Often times you can see people walk into the gym, do a couple of exercises, throw in a set or two here and there, and all of a sudden muscles appear. Others, on the other hand, find their bodies are totally non-responsive to stimulus, no matter what they do or how hard they train. And there’s also a third group, who can’t quite figure out how to put things together that will actually cause their muscles to grow.
Most of these trainees dont have the slightest idea on what to do because they are constantly bombarded with all kinds of contradicting information in fitness magazines and can’t make up their minds on what advice to follow. Well, the purpose of this article is to remedy just that. It contains the most useful tips to sculpt a lean and aesthetic physique as healthy and as fast as possible. These tips apply for both men and women.
1. You should get lean first
The most common mistake a lot of people make is first trying to add muscle onto their frame, whilst thinking that they can get rid of the fat later. This is not so illogical because the more muscle mass you carry, the higher the metabolic rate, however, it’s not that simple. One of the key factors which impact muscle mass growth is how sensitive your lean tissues in your body are to the hormone insulin.
The truth is that the majority of people have some level of insulin resistance no matter how lean they are. Additionally, different body tissues have varying levels of insulin sensitivity. If you belong to this group, then the results will come at a slow pace. You won’t be able to transform your body as quickly or dramatically as someone who is already lean and sensitive to insulin.
Insulin a highly anabolic hormone which transports the necessary nutrients into muscle cells, which means that in a body whose cells are very resistant to insulin it is far more likely that it will store the food you ate as fat instead of sending it to your muscles. The main takeaway point here is that you need to lean out first because that way you will have created the optimal hormonal environment that will allow you to build the greatest amount of muscle mass in the shortest time possible.
2. Compound multi-joint movements should be your first priority: overhead press, deadlifts, squats, bench presses, pull-ups etc.
Another common mistake a lot of beginners make when they first enter the gym is thinking they need to train each muscle group separately. However, this is a big waste of time for the average lifter. On the contrary, your muscles will get a lot bigger by training them with multi-joint compound movements because that way you’ll be able to use much heavier weights relative to your body weight. Logically, this will enable you to load the muscles to a much higher level, thus giving your body the optimal stimulus to force it to build new muscle tissue which is simply an adaptation to ever-increasing mechanical stress.
Doing the major compound movements will allow you to create a high level of metabolic stress inside your body which will trigger it to release hormones which are involved in muscle tissue repair. Testosterone (in men), growth hormone and many other anabolic hormones are produced as a response to training sessions which engage lots of muscle groups simultaneously. In order to induce the greatest response, you should train at least 4 times a week by using a training split such as the upper/lower body split (two days upper and two days lower) in order to maximize your recovery.
If you find yourself unable to make time for at least a one-hour training session, 4 days a week, you should switch to full-body workouts instead of doing body part splits. This way you will optimize your training time by targeting the greatest amount of muscle in a much shorter time frame.
3. Assistance exercises are second in priority
Assistance exercises are meant to fix any strength imbalances you might have throughout your body as well as cure any weaknesses. The majority of people think of them as too boring which is why they are often neglected. We’re talking about the type of exercises such as most unilateral movements like step-ups or split squats, rotator cuff exercises etc. One simple method to check if you have any weaknesses is to look at the function and level of mobility around each of your joints: The shoulders, knees, and hips are the ones who suffer the most, and then you’ll want to check the elbows, ankles, and wrists as well.
The best method to find your weaknesses is to use tests of strength, but since that is out of the scope of this article, the simplest way to do it is by noticing if you experience pain in any area of your body, restricted range of motion for certain muscles or awkward movement patterns. A good example is the split squat, also known as the single leg squat. When you’re doing it, is your knee going towards your body, is your torso leaning forward, can you keep your balance?
If you want to maintain a well-sculpted physique once you attain it, you must use assistance exercises as they will help you minimize the risk of injury and will also enable you to increase your overall strength in the long-term. This will result in you being able to put greater stress on your muscles, which in turn will enable continuous muscle growth.
4. Isolation exercises are priority #3
For experienced lifters, using single-joint exercises can make a huge difference in their overall size as the fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers are found throughout individual muscles in different ratios. In order to optimally engage these muscle fibers, you need exercises that will specifically isolate and target these muscles.
Additionally, specific muscles can only be targeted when trained in specific body positions. For example, the biceps are made up of two “heads”, as the name itself implies. The outside or the lateral part of the long muscle head is engaged when you flex the elbow. The middle part is engaged when you’re lifting the weight with your palm facing you. And finally, the short head is engaged more in the last part of the concentric phase (when you lift the weight near the top), whilst the long head is engaged more in the beginning part (when you lift the weight off the bottom).
Isolation exercises such as dumbbell flyes, biceps curls, and triceps extensions are not as some so-called experts say, useless. After you’re done with your major compound movements and your main assistance movements, if you have spare time, you can try out some different variations for your calf, biceps, forearm muscles or train your grip.
5. Train with high volume to induce muscle damage
Volume is the main training variable that will be the single most important factor to how much muscle you will build and it should be your main priority. Intensity is measured as a percentage of your one rep max, so in order to stimulate optimal muscle hypertrophy, you should train within the 65-85% range of your 1RM, with some periods of heavier lifting interspersed. When you only do 1-3 sets, or you use weights that are below the 65% threshold or the maximum amount of weight you can lift, you are simply not giving your body enough stimulus to force it to build more muscle, unless your muscle mass is minimal and you’re totally out of shape.
The general recommendation is that you do 4-8 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise. This is the optimal range for hypertrophy. In 70% of your workout sessions use the 65-85% of 1RM intensity range, and in the other 30% use weights that are above the 85% limit.
