The word “muscle” to men is as exciting as chocolate to kids. We can’t enough of it. We love muscle and everything that is associated with it. Gaining muscle, working muscles, looking muscular, sore muscles and being muscle bound are all terms that will make any guy take a second look. But not everyone is able to gain muscle and very few men actually end up looking muscular. Why? What are the secrets behind building slabs of muscle? What is that special training program one needs? What supplements should you take? Let’s find out.
You see, building muscle is a very slow and painful physiological process. In all honesty, losing 5 kilos of fat is so much more easy than gaining 5 kilos of muscle. To be specific, it is very possible to lose 5 kilos is 5 weeks for most people but gaining 5 kilos of muscle is a task that could take anywhere from 5 months to 3 years depending on the trainees current status, genetic make-up, training intensity, nutrition and other lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress.
Though incredibly hard, muscle gain is a simple process and the “lift heavy, eat big and sleep plenty” is a mantra that always works. To be more specific, in order to gain muscle you will need to lift heavy loads and there is no way around it. Now, the load you lift could be barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, your own bodyweight or even unconventional objects like stones and rice sacks. The tools don’t matter much, at least not as much as the resistance they provide and the intensity you lift with do. Irrespective of what tools you use, you will need to work in the 6 to 12 repetition range and you will need to work the right movements. More on that later, but let’s get to the point here.
How fast you grow and how much muscle you build will depend on many aspects of yourself and your training self.
Your training age
Beginners tend to gain muscle much faster than advanced athletes who already have a significant amount of muscle on their frame. As a complete beginner one can expect to gain a good 10-12 kilos of muscle, albeit along with a very noticeable amount of fat, with a year a consistent, diligent, linear progression based training. But if you’ve been training consistently and legitimately for 2 years or more, expect to gain 1 to 3 kilos of muscle per year and not much more. As your training age increases, the rate of muscle gain will decrease and there’s nothing (natural) you can do about that. So be smart and work on getting stronger and gaining muscle right from the early days of your fitness journey.
Your training program
Big lifts are critical for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) mainly because they activate the most muscle fibers and hence cause the greatest testosterone and growth hormone secretion. So make sure your training program is dominated by squats, pushups, bench presses, overhead military presses, pullups, rows, deadlifts and/or heavy kettlebell swings. Biceps and tricep exercises can be included as supplementary moves but they have very little benefit since every pull you do (pullups, rows etc.,) work your biceps more than any curl can and every push (pushups, presses, bench presses etc.,) burns your triceps more than any isolation exercise (tricep extensions, for example) will.
When gaining muscle and size is the main goal, you’ll need to make some changes to your lifestyle. In general, you will need to sleep more, stress less and move less. To be more specific, get at least 49 hours of sleep per week, keep a log to check how often you get stressed or lose your temper and limit that to twice a week and remove all forms unnecessary movement that causes energy (calorie) usage. Sports, cardio, running, cycling, swimming etc., need to be restricted to 30 to 40 minutes a week and strictly only at an enjoyable intensity. The higher the intensity in such activities, the more calories you’ll burn and that, in your case, will mean wasting calories that could potentially be used to help you recover from you previous strength training session and to promote hypertrophy.
The most important rule for gaining muscle is to eat above satiety i.e. you will need to eat more food that your body needs. Let’s say you need 2000 calories per day in order to maintain your current body composition. You will then need to eat anywhere from 2200 to 2700 calories per day in order to even expect muscle growth. Now this doesn’t mean you go about counting every morsel you eat. Generally, if you (60 to 80 kilos) eat wholesome real food which is partitioned fairly well with enough protein (~ 100 to 150 grams), good fat (~ 80 to 120 grams) and starch (200 to 300 grams) along with a reasonably well planned and intense strength training routine, you will grow and there is no denying that. But to hit these numbers without counting you will need to eat wholesome protein rich foods above satiation i.e. till you feel full and also add a handful of nuts and dried fruit as an extra snack. And just so we’re clear, junk food is a NO. Though your goal is to gain weight, junk food and gluttony will not help one bit and only result in gaining fat.
Now realize that there is absolutely no supplement that will help you if you bypass the steps mentioned above. Supplements are meant to supplement your training and nutrition and nothing more. For the common man looking to gain some muscle and look awesome, a multi-vitamin pill, some whey protein, ZMA (zinc + magnesium) and maybe, creatine is all you need.
There you have it. The most well kept secrets of muscle building are not complicated and new but simple and archaic. Drop the mass gainers and steroids and pick up a fork and some heavy iron.
PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife health magazine. This is the unedited version.