Building Muscle

Read time: 2 minutes

There are many resources, internet and on paper, that show us how to build muscle mass, with all sorts of exercise programs, myriads leading us to believe that achieving bigger muscles is a complicated and often confusing process.

I won’t argue that the mechanics of muscle hypertrophy isn’t complicated, but I’ll tell you how I successfully did it in the past, based on nearly 20 years of practical experience and of reading published papers in scientific journals like Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, among others.

Muscle Growth

As I’ve written elsewhere, building more muscle boils down to two main factors:

  1. Increase the strength of the muscle
  2. Impose metabolic fatigue in the muscle

To keep the explanation simple: increasing strength means you’ll increase the number of contractile proteins within the muscle fibers. Imposing metabolic fatigue means you’ll increase cytoplasmic volume (cellular fluid) within the muscle fibers, forcing an influx of key h0rmones and nutrients.

The Workout Strategy

When I was trying to build more muscle, I used a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. This means very heavy lifting with relatively few repetitions for strength, and lighter lifting with relatively higher repetitions for metabolic fatigue.

There are various “scientific protocols” for this combination, or periodization of cycles with specific purposes — microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle. Additionally, there are strict percentage-based programs that include such training structures that include the complex method and the conjugated system, as well as intuition-based programs like cybernetic training.

You can google these terms for further explanation, but I don’t bother with their definitions or their rules. There are many super-intelligent coaches and authors (like the incredibly strong Louie Simmon, the master Vladimir Zatsiorski, and the late but brilliant Dr. Mel Siff) who detail these various methods that help to create elite athletes, but I’m an average fellow, obligated to many fine things in a busy life, and I just want to  be healthy, have enough strength to get out of my own way, and look decent doing it.

Keeping it Simple

The fact that muscle hypertrophy appear to  boil down to two main factors was enough for me to lift heavy for strength some of the time, and then lift light to fatigue some of the time. Their cycling in my training didn’t matter to me so much as their inclusion in my training.

The Exercises

For strength, I stick with multiple-joint, multiple-muscle-group exercises using primarily barbells, like:

  • Back Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Overhead Presses
  • Pull-ups (weighted, but varies with individuals)

I did sets of 5 and went as heavy as possible, which meant sometimes I was doing single reps per set. So 5 X 5, sometimes 3 X 3, other times 1 X 1.

For lighter, metabolically fatiguing sets, I used mostly dumbbells and kettlebells. I did sets of 6 all the way up to sets of 15 or even 20. I go for “the burn.” These exercises include:

  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Dumbbell flies
  • Pulldowns
  • Seated rows
  • Lunges
  • Lateral raises
  • Biceps curls
  • Triceps pressdowns

I kept things simple, ate only as much as I felt I needed to, and not more. I didn’t worry too much about meeting any protein minimum (which I knew was mostly an industry gimmick), and I didn’t really use supplements other than fish oil.

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13 Responses to Building Muscle

  1. Trey M. says:

    Excellent information and very refreshing that you’ve kept it simple, with very straight forward instructions. It’s so easy to get caught up with fancy and complicated workout programs, but the simplest ones have always worked best for me. I’ve gained more from just good old fashion hard work.

  2. great post! do you include agility training? I’d like to include some in my routine, but it’s really new to me.

    • Johnny from The Lean Saloon says:

      My agility training comes from “play time” with my dog. I take her to the park and do some ball-chasing, which includes sprinting and cutting, accelerating and stopping. Lots. We both have lots of fun. Win-win.

  3. Mike says:

    Hey Johnny, thanks for the quick turnaround on the informative post on muscle building!! There is so much awesome information. Your the man! If you have the time, I had a couple of questions.

    How often would you recommend employing each muscle building method? Also how many sets would you recommend while going for the burn? When lifting heavy (5 x5 for example) do you usually use a weight you can lift for all five sets or fluctuate up or down throughout the sets?
    And when you structured your workouts, would you mix the strength work with the lighter work or keep them separate?

    Sorry for all of the questions.

    • Johnny from The Lean Saloon says:

      Frequency of lifting:

      If you’re a beginner, then you’ll probably benefit from a little more session frequency. Beginners typically don’t have the physical capacity to push themselves to depletion, so recovery generally won’t require extensive time. Generally: 2 to 3 times a week.

      Intermediate and advance lifters can lower the session frequency to a couple times a week, assuming maximum effort and depletion. 1 to 2 times a week.

