There are a lot of myths and misinformation floating around in the bodybuilding world. Pet workout approaches are often elevated into training essentials. "I used this and it worked man. This is the best way to build muscle."
If you spend a couple months researching information on the Internet it's easy to get confused. Many debates have turned into wars, and have been raging for decades. Here are a few of the noteworthy discussions that will probably never die:
- Which is better for building muscle: low volume (HIT) or high volume?
- Which rep schemes are best for building muscle?
- Are full body workouts as good as 3, 4 or 5 day splits?
- What is the best training approach for beginners?
- Are slow negatives/rest-pause/drop sets/whatever essential for gains?
Ask any of these questions on a forum and chaos typically ensues. One person will mock high volume training while the next will tell a story about how it worked exceptionally well for him. Another lifter will tout full body workouts, while yet another will call them an "old school joke."
These debates go round and round and round, but most of them miss the bigger picture. What is this bigger picture? The fact that there are very few "essentials" when it comes to the muscle building process. How you train doesn't really matter much as long as you:
- Remain consistent
- Use progressive overload
- Eat enough so you can actually build muscle efficiently
- Utilize a reasonably effective arsenal of muscle building exercises
- Use a reputable training approach; one that is tried, true and tested
To expand upon this concept of essentials and non-essentials, I put together a list of 5 things that you may not know about the muscle building process. Hopefully this list will allow you to relax, enjoy the ride, and focus more upon the true mechanisms that drive gains over the long haul.
5 things you may not know about the muscle building process
#1 - Most lifters fail due to lack of consistency
Most lifters don't fail because they lack the proper workout or diet, they fail because they lack consistency. If you want to become massive and strong, you need to workout for years without a major layoff. Many guys succeed despite their workouts and diets because of consistency, but there has never been a lifter that has succeeded without consistency.
It's ok to take a week off from the gym every 2-3 months, but if you're taking more time off than this you might want to take an assessment of what is keeping you from the gym. Many lifters simply try to do too much, too soon, and become burned out.
If this is the case with you, try focusing on the quality of your workouts rather than quantity of sets and training frequency. You don't "need" to be doing 30-35 sets per day, 5 days a week. It is possible to make gains on 12-16 sets a day training "only" 3-4 days per week.
#2 - There are no magic workout programs
There are no magic workout programs. Most reputable training programs contain a lot of the same exercises. If you focus on proper diet, progressive overload and consistency, most of these programs will serve you well. Pick a program that most motivates you to hit the gym, and get after it.
Think of it like this: if you are in Maine and want to drive to California, there are hundreds of ways to get there. Some of these routes may add 5% travel time to your journey, and some might speed up the trip by 5%. Either way, unless you take a radical and foolish route, how you get there won't matter much. Enjoy the journey and do it with a workout system that appeals to you.
#3 - There is no difference between strength training & muscle building the first several years
Until you have built up both a solid strength and muscular base, training should be the same for both goals. You can't get big without getting a lot more stronger than you are now, and you will only limit strength levels if you don't focus on building a muscular base.
During your first 2-3 years of training you have one simple mission regardless of your end goal: get every body part from head to toe as big and strong as possible.
If you are training for strength, you don't need singles, doubles and triples yet. You need rep work to build muscle, and to help improve your lift form. If you are training strictly for mass, know one thing: there are no weak top level bodybuilders. Even though they don't "train for strength", they still had to focus on progressive overload to help maximize the muscle building process.
#4 - Gains slow over time - this is NOT a plateau
Gains come fast and furious during the first 12-24 months of lifting. There is an amazing high that comes from seeing a consistent increase in both size and strength. But slowly over time the rate of gains begin to decrease, and most lifters panic. They believe they have plateaued and assume dramatic steps must be undertaken to "re-ignite" gains.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Progress naturally slows over time. This doesn't necessarily mean you are doing anything wrong. It's usually quite the opposite. If most lifters would monitor their training logs and measurements a little more closely, they would see that they are still adding reps and size; it's just taking longer. This is normal, and nothing to panic about.
Intermediate lifters need to get precise. They should be looking for progressive overload/strength increases over a longer period of time, rather than panicking because they can't add 5 pounds to their bench press every week. Intermediate lifters should also be taking monthly size measurements of at least their arms, quads and chest.
After you've been training for 18-24 months, adding a 1/4 inch to your arms and 10 pounds to your bench every 3 months is very good progress. If you are expecting these results every month, instead of every 3-4 months, it will most certainly look like you've plateaued. You haven't.
A plateau is "no progress." Intermediates experience "slower progress." Slower progress is not NO progress.
#5 - There are few "essentials"
There are few essentials required for muscle building. You really only need consistency, quality exercise selection, proper food intake, progressive overload and a reputable training approach. While there are plenty of other tools that can be beneficial to the muscle building process, always remember that they are not requirements.
You will often hear people say that things like slow negatives, high intensity training, super sets, rest-pause, or certain rep schemes are "the magic." All advanced training techniques and protocols can be beneficial, but that does not make them essential.
How do I know, and why should you trust me?
I've trained with, profiled, interviewed or studied the training systems of hundreds upon hundreds of top natural bodybuilders and powerlifters over the years. The one thing they have in common is this: they all train differently.
What this tells us is that there are few essentials (they are listed a few paragraphs above). Beyond these essentials, training becomes highly personalized. While there is no downside to trying new techniques and methods, a lifter should remember that they are certainly not needed.
Focus on the essentials and evolve your training based on needs. The essentials are the magic. Try new things, but never chain yourself to them if they do not feel right.