How to Build Muscle Naturally at an Optimal Rate

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Social media is a fickle beast – it’s great for going inside the lives of celebrities, athletes and entertainers. It is also a supercharged tent pole for the fitness and physique world. Countless selfies, butt pics and ab shots riddle everyone’s accounts displaying their best self in the best light with the best filters. It’s tough to know who and what is real and who and what is heavily doctored, enhanced and pharmaceutically aided.

Cries of foul play chime from the myriad of followers claiming steroids, growth hormone and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Is he natural or not? Surely not everyone is telling the truth right?

Related: How to Increase Testosterone Naturally

Whether you’re a part of the whole social media craze or not the truth remains that training for the natural athlete is far different that training for the drug-enhanced. If you’re still reading this then you have the goal of building your physique the natural way.

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What is Natural Muscle Building?

Pure and simple, natural is the absence of any performance enhancing drug including but not limited to steroids, growth hormone and insulin just to name a few. Some go as far as to claim that naturals should also avoid specific supplements such as prohormones, fat burners and other ergogenic substances that are not found in whole foods.

Whichever school of thought you subscribe to the fact remains that you have to do the best with what you have. You don’t have the luxury of having an anabolic agent flowing through your veins. You have to have a keen sense of recovery, intensity, volume, stress management and how to regulate all of those factors together.

Experimentation is another skill that is a must. You just can’t go to the gym and start lifting without a specific plan. Since you have so much to regulate, it’s imperative that you set out a long-term plan of action based on sound principles and consistency.

What are the Differences Between Natural and Enhanced Bodybuilding?

As stated before, training naturally requires you to pay special attention to recovery. PEDs promote much more of an anabolic environment allowing faster and more complete recovery plus they accelerate strength gains and increases in muscle mass. The side effects are well documented especially long-term studies finding decreased natural testosterone levels, hair loss, acne and even heart disease and cancer.

We can get lost in the weeds all day regarding the bickering between supporters, naysayers and pundits and all of the ins and outs of naturals and not so naturals but the fact of the matter is that you’ve decided to go the natural route and need the tools to get you to your physique goals.

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How to Train Naturally

Here are a few things to consider when starting your natural training journey.

Frequency. Forget the one body part per day mantra. Training chest on Monday is dead not to mention crowded. A higher frequency of training is advantageous in several ways.

One, it allows more sessions per body part per week allowing for more opportunity for growth. Two, you don’t have to wait an entire week to train that body part again and three; you don’t have to pummel each body part into submission crawling out of the gym each day.

The ideal training frequency for most lifters is training everything twice per week. This gives you plenty of recovery time plus enough frequency to keep progressing. Some will argue that they need an entire week for recovery but there is another important point to make here. You actually have the ability to manipulate your pace of recovery.

In other words, if you train everything only once per week your body will respond in kind and adapt to that rate of recovery. If you slowly coax into a higher frequency of training (while properly regulating volume and intensity) your body will have no choice but to recover faster.

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Volume. As stated earlier, since you have now adopted a higher weekly frequency of training you will have to pay closer attention to volume or how many sets you’re performing per session. An endless list of sets per session will pound your ability to recover into the ground, especially if it’s loaded with a hefty amount of exercises that tax the central nervous system (CNS).

Regulating all that takes a little thought on your part since everyone reading this is potentially at a different experience level.

For the average lifter anywhere from eight to 16 sets is ideal for each muscle group. For smaller body parts such as biceps, triceps, calves and shoulders shoot for eight to 12 sets and for larger body parts such as chest, back and thighs go with 12 to 16 sets. Any more than that and you start to get closer to over working not only certain areas but also your CNS and will start to experience strength loss, fatigue and decreased motivation.

Load. Your load, or more aptly for our purposes reps, is simply the amount of weight that allows you to hit a target rep range. Hypertrophy (muscle size) is established best with a range of six to 12 reps. A bit lower and higher than that range will still result in gains in muscle size and strength but six to 12 is the ideal area for optimal results.

You can also go with a higher or lower range exclusively for periods of time just to stave off boredom or dig yourself out of a rut. The natural trainer is also concerned with form and function of each and every exercise.

Don’t just pile weight on the bar for the sake of lifting heavier to impress your friends. Always use textbook form and progress when you’ve gained ample strength.

Rest. Rest between sets is one of the most underused factors in training. If hypertrophy is your goal then length of rest should be scrutinized. The ideal rest time between sets for optimal gains in muscle size is between 30 seconds and two minutes. This range is dependent on the type of exercise you use and the amount of weight you’re lifting.

For smaller muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, shoulders, calves and abs that don’t tax the CNS quite as much go with a 30 to 60 second rest period between sets. For larger muscle groups such as chest, back and thighs where multi-joint exercises dominate and have the potential to tax the CNS go with 90 seconds to two minutes.

Again, as with many of these principles listed here feel free to play around with lengths of rest periods from time to time.

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Consistency. When it comes to packing on muscle mass the natural way the journey isn’t a sprint – it’s more of a marathon. Consistency plays a huge role in the speed of your success.

Don’t think a couple of hard training sessions per week will cut it. You will need razor like focus and a will to keep going back to the gym and hammer away at the weights day after day, week after week and month after month. Nothing beats consistency.

Expectations. So what kind of expectations do you have regarding your progress? Don’t think you’ll build the perfect physique in a few weeks or months. If you go the natural route you will have to have plenty of patience and a boat load of self-discipline.

You won’t have the luxury of going to the gym and just pumping up your muscles. You’ll have to be dedicated, motivated and a student of the iron game.

Look to gain five or more pounds per month if you’re a beginner and a pound or two of solid muscle per month if you’ve been training a while and consider yourself an intermediate. You may be thinking to yourself that a pound or two isn’t much but think long-term. That’s 12 to 24 pounds of muscle per year. Not bad for staying so consistent and patient.

Sample Natural Workout Splits

Below are a few natural training weekly splits that fit perfectly into the principles laid out above.

Four-day split

  • Monday: chest, back and shoulders
  • Tuesday: arms and legs
  • Wednesday: rest
  • Thursday: chest, back and shoulders
  • Friday: arms and legs
  • Saturday and Sunday: rest

Four-day split

  • Monday: chest, back and arms
  • Tuesday: shoulders and legs
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: chest, back and arms
  • Friday: shoulders and legs
  • Saturday and Sunday: rest

Three-day split

  • Monday: chest, back and thighs
  • Wednesday: shoulders, arms and calves
  • Friday: chest, back and thighs

Be Natural and Proud

Finally, be proud of what you’re doing – staying natural and training the right way for longevity, health and real, true strength and muscle. Let the world fill there profiles with selfies. Real, fake, doctored or a little of all of the above, just keep knowing that you’re 100% real and that’s all that really matters.

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Name: Brad Borland

Bio: Starting out as a scrawny 125 pound kid at 6’ 2” I took up weight training at the tender age of 14 and ended up a 220 pound competitive drug-free, natural bodybuilder several years later. Now armed with both knowledge and muscle I have helped countless individuals domestically and abroad.