On the cover of nearly every fitness magazine you’ll see articles promising to help you gain muscle mass quickly – be it a huge chest, massive arms, or a great set of glutes. This is often presented as a well-kept secret or some tricky formula, when nothing is further from the truth! Gaining muscle requires the same basic inputs, regardless of who you are, what muscles you’re trying to specifically build, or what kind of diet you follow. That’s right, a vegan diet is at least as good (if not better) than an omnivorous diet for building muscle mass, and no matter what kind of diet you’re on you need to concentrate on the same variables.
First and foremost, you need to create a training stimulus – meaning you have to send a clear message to the body that it needs more muscle mass. This is accomplished thru progressive overload. When you’re training and you push your body a little further than it is used to, it will respond by adapting to the new more challenging stimulus by getting stronger and more muscular. There are an infinite variety of ways to overload the body, but the variables you use when writing a program are Intensity (how much weight you use relative to your one rep max), Volume (how many sets and reps you do), Frequency (how often you train each muscle group), and the amount of rest you take between sets. If you raise the weight, do more sets and/or reps, train more often, Or shorten your rest intervals between sets you will overload your muscle and stimulate new muscle growth, provided the other points on this list are also covered. Some of the best exercises for overloading your body always have been and always will be compound free weight exercises. Build your program around presses, rows, deadlifts, squats and lunges and your body will have no choice but to adapt, and anything that is more than your body is accustomed to doing will generate a change, so don’t be afraid to set small, obtainable goals almost every workout and dig deep for them!
Once you’re training for personal records, you need to let your body adapt to all these new demands you’re placing on it. Recovery is every bit as important as training stimulus, so in order to realize your muscle-building goals, you need to be training hard, then go home and rest! Recovery needs differ for every individual, but a good rule of thumb is that everyone needs at least 1-2 days off from lifting per week, and intermediate to advanced lifters should schedule occasional deloading weeks where they intentionally train lighter (~60-80% of normal weights) to facilitate recovery. This keeps your skill and technique up, and can improve recovery by increasing blood flow to your musculature – just don’t shoot for any records here! Factors that can affect your recovery rate are: Your training level (beginners are far from their ultimate potential and therefore do less strenuous workouts and recover from them faster; the opposite is true for advanced athletes). Your quality and quantity of sleep – more is better! Your nutrition (see the 3rd point) and your age (all else being equal, a middle aged athlete may be able to train just as hard as a teenager, but will likely take almost twice as long to recover). A typical bodybuilding split routine provides ample rest by splitting up the muscle groups of the body into separate workouts, so this is a great place to start for intermediate lifters and above, whereas true beginners can capitalize on their rapid recovery by doing 3-4 total body workouts per week.
The last point on this list is at least as important as the first two: In order to make gains in the gym, you need to give your body optimal amounts of the best possible fuel. ‘Bulking’ is never a good excuse for binging on junk food – it’s quite the opposite! When you are repeatedly striving for personal records on the major lifts you need to be giving your all the nutrients it can get. Base your diet around the four food groups (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) and strive for a modest caloric surplus (take in a little more calories per day than you need to maintain your weight – approximately 200-400 extra). Eating healthy foods with a moderate surplus of calories will ensure slow, sustainable weight gain with optimal performance and minimal fat gains.
By covering these three bases in an organized and consistent fashion you can reliably build a stronger, more muscular body – it’s that simple. So, the next time you’re flipping through a fitness magazine, take any secret formulas with a big grain of salt and remember these basics!