How to Build Muscle: 10 Training Principles
It’s been said many times before: Building muscle isn’t rocket surgery or brain science (or something like that). Despite all of the new and constant research dispensed daily, which contradicts itself at times, the basics of training to build muscle and strength are pretty, well basic.
You need to stimulate muscle fibers enough in order to elicit a response. That response is either to grow larger, stronger or both. Pretty simple in theory really.
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Where so many newbies and experienced lifters alike get confused has to do with getting lost in the weeds. How many sets and reps, how much weight, volume and frequency? How many intensity techniques should be applied and which mode of training suits you best? Do you get strong first or put on size?
Most, if not all of these factors are rather personal in nature. In other words, many of us respond differently to training. Some soak up the heavy weight and get stronger by the day while others need a higher volume of sets and reps in order to pack on mass.
Below are 10 principles for building muscle. Some are familiar while others may be a new concept. Whatever you decide to do regarding your training practices always remember these universal truths and focus on progression. You don’t need to be a surgeon or a scientist but you will still need to follow a few set principles.
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How to Build Muscle
#1 – Stick to the muscle building basics
Yes, a no-brainer but an important point to hammer home. Always start with the basics and rarely venture far. Look at any elite level athlete’s training program and you will always see plans built around the basics. Sure, they’ll perform some stuff you’ve never seen before but I guarantee it’s usually derived from some form of a basic training concept.
When it comes to applying basic weight training principles none shine as bright as the following two. One, utilize the big, multi-joint, compound lifts and two, perform your workouts with progression in mind. If you tend to these two attributes from the very beginning then you need little else. All of the advanced training techniques in the world can’t compare.
#2 – Buck the frequency trend
Very few training variables come close to instilling major change as much as frequency. The current trend is to train each body part around once per week. But most lifters would benefit from more frequent training, as long as volume and intensity were kept in check.
By training infrequently you coax the body into recovering at a slower pace. Wouldn’t it benefit you to give your body the opportunity to progress and grow more often than less? Twice per week is the sweet spot for most lifters as it allows ample recovery time without burying your recovery ability. Keep volume at a moderate level and stay up with your nutrition.
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#3 – Go long (term)
The temptation to try every new technique in the book (or on the web) is tough to shake. With so much marketing, tons of promises and money back guarantees no wonder so many lifters program hop. With so many options it’s difficult to weed out the good from the bad. Training to gain muscle and strength is a marathon not a sprint. You need to realize that your journey is a long one full of shifts in direction, barriers and setbacks.
If you adopt this mindset early on you will be well-equipped to take on any obstacle head-on. Yes, focus on the day-to-day – practice being steadfast about each workout, set and rep but always keep the big, long-term picture in focus. Always keep your ultimate goal, vision or whatever you want to use as motivation at the front of you mind and you will find the journey less cumbersome.
#4 – Avoid fads
Speaking of being tempted to try everything out there, fads are no different. As stated earlier, the basics will forever be regarded as foundations to build upon. Fads tend to target your likes or fears in order for you to “click here” or “buy now.” Their main objective is to make money – your money.
Now, I won’t go as far as to say never try anything new. I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone, try something completely different for a change and then assess if it is worth adopting. But jumping on the fad bandwagon just because you like shiny stuff isn’t reason enough. Try new things but just make sure your foundation is built on the solid basics.
#5 – Think universally
This next principle may seem a bit contradictory at first but bear with me, I’ll explain. Of course you need to stick with some of the basic principles I’ve mentioned but you should also be a student of the iron game as well.
Don’t just stick to a single mode of training. Instead be open to take on different styles of training and methods. The ideas of multi-joint exercises and being progressive still apply across the board but you can afford to venture out and apply those same ideas to other styles.
For example, why not apply some Olympic style moves to your next shoulder or back workout? Hit up some interval training to burn a few extra calories. Or maybe perform some sled pushes and pulls for your legs. Whatever you decide, make sure it has use regarding your ultimate goal.
#6 – Tell your ego to take a hike
Have you been guilty of loading a little too much weight on the bar because you were trying to impress your buddies? Or maybe you squat only half way down so you can look like you lift a ton of weight? When it comes to your ultimate plan to reach your goal ego has no place. Over time you will get injured. What’s more is that listening to your ego will stall and even halt all progress.
It’s in our genes to feel like we need to become an alpha male especially in a male-dominated environment. Who wants to look weak? But heed the warning signs and dial it back a notch. Train smart and for the long run.
#7 – Foster community
Long ago gyms were communities. You could walk in and everyone seemed to know each other – or at least most did. People worked in with one another, cultivated friendships and spawned some friendly competition. It was once a welcoming place for like-minded lifters. Walk into most commercial gyms today and you will find everyone wearing headphones staring down at their phones silently communicating to leave them alone.
Crossfit takes a lot of controversial heat for many reasons but one thing is for sure, it has single-handedly brought back community. Walk into any box and you won’t find headphones, smartphones or anyone alone in the corner. You’ll find community, motivation and a positive atmosphere. Help bring that to your gym. Bring back the community, help each other, offer to spot someone and pass it on.
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#8 – Go by the textbook
Another no-brainer is the practice of good form. You’ll read this little piece of advice on every fitness website in the world. As universal and common as it is I want to take it step further and revisit this long-forgotten important aspect of training.
For the last time, practice a full range of motion. No excuses, period. If you can perform a full range butt to ankle squat with your body weight then why do you insist on piling on plate after plate onto the squat bar and proceed to only go half way down?
If needed, start with the bar and do five or so sets of 10 reps. Add ten pound plates next time and perfect your form. Take those small, little steps week after week and then you will finally start squatting some impressive amounts of weight with a more impressive range of motion.
#9 – Read, research and learn then stop
Like any lifter yearning to pack on muscle you tend to research, read and learn as much as you can about training, nutrition and supplementation. It’s an admirable practice since the old adage of if you want to get good at something learn as much as you can. But can you go too far?
Learn as much as you can about training but know when to say when. Don’t get paralyzed by over-analyzing the subject. There will come a time when you will need to simply take action and learn as you go. Don’t forget about how experience can sometimes be the best teacher.
#10 – Enjoy
This is possibly the most important principle of all. It has been said that if the process of what you are doing doesn’t bring you joy, find something else to do. In other words, if you don’t like going to the gym and challenging yourself day after day then getting to your goal will be a tough road.
Find happiness in the process. Learn to look forward to every set and rep and see each day as one step up the mountain you’re trying to climb. Bring positive energy even on your toughest days because that is when you’ll need it the most.