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Muscle Building 101: Taking It Back to the Basics

  Feb 20th, 2013

Muscle Building 101 - Frank ZaneEvery skinny runt with muscle building aspirations who’s ever picked up a barbell did so with visions of building a Frank Zane-esque physique.


Bodies like Frank Zane’s aren’t built by lifting weights in a thoughtless, unstructured manner.


I assure you there was intention behind everything he did, from the way he trained, to the way he fed his body.


It’s important to note that Frank’s heyday was in the ’60s and ’70s when the science of bodybuilding was in a fledgling state.


Ironically, you still don’t see bodies today like those on guys like Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer and Reg Park from back in the day.


Rampant steroid use has produced some gargantuan physiques, no doubt. But, they’re puffy, barrel-bellied and not nearly as aesthetic as those whose bodies weren’t tainted by steroid use (or at least to a much lesser degree than they are today).


To give you an idea, Arnold’s highest body weight during competition was 235lbs, while 8-time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, perennially weighed in at well over 300lbs during his run of 8 straight titles from 1998 to 2005. At 6’1″, Arnold also has two full inches on Ronnie Coleman (you can see a side by side comparison of the two in my article on Arnold’s steroid use).


While steroids allow for a certain degree of added sloppiness, the basic tenets of muscle growth are always necessary to maximize growth, regardless of whether you’re doing it naturally or with the assistance of synthetic steroids (which I don’t recommend, by the way).


Because the basic tenets of muscle building are so important…


Today I want to take it back to the basics, keep things simple, and cover the essentials of building muscle mass.


Welcome to Muscle Building 101. Class is in session.


Progressive Overload and Muscle Growth

I once read a legendary story about a man who had a baby bull. He would carry this baby bull on his shoulders every day.


As the bull slowly grew larger, the man continued to carry the bull and his body continually adapted to the increasing weight of the bull until he was able to carry around his 4-year old bull on his shoulders.


This story is a little far-fetched, as a 4-year old bull would likely weigh in excess of 1,000 pounds. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be gleaned from this story and it has its roots in the most basic of all training implements that must be put in place if your goal is building additional muscle mass.


The training implement I’m referring to is: progressive overload.


Progressive overload simply means that, as your muscles grow and adapt to an amount of weight (or workload), you will need to apply greater loads for them to continue to grow larger (and stronger).


It is nearly impossible to do this without using a training log to track your weights so you can track your weights and note when it’s time to stack another 5lbs on the bar.


Just like the bull in the story would have grown at a relatively slow pace, you will notice better long-term gains in muscle and strength by making slight increases in resistance.


In other words, adding weight to the bar in 5 pound increments will provide better long-term progress than trying to add resistance in 10 or 20 pound increments.


Implementing a progressive overload strategy is essential for building muscle mass, but the lifts you’re using to do it are also kind of a big deal.


Compound Movements

Muscle Building 101 - Handstand PushupsCompound movements are those which involve a number of muscle groups to perform, even if one main group is being intentionally targeted as the focal point of the movement.


For instance, the bench press targets the pectorals, but also relies on the triceps, forearms, core and shoulders for assistance. Your legs will even get a little stimulation if you’re bench pressing properly.


Compound movements are the most effective at building mass for several reasons:


  • They target the greatest cross-sectional musculature area


  • They train multiple muscles at once


  • They produce an increase in testosterone that’s unrivaled by any isolation-type lift


Even though compound lifts are commonly thought of as being performed with barbells, body weight movements can be equally effective.


Handstand push-ups, weighted push-ups, pistol squats, weighted pullups and parallel bar dips are all examples of compound body weight movements that are perfect for packing on slabs of muscle to your frame.


Even when using compound movements and training with progressive overload, without the proper muscle building nourishment your muscle gains will remain mostly stagnant.


Let’s breakdown the nutritional side of things, shall we?


Muscle Building Nutrition

There are a few basic nutritional principles you must adhere to when looking to put on muscle:


  • You will need to maintain a slight caloric excess



  • Your diet should be rich in carbohydrates that are consumed mostly during an “anabolic window”


 Let’s look at each of these in greater detail…


Building Muscle With a Slight Caloric Excess

Muscle Building 101 - Caloric ExcessThis rule must be used with the understanding that in order to maximize your muscle building results you must be consuming more calories than you’re expending each day.


Actually, the ideal scenario would be to eat exactly the number of calories your body needs, but that would be impossible to determine, so we err on the side of muscle gaining caution.


