There are a few hard and fast rules about building muscle that everybody knows:
- You need to be in a calorie surplus.
- You have to train hard.
- You need to recover from your training.
Yeah, yeah, but beyond those three simple truths are plenty of other lesser-known muscle building truths. Here are six of them that you need to know to maximize muscle growth.
1 – Stop searching for the perfect body part split.
One of the most common questions people ask is: What’s the best muscle building split? The answer? There isn’t one.
Muscle growth comes down to training frequency and volume, so the more often you can train a muscle with higher volume then, theoretically, the more growth you can achieve.
So training a muscle group twice a week should provide more growth than once a week. And three times a week should provide even more growth than twice, right? Sounds like a decent idea in theory, but then again so did communism, and we all know how well that’s worked out.
When looking at specific training splits, the number of times you can train a muscle in a given week comes down to the volume you’re using, the load you’re lifting, your training history, sleep, recovery, and nutrition. In other words, it’s complicated.
Let’s say your workout split calls for training legs on Monday and Thursday. Sounds great, until Thursday comes around and your legs are still so trashed from Monday’s session that you can barely peel your tender glutes off the toilet seat.
The ideal training split comes down to how well you can recover. The better you can recover, the more often you can train a muscle group per week. And the more often you can train a muscle, the higher your weekly volume and the more muscle growth you can induce.
Recovery comes down to a few different factors. Calories and food quality are important ones. The more energy you take in, the better your body can repair tissues and manage inflammation (up to a certain point).
But calories are only one side of the recovery equation. Sleep also plays a huge role in the recovery process. You can eat all the calories you want, but if you’re not sleeping enough, your body can’t effectively utilize those calories to help you recover.
The bottom line? Pick a training split you can stick with consistently and train hard. To become self-sufficient, take notes on the process and observe how you feel.
As you educate yourself on what’s best for your body, you’ll be better equipped to optimize your workout split going forward.
2 – Get more sleep. No really.
Muscles are broken down when you train. They’re built when you sleep. Sleep is the reset button on our body. When we sleep, our bodies increase the production of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.
Testosterone is obviously important for the growth and repair, as well as staying lean, but growth hormone is also extremely important. Growth hormone stimulates the release of IGF-1 or insulin-like growth factor-1. IGF-1 stimulates systemic growth and has an impact on every single cell in the body – muscle cells included.
Sleep also has a big impact on two other important hormones: insulin and cortisol. Insulin gets a lot of hate when it comes to body fat storage, but it’s actually an extremely powerful anabolic hormone due to its nutrient partitioning abilities. And nowhere does this play more of an important role than in and around training.
The more sensitive you are to insulin, the more receptive your muscle cells are going to be to carb intake. This means harder, more intense training sessions and better recovery, all of which culminates in more muscle growth. But a lack of sleep decreases your sensitivity to insulin, which means a poorer response to carbohydrates, poorer training sessions, and crappy recovery. (1)
A lack of sleep also increases the production of cortisol (as a stress response). Not only does cortisol inhibit testosterone production, but it’s also catabolic – it promotes the burning of muscle tissue.
Sleep is also the best stress management tool our body has to combat elevated activity of the sympathetic nervous system (which controls the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response).
The more this sympathetic nervous system remains elevated (as opposed to being in a parasympathetic state, which is where we should be a majority of the time), the more cortisol it produces, and the more difficult it is to gain muscle.
Make sleep a priority and you’ll notice a significant improvement in body composition.
3 – If you’re not growing, you’re not eating enough.
Are you eating enough? Well, if you’re not adding weight to the scale, the answer is no.
If you’re gaining muscle, scale weight is going to go up. That’s true of almost every situation. And if it’s not, you’re not eating enough, despite what your nutrition tracker is telling you. If you’re hitting the gym hard but not seeing the gains you think you should, follow this:
- Multiply your bodyweight x 16. This gives you your daily calorie target. Eat that many calories every day for two weeks.
- You want to see an increase in bodyweight of about 0.5 to 1% every week. If you’re not seeing that, increase your intake by 200 calories per day and repeat the process.
- Stay consistent. The muscle building process takes time. Give yourself six months to make appreciable gains in size.
4 – Pay attention to intra-workout nutrition.
The goal of your intra-workout nutrition is to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS) while minimizing muscle protein breakdown (MPB) through the deliverance of amino acids, while also maximizing the release/utilization of insulin – the body’s most anabolic hormone. That means there are two different processes going on here.
As far as amino acids, most people focus on the workout delivery of BCAAs. The BCAAs consist of leucine, valine, and isoleucine – three of the nine essential amino acids. Many people believe, and studies have shown, that BCAAs work to prevent MPB, mostly due to the presence of leucine.
Where BCAAs fall short, however, is that they only have a small effect on MPS, meaning that while they do help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue, they don’t have a significant effect on building new muscle. That’s because the body needs the presence of all nine essential amino acids to build muscle.
In fact, BCAAs can actually increase MPB over time because the body has to get the essential amino acids from somewhere. (2) So, if BCAAs aren’t being ingested, the body gets them from breaking down your beloved biceps, or anywhere else it can get them.
On the other side of the intra-equation, we have the need to maximize the release of insulin during our workout. Insulin is responsible for delivering nutrients to our cells. So, during our workouts, we want as much energy (carbs) being delivered to our muscles as possible.
