Most people can put together a killer workout, but very few can design a proper program. Even fewer know how to adjust a program from month to month to keep making optimal progress.
This deficiency is particularly true for those whose primary goal is muscle gain. While there are quite a few multi-phase templates available for strength and power athletes, there are almost zero coherent long-term muscle-building plans available.
I’m hoping to remedy that with the framework I’ll outline in this article. It maps out a multi-phase training program specifically designed to maximize muscle mass.
It’s called Primer, Build, Solidify or (P.B.S.) for short.
The sequential or phasic approach I suggest is based on the principle of phase potentiation. Very simply, adaptations built into one training phase build on the training you did before and create the potential for superior (potentiate) gains in the following phase.
Most lifters are familiar with the concept of prioritizing muscle hypertrophy and then switching the focus to strength acquisition.
Sequence Your Training Phases
You’ve probably heard of athletes sequencing their training through General Preparation Phases (GPP).
GPP progresses to hypertrophy, to strength, to power, and then to peak for competition.
By utilizing the underlying principles behind these sequential phases, you can then apply them to match your goals of building muscle mass optimally.
It is possible to get bigger and stronger by chasing both goals at once, but it isn’t optimal.
Chasing multiple goals isn't true for a few different reasons, such as:
- Your body adapts faster if it is only adapting to one stimulus.
- You avoid the interference effect.
- Phasic or sequential training allows you to work within a rep bracket that is broad enough to have some variety but not so broad it sends competing signals.
- Maintaining physical quality is much easier than building it. By developing your strength, you can easily maintain this while switching focus to hypertrophy and vice versa.
I think it’s important to fully explain the reasoning behind the sequencing of training phases I incorporate into the P.B.S. model.
This explanation will allow me to provide a plug-and-play framework you can follow and give you an understanding of the underlying principles. This way, you can adjust them to best suit you or your client’s needs.
To do so, I will expand.
Phase Potentiation Makes the Most of Each Phase
Sports scientists have coined the term phase potentiation to describe the process by which one block of training potentiates the next.
- Correctly applying phase potentiation allows you to capitalize on the training phase you’ve just finished and facilitates enhanced results in the next phase.
- When it comes to strength, you will tend to progress your program linearly, from lighter weights and higher reps to heavier weights and lower reps across various phases.
- For muscle gain, this phase potentiation should look a little different. Adding a load to the bar is important, but it is not the only way to challenge the mechanisms of hypertrophy.
- It would be best if you also strived to challenge metabolic stress pathways and accumulate more volume over time.
Details on achieving this are coming up in just a moment, but first, let me quickly clarify why you need to change your program.
Adaptive Resistance—The More You Do, the Less You Get
Adaptive resistance in sports science speaks for the concept of the Law of Diminishing Returns.
This concept is your body's tendency to adapt less and less when presented with the same training stimulus.
The more you do something, the less you get from it. Constantly hammering high-volume bodybuilding training is an example of this. After several months, your body has made the adaptations needed to survive the onslaught of your workouts. Adaptive resistance has set in, and doing more of the same will yield little benefit.
The Art of Strategic Variation
Adaptive resistance explains the need for strategic variation in your training program.
- Variation is not the same as randomization. You should not be making changes for change's sake.
- Changes should be specific, targeted, and strategic.
- This variation has nothing to do with muscle confusion. Muscle confusion claims that you confuse your muscles by constantly changing your workouts.
- Your muscles don’t get confused, but they do need a novel stimulus from time to time.
- While you cannot trick or confuse your muscles, you can provide a varied stimulus that maximizes your strength and size gains by using a strategic variation.
- Strategic variation is the art of rotating the training variables in your program to yield the best results.
From a muscle-building perspective, the question then should be, what makes the muscle grow? And how can I manipulate the pathways which drive these to keep gaining muscle?
To answer this, you must first understand what causes your body to grow bigger muscles.
Challenge the Physiological Mechanisms of Hypertrophy
Your body doesn't want to add muscle. It's a luxury item, and like most luxuries, it is expensive.
In this case, it is metabolically expensive.
Building and maintaining muscle mass is energy-intensive for the body. You won't add muscle unless your body deems it to be necessary.
To do that, you need to impose a stimulus (training) that challenges the mechanisms of hypertrophy and forces your body to adapt by growing bigger muscles.
What makes the muscle grow?
The three key mechanisms of hypertrophy have been identified as:
- Mechanical Tension: As more research has been conducted on these mechanisms and their relationship with hypertrophy, it appears that mechanical tension is the most important.
- Muscle Damage: Muscle damage meanwhile appears to be more of a secondary mechanism of hypertrophy.
