How to Build Muscle Fast

Introduction: My Story

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Most guys (especially younger trainees) start going to the gym with one thing in mind: building muscle as quickly as possible. I can relate to this goal–allow me to tell you a little personal history before I go any further:

I’ve been fascinated with strength and muscle since I was a kid.  I remember seeing comic book advertisements from Charles Atlas during my elementary school years.  I never ordered any of his programs, but the thought of having a lean, powerful physique captivated my imagination.

One of my first (embarrassing) attempts at lifting weights happened when I was about twelve years old.  My cousin had begun to mess around with a weight set his parents bough him and invited me to join in.  I thought I was strong, but I was unable to bench press whatever amount he put on the barbell (I think it was about 120 lb.).  I asked my parents to buy a weight set for me for Christmas (or maybe my birthday) and they agreed.  Soon I had my own set of concrete-filled plastic weights and would train sporadically.

My next vivid memory is from my high school years: training with “real” (Olympic-style) barbells and plates for the first time while trying out for the football team.  I could barely move the day after that first workout with the team.  I wasn’t very strong (being a “late bloomer” physically didn’t help), but that slowly began to change as I kept training.  I never became a great football player, but I did develop a passion for building muscle and strength.

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My Idol

Arnold Schwarzenegger became my idol in my college years.  I carefully studied both his publications on training and his pictures.  He’s still my favorite bodybuilder, but I later realized he wasn’t a realistic role model for someone like me (more on that later).

I kept working out through the 90’s, experimenting with different training techniques (some worked, some didn’t).  I spent way too much money on supplements, most of which did absolutely nothing (I tried almost everything the supplement industry produced: prohormones, etc.).

I’ve never competed in bodybuilding–it’s just not one of my goals or priorities in life.  But I did end up building a pretty good physique, and regularly train to this day (I’m not in my 40’s).

This article is kind of a collection of things I wish I knew back when I first started training years ago.  I didn’t know much about building mass and strength when I first started lifting–I learned through bodybuilding magazines, misguided coaches and other various sources.  There was a lot of trial and error involved, and I’m convinced I could have made better gains in less time if I knew then what I know now.   I’m hoping these tips will help new trainees avoid the mistakes I made.

Avoiding Mistakes

Here are a few things you need to avoid if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger:

Mistake #1: Spending too much money/time/energy on bodybuilding supplements.

As mentioned, I spent way too much of my hard-earned cash on bodybuilding supplements in my younger days.  The vast majority of the stuff I bought didn’t do anything to help me build my physique.  That money could have gone into savings or other better uses.

Here’s what you have to understand about the bodybuilding supplement industry: it exists to make money, not muscle.  It is a largely unregulated business, and you’ll get ripped off quickly if your believe everything they advertise.

I’m not opposed to supplements, but you need to stick to the basics and don’t be in a hurry to try the latest, greatest products.  Wait until multiple studies are done on new formulas before deciding to try or buy.  More importantly, don’t expect supplements to make that much difference–your diet and training are going will be much, much more important than any pill or powder you use.

Mistake #2: Copying the Routines of Professional Bodybuilders

Some guys make the mistake of trying to train like professional bodybuilders, using routines they see in magazines.  This is not a good idea for several reasons:

1. Genetics:  Professional athletes of any kind are going to be genetically gifted, so what works for them may not work for you.

2. Anabolic Steroids: You can’t expect to get the same results as a guy who is taking drugs.  His recovery ability will be enhanced beyond what is naturally possible, so following his routine is not advisable.

3.  Fictitious Routines:  You can’t even be sure that a routine printed in a magazine is the one your favorite competitor actually uses–it’s quite possible that a writer/editor just made it up.

Mistake #3 Poor Nutrition

Can you make gains on a crappy diet?  Yes–I built some size and strength with a completely haphazard eating plan during my college years.  But if you want to build quality mass in record time you’ll need to put just as much planning into your nutrition as your workouts.  Many trainees will spend hours in the gym without putting a fraction of that time/effort into their eating plan.  Remember: we are talking about building your body as quickly as humanly possible–that won’t happen with poor nutrition.

