Most lifters spin their wheels for years, benching 185 for 5×5 and then immediately hopping onto barbell curls. Rinse, repeat. The same weight. The same reps. And low and behold, they stay the same… for years.
To build muscle you must stress your body beyond what it’s currently doing. Set small goals for each workout. More reps, more sets, or heavier weights.
Hell, if you really want to keep doing the same thing, then try to do it in less time. Aim to get a bit better each time you set foot in the gym.
Especially if you’re a new lifter, getting stronger is the single most important thing you can do. When you’re new, training for strength while eating a muscle-building diet will add lean mass simply because your body isn’t used to the high-stress environment of training.
For veteran lifters, strength remains critical, but it’s worth thinking about a bit differently.
First, building more strength allows you to lift progressively more weight for more volume. For example, you might go from bench-pressing 80-pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 10 to 100 pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 10. This gradual improvement leads to a much greater overload stimulus.
Second, heavy strength work improves muscle fiber recruitment. Using hypothetical numbers, you could go from recruiting 40% of the muscle fibers in your chest to 70%. The more muscle fibers you recruit the more you can train.
So, strength is still important even for the advanced lifter. But instead of being the primary muscle builder, heavy lifting allows you to improve muscle fiber recruitment to engage more muscle fibers and improve work capacity to fatigue more muscle.
Rookies need to lift heavy to kickstart muscle-building. Veterans need to lift heavy to make all subsequent training more effective.
Chasing the pump simply because it looks cool isn’t bro-science anymore -- it’s science-science.
Muscle researcher Brad Schoenfeld found three major components to building muscle: mechanical tension (heavy strength work), metabolic damage (the pump), and muscular damage (soreness).
Mechanical tension is covered with heavy strength work and limited muscular damage should be a byproduct (and not the focus) of a slight progressive overload. In many cases, the best results come from hitting a heavy lift and then creating metabolic stress – the pump.
When you lift with moderate-high reps and short rests, the prolonged muscular contractions create an occlusion effect and short rests contribute to it because they don’t allow enough time for blood to escape the muscles.
This leaves the byproducts of muscular contractions “stuck” in your muscles, which can activate mTOR (a central regulator of cell growth) while also increasing activation of satellite cells (precursors to muscle cells).
In short, it means after a warm-up set, hit the weights heavy, then do 2-3 exercises with 8-15 reps per set and shorter rest periods to get a good pump. For the subsequent sets, the intensity, fast pace, and short rest periods are key.
Don’t be afraid to lighten the weight to squeeze in even more reps – when you’re training the pump, quality IS quantity.
The biggest mistake lifters make is trying to bulk before they’re lean enough to make the best use of the extra calories they’ll be taking in.
A good indicator you’re on the right track is having some abdominal definition BEFORE trying to bulk.
Yes, you’ll have to do some cardio. Yes, you may even have to go to bed hungry a few times. You’ll live. Hell, you’ll probably even live longer.
If you follow a “dirty bulk” or attempt to gain weight when you’re already too fat, you’ll be attempting to grow while your body chemistry (testosterone, estrogen, insulin, etc.) is still primed to steer nutrients away from muscle rather than to it.
Research consistently shows that the presence of visceral fat interferes with testosterone production, increasing and accelerating the storage of fat in the belly. Excess abdominal fat not only reduces testosterone production but is also associated with a rise in the female hormone estradiol in men.
Hard truth – unless you’re lean from the start, you likely have to shrink a little before you grow. Otherwise, you’ll be sailing into the wind instead of with it.
Some more issues you’re likely to run into if you bulk when your body fat is already 15% or higher:
Get lean, and when you do bulk, keep it clean. Progress will come slower, but you’ll build big biceps, not a big belly.
EAT A MODERATE CALORIC SURPLUS
In a perfect world, eating more food would directly correlate to more lean muscle mass. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
What you need to do is calculate your calories and shoot for 300-500 calories above maintenance. Now, there are dozens of equations out there to help you do this and they’re all similar. Here’s a simple one:
Body weight (pounds) x 15 = maintenance
160 pounds x 15 = 2,400 calories per day.
So, to build muscle, this hypothetical person would need to consume 2,700 to 2,900 calories.
If you gain fat easily, shoot for the lower end of this range. If you have a crazy metabolism, shoot for 2,900 or a bit over. You’ll have to experiment and see what’s best for you, but this will get you in the neighborhood.
Don’t want to math? If you’re normally at roughly maintenance (ie, your weight is staying about the same), the daily increase you should shoot for to “bulk” equates to an extra protein shake and a banana, or an extra sweet potato and a chicken breast on top of what you’d regularly eat.
It’s NOT a 1200-calorie burger from a fast-food joint.
SET YOUR MACROS
Calories are king when it comes to building muscle, but the macronutrient breakdown (a rough idea of how much protein, fat, and carbs you should be eating) is also important. Long story short, eat a high protein diet. How much? Check this out.
Need some ideas of what to eat? Got you covered.
It’s the single easiest and simplest thing people can do to jack up their results. It’s the best thing for recovery, builds muscle, and sends testosterone skyrocketing. If you’re serious enough to lift and eat right, you need to be serious enough to get good sleep.
STAY ON MISSION
Stick to your muscle-building diet, leave inconsistent training behind, and be as serious about sleep and recovery as you are about your workouts. Stay on mission. If you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll be rewarded with a stronger, leaner, and more muscular build.