This is an article I had written for Scivation, but they decided it was too long, so I figured i’d just post it on my blog
Slow Steady Progress
When I was in my twenties, progress in terms of muscular development and strength was easy to come by. For instance, I would have periods where I was able to set PRs every single week in the gym. There were several factors that contributed to this. First, as a young amateur competitor, there was plenty of room for improvement. Second, my body’s recovery capability at that point in my life was exceptional. Lastly, I had not yet sustained as much long term wear and tear on my tendons and joints, so nothing was ever interfering with my ability to train with maximum intensity. In other words, it was easier to enable muscle growth regardless of what approach I took, as long as I maximized my input.
At 37 years old, having trained for over 20 years, improvements to my physique come at a much steeper price. I once taught Economics and I can therefore parallel this idea to the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. This law states that with other inputs fixed in the short run, as you increase the variable input, total output will increase, but at a decreasing rate (this is typically used to analyze the effects on output of an increase in labor in the short run while capital remains fixed). This can otherwise be termed as declining marginal productivity. This is similar to what I have experienced over the course of my bodybuilding career. As I have continued to allocate more resources towards the relentless pursuit of excellence in improving my physique, greater and greater inputs have yielded smaller results over my sixteen year bodybuilding career.
There are, however, two things to realize here. First off, even though progress increases at a decreasing rate over time, it still continues to increase as long as you’re keeping up with input. Second, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns is specific to the short run where other inputs such as capital are fixed. In Economics, this can be offset by changes in physical and intellectual capital, technology, etc. in the long run, which enables greater output with the same level of input. This means periodic enhancements of the capital infrastructure can reset the equation.
So how does this translate to bodybuilding and making progress with one’s physique? In the long run with training, more inputs become variable as well (rather than fixed). These include: access to new information, implementation of new training and nutritional methodologies, use of new equipment and implementation of new exercises or new approaches to the same exercises. Just as companies must adapt in order to increase the production possibilities frontier, we as physique athletes must adapt our approaches to continue pushing the limits of our genetic potential.
There are two important points to recognize here: First, long run total output is the product of consistent input over a long period of time. Second, one must recognize when short run output potential has been maximized (marginal cost = marginal benefit) and be open-minded enough to adapt and manipulate other variables (implementation of new methodologies, exercises, etc). The bottom line is that while effort is important, it is not enough to make you a successful competitor in the second and third decade of your career. It’s not always about training harder…sometimes you need to train smarter. Applying ridiculous levels of effort with the same old methods will not only stop yielding positive results, but can actually detract from total output (consistent with the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, which states that at a point increasing input in the short term will yield negative returns). It’s easy to make progress in the early years of your career. Continuing to make gains in the later years, when you’re approaching your theoretical genetic potential, requires periodic innovation. When you look at the upper echelon of competitive natural bodybuilding, the margins that decipher between the top pros get smaller and smaller. The great ones are those who find a way to continue to improve!