I still remember my first day at the gym. I weighed about 230 pounds, could barely curl the 15-pound dumbbells, and had no idea what I was doing.
It all seemed so new to me, and I had no clue how muscle growth worked.
I knew that lifting weights would help me build muscle, but I knew little else apart from that.
Over the years, I’ve picked up many nuggets of wisdom related to muscle growth. Let’s discuss some of them below.
1. Getting Stronger Doesn’t Necessarily Mean That You’re Building Muscle
Many people correlate strength gain with muscle growth. To some extent, the two are interconnected. But building strength doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re also building muscle, and gaining muscle doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re about to get stronger.
The two are connected, but their relationship isn’t linear. This is because strength is a component of numerous factors, and muscle size is one of them. Specifically, strength depends on:
Excitability is also a factor. The more excited we are, the more force we tend to exert. This is one reason why many people set personal records in competitions where the surge of adrenalin helps out.
With that said, having strength-focused blocks where you solely work on getting stronger can later translate to more productive hypertrophy blocks. Using heavier weights across the board could result in slightly greater mechanical tension that can lead to superior muscle growth.
2. All Repetition Ranges Build Muscle (And We Should Use Them)
These days, many people love talking about magic repetition ranges for muscle growth. Go to any fitness-related forum, and you’re bound to find countless people asking questions like, “What's the best repetition range for growth?"
Here's the thing:
All repetition ranges build muscle. Doing fewer than six reps per set builds muscle, and doing upward of 30 also builds muscle. Research shows that, so long as you do enough repetitions, different loads can work (source, source, source). For example, doing 10x3 and 3x10 builds roughly the same muscle mass, but the former builds more strength. The problem is, if you only do heavy sets, your workouts will end up being way too long and demanding. This only increases the risk of overtraining and injuries.
On the other hand, you can do sets of 20 reps on most exercises, but would that be a great idea? Aside from the sheer effort that would take, you have to use incredibly light weights. Plus, doing such high repetition work on complex exercises like squats increases the risk of technique breakdown. This training style is also not ideal because there is little mechanical tension, and you end up doing tons of junk volume that doesn't produce any results.
The question shouldn't be about the best range, but, instead, what is most practical in the specific context. This is why most people choose a moderate approach: doing fewer reps on complex exercises and leaving their high repetition work on movements that are better suited for it: bicep curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions, and such.
3. Being a 'Hardgainer' Is Mostly a State of Mind
When I first started training, nobody would say that I was anything special or had some incredible potential to become a world-class powerlifter or bodybuilder. I was a big guy (around 6'2" and 230 pounds), but I was weak and had almost no muscle on my frame.
Despite this, I never saw myself as a 'hardgainer' or someone who wouldn't be able to build muscle. Why? Mostly because I didn't know about 'hardgainers' back then.
The truth is, many guys and girls out there set arbitrary limits upon themselves and never get anywhere precisely because they don't believe in themselves. Apart from a small percentage of people, the average healthy human being is perfectly capable of building muscle, losing fat, and improving the way they look, feel, and function.
If you carry self-limiting beliefs like, "I’m a hardgainer.” ask yourself this: Is this true, and do you have proof of that? Or are you basing your beliefs on the fact that you’ve been training for a month and don’t look like Ronnie Coleman yet?
4. More Isn’t Always Better
Prevailing wisdom suggests that more is better. If some training volume produces good results, then more work will deliver even better results.
To a point, this is true. Doing more work appears to produce greater muscle growth (source). However, at some point, doing more work (more sets, exercises, weekly workouts, etc.) doesn’t deliver better results but instead leads to regression.
This is because the body has a limited capacity for recovery. If we go overboard, we enter a state where we are chronically under recovered. Workouts become more challenging, we become weaker, and muscle growth is significantly slowed down.
