| July 29, 2021

Muscle Building Fundamentals

Putting on muscle can be very difficult, or very easy for some people. There are many different ideas on the “best” ways to pack on lean muscle.

By Trevor Mah

Read time: 5 min.

Putting on muscle can be very difficult, or very easy for some people. There are many different ideas on the “best” ways to pack on lean muscle.

In our world of information overload, it's common that tried and true advice gets overlooked for more flashy gimmick ideas instead. To help bring things back to the basics, here are some general tips to help you get on track with proper training techniques to help muscle building.

Prioritize Compound Movements

Compound movements are exercises that involve more than one joint moving during execution. Squats, pull-ups, deadlifts, bench presses are all examples of compound movements. These exercises should comprise the bulk of your program as they involve greater use of your musculature. They can generally be loaded with much more weight and provide the stimulus needed for growth. The response from proper compound exercises in your workouts also lead to fat burning effects in addition to their muscle building capabilities.

Isolation exercises have their place, but they should be considered supplementary to your main compound lifts. Think of compound lifts as the “main course” and isolation movements as your “dessert”. Alternatively, you can apply the Pareto 80/20 Principle if it helps with putting together your program.

Incorporate Tempo & Time Under Tension

Tempo is often overlooked as accomplishing a specific number of sets and reps is straightforward. However, tempo (or lifting speed per rep) has a significant impact on metabolic adaptations and mechanical tension that all have their role in breaking down muscles for future growth. For simplicity, focus on the lower phase of your lift (eccentric) to be around 3-5 seconds and the overall length of time under tension per set to be around 40-80 seconds.

Example: Squats @ 4010 tempo

4 seconds lowering the weight
No hold at the bottom
1 second to bring the weight up
No rest at the top (right back down to the next 4 second lowering of the next rep).
5 seconds per rep x 8-12 reps
This equals 40 to 70 seconds total time under tension

So the next time you lift, reconsider mindlessly lifting weight up and down and take it slower. Looking at the example above, if you were to simply “pump out” the set, it likely would only take 12-20 seconds - quite a difference! Of course, there are certain times for fast, explosive lifts but most of the time you should be performing them with slower tempos for greater effectiveness. Again, the Pareto 80/20 Principle can be applied.

Add In Some Sprint Work

In my other article Reason to Start Sprinting, one major benefit of sprinting includes the effect of hormones on muscle growth. If you are training well, then growth hormones are likely to be triggered from your heavy lifting. Sprinting also elicits a similar response, but also helps with circulation by allowing some of these released hormones to flood the rest of your body. To simplify this point, let’s say your squats create a response that eventually releases growth hormones. Sprinting helps your heart with circulation, and helps distribute those hormones from your lower body to the rest. As a side note, this is also a reason for how lower body exercises can help with upper body growth.

Plan Your Workouts in Timely Phases

In essence, working out is essentially taxing your body so that it can adapt and reshape itself better each time. Your body doesn’t know the difference between working out and surviving, so eventually you get to a point where training can plateau (on the other extreme end of things, you die).

Fortunately with years of research and studies, we can now plan these periods so that you can optimize your growth. I have summarized periodization [link to my periodization article], which is essentially management of training phases and stimuli. For simplicity, the best place to start is to break down your training phases in 3-5 week blocks alternating between lifting moderate weights (65-80% intensity) at high volume (8-15 reps); with phases of lifting heavier weights (80-90% intensity) at lower volume (3-6 reps). This is a simple accumulation and intensification model that generally works well.

Watch Your Rest Periods

Much like counting tempo is important to know how long you are lifting for, knowing and adhering to your rest times are just as important. Your rest periods only need to be as long as necessary to maintain and achieve your training requirements. Too long of a rest prevents your body from the metabolic stress needed for muscle growth, and blitzing through your workout can harm your results in the long run. As a general rule of thumb, try keeping rest periods between 30 seconds to 2 minutes in alignment with intensity. That is, if the exercise is “light” or an isolation, keep it shorter. If it is demanding such as a fairly heavy squat, keep it longer.

It goes without saying that getting carried away with distraction plays a big role in this potential training mistake. So keep off the phone for any unnecessary reasons and you will also see your workout efficiency benefit from this.

Don’t Jump Around Exercise Variations Too Often

Sticking with a specific number of exercises and mastering execution will allow your muscles to work the way they should. Too often people get “bored” or drawn in by the appeal of a different exercise of variation. Your body needs time to adapt and this “confusion” will generally stunt progress more often than not. The first form of progressive overload is technique, and if you cannot master the base movement first, then progressing to something different will only harm you.

Remember To Train Everything

Well, not technically everything, but don’t neglect important muscles along your back as well. Chances are, if you are looking to gain muscle then there is an aesthetic reason with it as well. Nothing wrong with that, but remember that a well rounded body that isn’t all just seen from the front is not an impressive look. So balance out your workouts by ensuring you have a good mix of pushing, pulling, upper/lower, etc. type of work. This will also keep you structurally balanced and prevent injuries as well. We all know that being hurt is not helpful no matter what your goals are.

Looping back to “everything” also keep in mind that you only have a limited amount of training time. This point goes full circle back to my first point about emphasizing most of your time on compound movements.

While this list does not cover everything that helps with muscle growth, it should provide you with something to make your training more effective. There certainly are other tips such as proper training to failure, forced reps, and of course nutrition that I did not touch upon. Remember that consistency and patience are important when it comes to packing on the lean muscle.

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