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The Three Rules of Muscle Building

by Michael Petresky on January 9, 2014

The Three Rules:

  1. You must overload your muscles through a progressive training routine
  2. You must consume adequate calories and protein
  3. You must get adequate sleep for recovery and growth

The combination of the above three is absolutely required to gaining muscle. If you’re not getting sufficient calories and rest you will not build muscle. It also turns out that the three rules are connected in that if you’re not getting sufficient calories and rest you will have a difficult time following a progressive training routine.

First, what is considered adequate calories and protein?

At minimum you must consume your maintenance calorie intake, but I recommend eating at a minor surplus of calories on your training days.

You cannot expect to create something from nothing. Your nutrition sets the foundation of your muscle building journey as protein is the building block for new muscle. However, your body will not use protein for building new muscle if it has not met the rest of it’s energy needs for that day. For this reason you cannot solely eat your protein, and neglect calories from carbohydrates and fats expecting your body to build muscle. It will not.

Take home point: Eat.

See: DIY: Calories and Macronutrients for more specific nutrition information.

Second, what is considered adequate sleep and why do you need sufficient sleep?

Adequate sleep is 6-8 hours. 6 is the absolute minimum if you are training regularly with the goal of progressing throughout your routine. I would recommend erring on the higher end of that range.

Sleep is when your body recovers from your progressive training routine. It is during this time that your body rebuilds the muscle cells that you damaged through your training. Without adequate sleep you will not build muscle, and you will be left weaker than the day before. You will not be able to even follow a progressive training routine if you’re neglecting the sleep that allows you to recover and train hard. Show me a person who has PR’d on a lift after a night of zero rest, and I will show you a person using performance enhancing drugs.

Take home point: Rest & Recovery is a part of the program. Do not neglect it.

Progressive Overload Defined:

The most important concept in building muscle is progressive overload.

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.  If overload is not present, adaptation is not necessary, and will not occur.

The SAID Principle:

In physical therapy and sports coaching, the SAID principle asserts that the human body adapts specifically to imposed demands. In other words, given stressors on the human system, whether biomechanical or neurological, there will be a Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID).

Too many people think that that they need to hit a muscle group with 3-4+ exercises of 2-3+ sets in a given workout. This is way more volume than is required of the beginner trainee looking to add his first 20 pounds of muscle. I would go so far to say that a completely new trainee could see gains and progress with as little work as 2-3 sets of a single exercise for each muscle group once per week when starting.

Fixate this concept in your mind. You are not training to build muscle. You are training to master an exercise, which works the muscles you wish to add muscle to. By progressing and mastering a select number of exercises that target the muscles in the body in combination with adequate nutrition and sleep you will see increases in muscle.

For an example: if you take on the goal of mastering the push-up, going from being able to do only a few reps of pushups on your knees to multiple sets of 15 reps on your hands and feet, to multiple sets of one-arm pushups you will see increases in the muscles involved in the pushup (mostly your chest, shoulders, and triceps). This is also holds true to mastering the pull-up and chin-up in order to add muscle to your back and biceps.

How to apply progressive overload to your workouts:

First, progressive overload requires perfect technical form.

Do not begin progressing an exercise until you have first learned to properly execute a single repetition of an exercise, and you are able to repeat said execution. It is not necessary to perform the exercise through it’s entire range of motion if you are currently unable to do so.

Using the squat as an example, it is perfectly acceptable to begin with a partial range of motion squat such as the high-box squat until you are able to progress to the low-box squats eventually moving on to train the squat through it’s full range of motion.

Most people think the only way they can progress an exercise to build muscle is to increase the intensity (more load) or increase volume (more sets/reps).

There is actually a variety of other ways you can progressively overload your muscles in order to to stress the body and force adaptation. I took the following list from Bret Contreras:

  • Lifting the same load for increased distance (range of motion)
  • Lifting the same load and volume with better form, more control, and less effort (efficiency)
  • Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)
  • Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)
  • Lifting the same load and volume with less rest time in between sets (density)
  • Lifting a load with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)
  • Doing more work in the same amount of time (density)
  • Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)
  • Doing more sets with the same load and reps (volume)
  • Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)
  • Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)
  • Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)

By not limiting yourself to only progressing your workouts by increasing intensity of load you’ll find you are able to continuously keep your progress moving forward.

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