How To Build Muscle Fast: The Basics

Now let’s get into the basic things you should be doing if size and strength is your goal.  I won’t be sharing every detail, but this overview should get you going in the right direction.

Training

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The deadlift is a fantastic size/strength builder

1.  Build strength in the basic lifts like deadlift, bench press, squat, etc.  These old-school, multi-joint movements will give you a lot of “bang for your buck,” providing a powerful training stimulus to the large muscles (back, thighs, etc.).  Get stronger in these movements and you’ll be on your way to building a more massive, powerful physique.  It’s fine to spend some time on isolation movements (like curls), but focus most of your time and energy on the big lifts.

2.  Stick to the 5-12 rep range.  You’ll find that the vast majority of your growth comes from this range of repetitions because it gives you a good balance of volume and intensity.   You can experiment with higher/lower reps once you get more advanced, but stay somewhere within this range if you are just starting out.  Here’s another tip: you’ll find that somewhere between 30-60 total repetitions per muscle in each workout session should be enough training stimulus for growth.

3. Train each muscle (or muscle group) twice a week.  A muscle will typically recover within about 72 hours of being trained.  After that you should be able to work it out again.  You can get by with less frequent training, but you are missing opportunities for growth (52 opportunities per year).

Nutrition

1.  Eat .75 grams to 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight.  This is plenty for building muscle, regardless of what you might read about the insane amounts of protein some bodybuilders supposedly eat.  It’s fine if some of this protein comes from supplements (like whey powder), but most of it should come from “real” food: meat, eggs, etc.

2.  Eat a calorie surplus–consume more calories than you are using.  You’ll probably need to eat at least 17 calories per lb. of body weight in order put on weight.  Some may need to eat way more than that.  Here’s another tip: you may need to keep an eating journal for a few days to track what you are eating (you may be eating far fewer calories than you think you are).

3.  Add extra meals (or shakes) if needed.  You may find it difficult to get adequate calories/protein from only three meals a day.  Eat an additional meal or drink a protein shake if needed, but don’t get caught up in thinking there is some magical number of meals a day for building muscle.  Just eat as many times as you need to properly digest your protein/calorie requirements.

Supplements

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’d recommend you stick to the basics: whey protein, creatine monohydrate, a multivitamin, and fish oil.  Don’t keep adding a bunch of extra supplements in hopes of getting better results.  Don’t overthink your supplements while under-thinking your diet and training.

Conclusion

Those are the basics on how to build muscle fast.   If you want more information I’d recommend you invest in a quality program to guide you step-by-step.  This is one of the best investments you can make for getting started the right way.  Vince Delmonte’s No-Nonsense Muscle Building would be a really good investment for beginners or skinny guys who want to get big.

 

How To Get Abs: Five Cold, Hard Truths

HowtoGetAbsMost young men walk in the gym with dreams of looking like a bodybuilder, NFL wide receiver, or maybe even a UFC fighter. Trainees may desire different levels of musculature, but most of them want the one centerpiece that all great physiques have in common: washboard abs, also known as a “six pack.”

Having shredded abs is an admirable goal. But there are some cold, hard truths you should embrace before hanging all your hopes and dreams on the status of your midsection. You’ll be much less frustrated if you keep some of these things in mind.

1. Diet is THE Key to Six-Pack Abs:

Some sectors of the fitness industry continue to perpetuate the myth that abdominal training is the key to having a washboard stomach. We’ve all seen that infomercial with the incredibly lean, tanned, well-oiled fitness model using some kind of gadget designed to train the abs. And you can look like him for a few easy payments of 20 or 30 bucks.

