1. Keep coming back to safety and effectiveness
My training philosophy is that it is all about safety and effectiveness. If what you are doing now is not hurting you or setting you up for future injury and it is getting the results you want, then you are on track. Even if what works for you is different than what I say below - I never argue with safety effectiveness. Also, when it comes to effectiveness be sure that you are evaluating muscle gains on measurements and scale weight and not how much of a pump you get during training or how sore you are the next day. Take these measurements every 2-3 weeks to make sure you are on track and adjust your training and eating accordingly.
2. Build the house, then finish it
When it comes to building muscle mass, a good illustration is house construction. Building the general framework of a house is much different than finishing carpentry work such as baseboards and crown moldings. Too many trainees with the goal of building muscle get sidetracked with little things that should only be the concern of the elite competitive bodybuilder. For example, if someone’s arms only measure “eleventeen” inches (Charles Poliquin joke), then worrying if one triceps head seems a little smaller than the other two is a waste of time. Delt-Pec tie-ins, biceps peaks and quad sweeps are a concern for the elite bodybuilder, but not the average person trying to gain some muscle. If you're trying to build muscle mass, and focus on the exercises that are best for that (see the next tip). Once you have built your desired amount of muscle mass, feel free to add in some isolation movements and advanced bodybuilding techniques as needed to refine your symmetry.
3. Select the best exercises
The best exercises are still the best exercises. Do not let anyone dismiss them as "old school". Yes, they have been around for hundreds of years, but squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, overhead presses, dips, bench presses, rows and barbell curls are still the best exercises for getting big and strong . These exercises usually offer enough direct stimulus to target the muscles you want to hypertrophy while allowing for heavy weight to be used and high levels of progression to be possible. Sure some isolation exercises will allow you to “feel the burn” more, but they cannot compare to these exercises for muscle gain.
Important note: select the best version of the best exercises for your body. If a certain exercise bothers your joints or does not work as well, switch it for a better variation for you. For example, dumbbell bench press may be a better option for some people than barbell.
4. Get strong
Yes it is true that some bodybuilders are big but not strong. However, these people are usually using drugs and have great genetics. Trying to get big without getting strong does not work that well for most people (if you are the exception to this - good for you). I have seen many people pumping up their muscles with advanced bodybuilding-style routines with light weight and they look the same year after year. Focus on getting stronger with the best exercises for moderate reps and you will give your body the stimulus to grow muscle. Change the barbell, change your body. How many times have you seen someone who can bench 400lb raw that has a small upper body? Also, some of the best bodybuilders of all time have been very, very strong. This not only helped them achieve their incredible size, but also a level of hardness and density that the light-weight “pumpers” just cannot get. For example, check out some videos of 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman on YouTube and you will see what I mean.
Some questions that I would have for anyone trying to grow muscle without getting stronger are:
- How is that working for you?
- Even if you could gain muscle without getting stronger, why would you? Why would you not want to be strong?
- Can you imagine someone coming up to you, “hey, you look strong, can you help me lift this?” and you having to say, “sorry, I’m not actually strong, I just look strong.”