“Man, I went to the gym the other day and lifted heavy weights for the first time ever. I came out totally jacked!”
~No One Ever
Okay, so it’s a joke.
When people said: “We would never want to look like you” Arnold Schwarzenegger famously replied, “Don’t worry, you never will.” He wasn’t joking.
Building muscle, especially the amount that made The Terminator famous, doesn’t come easily or happen by accident. A healthy dose of the right genes doesn’t hurt, either.
Arnold and the many who came before and after him paid for their physique with blood, sweat, tears. They spent more time and energy in the gym than you or I ever will in our lifetimes. Those guys trained, ate, and slept like it was their job. For many, it was.
Mere mortals like you and me have regular jobs, families, and other obligations. We most likely have less favorable genes. And we certainly don’t have the time, energy or inclination to do what those guys did. That’s fine, too.
That said, lifting weights and gaining muscle is incredibly beneficial to your health and physique. And you almost certainly need more. This blog post is about how weight training actually works and how to pack on more muscle.
Nerd Alert: The Science Part!
Warning to Readers: This is the boring part. Feel free to skip it. I won’t tell anyone.
Grab a copy of my 4 Week Beginner Strength Program HERE
Skeletal muscles, the ones that attach to your bones, are massive collections of cells. Those cells have proteins called actin and myosin that, when stimulated from your brain, slide past each other causing muscles to contract and relax. These muscle contractions are responsible for posture and all movement: including standing, walking, running, jumping, and lifting weights.
If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Muscle mass is metabolically costly. Your body needs calories to build and sustain muscle tissue. In the absence of a caloric surplus and without sufficient stimulus (muscle contractions and damage through exercise) your muscles will atrophy, or shrink. Your body would prefer to conserve that energy and use it for other body functions.
Building muscle raises your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), which is the total amount of energy your body needs to maintain bodily functions while at rest. When you have more muscle mass, your body burns more calories. This is great for two reasons: it means you can eat more food without storing the extra as fat, and it means you can more easily burn excess fat when you’re in a caloric deficit.
Muscle helps increase bone density, improve circulation and insulin sensitivity, increase heart function, and allows you to tackle daily tasks without risk of injury.
Muscle is responsible for making you one sexy, athletic, and desirable human being.
Exercise like lifting weights, going for a long run or taking a hike up the mountain all represent stress to these muscle cells. In response to this stress, your body will ensure your muscles are stronger and more capable of enduring the stress in the future.
That’s why the first workout always sucks the most: you wake up the next day sore as hell and have a hard time sitting down on the toilet. But the following workout hurts a bit less. By the third and fourth workout, that soreness starts to wane or even subsides completely.
This is called adaptation.
In order to prevent future stress, your body’s response to exercise is to build more muscle. Appropriately applied stress, in the presence of a caloric surplus, results in more muscle mass and greater ability to endure stress.
Your body loves you so much that it automatically makes you stronger, faster, leaner, and more athletic just because you asked it to through repeated bouts of exercise. Your body is truly amazing.
But how do I go about getting more muscle?
A-ha. The big question. If building muscle was easy every pimple-popping teenager hogging the bench press would easily grace the cover of Men’s Fitness.
To build more muscle, you need several things:
- Caloric Surplus
- Stress (like weight training)
Muscle mass requires a lot of energy to not only build muscle but to maintain it. So you need to eat more.
You have to train consistently and intensely for a long time. We’re talking months, years, and decades. If you stop training regularly, due to illness, work, or injury, your body will do its best to get rid of muscle or atrophy.
You have to rest and recover: no more staying up until 3 am watching your favorite Friends reruns. Get to sleep, drink lots of water, and spend time relaxing.
Here are the six sexy secrets of building muscle that lasts.
1) Determine Your Ideal Workout Schedule
Be honest. If you pick a program that requires you to hit the gym six times each week, but you can only reasonably swing three, how are you going to finish the program?
Know your ideal training schedule, whether that’s two, three or more workouts each week. You will more likely stick with the program this way.
2) Pick Big, Compound Exercises
I see a lot of people pumping bicep curls and triceps press downs, yet they don’t have a great physique. I’m not judging or condemning. I’m observing.
I applaud their efforts. I only caution you against making their mistakes because I imagine that after awhile they might be wondering why they don’t have the physique they’re chasing. They might get down on themselves and want to quit.
Why put in so much effort?
Compound lifts like chin-ups, push-ups, squats, and deadlifts cross more joints, incorporate more muscle and help you build a stronger body. They do this because they apply greater stress to the muscles and your body’s response is to make you stronger and more buff so it can handle workouts in the future.
