The muscle you have now was earned one way. The muscle you don’t have yet might play by a different set of rules entirely. Here’s what they are!
You may have heard the term “muscle memory.” What this means is that once you’ve properly trained your muscles to grow, they’ll readily regrow after a cutting phase or even a lengthy break due to life circumstances. Muscle, in other words, is smart. If it’s been to a certain level once, it can find its way back.
However, when you’re trying to grow or increase muscle mass beyond where you’ve been before, it’s more challenging. To make these gains, it helps if you better understand how muscles “think.” Too often, performance and physique athletes emphasize random, challenging training protocols without focusing on how and why muscles grow.
Once you understand the eight rules for building muscle tissue and incorporate them into your training program, you’ll see results you’ll never forget. I guess you could say that’s another definition of “muscle memory.”
1. Change The Little Things Often
No matter how effective a training style is, your body learns fast and stops further growth. Even negative reps—which spur growth by causing lots of damage to muscle fibers—can quickly become ineffective after just a few consecutive workouts.
When you perform the same workout over and over, muscle mass adapts to your training, and it eventually plateaus, which is another way of saying that it stops growing. Many people think they are “successful” if they crank out one more rep with a given weight, or lift 5 more pounds than they did the time before. But if that’s the only approach you use, it’s not efficient.
How to do it: Change up the variables from one workout to the next: rep ranges, time under tension, the weight you use, rest periods, picking similar-but-different exercises, and even duration of rest between sets. Always let your muscles know the overall goal, but keep them guessing about the details.
2. Give Your Muscles Space To Adapt
This rule may seem to contradict the previous one, but it’s a necessary companion, a yin to the yang. You must stress muscle tissue to trigger growth, but then you must allow it to heal. After all, it’s the healing process that ultimately creates the growth.
Don’t leave this part up to chance or wait until you’re burned out. Whether you’re a performance, strength, or physique athlete, you must build recovery phases into your training. Otherwise, you’ll never maximize muscle growth.
How to do it: No single body part should be maximally stressed more than 2-3 times a week—and three is an exception. Nor should you hammer a particular muscle group for more than about six weeks. Your whole body needs to recover from body-part-specific training too. Include at least one full rest day at least once a week. Every 2-3 months, take off an entire week.
3. Don’t Reinvent The Wheel When It Comes To Nutrition
While time is the greatest healer, proper nutrition is one of the most important factors in adding muscle tissue. What you eat provides the raw materials for growth.
I could provide you with some new-fangled, overcomplicated approach “guaranteed” to add 10 pounds of flesh in a week, but I won’t. Just get enough of the right stuff, at the right time. It’s not rocket science.
How to do it: The theory of the “anabolic window” has suffered some cracks in recent years, but post-workout is still as good a time as any to consume a shake with fast-digesting protein like whey protein. Also, consume plenty of healthy nutrients through multiple meals throughout the day. My recommendation for growth is 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight per day—every day. Don’t miss a day.
4. Change The Big Things Every Once In A While
Muscle tissue is smart. It figures out what you’re trying to do pretty quickly. You can change the little things daily while keeping the big idea the same, but after about 6-8 weeks, the muscle will catch on. This is the point of diminishing returns, but too many people coast right by it and keep coasting through workouts they could do in their sleep.
This is why it’s crucial to make a significant shift in your training program every 6-8 weeks or so. It’s hard, because you’ll have to change and actually learn new things, but it’s definitely the best way.
How to do it: Go from a muscle-growth phase to a strength phase, to a ripping-up phase, to a cross-training phase, or to something else entirely. Just make sure to change the protocol every 6-8 weeks or so.
5. Perform Free-Weight Exercises First
One of the ways to encourage growth is by forcing your muscles to deal with the multiple demands imposed by free weights. Not only do you have to lift the weight, but you also have to stabilize it with muscles other than the prime movers of the lift. Stabilizers are the often-tiny muscles that help keep your joints strong and help prevent damage to tendons and ligaments. When you train with machines, you lose much of this stabilization component.
How to do it: After your warm-up, start your workout with free-weight movements. This is the most important work you’ll do. Machine work can come afterward to add some volume and meet specific goals.
Yes, barbells are harder to control than machines. This is no accident. And it’s exactly why you need more free weights in your program.
6. Focus On Form Above All
Your muscles have friends called tendons and ligaments. You may only think about these guys when they’re complaining, but their importance goes beyond avoiding injury. Your tendons must be healthy if you want to apply proper stress to muscle tissue. You can build muscle with sloppy form, but your connective tissues will eventually cry uncle, interrupting your relentless quest—and painfully so.
Your goal is to create stress to muscle tissue that can be repaired in a day or two—not to cause so much damage that you get injured. When you perform free-weight moves with proper form, you’re strengthening, these crucial support structures rather than damaging them. That helps lead to greater muscle growth.
How to do it: Don’t assume your form is perfect. It probably isn’t. Plenty of people think their squat is just fine when…yeesh. Have someone take a look, and prepare yourself for criticism.
7. Know That The More You Have, The Harder It Is To Add
Muscles grow more slowly—much more slowly—than you probably desire. More bad news: Once you’ve added a significant amount of muscle tissue, it becomes even more challenging.