The best way to do this is through an extremely fast-digesting carbohydrate source, like highly-branched cyclic dextrin (HBCD). The dextrin is going to pass through your stomach and enter your bloodstream very quickly, thus starting that process of delivering glucose to your muscle cells.
Since you don’t want to stop and eat another meal while you’re training, the best way to deliver the essential amino acids and HBCD is through an intra-workout drink specifically designed for this purpose.
Start drinking it about 10-15 minutes prior to your session to start the flow of nutrients and continue drinking it as you train.
5 – Spend more time training one limb at a time.
When it comes to building size and strength, exercises like traditional squats, deadlifts, bench press, rows, and chin-ups probably come to mind. There’s no denying these two-limb, or bilateral, exercises are amazing for building size and strength.
However, if they’re the only movements you’re doing, your progress and health are going to suffer long-term. A better option? Strategically add more unilateral (single-limb) work. Unilateral exercises will expose muscular imbalances, improve strength, and improve motor unit recruitment. Let’s dive into each a bit more.
Unilateral work exposes muscular imbalances and prevents injuries
Over time, poor movement quality and muscular compensations can lead to stalled progress and injuries. If you’re only training one way, or with certain movements, your body is going to develop natural adaptations to that style of training.
Varying your training, specifically by including unilateral exercises, can add a lot of benefits to a program. Single-limb exercises force you to recruit more core muscles to stabilize the spine and transfer load in ways that are neglected by bilateral lifts.
Unilateral training can also help limit overuse injuries. That nagging elbow twinge that keeps popping up, or that achy right knee? Issues like this are often a result of the compensation patterns brought on by bilateral training as the body tries to offset joint/muscular instabilities or weaknesses.
By training one limb at a time, you build more strength and stability through the joints, which, over time, will translate to stronger lifts and more muscle.
Unilateral training is also great for increased core stabilization. You’ll be able to transfer force more effectively in the gym, in rotational sports, or if it’s your thing, swingin’ Valyrian steel like Jon Snow.
A lot of our ability to produce force, create tension, and prevent injury comes from the strength and stability of our abdominals, obliques, and erectors. Since training unilaterally involves offset weights, your core muscles engage big-time in order to maintain a neutral spine and proper positioning.
Not only will these lead to a thicker, stronger, more chiseled core, but the ability to create more tension through your abs will carry over to stronger, bigger bilateral lifts as well.
Improve Motor Unit Recruitment
Strength is a skill that needs constant refinement, so totally abandoning bilateral lifts in exchange for unilateral lifts isn’t a great strategy to improve the big compound movements. But research has shown that training in a single arm/leg fashion can increase the number of muscle fibers being recruited. (3)
Naturally, the more muscle fibers you can recruit during an exercise, the better it is for increasing overall size and strength. Incorporating unilateral lifts into a balanced plan recruits previously untapped motor units for strength, power, and muscular development.
By improving motor unit recruitment, you’ll have a greater number of muscle fibers at your disposal for your big lifts.
6 – Machines work. Use them.
At some point machine work started getting a lot of hate, primarily because “machines” take out the need for stabilization. I understand the argument: If you build a powerful engine without the ability to support the power, you can run into issues.
But given you’ve already focused on compound free-weight exercises, the right machine work can be a game changer. Why? For the same reason “functional” pundits scoff at machines: They allow you to blast a muscle without the need for external stability. This allows you to put a muscle under much greater stress without acutely increasing the chance of injury.
Moreover, machine work allows you to isolate a muscle with consistent tension throughout the entire range of motion. Machines do this by changing the direction in which gravity exerts force on the muscle.
Take a standard dumbbell lateral raise for example. If you stand with the dumbbell straight down at your side, you’ll feel almost no tension on the delts. As you raise the dumbbell up, the delts take on more of the tension and you’ll feel it significantly more.
However, if you switch to a cable or machine lateral raise, you’ll notice the degree of tension is much more consistent throughout the entire movement. This is because the machine changes the degree to which gravity has an effect by changing the angle of its pull, thus keeping tension much more constant across the entire movement.
The ability of machines to alter and create constant tension can also help activate more muscle fibers. And since tension is the biggest factor affecting muscle growth, the more tension you can create, the better.
Another drawback of barbell and dumbbell exercises? You can lose a lot of tension at the top or bottom of a movement, forcing the joints to take on more stress. Machines, however, maintain tension throughout, thus keeping the tension on the muscles. Not only is this beneficial for building more muscle, but it also reduces injury risk.
Neither of these attributes convey superiority to machines over barbell or dumbbell work, but when programmed correctly, machines and free weights complement each other very well.
- Kristen L Knutson, PhD, “Impact of sleep and sleep loss on glucose homeostasis and appetite regulation.”
- Robert R. Wolfe, “Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 14, Article number: 30 (2017).
- Ronei Silveira Pinto, Cíntia Ehlers Botton, Bruno Tomasi Kuckartz, Cláudia Silveira Lima, Antonio Carlos Moraes, Martim Bottaro, “Evaluation of bilateral deficit in isometric contractions of the knee extensors,” Brazilian Journal of Kinanthropometry and Human Performance, Vol 14, No 2 (2012).