Beginning with wrestling and soccer, Jake has been immersed in fitness nearly his whole life. Personal training and studying exercise in college were the natural progression of that passion. Competing locally in bodybuilding and powerlifting, Jake currently studies exercise at university and does online coaching at Jackalstrength.com.
Looking to get stronger? Bust through a plateau? Lose weight or gain muscle mass?
Growth is rarely a linear progression. Most often we experience a burst of progress followed by a period of stagnation, we seem to be just getting by until the next burst comes along. This natural process may seem strangely out of our control. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it seems to come down to luck.
The reality is that there’s no luck to it. Just like with every high-performance system, success is limited by our ability to find and improve the “weakest links”. Understanding how to trigger growth is a matter of organizing one’s priorities to unblock the next lifestyle bottleneck.
Determining the next step in a training process is not always intuitive, but it can be simple. Hierarchies are used to prioritize limited resources so that they can be allocated in a way that will produce the greatest impact (think medical triage, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the little rocks-and-sand-in-a-jar visual aid, etc.). Just like with any other hierarchy, the most important factors need to come first. And so, without further ado, I give you Pre-Script’s Hierarchy of Growth.
Nutrition and Resistance Training
This is a massively broad category, I know, but let me explain. Just like when putting rocks in a jar, the biggest ones go first. This is the base of everything else- mess this up and you’ve got nothing. Nail this and everything else is just icing on the cake.
Take a hard look at your nutrition and training. Are you training intelligently and with a solid level of intensity? Is your diet focused on improving your performance? Are you getting enough quality sources of proteins, carbs, and fats? Is your training building you up or breaking you down? Are you managing injuries (mitigating future ones and rehabbing past ones)? And possibly the biggest question, are you consistent with these things? Training and nutrition is without a doubt the backbone of growth. Even minor adjustments to these areas can bring major successes. Inevitably the question comes up- which is more important?
The answer is largely individual. Some people are great at training, always showing up and lifting hard, but nutrition is hit-or-miss. Some people have their diets dialed-in all the time, but training is lackluster or sporadic. Some people seem to suck at both, and some people manage to get both absolutely on-point. If you fall into the latter category, feel free to move on to the next level of the hierarchy. If you fall into the former category, just start with whatever is easiest. Get decent at one of the two, then come back to the other when you’re ready. If you’re great at one but not the other (which is most of us), then your top priority needs to be whichever one you struggle with. Remember improving the weakest links is what will unblock the growth bottleneck and propel you to increased performance.
Sleep is the most commonly overlooked growth factor, but it is easily the second most important category. When it comes to improving performance, recovery is the name of the game. Studies show pretty consistently that more sleep increases testosterone, balances leptin and ghrelin (hunger hormones), increases insulin sensitivity, and reduces cortisol.
What is the right amount of sleep? In some ways, the more the better. Six hours per night should be the minimum, but when looking at improving performance, increasing to near twelve per night is not uncommon.
Looking to break through a plateau? Try adding an hour of sleep each night, the returns are often exponential.
This should almost go without saying, but here we are. Your heart pumps blood (filled with oxygen, hormones, amino acids, etc.) throughout your body. Improving your cardiovascular function carries with it more than just an “easier time going up stairs”. Improving cardio will increase work capacity, leading to better workouts. It will improve biomarkers such as blood pressure and heart rate, and improve the hormonal profile of an individual, including increasing insulin sensitivity, among a myriad of other benefits. Cardiovascular capacity is often a limiting factor for growth among strength athletes. Can’t squat for reps without getting light-headed? If your body can’t get enough oxygen in its current state, what makes you think you’ll be hitting any PR’s? Your muscles’ ability to perform can often be limited by their ability to receive oxygen/remove carbon-dioxide or receive nutrients in recovery.
This doesn’t mean that taking up ultra-marathoning is going to improve your squat, or that hours of cardio is the secret to your dream physique. It simply means that once resistance training, nutrition, and sleep are dialed-in, adding 30 minutes of cardio could be the missing link to your next growth phase.
Supplements are all over the map in terms of their actual effectiveness and efficacy. Ranging from commercial protein powders and electrolyte drinks to “some strange compound” that your buddy brought back from Mexico, the risks, rewards, and overall effectiveness of supplements varies widely.
Generally speaking, the risk-reward ratio of supplements is low when compared to the importance of the previous three categories. Can they be effective? Without a doubt. Will they make the biggest difference in your success? Absolutely not.
Rather ironically though, they are the only thing on this list that can be purchased. It will always be easier to buy a new product than it will be to get an extra hour of sleep.
It should be noted that we will often go through this hierarchy repeatedly as we progress. Early on, nutrition may be our biggest issue, but as we improve and grow we may find that sleep or cardio becomes the bottleneck. Once we improve those, we may need to come back and work on nutrition again. Given enough time, it just becomes a cycle of continuous improvement. As each link in our growth chain becomes stronger, a different link becomes the “weakest link” at our now elevated level of performance.
A discussion of growth factors wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the biggest factor of all: time.
Consistency over time is what separates the winners from the losers. The best in the world in nearly any strength sport put decades of consistent work in before reaching their goals. Building strength, muscle mass, or increasing athletic performance is a long-term game with no shortcuts or cheat codes.