On the other hand, that’s what makes working out so amazing. There are no shortcuts—or at least no legal ones. You need to pay your dues and put in your time, and then you can wear that added muscle like the badge of honor it is.
How to do it: Have patience, and stay disciplined. Keep going to the gym and performing challenging routines. Keep changing up the variables of your workouts like clockwork. When you start rushing, that’s when you’ll often suffer an injury that will set you way back. It’s virtually impossible to train your entire life without getting injured, but you can avoid most injuries by training smart.
8. Embrace Muscle-Building As Health-Building
Many people will tell you that spending time in the gym to build muscle mass is superficial. Sure, having defined arms and strong legs make you feel great in the mirror or while you strut in your favorite outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re not important.
In addition to the health benefits you gain from the training process itself, simply carrying more muscle is healthy. Muscle tissue revs up your metabolic rate, helping your body prevent fat storage, and it also acts as extra armor you can rely on in times of extreme stress such as injury, illness, and surgery. For seniors, more muscle mass is tied to a greater life expectancy—and greater ability to withstand what otherwise might be a life-changing event.
How to do it: Ignore the haters. Anyone who spends time trying to tear you down for your fitness success is the one with the psychological problem, not you. And it isn’t your job to fix them. Ignore what they say, and hope that they’ll one day see the light. When they do, you’ll be standing there, healthy and strong, as an example to learn from.
As much as we all try to stick to our workout routines no matter what, the cold weather and shorter days during the winter often lead to less working out and more Netflixing. Then suddenly the days start getting longer, the temperature starts to rise, and you realize that swimsuit season is right around the corner! It’s time to spring back into shape, but where and how should you start?
Find a workout partner
Not having someone to exercise with has been cited as a barrier to regular workouts among both men and women. While you don’t have to have a workout partner to create a successful fitness routine, there are many benefits to working out with a friend. Not only will you have an extra layer of accountability to get to the gym if your friend is waiting for you there, you may be more willing to try new types of workouts if you aren’t doing it alone.
Choose the workout that’s best for you
When you’re just getting back to a workout routine, should you do full-body workouts or focus on one body part at a time to space things out? A lot depends on your individual goals and abilities. It also depends on how much time you have. If you’re looking to burn fat and lose weight, full-body workouts are much more efficient, particularly when using compound movements that use more than one muscle group at the same time. Full-body workouts may also mean you’ll need to spend fewer days in the gym.
If you’re especially pressed for time, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts are great, but very challenging, option. HIIT pairs high-intensity movements with lower-intensity movements to keep your body in peak fat-burning and muscle-building condition throughout the workout. If your goals are more about building muscle, you may decide to focus on one body part at a time. The one caution here is that you may be more likely to skip the muscle groups you don’t particularly enjoy training until you establish a regular routine. If you are only planning to work out three days per week, this approach may not be the best for you.
The most important thing is to choose a workout that you’ll actually enjoy doing. As you’re reestablishing a routine, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself to go to the gym if you’re looking forward to it. Use this as an opportunity to try a new group fitness class like Zumba or spin. Not only will being in a group help motivate you, these types of classes are usually set to upbeat music that helps the time pass quickly.
Don’t skip the warm-up
If you’re especially anxious to get back to a routine and see results, it may be all too easy to think that you’re better off skipping a warm-up and spending your whole hour at the gym on a hard workout. A proper warm-up is not only essential to your safety, it actually leads to a much more beneficial workout! That’s because a warm-up prepares your body for the exercises you’re about to do, loosens up your muscles and joints so you don’t pull or sprain something, and gets your heart rate going. This means that by the time you actually get to your workout, you’re already burning calories and stoking your metabolism.
It’s also really important to realize that walking from your car to the treadmill doesn’t count as a proper warm-up. If you aren’t sweating at least a little bit or breathing hard by the end of your warm-up, you aren’t ready for the really heavy lifting. A good warm-up routine might consist of foam rolling (especially if you’re sore from a prior workout), dynamic stretches (those done with movement, like walking toe taps and jumping jacks), and bodyweight exercises that mimic the movements you’ll be doing during your workout. For example, you might add high knees and butt kicks to your warm-up routine to prepare for a run or add some bodyweight squats to prepare for leg day.
Make sure you fuel properly
What’s the use of a good workout routine if you aren’t eating properly? If your goal is to lose weight, nutrition is an integral part of that, and poor nutrition can easily undo all your hard work in the gym. Nutrition isn’t just important if you’re trying to lose weight; it’s also important to make sure you’re eating enough and drinking enough water to safely fuel your workout. If your workouts are making you dizzy or lightheaded, you are either dehydrated or not eating enough prior to your workout.
Just like fueling beforehand is important, eating for muscle recovery should also be a priority. Try to eat something with protein within an hour of your workout. This is the period during which your muscles can utilize the protein most effectively to repair and rebuild. Abs aren’t the only muscles built in the kitchen.
Don’t beat yourself up
Getting back into a workout routine isn’t easy. Even if you start slow and have a workout buddy, there may be days when you give in to the call of the couch. The worst thing you can do on these days is beat yourself up and decide that it just isn’t worth it. Give yourself a little wiggle room and cut yourself some slack, especially early on. Don’t let missing a single day take the steam out of your engine!