- Metabolic Stress: Metabolic stress appears to play an additive role but to a much lesser degree.
By that, I mean it is more a consequence of training strategies that achieve higher degrees of mechanical tension and metabolic stress, contributing somewhat to muscle gain.
On that basis, it seems logical to structure your training to prioritize mechanical tension and to include some metabolic stress style training.
Doing these within the same session is possible but probably not ideal. Consequently, the phasic nature of the P.B.S. model biases your workload towards providing a mechanical tension stimulus for the majority of the program.
A targeted approach to strategically ramping up metabolic stress pathways when mechanical tension is becoming less effective is used to extend your muscle building to its maximum potential.
Based on the research and my experience coaching hundreds of clients, muscle damage is not chased as part of the P.B.S. model.
Instead, it is achieved as a by-product of working sufficiently hard training the other two mechanisms. By taking this approach, you will, by default, cause some muscle damage.
How to Overload the Mechanisms of Hypertrophy
Another key variable to consider when it comes to hypertrophy training is that the scientific literature indicates that training volume has a dose-dependent relationship with muscle gain.
That is to say that the more training volume you do (without exceeding your capacity to recover), the better your results.
At this point, it should be clear that for effective long-term gains in muscle mass, you need to overload the body via mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and training volume.
Doing all of that at once won’t work, though.
Instead, you should systematically incorporate these strategies and change them when they stop working.
Properly planning your program with a longer-term view and breaking it into specific phases can prime you for accelerated progress.
- In the initial phases, you should develop work capacity, build foundational strength levels, fix muscular imbalances, and create the mobility and stability required to get the most from the training that is ahead.
- Then you can grow like a weed and keep pushing the hypertrophy mechanism buttons strategically. Eventually, they will succumb to adaptive resistance, and you’ll need to pivot.
- This pivot is done by consolidating your gains, making strength your primary goal, reducing volume, training in lower rep ranges, and re-sensitizing yourself to the hypertrophy style training.
- After a time of doing that, the hypertrophy style training becomes new again. The adaptive resistance washes away, and you're good to go again. This fresh start is precisely what the P.B.S. framework achieves.
The P.B.S. Framework Consists of Three Phases
- Primer: The primer phase lays the foundations for effective muscle-building training. It creates a bigger window of opportunity. Another way to think of it is that it lengthens the runway available for bulking.
- Building:The building phase is where most of the muscle-building occurs. The building phase divides into four sub-phases.
- Solidification (Strength): The solidification phase is crucial because it allows you to consolidate your gains. Your body adjusts to the new normal higher body weight and increased muscle mass you carry. It owns this new mass, or in my terminology, it allows your gains to solidify. As a result, when you transition to a fat loss phase, you hold onto all the muscle you’ve built.
Skip the solidification and go straight to cutting from bulking, and you risk losing a significant portion of the muscle you’ve built.
1. The Primer Phase
A primer phase aims to lay the foundations for maximal muscle gains over the next 3-6 months.
A good primer phase will also help you develop the work capacity to handle higher volume training in the future to capitalize on increased volume as a driver of muscle gain. Done properly, it will literally prime you to optimize the muscle-building process.
To achieve this, the primer phase addresses some key elements:
- To create the requisite mobility and stability to benefit maximally from the training in the building phase.
- To learn optimal movement patterns (and un-learn crappy ones) so you can execute every rep confident in the fact that it’s providing a muscle-building stimulus.
- To establish your ranges of motion in the fundamental movements
- To build strength in the extremes of these ranges of motion
- To strengthen muscles that are weak links or strength leaks, which limit your growth
- To create structural balance and even out any left to right asymmetries in strength
- To develop the capacity to increase the relative intensity and use that as the key driver for adaptation
- To achieve all this with a Minimum Effective Dose (MED) of volume (sets x reps x load) and to open up a window of opportunity to capitalize on volume as a key driver of hypertrophy in subsequent phases
Let me explain how it works and why this phase is one of the missing links in your muscle-building arsenal.
Each muscle group has one or more functions. For example, the biceps bend the elbow. They also supinate (turn upwards) the forearm, so the palms of your hands face the sky and flex the shoulder.
Within these functions, they have a correct biomechanical range of motion (ROM). To maximize muscle gain, you need to challenge the muscle across this entire range. Sadly, most guys form fails to do this. They cut ROM, use momentum to bounce the weight, and lose control of the tension on the target muscle.
Without tension on a muscle, there is not a signal to grow!
If you look around the gym, I bet that 99% of the guys do not keep tension on the muscle. They are trying to train even if they use a full-ROM, and I bet they relax at various points in the range.