In general, researchers and experts suggest that we should do more than ten sets per muscle group per week for optimal growth. Typically, I recommend between 12 and 16 weekly sets for larger muscle groups like the chest, back, and quads and 6 to 10 weekly sets for the smaller ones - biceps, triceps, shoulders, and calves.
5. While Counterintuitive, Intermittent Fasting Can Be Beneficial
Fasting is the very opposite of anabolism, but it can be beneficial under some circumstances.
A few years back, I had a problem with bulking that many skinny guys would consider a blessing: I was hungry all the time. Despite routinely eating 3,600-4,000 calories per day, I rarely felt full and often found myself going to bed hungry.
At some point, I decided to implement intermittent fasting to my bulking plan and see how it would go. Specifically, I followed the classic 16:8 fast, where I skipped morning meals, had my first meal around 1 pm, and my last around 9 pm.
This was of tremendous help and allowed me to stick with my daily calorie goals without problems. I rarely found myself feeling hungry after that. I would have a big meal at noon, an afternoon snack (pre-workout), and a 2,000-calorie dinner.
If you find that you’re having trouble with your hunger and often overeat, try fasting for a while and see if condensing your daily calories in a smaller eating window would help.
6. Cardio Is Still Important
What is the first thing you stop doing when you transition into a bulking phase? Odds are, it’s cardio. These days, many see cardio as the killer of gains. Cardio equals catabolism and strength loss. No cardio equals abundant growth and improvement.
As it turns out, this relationship isn’t as cut and dry as most people imagine, and doing some cardio even while bulking could be beneficial. For instance, cardio develops the aerobic system - the body’s ability to produce energy with oxygen.
This is important for our lifting performance because we rely on the aerobic system to produce some of the energy we need to push through stimulative workouts.
Better energy production allows us to do more work, recover quicker between sets, and maintain better performance as the workout wears on. A more robust aerobic system also allows us to recover better between training sessions, which is vital if you train more than three times per week.Greg Nuckols does a fantastic job of explaining the subject in-depth. Here is a link to his article on the matter.
7. Muscle Soreness Doesn’t Equal Muscle Growth
Muscle soreness is strange. On the one hand, no research indicates that soreness predicts muscle growth. On the other hand, never experiencing muscle soreness is a good sign that your workouts aren’t disruptive enough and that you’re leaving gains on the table.
Generally, muscle soreness is a sign that we’ve caused a disruption. But whether that disruption leads to growth is a whole other matter. On a molecular level, muscle soreness indicates that we’ve caused some degree of damage. Specifically, it means that we’ve caused damage to our muscle fibers and that we’ve damaged cells' integrity, which allows for fluids and other compounds to enter and promote inflammation.
Running is one activity that often leads to muscle soreness, especially in untrained people (source). But running itself causes minimal hypertrophy, which is a good sign that soreness alone doesn’t tell us much about how effective our training is.
What’s more, too much soreness can reduce our performance and range of motion, leading to less productive workouts in the future. If muscle growth is your goal, this is the opposite of what you want to happen.
8. You Need a Calorie Surplus After The Beginner Phase
In an age where everyone is obsessed with aesthetics, many people find themselves asking, “How can I stay lean while building muscle.” Approaches like body recomposition and extremely lean bulks have become more popular than ever.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, these approaches look good on paper but don’t work out well in the real world. People who try to build muscle at maintenance or constantly attempt a body recomposition find themselves disappointed with the results (or should we stay the lack thereof).
The fact is, we need a calorie surplus to build muscle, and research supports this idea too (source). If you constantly worry about losing your abs, don’t expect to build much muscle in the long run.
With that said, some people tend to go in the opposite way. They eat everything in sight, reasoning that it will result in more muscle growth. But here is the thing:
The body can only synthesize so much muscle in a given period. Force-feeding ourselves won’t raise that limit but will instead lead to lots of fat gain. In essence, we need to strike a healthy medium - not fearing the calorie surplus but also not overeating and gaining tons of fat in the process.