Bodybuilding is a pursuit which attracts a lot of different styles and approaches. Some are great and will produce fantastic results; others will only lead to a lot pain and potential injury. With over twenty years of active participation in the world of physical development and a lot of time now spent as a teacher in the field, I think I have a few pieces of advice which could help be the building blocks of how to build serious muscle.
1) Without effort, you’ll gain nothing
Nothing in life comes easy, and that includes muscle development. Every session you have to work hard. When you work with different athletes you get to understand how they each work. Those who get the results though all have the same drive, the same level of effort. Every session, they’re there.
Every rep, they do hard. Every day, they push themselves. But more than all that is the fact that those athletes don’t duck on the tough stuff. That tough stuff is the part of training that really isn’t fun, it’s the part that really hurts and it takes a hell of a lot more effort than just going through the motions.
This is a mantra that can be carried through pretty much anywhere. A guy who is trying to boost his leg size will follow a set of exercises. He might do 5 sets on each different exercise and end up doing somewhere from 15-20 overall. By the end of it he might be out of breath and he’s definitely feeling it but has he done the best to actually develop his leg size? Probably not. Instead of doing those larger number of sets he should reduce it down to 5 sets overall and do harder, more punishing work and get more than what he put in that time. Takes a lot of effort, but that’s what gets results.
And if you’re wondering, that doesn’t just apply to legs. Regardless of the development you’re looking for, choose a good simple exercise to do and just push it as hard as you can. More reps of less resistance don’t ever match up to doing the real work on heavy weights. So, build yourself up, but once you reach a level when you can move on and break down barriers – don’t cover yourself in cotton wool. Get out there, go for it, and put in the effort.
2) Keep strong form but use heavy weights
We’ve all seen guys ducking out on really working hard with the heavy weights by reducing the range of their movements. And yes, this can be useful in some situations but only ever for relatively short spells. To get true progress in any meaningful way you have to use your full range of motion against the most resistance possible.
As you become comfortable with a certain weight whilst keeping your form, don’t just enjoy it – look for the next challenge. Add weight to the exercise you’re doing and make your muscles work harder. But be careful, as you boost the weight you’re using make sure you only increase it by as much as you can manage whilst keeping good form. Otherwise, if you add too much you will overload your muscles and reduce the effectiveness of your training.
3) Remember your strength pyramid
For those of you that have read around the site a bit you’ll know that I’m very keen on the strength pyramid. The basic premise is that you need not only exercise but also nutrition and rest to achieve maximum strength gains.
What a lot of guys, especially the youngers ones, think that you can gain muscle mass more quickly by spending time doing a few extra exercises in the gym. But instead of actually improving the rate of muscle gain, you can definitely hinder your improvements. This is because weights themselves do not develop muscle. The weights sessions are designed to break muscle down and it’s only the rest and recovery through nutrition and sleep that rebuilds the muscle and makes it ‘grow’.
The hardest time to resist this desire to some extra training is right after a session where you’ve done a lot of work and feel you could still do more. But what you have to remember is that after a workout you should still feel able to do more because if you push yourself to the absolute limit then you’ll be spent for the next few days and won’t be able to improve as you have overtrained. If you’re doing well, do heavier weights, not longer sessions.
Once you’ve done the hard work in the gym and broken the muscle down you need to rest and eat properly if you’re go see the rewards for your effort. On top of that some trainers, me included, think it is just a crucial to make sure that your mind is balanced if you are to get the best results – as dumb as it sounds – the guys who have a life outside weights develop fastest!
There are no hard and fast rules about diet. Bob Hoffmaz observed that what people eat fluctuates massively from one country to another but loads of different nations create great power lifters. What is important is what works for you, rather than one magic formula from everyone. So find the good foods that work for you and go from there.
Supplements are a useful addition to a diet. Vitamin pills, especially C and E are a very good idea to help restore the nutrients used up by training. This should never be a replacement for real food however.
The guys who get the best results are generally fairly relaxed, eat well and appear well rested. That isn’t something that is happening by chance!
4) Remember that your genes set your limits and nothing can change that
No matter what anybody tells you or tries to sell you, your maximum size is entirely constrained by the frame you were born with. Sure you can develop that frame to the best of its potential but if you’re fairly narrow and pretty short you’re going to find it impossible to become a world-class weight lifter. You are limited by your genes.
Only if you have the potential can you become a champion, and that is something you can find out only through training and testing yourself. You’ll see constant gains as you body gets much stronger and then much stronger again.
And, if that isn’t the case; don’t worry. Accept your limits and just push to find them!