Minor changes to increase workout intensity and caloric surplus.
This post is a follow-up to Minimalist Strength Training, Phase 1: Getting Ripped.
While phase 1 was successful overall, I eventually began to plateau in terms of gaining muscle mass. There were two main issues that I believe contributed to the plateau:
- My workouts weren't intense enough. I was doing three sets of each exercise, and on the first and second sets (but especially the first set), I believe I was subconsciously reserving some energy for the third set.
- I wasn't eating enough. I made an effort to eat a bit more in general, but I didn't set any quantifiable goals regarding calories.
Maximizing Workout Intensity
To maximize the intensity of my workouts, I switched to the following 2-day rotation, performed each exercise for 2 sets instead of 3, and rested for at least 60-90 seconds between sets (instead of 30-60 seconds as I was previously doing).
On the first set, I tried to set a personal record, and on the second set, I tried to match whatever I achieved on my first set. Each day’s workout could still be done in 30 minutes.
- Front lever
- Back lever
- Iron cross
- Dips (with resistance bands)
- Handstand pushups
- Iron cross
- Front lever
- Back lever
- Pull-ups (focusing pressure on one arm at a time)
- One-legged jump squats
Increasing Caloric Surplus
I needed to maintain a consistent, quantifiable caloric surplus. However, in keeping with the minimalist approach, I didn’t want to go through the trouble of explicitly counting calories. Instead, I settled on consuming the following additional items each day:
- 2 + 2/3 additional cups of milk in the morning (4 cups total). I previously drank four cups of diluted coffee each day: 2 + 2/3 cups of water, 1 + 1/3 cups of milk, and an amount of dry coffee mix that would normally equate to 2 cups of regular coffee. To get my 4 cups of milk in daily, I just replaced the water in my coffee with more milk, so that the coffee consisted of 4 cups of milk plus the dry coffee mix. While it was definitely an unusual mixture, I did quite like the taste. I sometimes added a tiny bit of hot chocolate mix for added flavor.
- A big bowl of noodles with about two tablespoons of oil as an afternoon snack (between lunch and dinner). Noodles are incredibly easy to make as they only need to boil in water for a few minutes. They taste decent plain with two tablespoons of olive oil, and it's easy to add some flavor using e.g. a bit of hot sauce & cheese or balsamic vinaigrette and spinach.
- Extra oil with lunch. My standard lunch was stir-fried tofu, rice, and broccoli, so it was easy to double the amount of oil that I was originally using. It actually tasted even better that way!
The nice thing about these items in particular is that, aside from the extra noodles, they didn’t contribute much additional space volume to my daily diet.
- As a result, I generally didn't feel overstuffed during the day even though I was consuming significantly more calories.
- As a corollary, if I need to reduce my calories in the future, I anticipate that I will be able to eliminate the caloric surplus described above without feeling overly hungry.
The leftmost two photos above show the plateau that I experienced the end of phase 1. From March 2022 to October 2022, I lost some fat and gained some muscle definition, but I didn’t actually gain a whole lot of muscle mass (except for a noticeable increase in chest size). My shoulders/arms looked about the same size, maybe even a bit smaller.
The rightmost two photos above show a significant gain in muscle mass during phase 2, from October 2022 to April 2023. Everything looks bigger – chest, shoulders, arms, back. I broke through the plateau!
In the next phase, I’ll focus on improving my durations on the ring holds (front/back lever, planche, iron cross). I can hold each of these for about 20 seconds, and the world records for these holds seem to be around a minute, which seems like a challenging but possibly attainable goal to shoot for.
(That being said, I haven’t actually recorded myself performing these holds, so it’s possible that I don’t have great form and am overestimating the 20 seconds benchmark. We’ll see!)
I’ll also continue maintaining a caloric surplus in attempt to gain additional mass, though if I hit another mass-building plateau, I’ll probably just remain in maintenance mode and focus on increasing the ring hold times.