You know that phrase, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.”?
That’s a solid phrase. For a long time, I didn’t really understand what it meant, though.
That phrase, while redundant and overused, means something simple:
Don’t search for an uncommon solution if you have a common problem.
If you’re struggling to get stronger and gain muscle mass, there’s a 99.99% chance that one of the “boulders” or “rocks” is holding you up.
If your goals are to look and feel great, and have a healthy sex life, mastering the basics will take you almost there.
This article is for the icing on the cake.
I guess you could call it the “moneyshot”. (Sorry, I had to………….)
Before you continue, be sure you read Parts 1 (The “Boulders”) and 2 (The “Rocks”).
A bit of a re-cap of what we have discussed and learned so far.
The main “Boulders” to build muscle are:
- Consistency – show up in the gym religiously.
- Intensity – push yourself as hard as you can, within reason.
- Work sets – come close to failure (1-2 reps away, max) on multiple sets each session.
- Recovery – get enough sleep, hydrate yourself, and rest appropriately.
Once you’re showing up, going hard, and recovering (which pretty much covers the “Boulders”), you can move on and fine-tune a bit with the next tier of importance – the “Rocks” of muscle building:
- Volume – keep your total work load increasing over time.
- Exposure – hit each muscle group a minimum of twice per week.
- Meal Frequency – eat a minimum of 3 protein rich meals each day.
- Meal Timing – no fasting, and be sure to consume protein within 2 hours of training.
If you’re struggling with building muscle, you can fix nearly all of your ails with this list of 8, must-do items.
If you have those 8 items nailed, it’s time to move onto our final tier – the “Pebbles” of muscle building.
While not crucial to the muscle-building process, the “Pebbles” can still be important – and make all the difference if utilized correctly.
Pebble 1: Rep Ranges
Rep ranges, rep ranges, rep ranges.
Everyone wants to know the optimal rep ranges.
The problem with starting by asking “rep range” questions, is that it begs the question in return:
Are you progressing in volume on a regular basis already? Regardless of the rep range?
If the answer to that question is “Yes”, and you’ve learned how to play “beat the training log” effectively, it’s time to hone in on the best rep ranges for muscle building.
One of the biggest problems many natural trainees encounter is the fact that many beginner training templates train exclusively in the 5-and-under rep range.
Both Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5 x 5 (two of the most popular beginner’s templates) utilize the “5-rep set” as the basis for your weight training foundation.
The methodology behind it is sound – these rep ranges will accumulate strength rapidly, which is exactly what a beginner needs. The untrained person must first become trained – and strong – before they will have the work capacity to be able to build muscle.
These templates do create positive physique changes as you lean out and push more weight.
But they can cause binary thinking. Since the positive feedback loop has been established, and some noobie gains have been made, it’s tough to eradicate that thought process and move towards a more intelligent muscle building approach.
In general, the recommendations which are given (virtually everywhere) for various goals are as follows:
- 1-5 reps – pure strength accumulation
- 5-8 reps – a mixture of strength accumulation and muscle growth
- 8-12 reps – pure muscle growth with less strength accumulation
While there’s no problem with using these recommendations as a guide, understand that there are mechanisms for muscular growth that do not care what rep range you’re working with.
Consider volume, one of our “Rocks” of muscle growth.
What would be easier to accumulate volume with?
3 sets of 5 bench press, or 3 sets of 12 bench press?
If you increased your load by 5 pounds using a set/rep scheme of 3 x 5, you will increase total volume by only 75 pounds (3 x 5 x 5).
However, if you are able to make that same increase in a set/rep scheme of 3 x 12, you will increase your total volume by 180 pounds (3 x 12 x 5).
That’s 2.4 times the volume increase for the same 5 pound loading increase.
Over time, the difference in increasing volume will pay off drastically for your physique.
Recent literature and studies show the relationship between strength training and muscle growth more closely correlates with your ability to push your muscles to their full capacity.
Simply put, get to true, muscular failure – regardless of the load – and you will grow. Whether you’re using 30% of your 1RM, or 90% of your 1RM.
If you’re training to look good naked, it’s far superior (and less risky) to use the higher rep ranges than the lower.
Suggestions for rep ranges when training for muscular growth:
- Train a majority of your lifts at a minimum of 8 reps per set.
- Do not fear going over 12 reps.
- You will not be training for “endurance”.
- Assuming you push yourself to/near failure, even at high rep ranges, you will create an adequate stimulus to provide you with a response – muscular gains.
- Be mindful of high rep squats and/or deadlifts.
- These form intensive movements can be dangerous to perform at high rep ranges.
- As soon as form breaks down, end your set.
- Mix in some “bro-training” from time to time.
- I have personally done a full-180 on my recommendations in regards to “bro-style” training.
- What used to be “fuckarounditis” in my eyes has been completely reversed, and is now seen (by me) as an intelligent means to make gains.
- Sets to 25, 50, or more can be utilized, assuming they aren’t overdone and you are recovering appropriately.
Pebble 2: Specific Exercise Selection
Have you ever Googled “How do I gain muscle?”
Notice what pops up.
Nearly every article you will read discusses the virtues of the Big 3: squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing.