You might as well hold on to your credit card, because the key to having visible abdominal muscles is having a low percentage of body fat. And the key to having low body fat is diet. Yes, exercise definitely helps–I’d highly recommend lifting weights combined with some form of cardiovascular conditioning. But it is virtually impossible to do enough exercise to overcome a poor diet.

Getting really lean will require you to put as much planning in your eating as you do your training. There are several effective diet strategies you can use (I prefer an intermittent fasting approach), but all of them will require you to use more calories than you consume for several weeks (or even months, depending on your current level of fitness).

2. Genetics Play a Role in Visible Abs:

Like it or not, some guys will have a much easier time achieving and/or maintaining six pack abs than others. Some men have low body fat levels because of their parents–they are genetically “programmed” to be lean and can stay that way with minimal dietary adjustments. We’ve all met that guy who eats a steady diet of fast food, trains sporadically, and still looks incredible with his shirt off.

The role of genetics doesn’t stop at overall body fat levels–it also has a huge influence in where you store your fat. Men naturally tend to have more fat around the midsection (women tend to carry it on their hips/thighs). But there is great variation in the proportion of fat we store around our stomach vs. other parts of the body. Some men can be quite lean through the arms and legs yet have large waistlines. Others store fat more evenly. These differences in fat distribution mean some can have visible abdominal muscles with a higher body fat percentage than others.  Some will have to get their body fat level very low in order to have visible abs.

3. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Crunches:

Remember the picture of that bodybuilder you wanted to look like? Chances are he doesn’t look like that 99% of the time. Bodybuilders, fitness models, and even actors usually spend several weeks preparing for a single show, photo shoot, or scene. They undergo a strict diet and training regimen that, if properly executed, will get them to their desired level of leanness at the right time.

Hugh Jackman: Ripped and Thirsty
Hugh Jackman: Ripped and Thirsty

The “shredded” look often requires more than getting lean–subcutaneous fluid/water has to be carefully manipulated to make muscle definition more visible. Hugh Jackman began intentionally dehydrating himself 36 hours before his shirtless scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Bodybuilders often resort to using diuretics drugs, sometimes with fatal consequences.

To summarize, the strong physiques you see in magazines and movies are often temporary illusions–you may be looking at someone who is weakened by dehydration and calorie/carbohydrate restriction.

4. Getting Shredded May Lower Your Testosterone:

Here’s something else you should know: extremely low body fat levels (or the process required to get there) can have disastrous effects on testosterone levels. One study followed a natural bodybuilder as he prepared for a contest. He began with 14% body fat and worked his way down to 4.5% body fat over a period of several weeks. His testosterone went down 80% by the time he had reached his goal–80%!

It is incredibly difficult to naturally maintain strength and vitality when body fat drops into the lower single digits. This is one of the many reasons anabolic steroids have such great appeal to those who get ripped for a living. These synthetic hormones help offset the body’s natural response to several weeks’ worth of calorie restriction.

It is possible to diet and train your way to 5% body fat with no “pharmaceutical assistance,” but be prepared for a serious drop in testosterone.

5. Women May Not Care:

Let’s just assume you are able to get completely shredded without losing your interest in the ladies (remember that testosterone thing). Chances are they will not be nearly as impressed as you had planned. Yes, most women appreciate a lean, muscular physique. But don’t expect them to line up just to look at your abs. It just doesn’t work that way.

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Attraction tends to be a complex thing for women, and most of them will simultaneously weigh several factors before giving you their attention. Personality, sense of humor, communication skills, success/ambition, and a long list of other characteristics are going to be more important to her than your shredded six-pack.

Wrap-up:

Believe it or not, I’m not trying to discourage you from pursuing physical excellence.  Find a good program.  Go to the gym. Clean up your diet. Lose that gut. Put on some muscle. Build some strength. Your genetic makeup may allow you to get a six-pack with a reasonably low body fat level.  But you may need to settle for a good shoulder-to-waist ratio and flat stomach.  Don’t despair: you’ll look and feel great at this level of fitness.  And you’ll be within striking distance of the “shredded” look if you decide you want to take it that far.