      Methods:

      I used a cybernetic periodization (or intuitive training) as discussed by the late Dr. Mel Siff and conceptualized by Vladimir Zatsiorski. In other words, I would decide on a heavy day or a “burn” day depending on how I felt and what my mood was.

      If I were doing 5X5, I’d go as heavy as I thought was appropriate on the first set, then adjust up or down for succeeding sets. But on different days I also go heavier with fewer reps.

      I generally keep higher-rep sets (burn) to separate days, but sometimes do it on the same day but after completing the heavy sets (of the same exercises). The stuff that I always do on separate days, however, are “breathing squats” (forcing 20 reps with the weight used for my 10-rep max).

      Having said all this, I have ALWAYS kept my lifting (for increased muscle mass) as flexible and intuitive as possible. My program design was to have no program design. As long as I followed fundamental exercise principles — like progressive overload to stimulate a gradual adaptation syndrome, vary stimulus once in a while, and increase strength of muscle and induce complete fatigue in muscle — I have always been able to add muscle mass while staying fresh.

      These days, my focus is on staying light and lean and optimally healthy. To me, this feels the best.

  4. Al says:

    A bit off topic, but for someone who runs alot: do i need more food than i eat now? Its hard to eat alot of calories going paleo, and i run out of energy because my body runs out of food for fuel.

    • Johnny from The Lean Saloon says:

      Al, check out Dr. Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet for Athletes. This book was written with world class endurance athlete Joel Friel. This might be right up your alley. It is a modified version of the Paleo Diet geared toward endurance performance.

      However, there is literature on endurance performance fueled purely from the metabolizing of fat. This may mean you’ll have to increase your intake of fats (particularly from medium chain triglyceride, or MCT). I recommend you check into this as well.

      Good luck.

  5. Nathaniel says:

    Johnny, great site. This particular post was very inspirational to me. Especially the bit about not worrying about how much you’re eating or how much protein – In my gut, I’ve always suspected that the bodybuilding industry dramatically overstates the necessary requirements, and it’s good to hear it from someone with personal experience.

    I’m not trying to maximize my raw poundage or brute physical leverage; I just want to gain lean mass without much fat. I think that, besides lifting weights, a combination of intermittent fasting and my low-carb paleo diet will be the key.

    Due to personal things I don’t have access to a gym right now, so while I wait to begin my muscle-building program, my goal is to get very lean. I’m eating low-carb and paleo, whole foods, and I’ve recently started a short eating window style of IF, where I eat a couple very satisfying meals each day in a 6 or 8 hour period and fast the rest of the time.

    Is there any else you can think of that I should do? I would appreciate any advice that you have.

    • Johnny says:

      Nathaniel,

      I cannot begin to tell you how many people I know have gotten result from a similar lifestyle you’re adopting. I don’t mean just a few people while the rest see little or no result… but every single person that I am working with or have worked with.

      When you eat mostly whole, real food, and use some form of intermittent fasting regularly, it’s almost a guarantee you’ll get lean. It sounds like you’re on the right track. When you have access to a gym, or the means to build up a simple yet effective home home gym (a few dumbbells and kettlebess, a pull-up bar, etc.), you will begin to build muscle with the right intensity and progression. Just keep your strength training simple but progressive.

      Looking forward to your updates here.

      Best,
      Johnny

      • Nathaniel says:

        Thanks for the response, Johnny, and the encouragement. I do have a pull-up bar and I’m up to a personal record of 10 clean pull-ups in one set.

        I’m very excited and I’m expecting great results with this lifestyle. The “eating window” feels very natural and comfortable and it helps me be mindful about what I eat. I’m sure you understand what I mean.

        Keep up the great work with this site.

  6. Nathaniel says:

    Johnny,

    Were you practicing Intermittent Fasting while building muscle? Would you recommend still using a narrow eating window while actively trying to build muscle?

  7. David Hoskins says:

    Great article,

    I feel that I could add something by saying that any natural trainee should seriously consider where the source of information on training comes from, is the person a lifetime natural? If not it might not be optimal for you.

    For example, west side produces some amazing powerlifters but Louie Simmons openly admits using steroids for some 30 years. If that is the case his training methods may be unsuitable for a natural, genetically typical trainee.

    Just my 2 cents

    David

    • Johnny says:

      You are absolutely right, David. It’s amazing how easy it is to take (and give) information out of context.

      Best,
      Johnny

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