6. Train to complete failure
Failure happens when you’re lifting a weight to the point where you’re no longer capable of handling the weight with proper form. It causes significant muscle damage as well as a dramatic protein synthesis response which ultimately leads to an increased rate of muscle growth. Lifting to complete failure has been used by many professional athletes worldwide because it’s proven its efficiency many times over. So, you should keep lifting the weight until your form starts to break. Don’t try to cheat or use momentum to lift the weights. The only ones allowed to do this are advanced lifters who typically use intentional cheating methods to put additional stress on their muscles.
7. Keep your rest periods short
In addition to muscle damage, the main reason behind increased muscle tissue growth is metabolic stress, which is achieved with high training volume and short rest periods, within the range of no rest at all to 2 minutes. Working out to produce metabolic stress also has the added benefit of improving fat loss since it increases the release of fat-burning hormones as well as post-workout calorie expenditure.
Sometimes it can be really boring and tiresome to time your rest periods between each set, which is why many lifters ignore this completely. However, it’s an absolute must because the rest period is a key variable in the muscle building process. So, get a watch and measure your rest. You’ll find yourself getting shredded a lot faster than other lifters in the gym who wing it, or even worse, socialize or play with their phones during rest periods.
8. Count the execution tempo. Go for longer tempos for increased time under tension.
Tempo is the speed at which you perform the concentric (positive) and eccentric (negative) phases of the lift. A general recommendation for building muscle mass is to do moderate eccentric (3-5 seconds) and fast concentric tempos, in order to increase the time under tension, i.e. the time spent “under” the weight.
This training variable which is also known as “TUT” is a key factor in muscle growth. In general, the more time you spend under tension the more muscle you build and the more fat you lose, whilst shorter time under tension builds more strength. That is why it is very important that you count the tempo. You can try training with an emphasis on the eccentric phase by using a longer tempo whilst you’re lowering the weight and a shorter tempo (1-2 seconds) while you’re in the concentric phase.
9. Eat big to get big
Nutrition is one of the pillars of bodybuilding. You cannot build muscle without providing your body with nutritious food containing high-quality calories. What high quality means is picking whole foods dense with nutrients that aren’t processed in any way. In order to achieve your daily caloric goal, it is best that you eat 4-6 smaller meals every 2-3 hours throughout the day, with each of them containing a substantial amount of protein, healthy fats, healthy carbs and a handful of vegetables.
Studies have shown that in order to induce maximal muscle growth in combination with intense and frequent training, one should eat between 40-50 calories per kilogram of body weight daily. For someone who weighs 140 lbs, that would be 2500-3200 calories a day.
10. Calculate your daily protein needs and hit them every day
When it comes to daily protein requirements, everyone’s different, however, for average gym goers, the general recommendation is to consume upwards of 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day with the upper limit that would be beneficial for building muscle being 2.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
One should try gradually increasing the amount of protein ingested on a daily basis in order to see the body’s response. There are many types of protein sold on the market, some of them fast-absorbing like whey protein, and others slow-absorbing like casein protein. Whey is widely used by bodybuilders as it’s easily absorbed and transported into the muscles. Whey protein supplementation is somewhat superior to casein, soy or other plant-based proteins, as research has shown.
The main takeaway point is that you need to consume high-quality protein supplements which also contain at least 10 grams of essential amino acids. Lean meats, eggs, fish should be your main whole protein sources, which have been confirmed in many studies to be the best nutrient-rich foods necessary to re-build muscle tissue and make it stronger.
11. Consume more carbs on training days, less on rest days
If your goal is to build more muscle, but your body fat level is already high, you should first focus on getting lean before trying to add muscle mass. When you carry a lot of fat your cells’ sensitivity/response to insulin decreases. That is why you need to make your body as insulin sensitive as possible because that will cause your body to more optimally take advantage of the higher calorie and carbohydrate consumption, and will use those nutrients to build muscle, instead of storing them as fat. This is also known as nutrient partitioning.
It is important to note that carb consumption is not essential to protein synthesis, which is the main driver of muscle growth, however, there are many benefits which eating carbs can provide in regards to muscle building:
Carbs decrease cortisol release during training and help you maintain balanced cortisol levels. They support thyroid function, which is in charge of regulating your body composition. They enable you to use more energy during intense and exhaustive workouts. Consuming a high-carb diet will delay and reduce fatigue and your workouts will feel much easier.
Carb daily needs vary greatly among individuals, depending on many factors, so a general recommendation is hard to be given. However, chances are that on a daily basis you will be needing something in the range of 150-300 grams of carbs on training days. This is highly individual based on factors such as genetics, body fat levels, and insulin sensitivity level, as well as your eating habits. Whatever your choice is, you should always prioritize carbs coming from whole foods such as starchy vegetables, boiled grains, fruit and legumes instead of refined junk carbs from fast food, candy etc. If you take carbs during your training, try a carb-to-protein ratio of 2:1 and 1:1.
12. Optimize your recovery
In addition to quality sleep and managing stress, nutrition has the biggest impact on your recovery. This is the main reason why foods rich in nutrients are essential when trying to build as much muscle mass as possible. Your body needs a great number of antioxidants in your blood to eliminate all the waste products that are released during training. Antioxidants also decrease inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.
The third essential macronutrient, fat is essential for maintaining hormonal balance and improving recovery since it provides your body with crucial nutrients and vitamins. Your diet should be diverse and filled with beneficial fats from lean meats, fish, whole dairy products and monounsaturated fat sources like olives, nuts, and avocado.
The bottom line is that besides your genetics, one of the main indicators of muscle development is how fast you can recover from a workout so that you can train intensely in the gym again.