The Most Important Training Principles to Build Muscle.

When people start getting into working out this is usually accompanied by a lot of enthusiasm, motivation, and excitement.

This is great, but this enthusiasm and excitement usually lead to people taking on more than they can/should handle in the beginning.

Usually, people end up looking up advanced protocols because they want to progress as quickly as possible.

However, they end up overlooking the basics, which sets them up for failure in the long term.

What they are doing just isn’t sustainable.

I see it all the time, you will see someone crushing it in the gym for a month or so and then something always comes up and they are telling you how they need to get back on track.

Or the advanced protocol got them hurt.

I have talked many times in the past about how time away from the gym is the biggest reason why people don’t see the results they want.

Whether that be from injury or burnout.

Instead of looking up advanced protocols, make sure you are hitting these basic training principles when it comes to building muscle.

Specificity

According to the RP Hypertrophy book, specificity can be described as “to improve at a specific sport or physical endeavor, training must either directly support or potentiate improved performance in that sport or endeavor.”

What this means is that if you want to build muscle or improve your body composition, then everything you do must be specific to that.

Our body only has so many resources to allocate, so if you have a goal, you must be specific with how you get to that goal, otherwise you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

If you are looking to build muscle, then it wouldn’t make sense to have most of your training come from long distance endurance running. As long distance endurance running stresses a completely different system within the body. And couple that with a low-calorie diet.

While this seems obvious, you would be shocked at how many people abuse this principle.

Here are some general guidelines on the best practices to build muscle for most:

  • Make sure each set is around the 5-30 rep range.
  • Each set is at least somewhat challenging.
  • Training each muscle group about 2-4x per week.
  • 10-25 sets per muscle group per week seems to be best.
  • Make sure you are getting an adequate amount of protein in per day (around .8-1g per pound of body weight per day).
  • Eating enough calories to help with training performance and recovery
  • Sleep 6-8 hours per night.

While you don’t HAVE to do all of these things, the more you can do the better. And, limiting activities/diet strategies that are complete opposites of this is a good idea.

Like the example earlier, if you want to build muscle then doing multiple long-distance runs while limiting calorie intake is pretty much the complete opposite, so you wouldn’t expect to build much muscle.

Now this doesn’t mean you have to only do the things mentioned above to build muscle, but just realize anything outside of this will hurt muscle growth in some way.

For example, I love to play hockey, but I also want to build more muscle. So for me, I am ok with the trade off of a little bit less muscle by playing hockey once a week.

For me it becomes more important to focus on things like sleep, eating enough calories and protein to reduce the interference.

Also, the more often I play hockey then the more it would interfere with muscle growth as well. So I limit myself to one game per week.

If you like to run but also want to build muscle, then you must find a happy medium, otherwise, you may be limiting how much muscle you will build if you aren’t willing to change up how much you run.

The same is true nutrition-wise, if you like to be lean and are totally closed off on gaining any amount of weight, then you must be ok with the trade-off that you will not build as much muscle as you could if you ate more and were ok with a little fat gain.

Another big mistake I see made with this principle is people who want to build muscle and improve their body composition but they always focus on lifting heavy and hitting 1RMs.

While lifting heavy weights will help build muscle, it still isn’t specific to building muscle, which we know is best in the 5-30 rep range. If you constantly hit 1rms then you are generating a lot of fatigue for less than ideal muscle growth, so this will just make muscle growth very slow in the long run.

If you want to build muscle, then your training and nutrition need to align with this goal. Anything and everything you do will play a role in this.

I wanted to finish this section with a quote from the RP hypertrophy book “ The more goals you have, the less effective the training for any of your goals will be, and the more different your goals are, the less effective the training for all of them will be.”

Progressive Overload

Let’s start this section off with a quote from the RP hypertrophy book. They describe progressive overload as: “in order to produce improvements in performance, training must be challenging enough to the targeted systems or tissues to stimulate adaptation.”

Simply put, if you want to get results and make progress, you must progress your training over time. If you don’t give your body a reason to adapt, then it will just stay the same.

Your muscles need to be given a reason to grow. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again then they will have no reason to adapt, so what happens? They stay the same.

What this means is that over time you will have to do more and more, this is why at one point 135 on the bench was challenging, but now you must do multiple sets at 200lbs to see any progress.

You still must follow the specificity principle though. So just making things tougher doesn’t mean you will grow more muscle. It must be specific to building muscle (refer back to the general guidelines for building muscle).

