The paradox of choice flexes its strength when it comes to deciding how to build a strong, athletic body. In fact, with so many conflicting opinions, studies, and thoughts on how to build muscle, the quest has turned into a whirlwind of confusion - something like trying to solve a Greek puzzle.
How do I know this? From personal experience. I've gone down the rabbit hole of more training methods than I'd like to admit in pursuit of the perfect muscle building formula. For whatever reason, I thought maybe I was a unique case. Perhaps the basics weren't good enough. And thus, I skimped on nailing down the basics in search for complexity for complexities sake.
I paid big time for it.
But, if I can share the lesson with you and help you save tons of time and frustration on your journey, I consider the experience worth it.
I've come to learn that getting bogged down with scientific studies and rigorous research has its place. It's usually reserved fro the knowledge worker who specializes in the field - not the lay person who simply wants to build some muscle.
Tony Robbins, the Godfather of personal development, or also known as the man who makes others walk on fire said this:
"If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do, and you'll achieve the same results."
Interestingly, this same concept holds true in the weight room. The people who are winning in the gym, typically adhere to a handful of basic principles that yield the majority of their results. Of course, nuances shine through from person to person. However, the general fundamentals have a similar ilk.
Here's what took me so long to finally accept: If the basics work for people who are doing better than I, they will work just as well for me.
The same applies to you.
If you've been getting slapped around like a pinball trying to build muscle, it's time to simplify things. What follows is a toolbox of effective strategies that act as a warranty for muscle mass.
1. Protein targets
The bodybuilding world has manufactured an inflated romance with protein. Yes, it's an essential macronutrient to building muscle, but it doesn't require as much as you might think.
There isn't much evidence that shows excessive amounts of protein expedites or enhances muscle growth. Research shows that those consuming enough calories with protein intake in the ballpark of 0.75g/lb is sufficient for muscle gains.
This news sheds a positive light on a few fronts. For the plant-based eater who doesn't source protein from animal product, hitting ~0.75 g/lb daily protein target is doable and realistic. For those who do eat meat and dairy, it cut costs down significantly because animal protein is the most expensive form of the macronutrient.
Moreover, by dipping protein intake below 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, it'll support a healthy appetite - an overlooked aspect when you're trying to add muscle to your frame.
Protein triggers a list of fullness promoting hormones including cholecystokinin or CCK, (which is found in the brain and the more you have floating around, the less hungry you are) and polypeptide PYY (which is also up regulated when protein intake is high suppresses appetite).
This is the reason why protein takes a front seat for those who are trying to lose fat. However, when you're trying to gain muscle, promoting fullness (especially when you have a hard time eating at a caloric surplus) isn't the best look.
There are two ways to go about hitting your protein numbers. Consider the first as a level 1 strategy. This works well for busy people who don't want to count every gram that goes into their mouth. For men, include two palms worth of protein at each meal. For women, include one palm of protein per meal.
The level 2 strategy works for people who like to track their intake and like to objectively see results at the end of the day. It also builds off of the level 1 strategy. There are plenty of tracking apps, but a popular one that is easy to use is myfitnesspal. Take your bodyweight and multiply it by 0.75. That number is the daily target for protein in grams. At each meal, you'll input your protein intake. By day's end, you should be within 10 grams of the target number. Remember it's not about perfection, but progression.
2. Spend majority of your time in the right rep ranges
An adage in the iron game is that to get larger, you must get stronger. Over time, manipulating the load in some fashion so that you move more weight for more reps is the golden ticket to muscle gains.
However, there's a secondary takeaway in that proverb: If muscular gains are more important than absolute strength, rep ranges must reflect that.
For the most part, focusing on getting stronger in the 8-12 rep range for upper body movements and the 12-20 rep ranges for lower body movements will yield the most return.
Training in this way won't get you as strong as possible, but it will set you for the most muscle gain.
There's a reason why bodybuilders and physique athletes train predominantly in the 8-20 rep range. Getting stronger in this range elicits the most muscle gain. If your aim is to build muscle, training in this way is the most direct route to that outcome. When training for absolute strength - singles, doubles and triples - poundages are typically recorded. In the same way, when training for hypertrophy (muscle gain), it's important to keep track of your poundages. While the rep ranges are higher (8-20), the principle of progressive overload still applies - you must get stronger over a period for the muscle to grow.
3. Super shakes
Sometimes you don't have the energy or time to break out the knives, fire up the burner and whip up a muscle building meal. It happens to everyone - life gets in the way.
When this happens, it's far easier to throw in a bunch of stuff into a blender drink your meal. But the problem is that a super shake can taste like a mud puddle. Or they come out so thick you have to eat it with a spoon. Or they are so sweet you've got to plug your nose to down it.
Regardless, there's a simple formula you can make your own. I've made my fair share of disgusting shakes in the past - and I don't wish such a thing for you. After many attempts, I've found a step-by-step process that can deliver a shake you enjoying drinking.
Adding in a super shake is the first thing I suggest to people struggling to eat more in their daily diet. It’s fast, simple, and can provide a ton of health promoting nutrients along with the extra calories.
There are a ton of possibilities when it comes to building your super shake. However, here is a basic template you can play with to get you started and eventually create your recipe:
- Handful of fruit (frozen berries or frozen bananas work well).
- One or two scoops of high-quality protein powder.
- One tablespoon of nut butter.
- A handful of greens (spinach works great).
- If you prefer your shake to be a bit thicker add a handful of ice cubes.
- Liquid of choice (water, almond milk, or coconut milk are all fair choices here. Depending on how you like the consistency it’ll be around one and a half cups for a thicker shake or around two and a half cups for a more fluid shake.
4. 5-minute finishers
On the journey to building muscle, it's important to not throw out conditioning altogether. Employed properly, conditioning work will not hinder muscle gains. In fact, it'll help you build muscle faster while keeping body fat levels at bay. Here's why:
- Interval work, or sprints, have been shown to increase protein synthesis by 230%. Meaning, you build muscles faster.
- Interval work, or sprints, have been shown to increase the muscle building hormone testosterone.
- Interval work, or sprints, increase insulin sensitivity thereby improving the partitioning of nutrient uptake.
- Interval work, or sprints, increases work capacity which is transferable to the weight room. When you're working in higher rep ranges, an increased work capacity allows you to lift longer.
When muscle building is at the top of your list, it can sometimes be hard to find the energy or time to include conditioning work. That's where 5-minute finishers come into play.
Done a few times a week after your strength training, a 5-minute finisher is a practical way to reap the mentioned benefits while keeping muscle gains at the top of your priority list.
First, you'll pick a medium: Rower, Airdyne Bike, Ski Erg, Uphill sprint, or Sled pushes. Warm yourself up with a 3-5 minute easy pace. For the sled, you can do a few rounds with a light load.
Then, you'll perform a 1:2 work-rest ratio for 5 minutes. Since the duration is brief, these are all out efforts. It'll look like this: 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 40 seconds of rest for five minutes.
"Contribution of Gastroenteropancreatic Appetite Hormones to Protein-induced Satiety. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23466396.
Kollias, Helen. "Why "Willpower"May Not Be Your Problem." Precision Nutrition, www.precisionnutrition.com/fast-weight-loss-changes-hunger-hormones.
"Protein Requirements and Muscle Mass/strength Changes During Intensive Training in Novice Bodybuilders. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1400008.
"Sprint Exercise Enhances Skeletal Muscle P70S6k Phosphorylation and More So in Women Than in Men. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22268492.
"Sprint Interval Running Increases Insulin Sensitivity in Young Healthy Subjects. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22540332.