Most men know they can develop a strong and good-looking body by building specific muscles through strength training and eating well.
The problem and confusion arise when it comes to what to actually do to build muscles.
This confusion comes from a lack of understanding of the basics, which is caused by so-called experts in the fitness industry who give out half-baked information that both newcomers and experienced fitness trainees eat up.
Most people end up confused about whether they need to train with heavier loads or lighter ones, the numbers of reps and sets that are best, what they need to eat and in what quantities, how often they need to train to build muscle mass faster, whether to rest or not, when to rest, and for how long, etc., etc.
It’s hard to get the body you want when you don’t know what to believe and what to ignore. You have probably been pulled in so many directions that you don’t even know up from down and left from right.
Luckily, although the physiology of how muscles grow is complex, actually packing on muscle is not as complicated as this industry wants you to believe. Understanding the four fundamental pillars I’ll talk about in this chapter is the key to building muscles effectively in almost every case.
These pillars will provide the structure for your strength-training and nutrition programs. Each pillar is needed to hold up the rest of the article and deliver results. If even one of these pillars is ignored, the others won’t be able to stand, and your structure will collapse. But if you apply these four pillars, your muscles will grow bigger, stronger, and faster than you can imagine.
Pillar #1: Providing the Correct Stimulus (Strength Training)
If you want to build muscle and strength, you first need to give your muscles and body a reason to want or need to grow—a spark to start the fire, so to speak.
To accomplish this, you must put the muscles you want to grow under a new stress that is specific to the improvements you want to see. Then you need to repeat this process with enough volume, intensity, and frequency to ensure maximal growth without compromising your results.
But within this process, there are different combinations of sets, reps, training loads, repetition speeds, and rest periods that will dictate the progress you make.
In other words, it’s not about providing a stressor or stimulus; it’s about providing the correct stimulus for efficient results. To optimize muscle-building results, it is crucial to consider three main factors:
- Mechanical tension
- Muscle damage
- Metabolic stress
When you are strength training, your muscles will experience mechanical tension, which can lead to muscle damage and create metabolic stress depending on how you train.
This has led a generation of old-school bodybuilders to assume that since a muscle pump feels and looks awesome, they get sore the next day, they are training very hard, and they know that stress on their muscles leads to larger muscles, then all three of these mechanisms must create muscle growth.
This logic shaped their workouts to train one muscle group a day, train each muscle group once a week, do a lot of sets for that single muscle group, take shorter rest periods, and do around 12 reps per set.
Unfortunately, just because your muscles swell up and look awesome in the middle of a workout or get sore the next day doesn’t mean it’s causing muscle growth. That’s why you will follow what research has proven and work toward maximizing mechanical tension and minimizing both muscle damage and metabolic stress.
Let’s take a closer look and discuss what each means for training in the real world.
Rule #1: Prioritize Mechanical Tension
To create mechanical movement, a nerve impulse (electrical signal) from your brain is sent to your spinal cord and then to your muscles. This causes a cascade of metabolic processes within your muscle fibers.
The contractile units inside your muscle fibers create tension, then contract and shorten the muscle. This pulls on your tendons and rotates your bones around your joints, causing mechanical movements.
When the mechanical tension is high, such as when you’re lifting weights or strength training, the structural integrity of your muscle fibers is compromised. To create more force and handle more tension in the future, your body will improve the exact fibers that were stressed, and will do so in a way specific to the stress that was applied.
Our goal is to increase the size of the muscle fibers in specific muscles, i.e., cause muscle growth. High and prolonged mechanical tension is the primary stimulus for muscle growth. It is the one thing that has been proven to tell your body to grow your muscles. Now, as you might have noticed, the primary trigger for your body to grow your muscles isn’t just mechanical tension; neither is it heavy or high mechanical tension. Instead, it is a high and prolonged mechanical tension.
When it comes to training, high mechanical tension is most often the amount of weight you are lifting, while prolonged tension is the time spent under tension—or the total number of reps performed with a weight.
So, in other words, to create the most mechanical tension on your muscles and, in turn, grow your muscles in the most efficient way possible, you will want to lift weights that are as heavy as possible for as long as possible. Rinse and repeat.
This is very important to know and understand because it will provide the foundation for all your training variables.
Active tension is created when your muscles are actively working to contract and shorten, the way a bicep does when you curl your arm upward. Passive tension occurs when your muscles are slowly releasing tension, like when you lower your arm back down from a biceps curl. The tension is caused by friction between the contractile units in your muscles.
