The Internet can be a scary place and so can the gym. There’s so much information out there to leave you bewildered. I’ve tried to compile a set of muscle-building tips which will help anyone regardless of the number of years you’ve been lifting. Read on for serious gains.
1) Focus on the muscles of the body you can’t see
These muscles should be worked equally to the ones you can see (for example upper back equal to chest). This is relevant for the entire body, we’ll usually spend the majority of our time as beginners on quadriceps, biceps and chest ignoring the posterior chain, triceps and upper back muscles (traps, rear deltoids and rhomboids). This can be done with supersets eg. pause bench press and inverted weighted rows. I wrote another article about supersets here.
2) Spend most of your time doing compound lifts
These are the squats, cleans, presses, rows, deadlifts, lunges, sprinting, chin-ups, dips etc. Movements that use multiple joints. I personally don’t think isolations (bicep curls, leg extensions etc) have much of a place in a natural individual’s routine. Especially if you’re not looking to go onto a bodybuilding stage any time soon. If you’re investing an hour into the gym a day, focus on high yielding exercises – compounds.
As a rule of thumb you shouldn’t be doing isolation exercises until you can deadlift 2 x your bodyweight, squat 1.5 x your bodyweight and push your bodyweight overhead. Until that time you have some serious strength and mass to build through the big moves. Or as elite strength coaches like to put it – ‘you don’t yet have the muscles to isolate.’
3) Try a different routine
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Growth is triggered with new stimulus, whether that means changing routines or simple increasing weights or volume. Muscles can’t feel emotions so I don’t subscribe to the idea of shocking the muscle, but what I do know is that changing up routines and exercises can have a great effect in creating new stimulus and keeping things from getting stale. If you don’t believe me try bench pressing the empty Olympic bar (20kg) for 2 sets of 100 reps each without putting the bar down. That’ll teach you. NEW stimulus.
You could also try just working the entire body on the TRX for a week or move over to the Olympic lifts for a month. Weightlifters don’t look pretty bad. You’ll build muscles you’re probably lacking in (forearms, shoulders, traps, upper back and the entire posterior chain).
If you need more proof just remember Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva and Franco Columbo all started out with weightlifting.
4) Nutrition, Stimulus (training) and Recovery are the three legs of a tripod
All 3 are very important for the GAINS. Workout hard, leave nothing at the gym and get your 8 hours of sleep daily ideally in a fixed routine. A nap during the day certainly may help but nothing can replace a solid sleeping habit, yes I mean even getting to be at the same time and waking the same time daily. Make the habit of leaving gadgets outside of the bed space and get your body to unwind and get ready to sleep.
In terms of food, eat until you’re full and stay hydrated with plenty of water. EAT BIG. 3-4 hours after a huge meal, repeat. If you’re not gaining some weight weekly you aren’t eating enough. This is general advice for typically slim people (skinny Indian genetics). I do think tracking calories and macros is a little overrated for people just looking to put on mass but it’s nice to have some formula in place or numbers to follow as a guideline and nothing more. You certainly shouldn’t be worried about going a few grams over.
5) Take inspiration from calisthenics athletes
Frank Medrano? Barstarz? Calisthenics athletes build amazing amounts of muscle using the same principles like progressive overload despite only using predominately bodyweight exercises.
Working out with weights doesn’t mean you’ve promoted from bodyweight training and largely across gyms I’ll see people doing lat pulldowns instead of pullups, seated chest presses instead of pushups. We now have assisted machines and various weighted options for these simple looking bodyweight moves making them available for anyone to do even if you consider yourself super strong.
The added bonus here is you can do them anywhere. Aside from being convenient, they also give you control, balance, and a solid core.
6) Pick a routine wisely, not what Phil Heath does
Trying to emulate what a pro bodybuilder does is not the optimal thing that you can do.
Ideally you want to work muscles twice or more times per week because muscle protein synthesis (MPS) lasts for a maximum of 48-72 hours from a single bout of exercise stimulus. This is the process of repairing damage (anabolic environment). Soreness does not dictate MPS. Studies showed that in beginners, MPS levels were back to baseline after the 72 hour mark. The interesting thing is that the more experienced you get, the more this time frame decreases. So in essence this means if you do arms once per week MPS is elevated for only a max of 72 hours after the workout meaning you’re missing out on 4 days of growth.
You can easily get around this by picking a push, pull, legs split and repeating (6 days per week) or you can do upper body, lower body splits (4 days per week). The idea is to keep MPS elevated all of the time. Think of workouts as a driver for your nutrients to go to torn muscle to repair.
Muscle building MYTHS DEBUNKED:
1) You need 2g protein per pound of bodyweight.
All of the scientific research supports the figure of 0.82g protein per pound of bodyweight being the highest amount of protein at which further benefits ceased to be seen. In other words eating more than this saw no extra benefits in study subjects.
The subjects have ranged in a variety of studies from elite weightlifters, cutting bodybuilders to beginners. Keep in mind the RDA is 60g for the average person. Now of course we weight train and the demands are higher but are they really 3 X the demand in some cases? In my opinion it only makes our demands slightly higher. There are other reasons to eat protein such as it being satiating (filling) so great for people looking for fat loss, but it isn’t the be all and end all for muscle-building providing you get around 0.8g per pound of bodyweight.
2) You need to consume a protein shake in your post workout anabolic window.
The more research that comes out on nutrition timing the more it is revealed there is no solid scientific backing behind the idea of an anabolic window. Nutrient timing is way down in the priority list maybe having a minor impact on results at best. The number one things to be in control of are total calories and then macronutrients.
More relevant to this topic studies have shown time and time again that total protein makes more of a difference to results than protein timing specifically after a workout. The anabolic window lasts a lot longer than we’ve been told. Treat the whole day as your anabolic window. Eat regularly and well, getting some protein at each meal and you’ll be on your way to a positive nitrogen balance (anabolic environment).
3) You need to do 8-12 reps because it’s the hypertrophy range.
The latest research indicates there is no optimal range of reps for hypertrophy so long as ‘near failure’ was achieved. This latest study compared intermediate lifters in the rep ranges of 8-12 (75% of 1 rep max) and 20-25 (30% of 1 rep max) with all lifters going to or close to failure. Lifters in both groups did 4 full-body workouts for a period of 8 weeks and gained exactly the same amount of muscle (or a non statistical difference occurred).
I’d like to end by saying patience is your best friend. If you want to build muscle then you’ve chosen a road which can be very long. There certainly aren’t any shortcuts (the natural way).
So lift heavy, eat in abundance, sleep well, stress less, be patient, read scientific literature as opposed to magazines and you’ll be fine 🙂