Typically, at the top and bottom of the lift, gravity takes over, and momentum does the work for them.
These guys trick themselves into thinking they are doing everything they can to build muscle, but they rob themselves of gains.
A primer phase can eradicate this issue. By learning what the ideal ROM is and maintaining tension throughout it, you set the scene for superior progress in future phases.
With a bit of practice, you can ingrain the key movement patterns and technique cues needed to make every single rep of every single set effective.
Have you ever wondered how some guys can lift similar weights to you for a similar number of reps but look much more muscular?
One of the reasons is that the execution of each one of their reps is superior to yours. They squeeze more out of one rep than many guys get from an entire set. When you learn how to do this, you are in a position for accelerated progress.
The primer phase will teach you how to accelerate progress and learn how to get the most from the least. You’ll develop the four Ss:
- The exact exercise used is specific to the individual, but a squat, RDL, pull-up, and bench press are popular choices.
- During the primer phase, the groundwork is done on these movements. The lift itself or accessory lift that develops the main indicator lift is programmed to achieve this for several sets where the quality of execution is the focus. At this point, going to failure is avoided.
- Ingraining perfect form is the goal and is achieved by performing more sets with fewer reps a long way from failure than taking a couple of sets to failure.
- I will often program these for 4-5 sets of 4-6 reps (depending on the specific client), with each set stopping a couple of reps before failure. If you find the technique is breaking down on any of these sets, terminate the set.
- You don’t want to ingrain crappy compensatory motor patterns. This is skill development work. Generally, I’ll program-specific indicator lift in the primer phase, but on occasion, a close variant is used—for example, a floor press to prepare for bench presses down the road.
- The rest of the primer phase, however, takes a MED to training volume. This dose is done to create a bigger window of opportunity to increase volumes to progress in the building phase.
- Stability is your ability to resist force. Strength is your ability to exert force. Often people cannot reach their strength potential because their stability is inadequate.
- There are two types of stability; internal and external.
- Internal stability is your body’s ability to resist force and maintain your position in space.
- External stability is stability provided or created by an implement outside your own body. For example, a leg press machine offers a lot of stability for you to move through a squatting pattern while a barbell back squat does not.
- Dr. Jordan Shallow says the three key hubs of stability within the body are the shoulder, hip, and spine.
- Your ability to control these hubs will play an essential role in reaching your strength and size potential.
- If you cannot resist force and maintain proper joint alignment, your force production capacity will suffer. If you cannot stabilize a joint to allow the target muscle to display its maximum force capacity, you will limit the growth stimulus you can create, and this leaves size gains on the table.
Jordan Shallow also taught me to use two main methods: the support base and offset load when developing stability:
- The base of support: Changing the support base is best illustrated by thinking of the difference between a pistol squat and a regular squat. Rather than being on two feet, you are on one. Consequently, the stability challenge on the working leg is significantly higher as it has to work overtime to keep you upright.
- Offset load: Using an offset load is when you only add load on one side of your body. For example, you are holding a dumbbell in one hand when performing split squats. Having this offset load can shift your center of mass. Consequently, you increase the stability challenge.
When designing a program, it is important to consider exercise sequence. Within the primer phase, a significant emphasis is on developing skill and stability. It is best to learn a skill when fresh and in the absence of fatigue. That is why skill-based lifts are programmed early in the session.
After this, add exercises from the lowest external stability to the highest external stability. So, program an Ipsilateral DB Bulgarian split squat before a leg extension.
The Ipsilateral DB Bulgarian Split Squat challenges both the base of support and center of mass components of stability.
Consequently, it requires high levels of internal stability and provides extremely low levels of external stability. Meanwhile, the leg extension provides a ton of external stability and has practically zero internal stability requirements.
Ever seen someone fall over on a leg extension? No, me neither.
So this makes the leg extension a great choice to end a session.
You can safely take the quadriceps to failure and make them the limiting factor, so this makes them a good choice for my guest on the Breaking Muscle podcast, Maximal Muscle Output with Tom Purvis.
The split squats fall at the function end of the function-output continuum.
Both ends of this spectrum have value. The key is knowing how to get the most from each. If you sequenced these exercises in the opposite order, you would undermine the potential benefits of each. Hopefully, that’s easy to see.
The general rule is to place less stable exercises early in the session and finish the session with a highly stable exercise to take the target muscle to complete failure.
This session structure allows you to develop the functional capacity to sustain effective muscle-building training for months on end by developing stability, strength, and resiliency in extreme ranges of motion.
You also develop the ability to push sets hard enough to cause a growth stimulus using the lower skill-higher stability output-based work to conclude your sessions.