You can picture it like trying to hold a rope during a tug-of-war but not being able to get a strong enough grip and ending up with rope burn on your palms from the friction.
Studies indicate that exercises that involve both active and passive movements are superior to those that involve purely active or passive training alone when it comes to maximizing strength and muscle mass.
The goal is to provide sufficient mechanical tension by finding the right balance between lifting very heavy weights and doing enough repetitions to give the muscles enough time under tension and volume to grow. We will get into exactly how to do this when we discuss each optimal strength-training variable in an upcoming section.
Rule #2: Minimize Muscle Damage
When the structural integrity of your muscle fibers is compromised, the fibers can become microscopically damaged, and microtears can occur inside them. This possible muscle damage is not large enough to cause injury, but it is stressful enough to trigger a response from your body.
If you’ve been to the gym before or performed any exercise, even with just your body weight, you’ve probably experienced some degree of soreness. It’s not unusual to hobble out of bed or struggle to hoist yourself off the couch the day after a workout.
Although getting sore after strength training is normal, you need to understand that soreness and damaged muscles do not equate to results. Excessive muscle damage can prevent you from training as hard or as often as you otherwise would, which in turn hinders muscle growth.5 As a result, muscle growth is impaired because you compromise mechanical tension, which is the primary stimulus for muscle growth. And damaged muscles need more time to heal and repair before they can grow, which also slows muscle growth.
Therefore, as you train, getting as sore as possible and breaking down your muscles as much as possible shouldn’t be your goal.
Instead of focusing on performing tons of exercises and reps, focus on what you can do to achieve more mechanical tension while minimizing muscle damage. This might even include doing less work during one training session so you can increase tension in those same muscles in future workouts.
Rule #3: Minimize Metabolic Stress
If you have ever trained very hard before, you most likely experienced a burning sensation in your muscles. That burning feeling is the result of what’s called metabolic stress.
When your muscles need rapid bursts of energy that can’t be replenished fast enough through the use of oxygen, such as during strength training, hydrogen ions (H+) accumulate and create an acidic environment inside your cells.
As your muscles keep creating energy, more hydrogen ions and other metabolites accumulate in your muscle cells faster than your muscles can clear them. This leads to metabolic stress, a burning feeling, and reduced muscle function.
Metabolic stress is simply the result of your body not being able to generate enough energy, pump oxygen into your muscles, and clear negative waste products of chemical reactions in your muscles. Basically, it’s stress in your muscles caused by metabolic reactions and processes.
It’s like if a bunch of orders for the newest Apple iPhone come in too quickly and the orders can’t be filled fast enough, so they start to get backed up, the website crashes, and Apple doesn’t have enough truck drivers to deliver the product.
This is also why you get a pump in your muscles. Because your muscles are under constant tension when you work out a specific muscle with incomplete recovery, blood and oxygen can’t be cleared out of your muscles after a set, making them appear larger and pumped up.
Although many people love the pump, metabolic stress can affect your training intensity and muscle growth. It increases fatigue, causing you to perform fewer repetitions and lift less weight, which may hinder mechanical tension.
If you have ever trained before, I’m sure it’s easy to understand how that burning feeling can stop you from being able to maximize mechanical tension. And just so you don’t come for my throat, metabolic stress happens naturally, but it hasn’t been proven to lead to muscle growth. It was just thought to help because it occurred naturally when there was mechanical tension. It was kind of like arguing about whether the chicken or the egg came first. Just like with muscle damage, we will also want to reduce metabolic stress for optimal muscle growth.
So, when training for muscle growth, you will have to consider these three factors: increasing mechanical tension while minimizing muscle damage and metabolic stress. In an upcoming section, we’ll discuss how each of the variables that go into creating an optimized strength-training program will follow these three factors.
Pillar #2: Progressively and Consistently Overload Your Muscles
As you strength train, your muscle strength increases, and you adapt to the current stress. Your muscles need a slightly larger amount of stress to trigger further adaptations.
This is what is referred to as progressive overload. This principle states that you need to progressively increase your muscles’ working load to continually challenge your body and muscles with new stimuli to adapt and respond to. If your muscles aren’t progressively overloaded, they will stop improving.
When it comes to creating mechanical tension in your muscles so they can keep growing from workout to workout and month to month, you need to keep increasing the mechanical tension inside your muscle fibers by manipulating certain training variables.
In general, there are two main ways in which you can increase mechanical tension:
- You can increase the amount of weight you’re using while keeping the total time/distance you’re lifting the weight the same.