Remember, unless you want to build fat at a rate that far exceeds your gains in muscle mass, you must be diligent in keeping to a slight caloric excess.


It takes some planning and commitment to do it, but the easiest way to track this is by measuring your progress every week.


You will take an initial set of measurements (body weight, flexed biceps, upper quads, chest circumference, flexed forearm and stomach circumference) and follow a specific daily caloric allowance for 7 days. At the end of those 7 days you will take the same measurements and compare them to your initial values.


If any of your measurements have increased, your body is adequately nourished for growth and you needn’t make any changes.


If none of these measurements have increased, you will want to increase your daily caloric allowance by a slight amount. I recommend something along the lines of 200-300 additional calories per day.


As you continue to pack on muscle mass your body will require additional nourishment to maintain your new muscle tissue and build more lean mass.


The good news is that as long as you continue taking your measurements every 7 days, and increasing your nutrition when necessary, your body will never be lacking in the calories required for growth.


Calories are only one part of the equation, though. The macronutrients (macros) that make up your diet are also a critical muscle building factor.


Building Muscle With Complete Proteins

I’ve already written about the importance of complete proteins, so I’m not going to go into any great detail here.


Here’s the quick and dirty version…


Only certain proteins contain the complete amino acid profile your body needs to build new muscle tissue. If most of the proteins you’re consuming each day aren’t coming from “complete” sources, your muscles will lack the amino acid nourishment they need to grow and your results will be stymied because of it.


Most lifters follow the rule of eating one gram of protein for every pound of mass they have.


In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this general rule, but you can actually get away with eating less if you’re ingesting complete proteins that are “muscle building ready”.


Instead of adhering to a number of grams of protein per pound of body weight, I recommend a 30/40/30 muscle building split where 30% of your calories come from protein (4 calories per gram), 40% of your calories come from carbs (4 calories per gram) and 30% of your calories come from fats (9 calories per gram).


Once you determine the number of calories you’ll be eating each day it’s simple enough to calculate the macros breakdown. But, simply meeting your macros requirements each day isn’t enough.


It’s been said that “a calorie is a calorie”. I don’t know who said this, but I’d like to hit them over the head with a tack hammer because they’re a moron.


The nutrients that make up your calories have a direct impact on how the calories you consumed are used by your body.


Of particular concern for those of us who care about our physical appearance, carbohydrates cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin that will wreak havoc on our body fat if we don’t time them correctly.


Eat Your Carbs During an Anabolic Window

Muscle Building 101 - Don't Get FatWhile carbohydrates can cause you to get fat, they are also anabolic. So, any muscle building diet must include a healthy dose of carbohydrates.


The key to unlocking the anabolic benefits that carbs provide, without ending up looking like the cool cat on the right, lies in correctly timing your carbs.


So, how do you do this?


It’s actually quite simple. You eat the majority of your daily carbohydrates within what I like to call “the anabolic window”, which lasts from about one hour before you weight train until 3 hours or so after you train.


Although, it’s better to eat a lighter dose of carbs before you train and then load up afterward. This is true for a couple of reasons:


  • If you fill your belly before training it will make you lethargic


  • After training, your glycogen levels will be depleted and in need of the replenishment that carbs provide


You can eat carbs at other times throughout the day, but you’ll want to limit them as much as possible.


To sum up the nutritional element of muscle building: eat a slight excess in calories, feed your muscles with complete proteins and time your carbs so they’re consumed in an anabolic window.


One last thing…


Building Muscle Requires Patient Persistence

Muscle building takes time. I know, you’ve heard stories of so-and-so adding twenty pounds of muscle in two months…


I’m here to tell you that unless they were “juicing”, they’re full of crap.


They may have put on twenty pounds, but less than half of it was muscle.


Muscle gains come at a relatively slow pace, certainly slower than we’d like. If you can put on two or three pounds of pure, unadulterated muscle in a month, you’re doing pretty good.


I realize this can sound disheartening when you need to pack on muscle, and pack it on as fast as possible. But, that’s about thirty pounds of pure muscle you’d be adding to your frame in a year, which will make a huge difference in the way you look!


Imagine what 30 pounds of steak looks like. Now imagine that spread over the surface of your body.


Do you get the picture?


Let me spell it out for you… It’s a massive improvement!


Building muscle doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the process I’ve laid out for you today is all you need to do it, but you must be consistent.


On-and-off commitments aren’t going to get you ripped and they won’t do much for your muscle building aspirations either.


If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to drop me a comment below.


This concludes our session of Muscle Building 101.


Leonard out.



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