Whether you’re a beginner or more experienced, male or female, young or old – there are some basic rules of muscle building that apply to all.
Muscle building is like learning to run. To be able to run, first you need to master the basics of walking. Left foot, right foot and so on. To be able to build muscle you need to have the basics down first. I know some of you will be thinking, “I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing this for years.” We’re never too experienced to stop for a moment and check we’re still doing the basics right. It can be especially helpful to check off the basics if you are going through a plateau and not seeing any muscle building results.
Train hard enough to stimulate muscle growth.
If you want to build muscle you need to train hard enough that your muscles are constantly challenged so they adapt and grow. Muscle building does not come from using the same weight week after week. If you never increase the weight then your body will become used to it. Muscle building is an adaption to stress. To stimulate muscle growth you need to increase the amount of weight being lifted and/or the number of reps or sets completed. This is called the overload principle.
Famous strength programs such as Stronglifts 5x5 or Wendlers 5/3/1 are based on the overload principle. With Stronglifts, you increase the weight after each workout for the exercises where you were able to successfully complete 5 sets of 5 reps. The idea is that once your muscles can complete 5x5 at a certain weight, they’ve adapted. So you increase the weight slightly so they’ll grow to adapt to the new weight.
The principle also applies to cardio or conditioning work as well. If you look at a running training program you will notice that each week one of the runs will get longer, or the number of hill sprints you have to do will increase.
Muscle building isn’t easy – it takes hard work. If you’re not seeing muscle growth or progress, check that you are sufficiently challenging your muscles to grow. Are you following some sort of progression or plan?
Go heavy, but use good form.
If you want to build muscle you need to lift heavy. For strength work you’ll want to be doing no more than 5 reps per set. If you’re aiming for hypertrophy (muscle size) you’ll want to work in the 8-12 rep range. The weight you use for each exercise should be heavy enough that you can complete the set but the last couple of reps are challenging. It shouldn’t be so heavy that you miss a lift or have to stop.
It also shouldn’t be so heavy that your form breaks down. Using heavy weights will help you build muscle, but if you’re using poor form you’re most likely not engaging the right muscle(s). Continuing to lift heavier with poor form means you won’t develop the right muscles to execute the move with good form. If your squat turns into a good morning then you should probably unload some of the weight. Squats target muscle building for your quads, hamstrings, and glutes – but if it turns into a good morning then your lower back starts taking over the work and there is no quad involvement.
There’s no point doing all of this hard work at the gym if you don’t properly fuel your body or give it enough time to recover. Yes you do all of the work at the gym, but most of the actual muscle building happens outside of the gym. Your body needs enough time to recover between each workout so it can repair muscle damage and grow new muscle tissue. It also needs the right kind of fuel to be able to support this. If muscle building is your goal you need to consume a diet high in protein. Protein is broken down into amino acids which are then used to build new muscle. Protein powder can help you reach your daily protein goal but make sure you are also getting protein from whole food sources such as chicken, eggs, milk, and greek yoghurt to name a few.
Supplements such as creatine and glutamine can help support muscle building and recovery, while pre-workouts can be good to help you hit your training with intensity. Multivitamins and fish oils are other beneficial basic supplements that will help support your body against the demands of training.
No selfies in the squat rack
You won’t build muscle by taking selfies in the squat rack, posting on Facebook or Instagram, or doing more talking than working out. The gym should be about working out, no distractions. You can make sure your social media is on point once you’ve finished your workout.
Choose your gym buddy(ies) wisely – do they want to train or do they want to hang out? Let them know you’re there to train and you mean business. Sure it’s fine if you talk between sets but make sure it doesn’t make your rest periods 5 times longer than they’re meant to be.
If you’re serious about muscle building then make sure those around you at the gym know it.
Get your priorities straight
To build muscle you need to make recovery a priority. Getting adequate sleep is vital for muscle building and results in the gym. We’re not talking about the 6 hours of sleep you think you can live off – you need at least 8 hours quality sleep each night for workout recovery, performance, and muscle building. Late nights and partying can sabotage your gains so you have to get your priorities straight. Is it worth staying up until 2am watching Netflix because you’re so hooked on a show? Or do you want those muscles more?
Alcohol can also hinder your performance and recovery so if muscle building is your priority it’s better to avoid or limit alcohol consumption. We’re not saying you can’t go out and party, we’re just saying that if muscle building is your goal you need to prioritise recovery, sleep, and not overindulging in alcohol. There will be parties or events you need or want to go to, and you may decide you are going to drink. Just remember your goals and try to make them the priority.
Follow these basic rules of muscle building and you'll be well on the way to gainsville. Once you have the basics down, then you can start looking at other ways to increase your muscle building results.