- You can increase the amount of time/distance you’re lifting the weight while keeping the amount of weight you’re using the same.
In other words, to build muscles, you will need to build strength by either increasing the resistance that you’re using or increasing the muscles’ time under tension. Increasing the load or resistance your muscles have to work against is the best way to progressively overload them. Most often, this is done by lifting heavier weights. This allows you to progress nicely and build more muscle for a better-looking and -operating body.
The second way to consistently increase the amount of mechanical tension your muscles feel is to lengthen the amount of time they are under resistance. This is done by increasing the total number of repetitions in the workout. By performing more reps, you increase the amount of time your muscles are under tension while also using active and passive tension.
Research has found that lifting lighter weights for a longer time leads to the same muscle growth as lifting heavier weights for a shorter time, as long as the same total volume is present.
One method emphasizes more repetitions or time under tension, and the other emphasizes weight.
Consistently and progressively increasing the weight you lift and/or the reps you perform will lead to consistent muscle growth.
That being said, it’s safer for a beginner to focus more on increasing the time under tension than on using heavier weights. Therefore, start by lifting lighter weights but performing more reps. You can then move on to lifting heavier weights when your muscles are strong enough that you can lift heavy weights comfortably without letting your form deteriorate.
Pillar #3: Provide the Right Building Blocks (Nutrition)
Building muscles is like building a house. If you have the desire to build the house, the need for it, enough money, and a location, then you will start building.
When you’re building your house, you need to have all the materials in the correct quantities and enough people and energy to complete the job. If you don’t buy any wood or you run out of wood, you won’t be able to build your house. Likewise, your house won’t go up if you don’t have enough manpower to put up the walls, install the plumbing, wire the electrical, and complete the task.
This is analogous to giving your muscles the right kind and amount of nutrients to grow. So, what does your body actually need to build muscle?
The truth is, muscle is just a dumb piece of meat. It doesn’t take a genius or a degree in nutrition to build muscles. It’s all about having the correct stimulus and nutrients.
In 1982, a group of researchers wanted to find out what makes up human muscle tissue. To do this, they had the awful (or awesome, depending on your perspective) job of cutting up some cadavers. They were able to determine that all human muscle tissue is composed of three things:
- Energy, specifically glycogen and triglycerides
- Lots of water
As you can see, these three things your body uses and needs for muscle growth are relatively easy to consume in a diet.
Building Block #1: Proteins
Proteins are made up of smaller units known as amino acids, which your body rearranges and combines to create new proteins and other molecules.
There are a total of 20 amino acids in proteins. Your body can make all but 9 of these amino acids by rearranging the atoms of other amino acids already in your body.
Therefore, it is essential that you consume these 9 amino acids in your diet, which is why they are called essential amino acids (EAAs).
A good portion (over 40%) of the body’s protein is found in structural components such as muscles, bones, teeth, skin, tendons, hair, nails, and more. These proteins provide structure, support, and movement for your body.
Over 25% of the protein in your body is found in your organs, while the rest is spread throughout your blood.
These proteins create antibodies that help your body fight infections; hormones that act as chemical messengers; buffers to help regulate your body’s pH (acid-base balance); enzymes that influence the rate of chemical reactions that take place in your cells; and transporters that bind and carry substances like vitamins and minerals in and out of your body’s cells.
Proteins, specifically amino acids, are the building blocks of muscle. If you don’t consume enough of all the building blocks, you will not build muscle.
This means that you have to eat all 9 essential amino acids, and you need enough of each of them to give your muscles the building blocks they require. Also, the other 11 amino acids, though nonessential and able to be created in our bodies, are important to consume, since the various amino acids work synergistically to improve processes in our bodies.
When it comes to eating protein, this is something that you can base an eating plan around with little difficulty—no need to overcomplicate it. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get to single-digit body fat levels or pack on 20 pounds of mass—you will be able to eat enough protein to build muscle with little worry.
Building Block #2: Energy (Glycogen and Triglycerides)
Building muscles is a very energy-intensive process. Luckily, your body not only obtains energy directly from the food you eat but stores energy as well, so it has a lot of energy ready to use.
Energy in the form of glucose gets stored as glycogen, and fatty acids as triglycerides.
Glycogen is made up of highly branched chains of glucose, and it is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles. Due to its structure, glycogen can be broken down quickly into glucose to give your body energy when it needs it.
Triglycerides and fatty acids make up 95% of the fat that you eat and are stored around your body as body fat.
As long as you are nowhere near essential body fat levels, which are around 3% in men,9 and your body doesn’t need to break down its own tissue to survive, you will have enough stored glucose and fatty acids to metabolize in order to fuel the process of building muscle and moving.
