5 Things You May Not Know About Building Muscle

Steve Shaw
Written By: Steve Shaw
February 10th, 2014
Updated: June 13th, 2020
45.5K Reads
What does it really take to build muscle? This article by Steve Shaw presents you with a list of five things you may not have known about the bodybuilding process.

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.

Muscular Build

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

Barbell CurlsUntil 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.

Posted on: Mon, 10/06/2014 - 19:09

Hey Steve,

I've dedicated myself to running for the last 7 years. However, I have dramatically changed my routine to include more strength training than cardio. I have made encouraging gains the last 6 weeks sticking to a variety pack of routines that you created.


Posted on: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 18:30

Excellent read. I've taken to this very seriously this past year, and M&S has helped me in every aspect from educating myself on the science of things, good priced supplements, and some pretty awesome workout routines. Once I figured out how to eat, what to eat, what supplements to take, when, and what they do, I've made explosive gains in both strength and muscle size. Recently the strength gains have begun to slow dramatically and I was getting worried. Thank you #4 for explaining that a little better for me. It still sucks, but I need to remember where I was a year ago. Thank you Steve, and everyone at M&S. I've gotten to the point I'm seriously considering taking this to the next level from just a hobby to a career.

Posted on: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 17:03

i doing 4 to 5 years body buidlig but cant result pllzzzzz tell me some good supplimentry my age is 23 years old

Posted on: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 15:35

Hi Steve

I'm kind of new to the site, been on it for about a year. Got lots of helpfull information from the site.

Really like this article, certainly helps clear a few things up for me.
I've only been lifting for just over a year, i"ve tried a few different workouts from the site but have found that i've enjoyed Bill Stars 5x5 prgrame, i"ve seen good strength increase's but startred to strugle a bit when i got up to 52.5kg.
So i reset my training again and started at 30kg and changed the workout to 5x8. I train 3 days a week, but wonder if i should do more.
I wondered if this was the right thing to do? With regards to the training plan.
I'm working hard on my diet, but its not perfect yet, but im getting there.
Being in my late 30's is there any more i could do to help my training.
I'm not training for any other reason than i want to be fit and bigger.

I would be greatful for any extra advice.

Many thanks


Posted on: Mon, 02/17/2014 - 00:57

Good article Steve ,
After training for 35 years in both powerlifting and bodybuilding I would say #1 consistency is the most important thing and that goes for nutrition as well.

Posted on: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 19:07

This is a real solid article.

I have been a gym rat off and on all my life. Every time I get back to the gym and acclimate myself, I always try some fancy workout. Within 2 weeks I am back to the "standards". Not because the fancy stuff doesn't work. But I find that the fancy work outs get the same results but require more thought process.

The gym alone requires a ton of dedication. I find that anything that requires this much time and commitment needs to be kept simple.

All these tips in this article are spot on. The silver lining in this message is if you do not go to the gym and go regularly, you are wasting your time.

Thanks Steve!

Posted on: Tue, 02/11/2014 - 07:40

Great article Steve! I fell victim to getting caught up in all the info on the internet when I began my training and over complicated things. Finally I learned what I needed to do and thing are really looking up for me. Train big, eat big, and get your butt to the gym works for me!

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 02/11/2014 - 09:34

Thanks Bdub.

Posted on: Mon, 02/10/2014 - 21:00

Good article but I am a little curious what you were saying about not having a need for max lifts (1-3 reps) if you're new to lifting. I'm 22 and have been lifting for a year. I lift to compete, but even if I didn't aren't low reps still important?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 02/11/2014 - 09:37

No, they aren't. You will build plenty of strength in the 5-10 rep ranges during the early years. You do not need to build strength in the low rep ranges your first several years. Low reps only started becoming important for me when I was unable to progress much at all in more conventional rep ranges.

Posted on: Tue, 02/11/2014 - 16:06

Quick timeline of my training:
First 3 years were 3x10, lots of bench, hardly any legs, followed whatever was in the muscle mags, gained some quick strength but thought I "plateaued at a bench of 225 after doing weekly low rep work thinking i'd gain fast.

Next 3 months I did 5x5 and my bench went up to about 305. All upper body lifts followed similar progression. No mention of squats here because even when I did it was with terrible form. Revisited this after blowing my knee out and regained all my strength, brough my deadlift from 225 to 405 over about 6 months (mostly because i never trained it)

Lately since "plateauing" with 4x8s, 3x10s, etc I've been progressively gaining with low rep work in the 5/3/1 fashion with assistance work in higher rep ranges. I track every aspect of my core lifts and take regular measurements.

-low rep work was a waste early on for me, 5x5 was the magic scheme.
-After a few years singles, triples, etc work nice for strength, tracking my reps and numbers to make a small push leads to small but CONSISTENT gains. I have gotten no magic fast gains from trendy programs in a while, I keep coming back to my boring but proven 4x week workouts.

Posted on: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 16:55

There are plenty of articles out there that discuss studies where "fitness junkies" and "athletes" have done a lot of high rep work still building a ton of strength. There recently was an article this year in NSCA that had a study where they had two groups. One group did low reps high weight while another group did lower weight higher reps. The strength gains were somewhat comparable. If I can find it, I'll post it back in here. But in the mean time I'd encourage to look at studies with the NSCA, they print a lot of great work.