions will help you slow down, increase awareness, and eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed. It also helps to prevent you from random cookie binges by encouraging you to eat at set times and with others, rather than snacking mindlessly on whatever’s within reach.

A recap of mindful eating:

  • Eat slowly and without distraction.
  • Listen to your body’s hunger cues.
  • Eat only until you’re satisfied.
  • Eat with people, if possible, and at set times and places.
  • Distinguish between physical hunger and psychological triggers for eating.
  • Increase awareness by noticing sight, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes.
  • Eat to maintain overall health and well-being.
  • Understand the effects food has on your mood, energy, and physique.
  • Appreciate and enjoy food.

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

Keep things simple.

Consistency wins, and the biggest obstacle for most is changing too many things at one time. Keep things simple. Here are a few small changes that lead to big improvements:

  1. Training: Extend the eccentric phase (negative) of all your reps with a 3-4 second count. You’ll likely end up lifting lighter weight, but get better results because your focus will shift from the movement to the muscle.
  2. Recovery: Drink Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon) before and during workouts. There’s a reason I hate to train without it. No single supplement, in the 25 years I’ve been competing, improves stamina and recovery like Surge® Workout Fuel. I also can’t think of an easier thing to do than switch from water or a BCAAs to Surge Workout Fuel during workouts.
  3. Diet: Add raw, fermented vegetables to at least one meal per day. So much of our health and wellbeing is linked to balanced gut flora. Adding fermented foods is a simple and cost effective way to add nutrients like vitamin K and support the immune system through a healthy gut.

Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director

Superset everything.

If you could shave 20 or more minutes off your training time while building more muscle, burning more fat, and improving joint mobility, that’d be a pretty sweet deal, right? So, do it. Nick Tumminello called it active recovery. Tony Gentilcore called them fillers.

I’ll keep it traditional and call it supersetting, as long as we agree to expand the term’s definition away from the strict bodybuilding method – pairing two resistance exercises either for the same body part or for different body parts – and towards a much more general definition of “doing anything between sets that isn’t sitting still, standing still, flirting with cardio bunnies, or playing with your phone.”

Supersets are a very simple way to do more stuff during a workout, as opposed to having more downtime during a session. On the most basic level, you already know that moving more is a good thing and it’ll get you in better shape. You just overlook it when convenient, because less rest during a workout means… more work during a workout.

In a given session, you’ll end up either doing the same amount of work in less time or you do more total work in the same amount of time, depending on the details of how you arrange things. That straight-forward formula basically means you slipped in a free conditioning workout on top of the exact same training you were already doing.

It’s also an easy way to fit in the mobility work you never seem to find time for. Mobility drills can be superset with basically anything, anytime. Pick a few drills that target areas you need to work on and hit them for a few reps throughout a session.

If you’re training for strength and concerned about supersets taking away from performance, you can always use low intensity mobility work (preferably for a body part or movement pattern used in the lift) between sets. When in doubt, something for the T-spine or for the hips is never a bad call.

You could also experiment with accessory work not related to the session’s main lift, like dumbbell benching with heavy squats or goblet squats with heavy overhead work. That would require more attention to programming (especially frequency and volume), but it’s absolutely an option.

If you’re training for size, classic supersets are obviously the right choice. Double-up on two exercises for the same body part (like pulldowns and rows), hit an antagonist (the classic pressdown-curl combo), or plug in an unrelated body part to give it some extra attention (like calves between benching).

And if you’re training for fat loss, it’s game on. You can throw together pretty much whatever it takes to keep your heart rate elevated from start to finish. It’ll be challenging and you’ll get sweaty, but you’ll get into serious fighting shape.

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Improve your exercise order.

Conventional wisdom says to always start with the bigger or more demanding exercise first. Start the workout with the exercises that have the greatest neurological requirements and then move on toward the ones with the lowest demand.