3. Structural Balance
- Structural balance is about balancing your strength levels front to back and side to side, for example, developing an optimal ratio of push-to-pull strength.
- Or closing the gap in strength between your dominant and non-dominant limbs. Doing this will help manage your injury risk and get more from the building phase.
- One of the factors that often holds back muscle-building progress is that a weak link in the chain prevents you from entirely challenging bigger, stronger muscles.
- If you do not fully challenge those muscles, they will never wholly develop, and a typical example is a chest. With a combination of inadequate training programs and our modern lifestyles (hunched over our phones, tablets, and laptops), we develop poor posture.
- As a consequence, we develop compensatory movement patterns. These faulty movement patterns exacerbate the issue. We rely on specific muscles and joints to provide the strength and range of motion we need to perform simple tasks. Done repeatedly, this causes strength and flexibility imbalances. These imbalances then become a continuous downward spiral.
- In the case of the chest, we often end up with our shoulders rolled forwards into an internally rotated position, our upper back and rotator cuff muscles (critical stabilizers of the shoulder) become weak. This postural and strength imbalance means that we cannot achieve the optimal starting position to execute reps when training the chest with movements like the bench press. We cannot create a stable base from which to press. We are unable to open the chest up to create high levels of stretch under load.
- Consequently, the chest doesn’t get stimulated. The front of the shoulders takes over the workload. This shift naturally limits chest growth, but it creates weakness and instability around the shoulder girdle in time. Your lower traps and external rotators become weak relative to your anterior shoulders and internal rotators. When the body senses these discrepancies in strength, its natural protective mechanisms kick in.
- It will not allow you to use loads and ranges of motion that represent a significant injury risk. Sadly, the ability to handle heavy loads across full ranges of motion is what you need to grow.
4. Strength (End Range)
A car needs big horsepower and precision tracking to go fast!
Ever found your upper traps and neck knot up like a ball after training? That’s because your body doesn’t like the instability around the shoulder so, it tries to create a muscular brace or cast to lock this joint down. Your muscles are contracting hard and feeling tight to protect you.
If the ratio of strength between different muscle groups gets skewed too much, you increase your risk of injury and dramatically reduce your chance of building muscle.
The primer phase picks specific exercises designed to eliminate these weak links.
By creating structurally balanced strength levels throughout your body, you will be prime for growth. You can then challenge your muscles maximally through full ranges, knowing that the opposing muscle groups are strong enough to do their job.
While there are common muscle groups neglected in most training programs, this is not the only element addressing the primer phase. Another simple but often overlooked one is uni-lateral training.
Uni-lateral training is simply training one side, or limb, at a time.
Given we all have dominant sides, we also tend to develop strength imbalances from left to right. Only ever doing bi-lateral lifts for the legs (squats, leg press, deadlifts, etc.) means that over time our tendency to favor our dominant leg means it does more of the workload.
The dominant side takes more stress during these lifts and becomes slightly stronger and more muscular. Left unchecked, this can also become a negative downward spiral.
One side develops disproportionately, which has aesthetic consequences, but it also sets you up for possible injury long-term.
To remedy this, a large portion of the primer phase is dedicated to uni-lateral training to develop strength in your non-dominant limbs. With this strength balanced out, you are on a more solid foundation to grow evenly over the coming months.
You are also more robust. This solid foundation makes you less likely to pick up an injury that would keep you out of the gym. If you are out of the gym with an injury, you are not getting bigger!
By building the four Ss, you can manage your injury risk and create a longer runway for muscle gains to take off. A primer phase will improve the length and effectiveness of your building phase.
Given that I believe the parts and benefits of a primer phase are so beneficial and overlooked, I’m going to take a bit of a deep dive into this in the following section.
I think this is vital to help you understand how you can utilize these concepts but will also help to highlight why a properly executed primer phase can be critical to your long-term muscle-building success.
Getting stronger over time correlates well with increases in muscle mass, but the main focus in the primer phase is not just about adding pounds to your multi-joint lifts. It’s about developing strength across the full-contractile range of a muscle.
We can break the contractile range down into three sub-sections:
- The fully lengthened position
- The fully shortened position
- The mid-range
Within a primer phase, you should select exercises to strengthen you at the extremes of your ROM. These are the weakest points in most movements. If you get strong here, it will transfer over to your entire range. As a result, emphasize exercises that facilitate a fully shortened position and a fully stretched position.
When a muscle fully shortens, it is more commonly known as the peak contraction. Squeezing a muscle hard in this position can induce a cramping sensation. If this happens, it shows the muscle is not in the necessary condition in this range.