In fact, a man with around 6% body fat and weighing 190 pounds (86 kilograms) will have over 48,000 stored calories that can be broken down for processes in his body. Though many people consider this as “having almost no fat,” there is still plenty of energy to build pounds of muscle.
This isn’t even considering that you will still be eating and drinking energy. Later we’ll go over how to keep supplying your body with the proper number of calories for muscle building and fat loss.
As we will discuss, eating enough calories during the day will help you build more muscle and, in turn, will have a very beneficial effect on fat loss as well. This means you can simplify your diet plan in order to consume just enough energy or calories.
Building Block #3: Water
Water and hydration are topics that many people want to complicate, but I am going to make them very simple.
Water constitutes a greater percentage of your body mass than any other substance. It helps fill the spaces inside and outside the cells and in all major vessels.
This is why water is often considered the most important nutrient. It is the only nutrient we can’t survive without for even a few days. In fact, dehydration caused by water loss amounting to more than 7% of your body weight can lead to death.
When it comes to building muscles, no matter your diet, you can drink as much water as you need. It’s very easy to add a glass or two of water to a meal plan to supply your body and muscles with enough water for metabolic processes.
The bottom line is that as long as you have the stimulus to tell your body to build muscle (i.e., a strength-training program) and consume these three building blocks, you can and will have the necessary ingredients to support the muscle-building process. Now that we’ve covered the first three pillars of muscle building, let’s look at how your body converts stimuli and building blocks into beautiful muscle.
Pillar #4: Maximize Recovery
If you are a fitness or bodybuilding enthusiast, odds are you’ve heard the old bodybuilding saying Muscles aren’t built in the gym.
Though this is accurate from a bird’s-eye view, it’s not as easy as chugging down a protein shake post-workout and letting your body get to work growing your muscles.
Many gym-goers spend an unnecessary amount of time trying to hack their training and diet programs. They look up videos, read clickbait articles, train excessively hard, and are very strict with their diets, almost to the point of obsessiveness.
Yet few people ever reap the benefits of all this hard work. They often don’t give their muscles enough time to recover and don’t give them the best environment for recovery.
It’s like wasting all your money on the car of your dreams but never being able to drive it. The car is there, you did all the work to afford it, you just can’t ever use it. What was the point of all the hard work if you missed the last detail that makes owning your dream car enjoyable?
Most people overlook the concept of recovery because they have the wrong impression of how training helps the body build muscle and strength. Yet recovery plays a vital role in the muscle-building process.
In addition, recovery is often a very passive thing. Training and dieting take lots of noticeable effort, and both are tangible. You can feel and be aware of the exact amount of each that you are doing.
Recovery, on the other hand, is difficult to feel and frequently becomes a back-of-mind thing that takes a backseat to training and nutrition once a person leaves the gym.
It seems weird to many active individuals that doing less can be better for building muscle and losing fat. But being “lazy” might help you look better, feel better, and be healthier.
Regular strength training is key to peak physical fitness and muscle growth. But if you want to get the most out of your training, you will need to provide your body with the proper environment to recover from your training and synthesize muscle proteins.
This means knowing and doing what science has shown gives your muscles and body the best environment to recover. These factors include:
- Stress reduction
- Proper nutrition
In the following sections, we’ll talk about how to get the most out of each of these, but for now, let’s just talk briefly about each one so you can set up the last pillar of your muscle-building plan. We will start with arguably the most important part of your recovery process: time.
Recovery Rule #1: Provide Adequate Time
As you know now, strength training causes metabolic stress and damage to your muscle fibers. This leads to an inflammatory response, sometimes soreness, and a complex process of repairing any damage created and building new muscles while changing the internal structure to function better in the future.
How long it takes your body to fully recover, including growing new muscles, depends on how much damage and stress you put it through during training. If you put a muscle group through a very intense training session, with very heavy weights and a substantial number of sets, that muscle group will require a much longer recovery time than a muscle group that did only a few sets.
To a certain extent, you want to provide the perfect amount of stimulus for growth and the perfect amount of time for growth and recovery. Too much recovery time and you’re limiting your growth potential. Too little recovery time and you’re digging too large a recovery hole to climb out of, which often leads to overtraining or just poor results.
Overtraining causes decreased strength, plateaued muscle growth, and injuries. And if you continue training too hard without proper recovery, you can experience complete hormonal dysfunction and a downturn in overall well-being.
