Building muscle can be very challenging for some people. Whether you are looking to just add a few inches to your arms, or looking to become the next Mr. Olympia, packing on a few pounds of lean mass will revolve around 3 simple aspects; your workouts, your foods, and your rest. These things will determine if you’re going to gain, lose or stay the same.
Go hard or go home
Most people who want to get bigger know they need to get to the gym and lift weights, but not everyone in the gym lifts correctly. Resistance training is the first aspect I will cover. You need to stress the body for it to grow.
I have been working at and working out in many different gyms throughout my life. The most common problem I see is when people are going through the motions. They pick up an easy weight and do a few reps. They are not getting a burn and there is no struggle.
The body adapts to whatever you do and if the body is already capable of the demands you place on it, there will be no reason for it to adapt. Progressive overload is the main concept that any good program will revolve around. This means that over time your workouts need to become more and more challenging. Slowly adding weights is usually the best place to make your workout harder, but how you chose to overload your body will depend on your goals.
Other than the program design itself a lack of focus is what stops people from growing. You can’t go in the gym and just go through the motions. You need to keep your goals in mind and know why you are at the gym and what your want to accomplish.
You need intensity with your workout and if you want to add size you need to get a pump. Feel the burn.
Most people think more weight is the only thing that equals more intensity. More weight is usually the best but it is not the only way to increase the intensity of an exercise. You can also change the tempo of a lift, change the rest periods or change the overall volume of work.
More weight does have a lot of benefits though. The heavier the weight it, the more muscle fibers your body will need to recruit in order to perform the exercise.
When people go too light, less muscle fibers are recruited and to get a pump, they need to do a lot more reps.
Lifting heavier weights will also increase the micro-tears in the muscle fibers. This is a good thing because when you recover, the muscles will build itself back bigger and stronger. This is important for making gains, not just in building mass but it is also important if you are trying to slim down since more muscle mean more calories are burnt throughout the day.
On the flip side of going heavy when people who try and lift way more weight than their body can handle. It is a very common thing to see people piling on too much weight then using horrible form in order to lift it. In general, form and technique are the most important aspect of lifting. The strength will come if you focus on technique and keep working hard.
When you squat, get your ass to depth. When you curl, don’t swing the weights around. When you do lat pulls, don’t rock your entire body. And the list goes on and on. Use proper form because it is safer and your will stress the intended muscles more effectively.
A rule of thumb is you know you are lifting too heavy if you can’t get the reps you want or if your form starts to break down.
I see far too many people sacrificing form in order to lift the most weight and usually swinging the weights around. When you swing around the weight you are using less muscles since more of the weight is being lifted by the momentum from the swinging. This is really decreasing the effectiveness of the exercise.
There are some advanced lifters that do cheat lifts on purpose and see some gains with them. If you are an advanced lifter you probably know your body well enough to know when you should and should not break this rule. If you are not, you should always use proper technique.
Bad form can lead to injury and injuries are kill gains.
Another mistake I see people making with their workouts is they are looking for the newest exercise, or they want to switch up their workout all the time. As with most things, simple is better. The 3 basic power lifts of squat, bench press and deadlift, have been around for a long time and there is a good reason for it. It’s because they are very effective. They are compound lifts that utilize several muscle groups at once. The good thing about using compound movements instead of single joint movements, is that more muscles are being used so more growth hormones are being released throughout the body. Obviously releasing the growth hormones are important to getting big, but the other thing that happens when you use compound movements is that you are burning more calories during the workout. For the person that is looking to put on size, this means you need to eat more, but for the person looking to get cut, it’s a good thing because you will be increasing your calorie burning during and after your workout. The Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift should be a staple of any good muscle building workout routine. These 3 lifts are usually the strongest for people which means you are going the heaviest. This means you are recruiting more muscle fibers when you go heavy with these as opposed to going heavy with single-joint movements.. But again don’t sacrifice your form in order to go heavy.
Get your Protein
So let’s say your workouts are great. You are stressing your muscles, you have good form, you are going heavy with compound movements and your intensity is through the roof, but you are still having trouble getting big. Nutrition is a key area that a lot of people drop the ball with.
Protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle. The main function of protein is to build muscle. After your intense workout your body is broken down and needs to recover. Protein will help you repair your muscle tissue. If your body is lacking protein even the best workouts will not be as effective because the body will not have enough nutrients to recover. A deficit in protein will make it hard to build muscle.
When I ask people how they are eating most people who say they are eating well usually are not. When I dig a little deeper and find out what they think is healthy is not really healthy at all. I hear “I’ve had a bagel for breakfast, a salad for lunch and some fish or chicken for dinner. “Hmmmm where is the protein” I ask. They tell me “I have my protein at dinner.” In reality protein they are only getting about 20-30 grams per day. This is far below the conservative RDA recommendation of 0.8 – 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
A common estimation people looking to build muscle use is to round the 0.8 grams up to 1 gram and round the kilograms up to pound so 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is an easy and effective estimation. Some bodybuilders get even more protein and are in the 1- 1.5 grams per pound range. Most of my clients are not looking to get contest-ready so 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is usually my recommendation for most people’s goals.
A good protein powder can help you reach your daily goals if you can’t get enough food. Check out my 3-Part Review of the Best Protein Powders.
Eat Enough Calories
The other aspect of nutrition that you need to focus on is your total calories. Even if your protein intake levels are good, if you don’t get enough calories, you won’t gain weight.
Your body uses a certain amount of calories per day whether you move or not. This is your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. When you move your body burns more calories. The calories that your body burns are affected by how much you move , how much you weight, your body fat percentage and a bunch of other factors.
If are eating exactly the same amount of calories as you burn, your weight will stay the same. If you eat more than what you burn you’ll gain weight and vise versa if you burn more calories than what you eat, your weight will go down.
This concept seems pretty basic, but a lot of people forget this and wonder why they aren’t getting any bigger. Weight gainer shakes can help you increase your calories if it is hard to eat enough food. These contain a lot of fillers like dextrose or maltodextrin which will give you a lot of calories but will also spike your insulin levels so watch how much you use these since too much insulin can have negative effects on the body.
Personally, I always found it harder to bulk than to cut because it was harder for me to eat more than to eat less.
Go to sleep
Recovery is where the average lifter drops the ball with their results. Your rest and recovery are just as important as your workouts and nutrition.
When you are in the gym you are actually creating micro-tears in the muscle.The body repairs these while you are sleeping, but only if you give it enough food throughout the day. Sleep is where most of the actual muscle building actual takes place.
So without adequate sleep your body will have a hard time growing it’s muscles. While you are sleeping you body also releases growth hormones and testosterone into the body.These are important hormones that help the body build muscle and burn fat.
Your sleep is also when your energy levels are reset to normal. For most people 6-8 hours per day is recommended. This may increase depending on your activity or stress levels.
Take some time off
Before I knew any better, over-training was something I did a lot of in high school. My rationale is that if something is good, more of that thing is better. Well in some things that is true, but in weight training, your body needs the proper time to recover.
I’m not saying to sit around doing nothing for a month after you have a hard workout, but it is important to let your body recover. The time between workouts or the recovery phase is an important part of the workout cycle.
I have not found this to be a major issue for most people, but you don’t want to over-train your muscles. Over-training will lead to decreased performance, meaning getting weaker, and it can lead to decreased results.
In most cases, you do not want to work the same muscle 2 days in a row. After a hard workout, the body will usually need about 48 days to recover the muscles that you worked. You should try to give it at least that long before you hit that muscle again. The recovery time you need will really depend on how hard you hit your muscles.
Wrapping it up
So all 3 aspects of training are important. Don’t neglect any.
If you get 2 out of 3 of these if will be very difficult for you to get bigger. If you have great nutrition and sleep but if your workouts suck, your results will be limited. It goes the same if you have great workouts and sleep but do not eat well or if you train great and eat great but don’t give your body enough sleep or enough time between workouts. So go hard with your workouts, eat good and get enough rest and you should see some great results.
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