A lot of people who ask me for help with their workouts are frustrated because they’re not getting as strong or muscular as quickly as they want. While some of people just have unrealistic expectations (contrary to the hyperbolic claims of the muscle mags you can’t gain twenty pounds of new muscle in a month), a lot of people simply aren’t gaining muscle because they’re not following a few basic but important guidelines.
Train as intensely as possible
Your results from exercise will be proportional to the effort you put into it. Everybody thinks they’re training intensely, but over the past twenty years I’ve had a lot of people come to Orlando to have me put them through a workout and every single person has told me they’ve never worked so hard before. Most of them thought they were already training hard, too, but were doing all sorts of things during exercises that reduced their effectiveness and stopped before they reached momentary muscle failure. However hard you may think you’re training, always believe you are capable of contracting harder and try to do so. Don’t stop when the exercise starts to feel too hard, stop when you couldn’t get another rep (in proper form) if your life depended on it.
Don’t Overtrain or Undertrain
The more intensely you exercise the less exercise you should do to avoid overtraining. For most people this means limiting their workouts to one set of one or two basic exercises for each major muscle groups and a few exercises covering smaller muscle groups, done two or three times a week on non-consecutive days. Some people may need more rest days in between. A few people may even need to limit their workouts to just a handful of exercises once a week, but not most.
Ultra-brief, once-weekly workouts can be a time-efficient and effective way to train for general strength and fitness if you’re really pressed for time, but if your goal is to gain as much muscular strength and size as quickly as possible you want to stimulate as much muscle to grow as often as your recovery ability allows. When in doubt you’re better off erring on the conservative side with your workout volume and frequency, but don’t cut back so much that you are barely working each muscle group a few times a month.
If you suspect you may be overtraining consider whether you are failing to eat and rest properly to support recovery and adaptation before cutting back your workout volume and frequency (for more on this read High Intensity Workouts.)
Eat Enough Protein and Calories
No matter how effectively you train, if you don’t give your body enough protein and calories you aren’t going to recover and grow. Some people have claimed you don’t need a lot of protein because a muscle only contains about one hundred grams, which is not a lot. However, this ignores the huge cost of protein required just to repair all of the microtrauma occurring in your muscles during a workout before any size increases are produced. Some people’s bodies do this more efficiently than others, but most people who strength train require close to a gram of protein per pound of lean body mass per day to meet the increased demands for recovery and growth. When in doubt you’re better off getting more protein than you need than not enough (Bandegan A, Courtney-martin G, Rafii M, Pencharz PB, Lemon PW. Indicator Amino Acid-Derived Estimate of Dietary Protein Requirement for Male Bodybuilders on a Nontraining Day Is Several-Fold Greater than the Current Recommended Dietary Allowance. J Nutr. 2017;147(5):850-857.)
All this repair and growth requires extra calories, too. Depending on how hard you are training, how much muscle you’re working during each workout, and how fast you are capable of building muscle you may need several hundred calories above maintenance per day. Your body can get some of that energy from your fat stores if you’ve got a bit to spare, but if you’re already moderately lean you’ll need to eat more if you want to gain muscle. While eating more sounds easy to most people, part of the reason some people have difficulty gaining muscle is they just don’t have much of an appetite. Keep track of your food intake, your measurements, and your body composition, and gradually increase your calorie intake until you are steadily gaining muscle but not too much fat.
Get Enough Quality Sleep
Sleep deprivation makes it difficult for people to both build muscle and lose fat, and unfortunately this is a problem for a lot of people. If you’re not getting enough sleep you will have increases in cortisol and decreases in testosterone and growth hormone, making it more difficult for your body to recover from your workouts and build muscle. Even if you’re doing everything else right getting too little sleep can slow your progress down, and if you’re chronically sleep deprived it can grind it to a halt. If getting bigger and stronger is important to you then you need to make a commitment to getting to bed early enough to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. If you don’t want to do this, or if you can’t due to odd work hours, the birth of a child, or other factors, then try to take one or two long naps later in the day if possible.
Before you start worrying about details like the specific exercises you’re doing for each muscle group, repetition methods and advanced training techniques, or whether you need a particular bodybuilding supplement (the answer is probably “no” for the majority of them), as yourself if you’re consistently applying the above. Train intensely, do enough exercise often enough to keep stimulating your body to get bigger and stronger but not so much you overtrain, eat enough calories and protein to support recovery and growth, and get plenty of sleep. Do these consistently and you will continue to get bigger and stronger until you’ve reached the limits of your potential.