And it makes total sense because both your neural and energetic resources are at their highest at the beginning of a workout. But what works in theory doesn’t always lead to the best practical results. So here are some tips:

1. Use a Primer

When you have a lagging muscle group, use a primer as Dr. Rusin calls it. This means doing an isolation exercise for that lagging muscle prior to doing your big lift of the day.

In essence you’re “waking up” a muscle you have trouble using/feeling fully in your big lift (it’s called peripheral activation). For example, that might mean:

  • Doing a glute exercise before squatting if you’re very quad dominant.
  • Doing a straight-arm pulldown before rowing or chins if your traps dominate and you have a hard time recruiting your lats.
  • Doing a pec isolation move before benching if your delts are dominant and you have lagging pecs.

Don’t do the primer with the same intensity as the other exercises because you don’t want to fatigue the muscle, just increase peripheral activation and practice “feeling” that muscle work.

2. Do Speed Work at the End

If you’re fairly explosive already, doing your speed work at the end of the workout can be very effective.

This is especially true when talking about “Westside” speed work (bench, squat, or deadlift with 50-60% of your max with max acceleration). When someone’s good at utilizing the stretch reflex he will produce so much acceleration in the beginning of the lift that the last part (more than half) of the range of motion is actually spent decelerating.

Think of it as a car driving toward a wall; it will have to put the brake on before it hits the wall, and the faster it goes the sooner it needs to brake. Same thing with lifting: you’ll have to put the brakes on before the end of the range of motion to protect the joints. And the more speed you can produce in the initial part of the movement, the sooner you decelerate.

As such, you’re training your nervous system to decelerate in the key portion of the lift (if you’re an athlete). If you do your speed work near the end of the workout or right after some heavy lifting you won’t be able to produce as much speed in the initial part of the movement. The result? You’ll accelerate for a greater portion of the lift, maybe even reaching a high top speed. This doesn’t work well with naturally slower individuals.

3. Isolate Lagging Muscles First

If you have a lagging muscle group, train it first in the session, even if it means starting out with a few isolation movements before hitting the heavy stuff. Your priority should be to fix your weakness, so it doesn’t matter if, in the short term, you use a bit less weight on your big lift. Once the weakness is fixed you can go back to a more traditional order.

4. Train the Brachialis First

When training arms, start by training the brachialis with slow hammer curl variations.

If you train the biceps first it’ll be harder to target the brachialis properly. First because a maximally pumped bicep reduces the range of motion and those last degrees of flexion are super important to target the brachialis. Second because you won’t be able to use as much weight on your brachialis movements.

You should be stronger with a neutral (hammer) grip than a supinated (normal) or pronated (reverse) grip. As such, you should do it first in the workout when the CNS is fresher. It’ll also act as neural activation for the other exercises.

These are just a few examples, but you should really pay a lot of attention to your exercise order. Depending on your objective, what’s optimal might be different than what you originally thought.

Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Use blood flow restriction training.

Blood flow restriction (BFR) training, also known as occlusion training, isn’t new but it’s been rising in popularity. And research backs it up.

In the book, Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld writes, “The prevailing body of literature shows that BFR training stimulates anabolic signaling and muscle protein synthesis and markedly increases muscle growth despite using loads often considered too low to promote significant hypertrophy.”

What exactly is BFR? It’s the partial obstruction of circulation in the working muscle. You’d do it by wrapping a restrictive implement (wraps, bands, cuffs) around the limbs while doing the lift. Here’s Mark Dugdale doing it:

The objective is to occlude venous flow without significantly affecting arterial circulation. So ideally you’d wrap it at a tightness of about 7 out of 10. As a rule, if you can’t find a pulse then the wrap is too tight. Use a weight between 20% to 40% of your 1RM.

The reason why BFR works is believed to be caused from the metabolic stress. This is the build-up of training byproducts called metabolites, which enhance anabolism by a variety of mechanisms, including the release of growth factors. In addition, the production of metabolites drive cellular signaling in a manner that enhances protein synthesis and satellite cell activation – essential elements needed for muscle growth.

