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10 Things I Know About Building Muscle

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As a man who grew up being very skinny my #1 goal has always been building muscle. I naturally have very ectomorphic characteristics (I have a very fast metabolism) so it’s always been a struggle for me to build and maintain muscle. Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my pursuit to build muscle. I’ve tried more diets and training programs than I can remember.

What I’ve come to realize is that it all comes back to the fundamentals of bodybuilding. The formula to get big is already out there. Bodybuilders have been following the same basic formula to build muscle for over half a century. What it takes from you is a lot of hard work and consistency.

#1. Find a training program that works for you and STICK WITH IT

Understand that there is no “best” training program out there. The best training program for you is one that fits your goals, experience level and schedule. Not following a training program or bouncing between programs — is probably the biggest mistake I see beginners make in regards to training. All good training programs are based on set of training principles designed to yield a specific adaption.

#2. Focus on getting stronger

You should always be trying to lift heavier and heavier weights with good form. This doesn’t mean you have to lift low reps all the time. Muscle mass is built with reps. If you want to build muscle, focus on getting strong in a specific rep range. 6-12 reps is the ideal range for most exercises if you’re trying to build size. As a beginner, stick to basic compound barbell and dumbbell movements, and just focus on getting stronger in that rep range.

I’ve made the mistake in the past of thinking the weight I lifted didn’t matter as long as I trained a ton of volume. Looking back over my training career, anytime my focus shifted away from getting stronger to “sculpting” the muscle with lots of exercises, I never built a significant amount of muscle.

#3. Make every rep count

The quality of your reps matters. Each repetition is an opportunity for you to improve. Never sacrifice form by lifting weights heavier than you are capable of handling. Weight progression is an important training principle, but you should never lift a weight that compromises the quality of the repetition. Developing the mind-muscle connection is a fundamental concept of bodybuilding. Learning to feel the muscle work takes time to develop. As a general rule, the concentric portion (muscle contracting) of the lift should be done explosively, taking about 1-2 seconds to complete. The eccentric portion (muscle lengthening under load) should be done in a more controlled manner taking about 2-3 seconds to complete. The negative (eccentric) portion of the repetition contributes greatly to muscle grow. So make sure you emphasize it and take the time to build your mind-muscle connection if you want to grow.

#4. Follow bulking and cutting phases

If you’re trying to build a lot of muscle you need to follow the bodybuilding phases. Bulking and cutting phases have been staples of bodybuilders for decades because they work. If you want to make significant body composition changes (build a lot of muscle or lose body fat) than well-structured bodybuilding phases are your best option. The idea that you can recomp — meaning you build muscle without gaining body fat or even build muscle while losing body fat — is simply not a realistic option.

Here is a great video by Dr. Mike Israetel on the myth of lean gains and why bulking and cutting phases work.

#5. Eat like a bodybuilder

If you want to build a lot of muscle you need to eat like a bodybuilder. In general, most bodybuilders eat between 5-7 meals per day. They consume high protein, moderate/high carb, low/moderate fat meals over consistent intervals. They do this because this is the easiest, most effective way to build muscle.

I’ve tried all sorts of dietary strategies in the past. Some of the diets I’ve tried were fairly ridiculous. I can say from experience that there is no better dietary strategy for building muscle than a traditional bodybuilders diet. One diet that is very popular right now is intermittent fasting. I’m not referring to any specific form of intermittent fasting, just the general concept that you go through a 16-20 hour fasting period followed by a 4-8 hour feeding window. While I have no issues with intermittent fasting from a general health standpoint, it is definitely not optimal for muscle growth.

#6. Manage your recovery

Understand that resistance training is inherently catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue. Your ability to recover from training is what determines how much you grow. Your nutrition, sleep amount/quality, and hydration levels are fundamental components of recovery.Food quality does matter. If you want to build muscle without gaining excessive amount of body fat, first make sure you’re eating the proper amount of calories/macros, and then get most of your food from quality whole-food sources (Taco Bell does not count).

Training and eating to build muscle put greater demands on the body. That means you need more sleep. If you want to build muscle optimally make sure you’re getting plenty of rest. 8 solid hours a night is a good start. But you may need more or less depending on your body. I’ve found when I’m in a bulking phase I need to sleep an additional 60-90 minutes over my normal amount of sleep to feel fully rested and recovered after a hard workout.