For example, maybe you are getting stronger, but only in the 1-3 rep range. In this example, you are overloading, but you are violating the specificity principle, so you won’t build as much muscle as you could be if you focused on getting stronger in the 5-10 rep range.

Ways to overload for muscle growth:

  • More reps with a given weight
  • More sets with a given weight
  • Increasing weight
  • Better technique with a given weight and rep range

If you are getting stronger in a given rep range over time while maintaining/improving your technique and eating an adequate amount of calories/protein, and sleeping well you can guarantee muscle growth is happening. But muscle growth is a slow process so there really is no way to tell for sure. Which can be tough for some people who like immediate feedback to stay motivated.

Dr. Mike Israetel has provided us with some ways to ensure you are growing in the short term (but again nothing concrete).

  • Did you feel it in the target muscle? For example, if you were hitting quads that day, did you feel your quads working? If not, then chances are you didn’t build any muscle.
  • Did you get a pump in the target muscle?
  • Did you get any muscle damage or disruption in the target muscles?

If you answer no to all of these, then its likely you didn’t train properly to grow muscle in that body part. If you answered yes to two of three then you are doing pretty good. If you get all three then yo can ensure the session you had was good enough to grow muscle.

Now, its easy to get into the trap that every session needs to be more than the previous, but this isn’t true and not realistic. This is just over time.

At some point you cant just continue to overload session after session and week after week, at some point your body wont be able to keep up. Like I mentioned earlier it only has so many resources to allocate. Everything you do adds fatigue, so at some point we must lower this fatigue.

This leads me to the next principle….

Fatigue Management

Let’s also start this section off with a quote form the RP hypertrophy book on fatigue management. “Progressive overload produces both adaptation and fatigue. In order to make continued progress in training, planned and autoregulated strategies for alleviating fatigue along various timescales are required.”

Basically, if you are going to be training hard enough to build muscle, you will generate fatigue, and at some point you have to get rid of it, which means you cant just keep going up and up every single time you train. Something has to give.

Fatigue is, unfortunately, a necessary side effect of proper training and growth will not come without it.

Good training programs seek the best muscle growth possible, while limiting fatigue, and then bringing that fatigue down at some point.

This is where most people go wrong with their training. They think they always need to be on 100% and ultimately this hurts them in the long run.

Everyone thinks they are the exception to this rule, but you are not.

Most people who want to build muscle do a great job of training for that and making that training tough over time, but where they mess up is managing their fatigue.

They will commonly say “ I don’t need rest, I just train hard” but then you see this person months or years down the line and they either say “ I’m getting back into it soon” “I have so and so injury” or they simply look worse or the same.

Your body prioritizes recovery over building new tissue. I mean it makes sense, if it cant handle the current amount, what makes you think it will grow more? Your body is smarter than that.

Here are some ways to lower fatigue:

  • Training within your current levels: Nothing will add more fatigue than constantly over training. So first make sure you are training within your current capabilities. Remember 10-25 sets per muscle group per week seems to be best.
  • Use safe technique: Poor technique increases injury risk and it also increases the risk that you are using other muscles/joints in an exercise when they should be resting. This can lead to overuse and extra fatigue.
  • Vary the rep ranges: Don’t just train with one rep range all of the time. As we found out earlier you can build muscle in the 5-30 rep range. Some training should be in the 5-10 range, 10-20, and 20-30.
  • Rest days: Make sure you are taking at least one rest day per week from intense training.
  • Deload week: Every 4-8 weeks make sure you are taking a lighter week in the gym.
  • Lower volume/active rest phases: Maybe you worked up from 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week, so now take a 4 week phase where you do around 8 sets per muscle group per week. This lowers fatigue, and it takes a small amount to maintain muscle mass.

Then repeat the process.

By managing your fatigue you will ensure years and years of progress. This is the most under looked principle in most people’s programs.

There you have it, if you follow these 3 training principles you will set yourself up for years and years of success building muscle.

For me, the biggest thing is making sure you stay consistent over the long run, as I mentioned earlier time away from the gym is the biggest killer of progress. So you must walk that fine line of progressing but also not over doing it.

If you need more structure and guidance with your training fill out the coaching application here and lets get to work.

References:

Israetel, M., Hoffman, J., Davis, M., Feather, J. (2020). Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training.

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