Another advantage of BFR? The weights required are low (20-40%) so there’s less of the joint stress that’s related to maximal loaded exercises.

A few BFR tips

  • Use this technique with single-joint exercises, like bicep curls, leg extensions, triceps pushdowns, etc.
  • Use it as a finishing technique at the end of the session.
  • Don’t wear the restrictive item for more than 15 minutes.
  • Don’t take it off between sets.

A protocol to start with…

Start with 20-25 reps, then rest 30 seconds or so. This heightens the metabolic stress and pooling of blood in the muscle. Complete the next set and repeat until you’re only getting around 6-8 reps. Squeeze out every last rep. This will help maximize metabolite accumulation and its associated anabolic response.

Dr. John Rusin – Strength Training Specialist and Performance Expert

Warm-up better.

Doing a proper dynamic warm-up is a game changer for every lifter at every level. But there are loads of conflicting opinions regarding the modalities that make up an effective dynamic warm-up.

Twenty years ago, lifters rolled into the gym and headed right into the rack to knock out some empty bar sets as a warm-up, and that seemed to work just fine.

Then around 10 years ago, non-lifters (professionals who were more worried about rehabbing their clients’ theoretical injuries, instead of actually producing a training effect) decided that you must foam roll for 30-plus minutes then do an arduous corrective exercise session for another 30 minutes.

But guess what eventually happened. Rehab purgatory. The shackles of injury-prevention made training devolve into fluffy, fake rehab that doesn’t build much muscle or even make you very resilient.

So what’s the RIGHT way to warm-up? It comes down to the minimal effective dose for the desired results according to YOUR individual needs. Cutting the fluff and seeing notable benefits for both performance enhancement and injury prevention should become your compass.

The most foolproof way to start building your own dynamic warm-up that will pay off in both the short and long term is with my 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence. By combining soft tissue work, stretching, corrective exercise, activation drills and CNS movement prep in a step by step approach, you can optimize your training in record time.

It’s time to stop bullshitting your warm-ups and start placing as much mental energy into programming this fundamental aspect of your workouts as you do your bench sessions. It’ll set the tone for your workout and help you earn both longevity and results.

Akash Vaghela – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Pick the right weight.

I see this often: You’re supposed to do 8 reps on the squat, but instead of performing 8 continuous reps, it ends being 4, 2, 1, 1 where the set drags out and becomes four mini-sets instead.

This is fine on the odd occasion, but if you’re rest-pausing your way through every set (i.e. taking long pauses in between reps to squeeze out more from the set), your progress will fall short and you’ll have a hard time recovering.

What tends to happen here is your nervous and endocrine systems begin to overtrain before the muscles reach their own adaptive limit. If your goal is muscle building, it’s a disaster for progress, as it’ll force more deloads and time off training from either burnout or injury.

If you want to be able to train progressively and frequently, you need to focus on maximizing muscular stress, and minimizing systemic fatigue. Here’s how to implement it:

  • If you’re doing anything less than a set of 6, you should knock the 6 reps out without having to pause too much at the top. If you can’t, lower the weight till you can.
  • If you’re doing 6 to 12 reps of a compound lift, pausing once for 2-3 breaths is fine.
  • If you’re doing 12 to 20 reps, allow yourself 1-3 pauses if required.
  • If you’re doing an isolation lift (like a tricep pushdown) try keep it constant.

Ideally, you’ll want to save these rules for the last set of an exercise only. Otherwise, you want to intentionally try and drive yourself towards that wall of muscular failure without taking any breaks to extend the set.

This is tough to begin with, because you’ll be accustomed to taking slight pauses as the reps get tough toward the end of a set. If you can fight this, the stress on the muscle, both in an adaptive sense and from a pump perspective, will be immense.

Training in this manner is difficult, but this small tweak in your approach to each set will mean your progression becomes more standardized and honest week to week.