Often times, bench pressing is an afterthought as well. If you don’t squat or deadlift (as the story goes), you are missing out on muscular gains.
While it’s true that squats and deadlifts help you accumulate strength at the highest clip possible, pure strength accumulation doesn’t often equate with pure muscular size.
Any exercise which taxes your muscle thoroughly will enable muscular growth.
Internationally renowned hypertrophy master Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, C.S.C.S. concluded in a 2010 article that a muscle needs three things in order to grow properly:
- Mechanical tension – you must keep your muscle tense at all times.
- This means no “releasing” tension on the concentric (lowering) portion of the movement.
- This means no “kipping” your pull-ups, “swinging” your curls, or “bouncing” your bench press off of your chest.
- Metabolic stress – a blocking of the blood flow in your veins due to continuous use.
- This is commonly referred to as “the pump”.
- This is the feeling that your “skin is about to burst” as you power through 100 reps of tricep extensions.
- The creation of metabolic stress is the primary purpose for blood resistance training – or BRT, for short.
- Muscular damage – forcing your muscles to perform an action they have never performed before.
- This is meant to temporarily weaken your muscles.
- As your muscles repair themselves, they will become momentarily stronger than they were before you trained them.
- The hope is your next training session will be when your muscles “peak” in strength, allowing you to stimulate them again, to promote further growth.
Please note what is missing from Brad’s analysis: exercise selection.
Is a squat better than a leg press, if your goal is bigger quads?
Is a deadlift better than shoulder shrugs, if your goal is bigger traps?
You must always ask yourself what your primary goal is.
Getting stronger is paramount as a means to drive your training volume continually higher.
As the saying goes: “If you’re gonna chase the “pump”, you better be sure you can catch it.”
But never pigeonhole yourself into thinking you have to perform any move in the gym. Muscles can be stimulated using a variety of movements, not just powerlifting moves.
Suggestions for exercise selection:
- Choose movements which adequately stimulate your muscle and allow you to train close to failure.
- If you have no spotter, it may be beneficial for you to use dumbbells as opposed to barbells, especially in bench presses and incline bench presses.
- For taller individuals, the leg press machine is an excellent alternative to stimulate proper leg growth.
- Form breakdowns occur much more quickly in the squat.
- Machines allow you to tax your muscles, and take strict form considerations out of the equation.
- If traditional (or sumo) deadlifts leave you nervous about injury, try another movement.
- Rack pulls, shoulder shrugs, Romanian Deadlifts, etc. all provide a similar stimulus for growth.
Pebble 3: Barbells vs. Dumbbells vs. Bodyweight vs. Machines
“Functional training”………ahhhhh, how I loathe you.
What exactly is “functional training”?
With the surging popularity of Crossfit, the training methodology that “prepares you for anything”, there is a glaring, obvious question that must be asked:
What exactly are you “preparing” for?
Not to pick on Crossfitters, but their thought pattern mimics a problem in the fitness landscape.
Most of us have no reason to be able to clean-and-jerk 200 pounds; it’s simply not a scenario that presents itself in our day-to-day lives.
Being strong is important, but there are clear, diminishing returns which can occur when training strictly with a barbell.
Muscle accumulation – via lean body mass increases – correlates highly with a longer life expectancy, lower mortality rates, decreased injury risk, and a better quality of life.
My daily tasks are rather mundane when compared to a few generations ago:
- I don’t need to hunt and kill my food – Kroger is a mere two miles away.
- I have no reason to carry large logs to build my house – I bought mine from a realtor in 2006.
- I am an online fitness coach – I don’t work a strenuous, labor-intensive job.
What tasks do I need to be strong enough to accomplish?
- I need to be able to pick up my children with ease.
- I need to be able to lift/move furniture and household items.
- I need to have decent (but not extreme) mobility to perform common tasks (cleaning the house, washing the car, doing laundry, etc.)
When creating your training program, if your primary goal is to build muscle and look good naked, as long as you are creating the proper environment for growth, the tool with which you create the environment doesn’t matter.
You can create muscular growth with barbells, with dumbbells, with machines, and with your own bodyweight.
The only caveat to this:
- Be sure your “Boulders” and your “Pebbles” are in order.
- Are you being consistent with your workouts?
- Are you “going hard”?
- Are you getting enough sets in?
- Are you pushing to (or close to) failure?
- Are you hitting each muscle group 2x per week at a minimum?
- Are you recovering and eating properly?
- Are you using your rep ranges strategically and appropriately?
- Are you picking exercises that allow you to retain full tension in your muscle?
If the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, then machine-away, my friend.
A few recommendations for pure muscle growth when it comes to picking machines in your gym:
- There may be no greater movement to grow your chest than dumbbell incline bench presses.
- Barbell bench presses seem to lack for those looking to improve the look of their chest.
- The pec deck and/or cable flys are one of the most underrated “machine movements” there are.
- The Hammer Strength low-row machine is a superior piece for the development of the lats and delts.
- Find someone who can do 20, consecutive, strict pull-ups without having an impressive physique.
- Spoiler alert: You can’t.
This concludes our 3-part series on Training Principles That Matter.
Our hope is that you find them useful in creating your own routines.
Now, go make some gains!