You can’t go more than a few minutes on a popular muscle building forum before you read something like this:
Everyone says something different about muscle building workouts. I don’t know who to believe!
If this is you, fear not. I will help you understand where the confusion comes from, and how to process it so you can reach your goals.
Confused About Muscle Building
Let’s start with workouts. You step on a forum and see posts by three different lifters who have achieved great results. Someone asks for help, and each of them chime in:
- Lifter A – Lifter A believes that you should stick to Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength and a 5×5 program because it works. “Beginners should always do Starting Strength!”
- Lifter B – Lifter B thinks everyone who advises Starting Strength is a parrot, and states that a 6 day split with 20 sets per bodypart will give you the fastest results. “Stop being a wimp and start training hard. You won’t regret it!”
- Lifter C – Lifter C is a HIT (High Intensity Training) advocate. “One set to failure per bodypart 2-3 times per week is all you will every need!”
Here’s what you need to understand…a workout is merely a list of exercises in a structured format. It includes sets and reps. A list of exercises by itself won’t help you achieve your goals. It is like a car without gasoline.
So what is the gasoline that makes all three of these approaches work? Progression of weight. Progression requires you to push yourself for more reps, and to add weight when possible.
Without progression none of these approaches will work.
With progression all of these approaches MIGHT work.
Point #1: Progression is the gasoline that fuels muscle building.
Why did I say “might” in my last sentence? Because progression alone isn’t the only key to having a successful muscle building workout. You also need proper exercise selection.
Exercises are tools. If you use the best tools, you will make the fastest possible progress. If you use sub-par tools, you might not make any progress at all.
What are the best tools? Basic compound exercises. Basic compound exercises can be found in nearly 99% of the programs used by successful bodybuilders and powerlifters. (Notice I stressed successful.) These exercises include, but are not limited to:
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Barbell Rows
- Pull Ups
- Power Cleans
There are many other great compound lifts that could be added to this list, but you could build an incredible physique on these 8 exercises alone. While machines, cables and isolation exercises “can” be useful, they are rarely your best tools.
Progression of weight using inferior exercises (tools) will lead to sub-par results.
Progression of weight using the best possible compound exercises will lead to maximal results.
Point #2: Basic compound exercises are the best muscle building tools.
Now we come to a very important ingredient in success:
Successful lifters miss very few schedule workouts. And when they do lift, they very rarely waste a workout. Successful lifters are persistent.
A hard-working, persistent lifter using a sub-par workout with sub-par exercises can be successful because of persistence.
A slacker or program hopper who uses the best workout programs and best exercises will experience sub-par results because they lack consistency.
Muscle building, even with the best workout and exercises, requires time. There are no shortcuts. You can’t add volume to your sets and multiply gains.
Point 3: To be successful you have to be persistent over an extended period of time.
Some workouts are high volume, and some are low volume. Some workouts involve minimal exercises, and some involve many exercises. Some workouts advise training to failure, and some don’t. Some workouts recommend 5×5 protocols, and some say you must use intensity techniques like rest-pause.
Confusion sets in when we start to believe that the items on the following list are MOST important:
- Training splits
- Number of sets
- Reps per set
- Rep structure (pyramiding up, pyramiding down, 5×5)
- Training to failure
- Intensity techniques (rest-pause, supersets, drop sets)
While each of these impacts training to a certain degree, they are not critical indicators of success or failure. How do we know?
- Training Splits. Lifters build muscle using many different approaches, from splits to fullbody workouts.
- Sets. Lifters build muscle using a limited number of sets, and some with a high volume approach.
- Reps. Lifters build muscle using 5 reps sets. and some build muscle using 12-15 rep sets.
- Failure. Lifters build muscle by training to failure, and many lifters build muscle while never training to failure.
- Intensity. Lifters are successful using Doggcrapp training (rest-pause), while many lifters never use any intensity techniques.
The Muscle Building Truth
Each of us is different. Some of us can only train a couple days per week, and some of us love the gym and enjoying exploring new programs. To be successful no matter what you do, you must:
- Progress. Use progression of weight. Push yourself!
- Tools. Use the best exercises, generally compound or bodyweight exercises.
- Persistent. Stop missing workouts and learn to be patient.
Most muscle building workouts, set structures and techniques work because of progression, tools and persistence.
- Progression and persistence using sub-par exercises will yield results.
- Progression and good exercise selection can yield results even if the persistence is a bit sub-par.
- Persistence along with good exercise selection will yield minimal results if progression is ignored.
Some workouts are based on science, and some on brute force. In the end, all approaches will be successful if you persist, progress and use quality exercises. This is not a license to slack.
Here is the magic formula that breeds success:
Start with a basic program that uses compound exercises. Miss very few workouts and push for progression of weight. Be patient, and evolve your training based on needs. Once you have built a quality amount of muscle, don’t be afraid to explore new approaches or techniques – as long as you remember what is really important.
Last but not least, have fun. Not everything in training has to be done for a reason. Muscle building is not life or death.