On the other hand, letting your muscles continue to rest when they are fully recovered means they’re missing the opportunity to begin the growth process again. This leaves you with less muscle growth than you could have.
Instead, you need to allow just enough recovery time so you neither overtrain nor undertrain. Adequate recovery time takes many factors into account.
Throughout this article, we’ll talk about the best ways to train to build muscle and lose fat. We will also discuss how to create the perfect nutrition program to maximize your results.
All your training variables come together to create a perfect program and determine how much recovery time your muscles will need between training sessions. Your training experience and genetics will also play a role in how quickly you fully recover.
Finally, the amount of sleep you get in a night, your chronic stress levels, and the quality of your diet will also affect how intensely you can train and how long your recovery period will take. Let’s discuss these three factors next, starting with sleep.
Recovery Rule #2: Get Enough Sleep
Sleep serves many vital functions in the human body, including muscle recovery and growth. Getting enough high-quality sleep can have substantial effects on your muscle-building and fat-loss outcomes.
Studies show that sleep deprivation steps up the activity of degradation pathways and lowers the activity of protein synthesis pathways.11 In other words, the systems in your body that break down nutrients and structures become more active, and the systems that build protein structures are less active than usual. This directly inhibits muscle growth and can even cause muscle loss.
But if you get enough sleep, your body releases enough growth and anabolic hormones for tissue growth and muscle repair, which in turn aids muscle recovery and growth. It also revs up protein synthesis pathways, creating significant stimuli for muscle growth.
To simplify, a long-term research study showed that improving your sleep can lead to pounds of muscle gained and pounds of fat lost over a year, even without exercise or dieting.
So, if you are looking to increase muscle mass, drop body fat, and change your body composition, you need to get enough high-quality sleep, which we’ll discuss how to do later in the article.
Recovery Rule #3: Reduce Stress Levels
Almost all research studies have shown that stress generally has negative effects on your body, including a greater likelihood of dying sooner. Stress can affect many parts of your life, like your ability to build muscle, process food, get stronger, keep food cravings at bay, lose fat, and recover after a workout.
One study found that having a lot of psychological stress doubled the length of time it took participants to recover compared to having low psychological stress. The high-stress group’s recovery was impacted for over 96 hours after a moderate strength-training workout.
If you can recover from your training at only half the speed or half the capacity you should be able to, you will have a hard time creating an amazing body. This isn’t even getting into the effects stress has on body fat storage and the processing of nutrients.
So, as you can see, stress from work, life, family, and other struggles can take a toll on your training and drag you backward—by several miles—in your journey toward achieving your desired physique.
Therefore, if you are super-stressed, doing hard, high-intensity training may not be the best way to relieve the stress. Instead, it’s likely to create a recovery hole you would need an excavator to dig yourself out of.
To avoid the detrimental effects that stress may have on your training and goals, you will want to do all it takes to prevent or at least manage stress, which we’ll talk about later in the article.
Recovery Rule #4: Follow a Proper Diet
At this point, you already know that muscles need to be fed a proper diet in order to grow. Specifically, you need to consume enough protein, water, and energy.
In general, if you eat a healthy diet and take in the three building blocks of muscle, you will give your body the best chance to recover and build muscle after a workout. This includes muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, and neural (nervous system) recovery, as your diet (and everything else discussed in this pillar) can improve recovery capacity and reduce the time needed for recovery.
However, when it comes to musculoskeletal and neuromuscular recovery, research has identified what you should factor into your diet.15 In an upcoming section, I’ll help you place these into a meal program:
- Enough protein (duh)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables
- Gut-health-improving foods that are high in fiber, and possibly foods that contain probiotics
As you can see, it comes down to eating healthy foods and sticking to a few nutritional staples. By eating healthy and getting enough of the foods our bodies need to build muscle, your body will be able to process nutrients optimally to speed up recovery. We’ll discuss nutrient processing in the “pillars of weight change.
◊◊◊ Building muscle is a highly complex process involving many different functions and changes in the body. If I tried to describe all these, this article would have another several hundred pages.
The good news is that you don’t need to be scientifically brilliant to have a functional understanding of research findings on muscle growth or to be able to use the information to gain muscle.
These four fundamental pillars form the foundation of this understanding. Just stimulate your muscles by overloading them with heavy enough tension for a long enough period of time while avoiding excessive damage and metabolic stress during the workout.
Then feed your muscles and allow them time to repair and build new and more muscles after the workout, and you will be able to completely transform your body. In upcoming sections, we’ll break down exactly how to do this in the best way possible.