If you search YouTube for videos on “How to Build Muscle,” you’re met with over 10,000 results from a random assortment of well-muscled males and females. While some of them may be promoting helpful information, be careful in your choice of sources.
Opinions are everywhere on the internet, so we want to help you along your journey. Focus Personal Training Institute’s (FPTI) 10 commandments of muscle takes the legwork out of your search. Let’s dive into the first 5.
1. Consistency Builds Muscle
Nothing matters more than being consistent. Literally nothing.
It’s essential to stick to a program or nutritional strategy. If you don’t enjoy it, then it’s time to take a step back. The same applies if you don’t have the tools in your arsenal to figure out how to make it work with your life.
Regularity makes or breaks anyone’s progress when it comes to building muscle or losing fat.
Alan Aragon, nutritionist and researcher, publishes a monthly research review where experts write on different topics. This piece comes from two experts on adherence and motivation1:
“The average person thinks of being fit as a hassle. It’s an aggravating process and the sole objective is to make it to the final destination as quickly as possible.
People are ready and willing to climb mountains (read: trudge away on the treadmill for hours a day) and starve half to death (note: eat lettuce and be sad) if it means taking the fastest route to Shredsville.
In their minds, once they blast through the 8, 10, or 12 weeks, they can go back to their former lifestyle and enjoy their newfound bodies for the rest of their days. Easy-peasy…
We all want to resort to extremes. We want heroics. For one reason or another, we want to suffer.
But it’s crucial that individuals work on behaviors they can execute even when their motivation is low. In other words, we want to take motivation out of the equation as much as possible…
The majority of personal training clients don’t need optimal. … What they need is sustainability.”
Emotions and the environment easily sway motivation. Build sustainability because it is the key to adherence and long-term success.
2. The Basics of Building Muscle Have Always Worked
- Hill sprints
- Sled drags
- Tire flips
And … good old-fashioned hard work!
These are the basics, and coaches around the globe have preached them since day 1. Why?
Because they work.
People want to neglect them or find substitutes because they’re hard. They take effort and lots of it.
However, they are a simple representation of the Pareto principle (aka the 80/20 principle), which states that “80% of the outcome usually comes from 20% of the input.”
So while bicep curls are fun and everyone loves a good arm pump, chin-ups are going to stimulate all the muscles in the forearm and bicep to a much greater degree than any curl variation.
Similarly, leg extensions feel like you’re doing a lot of work due to the immense ‘burn’ you feel through the quads. However, squat variations provide a much larger mechanical overload to the quads than could ever be accomplished via leg extensions.
The basics continue to work time and time again, no matter how much we try to avoid them.
3. LIFT for Success
In the world of training, you must approach programming in the following order:
When someone is learning how to train, we must first focus on movement quality. Every repetition is an opportunity for the brain to learn. They must learn to move well before adding speed or load. Efficiency is the prerequisite for force and sustained frequency.
Once you’ve ingrained quality movement, next examine the quantity (aka total training volume). Volume performed over a training, day, week, or entire block directly correlates with how much muscle you can gain.
Now obviously, there is a point of diminishing returns. More is not always better because everyone has their own ability to recover. However, there is a lot of research linking training volume with total muscle mass accrued. So, think about training quantity after quality.
Finally, we need to think about the frequency of training stimulation. Most research indicates that natural lifters respond best to training when their total weekly volume is spread out over 2-3 sessions when compared to 1.
Therefore, if you normally complete 12-16 sets for chest on Monday because it’s #internationalbenchday, consider spreading that volume throughout the week. This allows 2-3 opportunities for protein synthesis to be amplified within the working muscles instead of a single session each week.
4. EAT For Success
While nutrition employs the same principles mentioned above, their application is different.
With food, you have to nail down the basics – how much (quantity), what (quality), and when (timing). But each of these topics is not an individual entity. They all work together to bring you success.
When it comes to quantity, there is one simple rule: if you eat more calories than you burn over a day, you will gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight.
Seems simple, right?
Of course! That’s why I usually pitch it to someone in a sound bite so that they can latch onto the concept. However, it’s much more complex than that. I would be lying if I told you that’s all there was to it. But suffice it to say, this foundational principle is behind dietary success – eat less, lose weight // eat more, gain weight.
While it is somewhat of a controversial topic in the nutrition world, I sum up quality with a simple phrase: “Eat like an adult.”
It may seem harsh at first, but it’s designed to provide a reminder that quality nutrition usually requires more work for planning, cooking, and execution. Cereal and milk may have been your go-to breakfast growing up, but now it’s time to step out of that comfort zone, learn new skills, and build healthy habits.
You may have to eat slightly differently than your peers, family, friends, and colleagues. And that’s okay.
You are choosing to invest in yourself, your health, and your performance. When people fault you for that, it’s usually because they feel bad about their own choices.
Prioritize yourself and your health, and don’t feel bad about that. Once you learn how to build and master those skills, you can pass them on to others.
Admittedly, this one is important, but it doesn’t hold as much weight as quantity or quality. While some data notes zero difference between one versus multiple meals daily, there are a few key points to keep in mind.
The number of meals you eat needs to consider:
- Total caloric intake
- Individual appetite
- Lifestyle constraints
- Social schedule
- Training volume
- Training frequency
- Fasted vs. fed training
And the list goes on and on…
To keep this discussion simple, muscle grows when amino acids from protein are in your bloodstream. That only occurs for 3-4 hours after you’ve eaten a full meal. So when you train fasted, you have to pull those amino acids from other muscle mass, and you may potentially end up with a +1/-1 scenario that equates to a net ‘0.’
That’s not to say you can’t build muscle with only 1-2 meals daily. However, it’s likely much easier to have multiple protein-rich meals throughout the day.
5. Consistency > Intensity
Watch most people in the gym. Seriously, the next time you go to workout, spend the first 2-3 minutes of your warm-up consciously observing those hard at work in the gym.
What do you see?
You’ll likely find most fit into one of two buckets:
- They’re doing the same thing they always do
- They’re absolutely crushing themselves each and every set
Our society encourages extremes, especially when it comes to a “quick fix” or the “silver bullet mentality.” However, when it comes to human physiology, you’ll quickly find that consistency trumps intensity.
Your body loves patterns and repetition – do the same things at the same time of day and with the same effort. Your body picks up on these patterns and initiates internal machinery so that it can be prepared. We typically refer to these repeatable patterns as ‘diurnal rhythms.’
When you encounter low-to-moderate stress, the body can cope and establish a new status quo (aka homeostasis).
However, if that homeostatic disruption (stress) is too large and too often, your body reacts poorly. We’ve all experienced the crippling soreness accompanying a workout when we were a little too overzealous.
As the great coach Scott Abel once put it:
“Coax the body and it will adapt, shock the body it will respond.”
Make no mistake … progression still requires effort. But that effort needs to be strategically increased over time. Consistently training to failure isn’t the same as making a consistent effort to achieve progressive overload.
Keep It Simple
The internet loves to make things complex. When all else fails, just go back to the basics and relentlessly apply the principles above. They’ve stood the test of time as the founding principles of strength and conditioning, and they’ll work for you. Stay tuned for the next 5 commandments of building muscle.
1 Lee and Legge, 2015