This lack of strength at this point will limit your growth potential.
The ability to overload a muscle in the fully lengthened position can aid muscle growth directly and indirectly. It is helpful from an injury prevention standpoint which indirectly will improve your gains. After all, you cannot build muscle if you can’t train because of an injury.
Training the lengthened position also allows you to place a muscle under high degrees of tension and provide a large stretch under load. This tension is a significant growth stimulus in its own right.
The way you approach each set in a primer phase can translate to enhanced muscle gains long-term, too. The mindset you need to be in to maximize the tension on the muscle and force it to grow is different from mindlessly moving weight from A to B.
When lifting weights, you should do it in a very deliberate way.
Do not just sit down and mindlessly punch out a set of 10 reps. Instead, it would be best to have an outcome or goal for each set. This goal is to perfect your technique and maintain tension on the muscle throughout the rep. Every rep should be both a muscle-building stimulus and a chance to practice.
Deliberate practice is what separates the average from the elite in any walk of life.
Countless research studies and books have identified this when investigating the difference between the world’s best and the rest. It is not just time spent honing their craft. It is the deliberate nature of their practice that they then apply over the long term to elevate them to another level.
The same is true of building muscle.
- Refine your technique.
- Treat every rep as a growth opportunity.
- Be deliberate with every repetition.
- Be relentlessly consistent.
You will make growth an inevitability, which brings us to the second phase.
2. The Building Phase
Build on a solid foundation:
With firm foundations in place, it is time to build on them. You can now capitalize on the groundwork you have done by using your primer phase as the launchpad into a productive building phase.
It is during this phase that you will see radical improvements in your physique.
These changes are possible because of what you have done in the primer phase.
The programming structure of the building phase allows you to progressively overload via mechanical tension for between 9-12 weeks. As the response to this stimulus begins to be mute and adaptive resistance rears its ugly head, the metabolic stress pathway becomes the focus of your training.
This response extends the amount of time you can consistently build muscle for about another month.
In my experience, metabolic stress techniques are very effective but only for a short time. It appears they provide a novel muscle-building stimulus, but you adapt quickly to this.
Anything between 2-4 weeks seems to be the sweet spot depending on the individual. For that reason, I generally keep this phase to three weeks.
The methods former Breaking Muscle podcast guest Bryan Haycock suggested were a significant influence for the methodology I use for the programming principles within the mechanical tension-focused portion of the building phase methods. I have added my minor tweaks to Bryan’s plans based on what I’ve found works best over the past 5-6 years.
3. Solidification Phase
Solidify your gains:
- If the principle of adaptive resistance taught us anything, it’s that nothing works forever. Good things must come to an end.
- Trying to build muscle non-stop is not possible. You will feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Results will dry up, fatigue will escalate, body fat will climb, a sense of frustration or disappointment will consume you, and motivation to train will disappear.
- This wall doesn’t mean you will never build more muscle. It means that trying to build more muscle right now isn't efficient.
With some logical decision-making and intelligent programming, you can consolidate the muscle mass to date and create a platform to produce more.
The goal of a solidification phase is to consolidate or solidify the gains you’ve made to this point, build strength, reduce fatigue, and increase your potential for more muscle gain. It is an often-overlooked phase.
The solidification phase is essentially a low volume strength block. Even if your goal is more muscle mass, it’s a vital phase to include. It works by allowing you to increase your strength levels, reduce overall fatigue, get a different psychological training focus, and re-sensitize to the benefits of the training you did in the building phase.
- A solidification phase is probably most critical to the success of hard gainers.
- It helps to make the weight they’ve gained stick.
- It allows them to own the new body weight.
- When they transition to a cut after maintaining their body weight for a while, they retain the muscle mass much better.
- This retention is a game-changer for the typical hard gainer who often sees all of their gains vanish when they cut.
The lower volume strength-focused work of a solidification phase also has the benefit of meaning you are more responsive to the style of training most suited to effective cutting. Incidentally, that style of training is highly similar to what builds muscle.
Think of it this way, what built it best, keeps it best.
The Overview of the P.B.S. Model
That is the rationale and overview of the P.B.S. model for maximum muscle mass. In my follow-up articles, I’ll provide more detail and specific examples of how to program each phase.
I’ll provide example sessions to highlight how to program workouts within each phase and explain each component's goal so you can see how every programming decision complements and adds a layer to the last sequence.
I’m excited to share this with you as I think it can make a massive difference to you and your training.
If you have hit a plateau in your muscle-building journey and aren’t sure what changes to make to kick-start your progress, then I think the P.B.S. approach is the solution. Make sure to check back for my next article on how to design a primer phase.