Struggling to build muscle?
Basic functional strength exercises are a great place to start but, alas, those will only take you so far on your quest to add some healthy size to your frame. For those of you seeking to really pack on the beef with some lean muscle mass it’s going to take some extra focus and attention.
The truth is that where fat loss can happen over the course of days and weeks, building muscle happens over the course of months and years. Yes, it’s going to take some time.
That means for those of you who kind of want to build muscle but not get too big, don’t worry because you’ll quickly learn how hard it is to cross that threshold.
For those of you who DO want to grow, grow, grow, don’t get discouraged! While it does take time to add a considerable amount of lean muscle tissue, it’s an easy process provided you’re implementing good training practices.
If you train with us at AMP Fitness, first, you rock! Second, we already bake best training practices right into all of our training programs. Score!
Here are some tips to help you bust through that plateau and start getting swole and making some #gainz! That’s bro-speak for building muscle, gaining strength, and getting gunny. Pew pew.
1. Get HEAVY!
While general strength training will help you become stronger and more fit over time, if you want to really add more muscle mass you’ve got to lift heavy shit. This is surprisingly overlooked by many muscle-seekers in favor of higher-rep, ‘pump up’ type workouts found in magazines.
The reality is that most people don’t have a good enough strength base to build the amount of mass they’re seeking which makes the process infinitely more challenging.
First and foremost, a good strategy is to build a solid strength foundation by focusing on increasing your numbers in the heavier lifts (barbell bench press, deadlift, and squat). I will, however, include single leg exercises and rows as well as the use of dumbbells and kettlebells here as well since they’re more joint friendly for most folks.
Nerd Alert: Increasing the force your body exerts on Earth (by holding a heavy ass weight like a deadlift or squat) significantly increases your body’s secretion of IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor) which is an anabolic hormone that stimulates the muscle growth. This best achieved by your heaviest sets using 1-5 reps with appreciable weight.
The good news is you don’t need a ton of volume here and a couple heavy sets are good enough to get the juices flowing. (note at AMP, this is typically your A1 exercise in the program.)
Bonus: We LOVE the trapbar for the above mention! It’s a great tool to add some serious weight, it’s mechanically easier to learn, AND it tends to be more joint friendly than the barbell. Score!
Looking for a team of fitness nerds (personal trainers) to help you get better results? Book your FREE 60min Strategy Session to find out if AMP is the place for you!
2. Time Under Tension
For exercises where you’re not going for maximal strength (eg to lift the most weight) creating more time under tension (shorthand: TUT) is another great way to stimulate muscle growth. This is essentially how long a muscle is under strain during a set which challenges the muscle in a different way than moving a heavy weight fast does.
For example, if it takes you about 25-30 seconds to complete a set of 10 (insert exercise here), then slowing it down to complete the set in 40-45 seconds is creating more TUT. This lengthened set will lead to more muscle breakdown causing it to build back bigger (and stronger of course!).
Here are a few ways you can increase TUT in your sets:
Slow the tempo waaaaaaayyyyyy down. For instance, on the lowering portion of the exercise, focus on going super slow and controlled. Three to five seconds works well here or if you’re as mad as a box of frogs.
Don’t lockout. This isn’t what we typically recommend for most functional exercise but avoiding the lockout will keep those muscles burnin baby. Stop just shy of lockout and keep the tension in the muscles as you complete all the reps. Sorry not sorry.
Focus on the technique! Yup, this is the most personal trainer-y thing I could say and, again, slowing it way down to focus on form will increase TUT for sure. Spend time feeling what your body is doing from each muscle from your feet up to your head. Feel your body’s mechanics and be aware of what’s happening. Good technique for the win!
3. Bodybuilding Mindset
We understand that most humans who train for health and fitness don’t necessarily want to look like a bodybuilder (There’s nothing wrong if you do!) but it would still behoove you to use some of their principles if you want to build muscle.
In an era of functional training and HIIT we’ve moved away from bodybuilding-style training and techniques that have produced some of the finest physiques mankind has ever known.
There’s also the belief that if you train like a bodybuilder, you’ll get big and beefy and bulky. All the b words. The good news is that it’s extremely difficult to build massive slabs of muscle like some do without stellar genetics (which most of us don’t have) and in some cases illegal substances.
The truth is that while we won’t necessarily get huge, training like a bodybuilder will help with hypertrophy (aka building muscle size), whatever that means to you.
So what exactly does training like a bodybuilder mean?
Using single joint isolation exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and sometimes using machines.
Higher rep and higher volume training by using sets of 8-12 (or more) and doing anywhere from 3-5 (or more) sets.
Focusing on one bodypart during a training session. EG leg day, back and bicep day, etc.
Using a variety of lifting strategies like partial reps, pause sets, time under tension (see above), etc.
Starting with a BIG strength exercise. Yup, just like I mentioned above. They knew a thing or two about getting big and strong!
Wrapping It Up
While there’s no one best way to train, there are best practices to help you get to where you’re going. If that’s the holy land of bigger biceps and thick thighs use the training principles laid out above.
I typically recommend 2-3 days of dedicated strength training at least.
Start each day with an exercise you can go heavy on like bench press, deadlift, or squat (or their variations). In our programming this would be your A1 exercise.
Use time under tension and more volume for your accessory exercises like lunges, push ups, rows, etc. In our programming these would be your ‘B’ and ‘C’ exercises.
Finish up your program with some isolation exercises like bicep curls in the squat rack. These would be your ‘D’ exercises or the happy ending (aka finisher).
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Steve is co-founder and head coach of AMP Fitness, downtown Boston's most inclusive personal training studio. His background is in posture, performance, injury prevention and strength development and packaging fitness in a way that is accessible to everyone. He's a brand new father, an avid reader and enjoys nerding out to science fiction movies.