Muscle building is simple – right? Lift big, eat big and boom – you’re big. If it was that simple, then why do so many people find muscle building so elusive? Sure there are many people who train like a Pussy and eat like a bird and then complain they are not getting bigger. However, there are also tons of people who seem to be doing everything right and yet fail to gain muscle. Why? Because while the basic principles of training apply to everyone, so does the law of individuality. There are 5 specific aspects of muscle building that need to be personalized for you. If not, all your hard work can be in vain.
Is This Your Story Too?
I want to build more muscle. I go online and find someone who seems to be reputable. Maybe it was the big guy who had the body I wanted, the world famous guru, or the guy who claims to be the hardgainer expert. After reading the 20 page add written by a world-class copywriter, I’m hooked. The next thing I know my credit card is out and I’m dropping $47 on a short ebook with 6 free bonuses I don't need or want. I'm in a hurry to place my order because in 16 minutes the now or never again sale ends and it goes up to $77 until the end of time.
Monday starts into week one of this special, revolutionary program promised to pack slabs of muscle over my entire body. However, by the end of the week, my joints ache and I’m down 5lbs. What happened? Was the creator of the program a scam? While there are plenty of scam artists out there, it can often simply be a good program that is inappropriate for you. If you want to be successful with building muscle and not repeat my story, you need to figure out how these 5 things apply to you.
Listen to someone in the same boat as you or one who has success working with folks in the same boat as you. Many people make the big mistake of listening to the wrong person for training advice. This person could have a great body and/or be a very successful coach and still not be relevant for you because they are in a different context than you. Here are some examples:
Are you seeking advice from a person use drugs or work primarily with athletes and lifters who use drugs? Do you use drugs?
Some people gain mass very easily. This is a huge advantage for building Instagram fans, but a disadvantage for understanding someone with poor muscle building genetics.
Related: Genetics and Your Training Results
Body type & structure:
Along with genetics is your individual body type and structure. The exercise variations and programming strategies that work best for a short, stalky mesomorph will differ from those of a tall, skinny ectomorph.
Stage of life:
Does this person understand your stage of life? For example, I see some young guys who literally live in the gym. Yes, some of the develop pretty good physiques. However, if you are in your 30’s or 40’s, with kids and a busy career, is this the guy you want to take advice from?
2. Exercise Selection
You can work your butt off in the gym, but if your routine is full of concentration curls, seated calf raises, cable crossovers and leg extensions, you won’t go far. Countless good articles on muscle building have praised the big-bang, compound movements for building muscle mass. While this is good advice, it needs to be taken a step further for it to be good advice for you. The classic squat, bench and deadlift routines may turn you into a beast – or turn you into a wreck. Thankfully, there are countless variations of each big movement for you to choose from. Don’t blindly follow the masses here. Instead make YOUR muscle building exercises pass this stringent test:
- It must not beat up your joints (pain during or after the training session in the wrong spot is not acceptable)
- You must be able to feel the exercise working in your target muscle(s)
- It must allow you to use a lot of weight (or at least work up to big numbers)
- It must allow you to progressively add weight (if you find an exercise that never seems to progress, this is not a good one for you)
- Note: there are some exceptions to the last two as there are some helpful isolation exercises that can be added to some of the big lifts.
Remember, when it comes to building muscle, there is not one specific lift you HAVE to do. Don’t be afraid to go against the flow. If a specific variation doesn’t work well for you, drop it and move on!
3. Rep Range
“Heavy weights to bulk and light weights to tone and define!” This saying has been around since the dawn of the fitness industry. However, it is not entirely true. When it comes to strength, heavy weight, low repetition work is great. When it comes to building endurance, high reps rule. However, when it comes to building muscle, things get a little more confusing.
Both research and real-world evidence show that some people seem to thrive on low reps. However, others have great success with high reps. Recent research shows that some people can indeed build muscle with high reps.
When it comes to building muscle, using one rep range all the time is a mistake. You want to have some variation in your rep ranges. However, pay attention to how your body responds and do a good chunk of your work in your best rep range.
Also note that different muscle groups may respond better or worse to certain rep ranges. For example, I’m more of a low-rep guy, but I’ve had success with higher reps for quads.
Volume refers to the amount of work you are doing. To keep it simple, think sets x reps (although, load and # of exercises also factors into this). Low-rep, low-volume work is a great way to get strong. To get big and strong, you need to up the volume. How much? That is a great question. Some people are outliers who seem to be able to grow with an extremely large or small amount of work. However, most of us lie somewhere in between. This is where the need for experimentation comes into play.
For more info and a review of some of the research on volume and muscle gain, check out the guest post I did for Jason Maxwell at JMax Fitness: Low Volume Muscle Building: The Key to Explosive Muscle Growth?
Lately, there is a trend towards higher frequency of training for muscle gain. This has been supported both by real-world success and current research. However, back in the 90’s we were all doing low frequency and gaining size training a muscle group once per week. Is it the best way? Maybe not, but it can still work. Frequency is another key variable for size that can differ from one individual to the next.
Your Action Steps:
1. Filter information
Books, ebooks, programs and blog posts can all provide you with great information about training. However, you have to filter that information based on your context.
2. Track everything
Keep detailed records of everything – training log, body weight and measurements and food log. Also in your training log, don’t just right down things like sets and reps. Record how you feel during/after training. Make note if a particular movement aggravates a joint during or after training. If there was some big event on that week that would have impacted your recovery, make note of that.
Stay with what is working while it is working. When you need a fresh stimulus, try a different training strategy. Sometimes you will find things that just don’t work for you. If so, great – you learned something – move on. Other times you will find a strategy that does work well.
4. Rotate strategies over time
You don’t have to be married one way of training for life. Sometimes the best way to bust through a training plateau is by doing the opposite of what you were doing. For example, if you normally do low frequency training, try a higher frequency and see how your body responds.
One of my biggest training mistakes is not taking the time to go through my records and really reflect. The wise Coach Dan John calls this mining your training journals. Once you have records, go back and reflect. As you do, look for trends, patterns and any insight you can find on how your body responds best to training. Right these down – this is your personalized muscle building recipe.
Learn more about my mistakes so you can learn things the easy way:
How about you? What works best for you when it comes to building muscle. I welcome your comments and questions below or on my Facebook Page.