Friday, May 10, 2013

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 1: Exercise Strategy

There are probably thousands of different exercise programs that you can use, and some are better than others. In truth, there is no single perfect exercise program; however, not all programs will effectively build muscle or "burn" fat. To help you get more bang for your exercise buck, I have assembled four simple and effective muscle-building lessons that are commonly missed by many exercisers.

Lift Heavy
When it comes to building muscle and strength, nothing beats heavy weight lifting. Not even high-intensity interval training (a.k.a., Tabatas) can produce the same muscle gains as lifting very heavy stuff.

Many people are hesitant to lift heavy because they don't want to become too bulky. But this is really a non-issue: Without drugs, building excess muscle is very difficult, requiring years (decades) of dedicated effort. In fact, choosing the wrong exercises, using poor technique, and hesitation to lift heavy only succeed in preventing individuals from making consistent and life-long gains towards building the body of their dreams.

Use Compound Exercises Instead of Isolation Exercises
When lifting heavy, you should really concentrate on basic compound movements. Compound movements involve more than one joint (e.g., squats, shoulder press, bench press). By contrast, isolation movements only exercise one joint (e.g., bicep curls, calf raises).

Because compound exercises involve more than one muscle group they cause desirable changes in muscle-building hormones testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

Learn Proper Technique
You can't just go heavy right away. You first have to learn the correct technique for each exercise you decide to use. Proper technique ensures that every rep helps to build muscle and/or increase strength. Poor technique, on the other hand, usually results in lack of progress. If you combine poor technique with heavy weights then you will inevitably develop injuries that will prevent you from exercising.

With the existence of YouTube and, getting good advice on proper technique is easy enough to accomplish. There are also TONS of books that can help you learn the proper way to execute an exercise.

Females and Muscle
When it comes to women lifting weights, I constantly hear about fear of building a huge physique. Fortunately for women, they do not have the necessary amount of testosterone to build big bulky muscles. So, if a woman lifts heavy, she won't look like a competitive bodybuilder, she will only produce positive body composition (trading fat for muscle).

Often, many women (and men) will start to exercise and initially not see any weight loss. Don't be alarmed! If you gain as much muscle as you lost in fat, then your body composition has improved, even if the weight scale doesn't show a change. This improved body composition helps drop your body fat percentage and gives the appearance of a slimmer, more attractive physique. Eventually, once your body no longer needs to build muscle in response to your exercise, you will start to lose weight (until you reach a more healthy weight).

Challenge Yourself
Your body does not want to build tons of skeletal muscle because it is biologically expensive (extra muscle requires extra resources to support it). It only wants to build just enough muscle to survive in a given environment. So, if your exercise routine, intensity, and/or weight never changes, then your body will eventually build up a tolerance, refusing to adapt and grow. Once your body becomes resistant to exercise, you will never improve in body composition or performance (which is known as plateauing).

Progressively Increase Weight or Reps
The most basic approach to forcing skeletal muscle to continue to grow is progressive overload. Skeletal muscle grows when it can't adequately deal with a given weight or number of reps. If you lift the same weight day in and day out, then your body will not be overloaded and your muscles will not grow. However, if you constantly add more weight (or reps), then your muscles will have to adapt to this increased work load. Usually this results in building more muscle to deal with the increased load (I say usually because your brain has a couple of ways to build additional strength that don't involve building more muscle).

For instance, if you are using a 5x5 set/rep scheme (where you do 5 sets of 5 reps) for an exercise, once you can accomplish 5 reps for all 5 sets, then you raise the weight you lift by 5-20 pounds (how much you increase the weight is dependent on the size of muscles being exercised). You keep doing this until you plateau.

But let's say that you are doing body weight exercises (e.g., pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups). Since adding weight is more difficult with these exercises, you can increase load by doing more sets of a specific amount of reps. This is known as volume training. Your objective is NOT to do a lot of reps in a single set. Instead, your goal is to do a lot of sets of a few reps (between 6-8 reps), which will result in many OVERALL reps.