Workouts are aren’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to feel good. Without adequate stress, there’s no response: you don’t get stronger; you don’t build muscle, and you don’t get results.
3) Choose The Right Stimulus
Mindlessly wandering from exercise to exercise is a sure-fire way to make little progress. I see many of the same individuals in the gym almost every day. Their workouts look the same, yet they haven’t physically changed.
Insufficient Stimulus: Stress to the body forces it to adapt. Its response, or lack thereof, is directly proportional to the amount of stress applied to it. Without an increase in stress over time, through more weight or more reps or both, your body stops adapting.
You’ve encountered this before: you jump into a brand new program and in the first few weeks, you’re sore, the inches fall off, and you’re feeling stronger than ever.
In the second month, progress slows. Your strength gains are marginal and the inches around your waist are more stubborn than ever.
By the third month, you’re no longer making any progress. You curse your program, throw your fists in the air, and quit. What happened?
The program was good, but your body adapted. Without an increase in stress, it no longer needed to make changes.
Random stimulus: Muscle confusion is a marketing term, not a physiological one. Muscles don’t get confused. They either contract or they don’t.
Constantly changing your workouts means you’re sending mixed messages to your cells. They don’t know how to respond and adapt for the next bout of exercise. Your program needs continuity: the same exercises applied to your the body for just enough time to effectively teach your muscles how to work against the load, and how to adapt so you can make some progress.
Muscle building is like riding a bike. You have to teach your muscles how to work together to make movement look and feel fluid. The first few times you rode a bike, you felt off-balance and uncoordinated.
Muscles are similar: they need to learn how to move in a certain position before they can fluidly move together.
With bike-riding, you got more comfortable with practice.
Similarly, with weight training, through repetitions or practice, you add more muscle, recruit more muscle fibers, move more weight and move it faster, leading to greater strength gains.
So stick to the program for four to six weeks, slowly adding weight and reps over time. Only then should you start changing some variables.
4) Use Progressive Overload
Let’s look at a sample workout:
A1) Squat 3×10
A2) Pull-ups 3×10
The classic 3×10 set and rep scheme is the most popular set-up in the gym, and it works, for awhile.
Let’s say in week one you start with a 25 lb goblet squat. You can make progress in week 2 by adding weight (30 lbs) or adding reps. In week 3, do it again.
The same applies to pull-ups: maybe try for 11 or 12 reps in week 2 and 3 and 4.
There are a few other ways to introduce overload:
- adding weight
- adding reps
- doing more sets (like 4 or 5 instead of 3)
- moving the weights faster
- improving your technique
- completing the workout in a shorter timeframe, increasing density.
After four to six weeks of making progress, change the stimulus.
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5) Track Everything
How do you know what you’ve done, or how hard you pushed yourself, if you don’t track your workouts?
Buy a two dollar notebook and start taking notes. Note the weights you lifted, and how many times you lifted them. Note how it felt: good, bad, even super shitty.
Continue to make progress over the four weeks and reflect on how far you’ve come.
6) Rest and Eat. Repeat Forever.
During the deep stages of sleep, your body secretes Growth Hormone, which is responsible for cell growth (including muscle cells); helps boost protein production, and increases fat utilization. Get to bed!
Eating more food is imperative. Without extra calories, your body can’t build new muscle.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats will all play a role in helping you build muscle. Protein repairs the damaged proteins in the muscle from strenuous workouts. Carbs help supply energy for your muscles to use for contractions. Fats, especially essential fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6, are critical for recovery and cellular function.
Your success in the gym will depend on an adequate supply of all three macronutrients, as well as micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Stick it out for the long haul. I understand our “need it now” society leaves us believing heavily in quick fixes and eight-week makeovers. These things don’t work. At least, not for the long haul.
They don’t address the simple fact that building muscle, losing fat, and getting your health in order isn’t something that should happen in a month or two. Muscle, fat loss, and more importantly, good health, are things that you should be striving to achieve for your entire lifetime.
Good health includes keeping your bones strong, improving circulatory and insulin function, and reducing your risk of age-and-sedentary-related illnesses (like high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, and cardiovascular disease).
In other words, you can be lean, strong, healthy, vibrant, and sexy as fuck as a grandma or grandpa. Who said you couldn’t be?
Movement and exercise aren’t punishment. Rather, it’s a celebration of what your body is truly capable of.
Want to put these principles into practice? Download your FREE copy of my Four-Week Beginner Strength Program and be on your way to stronger today.