Don’t neglect your hydration levels either. 1-1.5 gallons of water per day should be standard. Bonus Tip: Separate your liquids from solid meals to improve digestion. Don’t drink any water 20 minutes before and after a solid meal and drink as little as possible during the meal. I’m not 100% sure why this works so well but it really helps cut out bloating for me when I’m eating a ton of food during a bulking phase.

#7. Deal with injuries the right way

When you get injured (and you will) make sure you take the time to properly rehab an injury. If it is something serious where you have reduced range of motion that is causing serious discomfort or pain, go see a doctor and physical therapist. It’s fine to do your own research on the issue but always consult with a professional. After you’ve diagnosed the injury you should try and figure out why the injury occurred.

Most of the injuries you get are going to be the result of overuse. Let’s say one day while benching you feel a pop in your shoulder while pressing. Chances are you’ve been having issues with that area for awhile before the acute training injury occurred. Getting in tune with your body can take a long time, but if you’re smart about your training you can find what works for you and what doesn’t over time. Complete rehabilitation from the time of injury, to getting back to your previous strength levels, will probably take at least 12 weeks.

Don’t get overzealous when you start feeling better. If you hurt your rotator cuff, don’t try to max out in bench 3 weeks after the injury. I would make the exact same mistake for years. I would injure something, start rehab on it, start feeling better, get overconfident and try to go heavy, and hurt myself again. Learn from my mistakes and take your time when doing rehab.

#8. Realize you can build muscle without any supplements

The reason most people buy and consume supplements is to have an effect on body composition. Either they want something to help them build muscle or to help them lose fat. The reality is that the only supplement that has been scientifically validated as having a noticeable effect on body composition is creatine. Other than creatine the only available over-the-counter supplements that would have a noticeable effect on body composition are pro hormones which I would never recommend to a beginner. Certain supplements like protein powder are effective because they can help you meet your protein requirements for the day, but there is nothing inherently special about consuming protein powder over whole food protein sources. I’ve wasted a lot of money over the years on supplements I thought were going to help get me jacked. I never noticed anything major from an over-the-counter muscle building supplement. Nothing that would justify the price tag, at least. These days I take a lot of supplements, but most of them are for general health purposes, not because I think they will have a dramatic effect on my body composition.

#9. Don’t lose sight of the fundamentals

Whenever my training starts feeling shitty, I stop making body composition progress, or life gets in the way — I always return to the fundamentals. I simplify my training program, I simplify my diet, I stop thinking, and just follow the proven fundamentals that have served me well in the past. Experimenting is necessary to truly learn what works best for your body, but not until you have a solid foundation, first.
One of the best years of training I’ve had so far was my first year of training. It’s not because I was following the best training program or had the best diet. It was because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing so I just did what other people told me to do and didn’t question it.

Once I built my knowledge base a bit and really started delving into training and nutrition information is when everything started going to shit. I started focusing on what supplements I should be taking, the best exercises to build the chest, and optimal training frequency for growth. In the mean time, the actual things that matter — training and nutrition fundamentals — took a back seat as I searched for some secret that I was missing.

There are no secrets when it comes to bodybuilding. All of the fundamentals of training and nutrition are already known. Guys have been consistently getting big for decades following the same basic nutrition advice and training programs.

#10. Consistency is KING

I could make an argument that the most important thing to reaching your bodybuilding goals is staying consistent. You need to understand right now that there will be setbacks.

Just last week I questioned why the fuck I’m doing all this. I’ve been dealing with a shoulder injury for the last 3 months, I got pneumonia right after Christmas that caused me to lose a lot of weight, and since I’ve been back in the gym I can’t seem to gain weight. Dealing with setbacks like this will determine your success in bodybuilding. Most people who get injured or stop seeing progress decide to quit. That’s because bodybuilding will always take effort. In bodybuilding, you are constantly trying to push beyond your limits. When you do this, sometimes things go wrong. Then you have to put in even MORE effort and work to fix the program.

You will question yourself somewhere down the line. You will question whether or not it’s worth it. I can’t answer that question for you. All I can tell you is after 7 years of dedicating myself to bodybuilding, I’m more passionate about it than ever, and I have no regrets.

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