For example, if you can consistently do 6 reps per set of pull-ups, and accomplish 20 sets of 6 reps, then you will complete 120 overall reps by the time you complete your exercise.

Progressively Increase Intensity
Intensity--the measure of the amount of energy used during a work out--is another way to encourage muscle growth. The more work you accomplish within a given amount of time equates to higher intensity. Improving your 1.5-mile run time from 12 minutes to 11 minutes is an example of increasing intensity. Doing a full set of 100 push-ups a minute faster than the day before is another example.

Intensity builds muscle. Doing a lot of work within a short period of time helps stress muscles and increase muscle-building (anabolic) hormones.

There is a danger of doing too much highly intense exercise: Overtraining. When you overtrain, your body is over-stressed, which produces excess cortisol. Constant exposure to excess cortisol strips muscle and increases abdominal obesity (among other things). To keep from overtraining, you will have to adjust the length of your workout to match your intensity: The more intense your exercises, the shorter your workout will have to be (and vice versa).

Find new Routines
To prevent your body from adapting to your exercise routine, change up your exercises every month or so. One month you could lift heavy weights. Then the next month you could do a crazy Crossfit-style routine. Next, you could try P90X. The idea is to keep challenging yourself with new exercise routines so that your body can't develop a tolerance to an unchanging routine and is constantly forced to adapt and grow.

Exercise ALL Muscle Types
When building muscle, most people concentrate on lifting heavy weights. But this only grows some of your muscle cells, not all of them. Each person has varying amounts of three kinds of muscle cell:
  • Type I: Slow twitch; relatively low strength; high endurance; uses oxygen; burns fat and sugar.
  • Type IIA: Fast-twitch; medium strength; medium endurance; uses oxygen; burns sugar only.
  • Type IIB: Fast-twitch; maximum strength; low endurance; does not use oxygen; burns chemical energy.
Because you have three different kinds of muscle cell, to maximize overall muscle growth you will need to target Type I, IIA, and IIB together in your exercise routine.

For weight lifting, that means using three different repetition schemes. Personally, I exercise one body part a week and only use three exercises per workout. I then use a different rep scheme for each exercise. Here's an example of what I mean:
  • For Type IIB Cells: My first exercise is heavy, with a weight that only allows me to get a maximum of 3 reps with good form. (I limit myself to only 5 sets.)  
  • For Type IIA Cells: My second exercise is medium weight, with a weight that only allows me to get a maximum of 10 reps with good form. (I limit myself to only 3 sets)
  • For Type I Cells: My last exercise will be Tabata-style. I know that a Tabata is technically a high-intensity exercise, but by the time I get to the end of my work out, my intensity will be fairly low. So I use a Tabata as a high-rep burnout exercise. I do two or three 4-minute sets.

By the end of my 45-minute workout, I will have hit all three muscle types. I have had very good results employing this simple workout strategy.

I find that most people looking to build muscle tend to neglect their Type I muscle cells, instead going for the Type IIA and IIB muscle cells with higher-intensity/heavy exercises. I have recently been convinced that building a good aerobic base with low-intensity exercise can be a helpful addition to an effective workout program.

Walking is a very-low-intensity exercise, which means that you can do a lot of it without causing a stress response. You should walk between 2-5 miles a day at a pace of 3-4 mph. This doesn't have to happen in a single workout. It can happen throughout the day. You would be surprised at the opportunities people have to walk. Grab a pedometer and then:
  • Park at the end of a parking lot. 
  • Take the stairs.
  • Walk to the commissary for lunch.
  • Walk your dog(s).
  • Simply take a walk for an hour.

Once you get into the habit of walking more, completing your daily 2-5 miles will be the easiest part of your exercise routine.

If you use the right approach, gaining muscle is pretty simple, even for hard gainers (like me). The key is to lift heavy weights, exercise all of your muscle types (I, IIA, and IIB), change up your routine, and walk every day. If you keep these rules in mind when you work out (in addition to cleaning up your diet), then you should get a beach body in no time!

In the next post, I talk about how you can use your own hormones (e.g., insulintestosteroneHGH) to supercharge your muscle-building potential.

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