Building muscle, strength, stability, and staying strong is why most of us constantly return to the gym. It’s the beacon of light that continues to drive the effort-driven workouts that many consider us crazy for, but how do we build muscle effectively? That’s the question that trips up so many lifters.
That’s because it’s harder to build muscle than you might think. Building muscle isn’t simply about going to the gym, and it’s not simply about eating pounds and pounds of protein. “To build muscle, you must push your muscles to the limit, then let them recover and grow stronger as they do. And to do this, you must create the proper recovery environment for them when you’re not in the gym”.
This means your quest to build muscle involves a host of variables over a 24-hour period. The things you do in the gym to push your muscles to the limit count. So does the “work” you put in during the other 20 or so hours when you’re away from the gym, everything from rest to nutrition to active recovery. All of this can affect how you build muscle.
One of the best ways to get started is to understand and define what muscle-building actually is. “Muscle hypertrophy is the increase in the growth of muscle cells, and it’s a process that’s often kickstarted by resistance training. Essentially, you need to push your muscles hard, often by lifting heavy loads for reps, stimulating the release of muscle-growing hormones and other metabolites”.
“Muscle hypertrophy is the adaptation our muscles experience from continual exposure to progressively overloaded forms of resistance training, which then results in an increase in our muscle fiber size, both in diameter and length. Essentially, muscle hypertrophy is the process through which our muscles get physically larger through the act of strategically consistent and harder workouts”.
Remember, the effort is one of the most definitive drivers of muscle gain over time. However, it’s just one of the drivers. That effort needs to be coupled with a desire to push your body farther than you might think it’s capable of. This is something called “progressive overload.” If you’re not familiar, progressive overload involves creating some form of increased, strategic effort based on the style of training you’re doing. This doesn’t mean going heavier and heavier with the weights in every set and every single workout, because sometimes, that’s not possible. Over-focus ongoing heavy in every single workout, and you set yourself up for injury and disappointment.
No, progressive overload takes place over months and months of working out. Sure, if you’re new to the gym, you may add major pounds to the bench press, partly because you’re just learning the exercise. But the longer you’re in the gym, the harder it is to make gains. This is why it’s incredibly important to have a plan in place and build a framework for your training and nutritional habits that coincide with your goals. “Workouts without a plan just won’t get you to the goals you want,” says Personal Trainer and Strength Coach, Bigflex Dogg, C.S.C.S. “You need a strategy.”
The tips below will help you—whether you’re a beginner or somebody who’s hit a frustrating training plateau—build muscle with a strategic and realistic means.
Muscle building and toning don’t always have to require additional weight. Sometimes, the weight of your own body is plenty, especially if you’re increasing repetitions and focusing on tiring the muscle out.
There are plenty of bodyweight exercises you can easily perform anyplace, anytime, without the need for a lot of space. This gives you amazing opportunities to get a workout in whether you’re in a hotel, on a beach, or even on a plane. Here are some of the best bodyweight exercises you can do to help build muscle.
You cannot go wrong with squats. One of the staple exercises of every possible workout program, simple bodyweight air squats can do plenty for the activation and toning of your leg and glute muscles. They work your entire posterior chain, but also require active quadriceps as well as your hips. This makes them the perfect exercise for your lower body and you can do them even when you’re brushing your teeth.
Start in a standing position, feet hip-distance apart. Extend your arms in front of you, at level with your chest, and activate your core. On your inhale, slowly start dropping your hips down like you’re trying to sit in an imaginary chair behind you. Tilt your pelvis forward so that you avoid over-arching your back. Aim to be as close to parallel to the floor as possible at the bottom of your inhale.
Once you start exhaling, start extending your legs and coming back to the starting position, squeezing your glutes at the very top. Repeat 25-30 times, rest for 30 seconds and then do two more cycles.
You can intensify the air squats by adding little pulses at your deepest squat and burning out your glutes or turn them into air squat jumps, exploding at the very end of your lift, activating your legs to the fullest.
Another staple exercise that can be performed in a variety of ways are lunges. You can do front, reverse, curtsy, side, or a combination of all and really tackle all of your leg muscles to the point of burnout.
If you’re new to lunges, start with the basic reversed lunge as it requires the least amount of stability and poses the lowest risk of injury. Start in a standing position, feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on your hips and activate your core muscles.
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Inhale and step with your left leg back, bending your knee and coming high on the ball of your left foot. The goal is to make two 90-degree angles: One with your front ankle-knee-hip and the other with your back ankle-knee-hip. Exhale and step back to starting position, squeezing your glutes at the top.
You can continue with the same leg for 20-25 repetitions and do the same with your right, or alternate each time you come to your starting position. Repeat the whole cycle two more times for a total of three series of 20-25 reps per leg.
Push-ups are actually rarely done with added weight. Sometimes you can see people challenge themselves with a weighted plate on their backs, but that’s reserved for more adventurous gym-lovers since the set-up itself isn’t the most comfortable to get into.
Regular, basic push-ups are more than enough when it comes to challenging and building your chest and shoulder muscles. And coupled with a plank hold, your upper body is really in for a bodyweight treat.
Start in an all-fours position, hands under shoulder, knees under hips. Activate your core and push the ground away from you, slightly curving your upper back, and creating space in between your shoulder blades. Extend your legs and come high on the balls of your feet.
Now, if you’re a beginner, “you’ll drop your knees on the floor and create a straight plank line from your knees to your shoulders. Take an inhale and bend your elbows, slightly opening them up, and bring your body one inch off the floor. Aim to place your chin on the floor so that your chest stays lifted”. Exhale and push yourself back to your plank.
If you’re familiar with push-ups and knees-on-the-floor is easy for you, start from a full plank. Once you drop your body one inch off the floor, on your exhale, you’re pushing your entire body up like a plank. Make sure your quadriceps are active and your body really feels like a sturdy, strong plank.
Do as many reps as possible until failure for maximum results. Take a rest and repeat two more times.
Another great bodyweight exercise that really challenges your upper body are dips. They can easily be performed with a bench on the floor or on an elevated surface that leaves your entire body off the ground, literally making you lift your entire body weight. These might look easy, but you’ll be struggling after the third repetition.
“If you’re a beginner, start with a bench. Place your hands on the end of the bench, fingers facing forward. Bend your knees and lift your hips in line with the bench. Activate your core muscles and on your inhale, start bending your elbows, stopping when they’re in line with your shoulders”. Exhale, and push your body up, extending your arms.
Whichever option you go for, repeat until failure. Rest for 30 seconds and do another two cycles.
One of the hardest bodyweight exercises you can do, pull-ups take years to master. They require a lot of upper body strength and are really effective in building muscle. That being said, there are plenty of modifications to start with.
“The basic pull-up starts with hanging off a steady bar, hands gripping the bar, arms extended. Activate your body and on your exhale, start pulling your body up, elbows close to your trunk, trying to bring your chin over the bar. Your movement should be slow and controlled, avoiding any jerking moves or pulling from your lower back. You can keep your legs extended or bent and your ankles crossed”. There is basically no set count for pull-ups. You do as much as you can. Then rest, and repeat twice.
If this is unattainable for you, come to a reverse plank or inverted row, with your hands gripping the bar in front of your chest. Extend your legs in front of you, digging the heels into the floor. Inhale, and on your exhale, pull your straight body up towards the bar. Repeat 15-20 times, really trying to isolate your arms so you feel them lifting your entire body up. Rest and repeat two more cycles.
Add these bodyweight exercises to your next muscle-building routine and feel yourself getting stronger with each rep. And if you want to really focus on your legs, check out these hamstring exercises you can also do without stepping into a gym.
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