Prohormones: Hype and History

Every once in a while I get asked about the form of supplements known as prohormones.  I’ll share what I believe to be an informed opinion (along with some personal stories for your amusement), but keep in mind I’m not a doctor or pharmacist.

The History of Prohormones

Some of you may know that I spent wasted a lot of money on supplements in the 90’s.  That era was in many ways the the “wild west” of supplement industry.

Prohormones came on the scene the mid-90’s, not long after anabolic steroids had been reclassified as schedule 3 controlled substances (since big biceps are apparently as dangerous as heroine).1  They were still legal because they were supposed to be precursors to anabolic hormones–converting to testosterone only after passing through the liver.

This was also around the time of the internet boom, so all kinds of stuff was being sold online.  I remember GHB, the “date rape drug,” being marketed since it induced a deep sleep which would theoretically help with growth hormone production.

Androstenedione was the first prohormone to be heavily marketed (and given the nickname “andro”).  This one was made famous when a sports reporter “accidentally” spotted a bottle in Mark MgGwire’s locker–some believe he put it there to draw attention away from allegations of steroid use (which he denied for years).AST_Androstene

I was a naive 20-something who had been training for over a decade.  I was eager to find an edge to make me bigger and stronger (ironic, since I considered myself a “natural” trainee).  I tried several prohormone formulas: androstendione, 4-AD, 1-AD, etc.  I even tried some unusual administration routes, like spraying them on my skin (which was supposedly superior to taking them orally), and even spraying them up my nose (which supposedly helped with focus and aggression, since that’s a more direct route to the brain).  Did I mention what a naive consumer I was?  I can’t help but laugh thinking back to some of the moronic things I tried.

I used prohormones on and off from the mid to late 90’s, but I can’t say they made any difference whatsoever.  If I had it all to do over I would have simply enjoyed the gains that come from being in the peak years of my natural testosterone production (and saved some of my hard-earned cash).  My best lifts of that decade came from simply adjusting my training methods—not from supplements of any kind.

Estrogen Boosters?

At some point I discovered just how unpredictable prohormones were.  Androstenedione, for example, was shown to raise the level of certain female hormones–not what I had in mind!2  I had never experienced any feminizing side effects, but the illusion of inducing a legal, side effect free testosterone boost was completely shattered.  I never bothered with prohormones again–part of the hard lesson I had learned about trusting the supplement industry.  I’m extremely grateful for reaching this conclusion because the worst was yet to come.

The hype regarding prohormones lived on in the 2000’s even after some were banned by the Steroid Control Act of 2004.  “New” products came up that were not covered under the current law.  I would see brands/names mentioned on bodybuilding forums, complete with testimonies of muscle/strength gains.   But I was done–I wasn’t about to potentially tamper with my natural testosterone production based on endorsements in forums.

Prohormones and Toxicity

I have since learned that most of the prohormones were not really new at all–they were originally developed in the 60’s by chemists that were trying to create new steroid formulas.  These compounds were abandoned because they were found to be ineffective and/or extremely toxic to the liver.   Unscrupulous companies had essentially repackaged toxic waste of the 60’s as muscle builders.   Apparently some the formulas that were resurrected in the 2000’s were more toxic than what was sold/used in the 90’s–a few unfortunate users required medical intervention due to liver toxicity.The FDA eventually banned these new/old drugs as well.

Conclusion

So here we are, about 20 years after prohormones were first introduced.  I don’t know if any “new” versions are out there and I could care less.  I’m content to lift, live and just optimize my testosterone levels naturally.

References:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabolic_steroid#United_States

2. JAMA. 2000 Feb 9;283(6):779-82. Oral androstenedione administration and serum testosterone concentrations in young men.

3. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2007 Jul;5(7):809-12. Epub 2007 May 16. Hepatotoxicity associated with dietary supplements containing anabolic steroids.