How to build muscle

Some people will see this title and expect that this post is about ‘a 6-week regimen to build 20lbs of lean muscle mass’ or something. It’s not. Others will expect me to impress you by throwing around complicated words like ‘mTOR pathway’, ‘Z-discs’ or ‘neuromuscular adaptation’ or whatever. I won’t.

Have you ever wondered why 3 completely different training plans may all give roughly the same results when trying to build muscle? There are a few principles that every good training method adheres to in one way or another. A rank novice in strength training should progress pretty easily and can usually get stronger (and in the process, build muscle) every single workout, even if it’s for a short while. If this does not happen, which happens quite often, you can be sure that one of the following points is off.

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Progressive overload
When your body experiences a stimulus that disrupts its balance, it wants to adapt to it. Your skin gets darker from exposure to the sun, your body creates antibodies in response to a vaccine and your body becomes stronger by exposure to heavy weights. Exposing your body to the same stimulus all the time, like doing the exact same workout and lifting the exact same weight, will at some point not challenge your body to adapt anymore. What does this mean in practice? If you do not expose your body to more weight, more reps, more exercises or more variety, at some point your body will see no reason to get stronger, bigger or faster. There is a caveat, however, which is proper recovery.

 

Ivan Stoitsov, Bulgarian olympic weightlifter, trains for athletic performance, but by constantly applying certain principles like progressive overload he still built a nice amount of muscle.

 

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Proper recovery
It would be great if you could just add weight or reps on an exercise all the time. To some extent this happens, especially when properly planned for it in beginning trainees. Their body isn’t used to much so they can relatively (!) easily build muscle and get stronger with relatively (!) light training. That also means that the body isn’t really strained that much in terms of recovery. Recovery? Yes, a stimulus more or less damages or drains your body. Just like a vaccine (which is “a little bit of a disease”) makes you resistant to the disease, the full blown disease could be disastrous to your body. Exposure to the sun can give you a tan, yet excessive exposure to the sun without recovery can increase the instance of cancer. In much the same way, strength training can make you stronger but a lack of recovery can actually make you weaker. So get enough sleep, eat enough (not just protein), find a way to relieve daily stress and don’t fall into the trap of always trying to do more. Progressive overload is essential, but too much of a good thing is still too much. Balance stimulus and recovery. AND DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF NUTRITION IN BUILDING MUSCLE. You don’t need advanced bodybuilder nutrition plans where you eat tilapia and asparagus every 2 hours until you hate your life (far from it actually), but don’t expect your body to BUILD anything if you don’t supply it with enough material to build muscle with.

Proper volume/loading
You need a certain amount of sets, reps and exercises for specific goals and situations. When it comes to building muscle, you generally need more reps, sets and exercises than when purely training for strength. Popular strength training programs like Stronglifts 5×5 WILL aid in building muscle because it’s smart about the ‘progressive overload’ and ‘proper recovery’, but the volume (total amount of sets, reps and exercises) isn’t very high. Doing 3 exercises a day with 1-5 sets of 5 reps like the program calls for can get you strong and yes, getting strong has a very strong correlation with building muscle. For that reason, people looking to build muscle could benefit greatly from temporarily following programs like that, but in the long run their muscle growth will likely not be as optimal as when a program with higher volume would have been followed.

For those that tend to think in extremes: No, this does not mean that weight is not important. If you keep lifting the same weight, even if you add reps, there will be a point where it will do little (if anything) for adding muscle mass.

Consistently sticking to a program
A lot of people hit the gym for while and see no results, they want to build muscle but somehow can’t seem to do so. When they ask me what I think the reason could be, I like to dig in their training history a little. Sometimes I find out that one of the aforementioned principles have not really been optimal, but in many cases there’s a different problem. People do not consistently do what they’re supposed to do. They skip workouts for all sorts of reasons, make changes in the training program when they’re not supposed to or jump from program to program every 3 weeks. One time a guy asked me for advice in getting stronger. I told him I’d help him out if he did the Stronglifts 5×5 program for 3 months and got back to me after that. I talked to him several months later, he quit after a few weeks because he didn’t like the program. As far as I know, he’s still not particularly strong. Another guy asked me for advice after he hadn’t been to the gym for a while and I told him pretty much the same. I saw him at the gym a week later, doing different exercises (“I can do more weight with this!), switching the order of the exercises (“Yeah it just feels better.”) and using way more weight than the program calls for (“Otherwise I feel like I’m not doing anything useful!). Last I heard he hasn’t been in the gym for a while.

For the love of Krista Bunni and all that is holy, STICK TO A PROGRAM. Put in the work and trust the process. Be patient.

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I hope this gives a little insight in essential factors in good training programs when you want to build muscle.

I don’t have a funny, relevant quote to end this post with so you’ll have to make do with a picture of Krista Bunni.

This picture will raise your testosterone levels. Testosterone is an essential hormone when you want to build muscle. Don’t ask questions.