The best way to build muscle

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The best way to build muscle

How is muscle built?

This might seem like a question that has an answer that can fill several books.  If you want to know the biology behind it then it probably does.

Considering magazines can write articles about it week after week surely means that it is a complicated subject.

It’s not really.  It’s just about adaptation.  The human body is pretty good at adapting to so many different situations.

Think about the way calluses form to protect parts of the skin that are exposed repeatedly to rough surfaces.  Muscle building is simply the body’s response to protect itself and be better prepared for the next time it comes across a heavy object.

It will adapt proportionally to the load put upon it.  If one person handles rougher surfaces than another their hands will be more callused and tougher.  If one person lifts a heavier load more often than another their muscles will be bigger.

If you want the most growth possible therefore it is logical to place as much stress as possible on the muscle; i.e. lift as heavy as possible.

Let’s take the bicep for example.  What will put a greater stress on it, a 20 kg (45 lb) dumbbell or lifting half your bodyweight in a pull-up?

What will stress your forearms more, gripping a 40 kg dumbbell or holding onto a 200 kg bar?

Here’s the answer to how to best build muscle: ditch the bicep curls and tricep kick backs, and just focus on compound movements.

That’s right, forget about the arm day and the 20 set routine to focus on your outer bicep.  Forget the different isolation machines.

Just focus on getting good at the compound lifts: stuff like pull-ups, dips, bench press and deadlifts.

I guarantee that if you can do 20 pull-ups with good form or with added weight, do dips with added weight for reps and bench and deadlift your bodyweight and double bodyweight respectively you will have well-developed arms and a great physique.

The idea of ‘arm day’ and the millions of different angles to work on and develop your muscle comes straight out of the fitness propaganda factory.

Their goal is making the process of working-out more complicated than it actually is, to broaden the range of products and routines they can sell to you.

The truth is pretty simple. Progressive overload over time.

Sure you can do bicep curls and keep trying to get heavier to overload the muscle.  But the bicep by itself is a small muscle and its capacity to handle weight is pretty limited when you compare it with much larger muscles of the body.

To develop it to its potential you need to expose it to as heavy a weight as you can handle.  When you do strict pull-ups most of the pulling is being done by your back muscles, but there is still considerable force going through your forearms and biceps in order to control the movement of 80+ kgs.

A lot more than a 15kg dumbbell.

As I said, if you can do weighted pull-ups and dips you will undoubtedly develop your muscles to their fullest.

You simply don’t need to be doing endless sets of isolation work.  Even if you do your compound exercises first then finish off with isolation work it won’t make much difference in terms of your arm size.

As always, it boils down again to genetics, and natural limits.  

You only have so much testosterone to build and maintain muscle.  Once you have been training hard for a few years it is likely that you have already maxed out your potential in terms of muscle size.

You can keep getting stronger, but you can’t keep making your muscles bigger, no matter how much direct work you put on them.

People are however obsessed with their arm size, which has led to the belief that you can.  A big source of ‘content filler’ in fitness magazines is to interview a bodybuilder or a fitness model and describe their routine, as if you should follow it.

Setting aside whether if it is even their actual routine why would you want to follow a professional bodybuilder or athletes training style?  They’re genetically different to you.  They have a different level of experience.  They are probably on something.

Bodybuilders who have been training for years can actually keep adding muscle to their arms by upping their testosterone level through injection, and by concentrating on curls and tricep push downs.

For the rest of us just training without hormonal assistance that’s never going to be the case.

Personally I have spent a lot of time in the past focusing on doing a lot of heavy bicep curls and isolation movements as prescribed by the magazines, followed by more recent periods where I have simply concentrated on getting good at weighted pull-ups and forgetting about isolation work.

My arm size has not changed by much at all.  It’s because compound movements are enough to maintain my muscle size.

Focusing on the muscle to ‘shape’ it is also pointless, because muscle shape is genetic.  You can develop it fully, but you can’t make it look different.  The best way to develop it fully is to use full range of motion, applying as much load as possible using compound movements.

There’s no such thing as fast results in training but sticking to compound movements and getting strong at them is your shortest route to fulfilling your muscular potential.

To sum up:

– Focus your training on compound, muti-muscle movements that allow you to move a lot of weight- bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-ups and dips are really ALL you need.

– For pull-ups and dips once you can do 3 sets of 15-20 start adding weight using a belt, and build up the reps again.

– isolation movements are inferior because they don’t allow you to use as much weight as compound movements, which means less stimulation.

– Don’t waste time doing bicep curls, tricep push-downs or lateral raises- these body parts will all fully develop themselves by getting strong at all the exercises listed above.

– if you do have a weak point, like your chest is weak or smaller than your shoulders then train it more often, but stick to using the compound movements prescribed above.

Remember that above all your muscle size is governed by your genetic potential.  You have to train hard and consistently to find out what that is but you will get there faster by developing your strength level in compound movements.

Pick out a template from the Training Templates tab above, and practice good form.

Gym sessions should be short and to the point, with as much intensity as possible.  Apply this to all the compound lifts for the best way to build muscle.

Save the bicep curls for a ‘pump’ before you go out. 


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