We all want to build more muscle. And for good reason: Muscle is the most metabolically-active tissue in one’s body.
It feeds on the stored calories in your body fat.
Want to build your body into a machine that gobbles up calories all day long?
Build more muscle.
Muscle also protects us, makes us more functional, and makes us more attractive to the opposite sex (men and women alike).
But not all of us are willing to go the “unnatural” route to build more muscle. Building muscle naturally takes a delicate balance of many factors.
The 32 tips below will provide you with what you need to know to get the job done in the healthiest, safest and most natural way possible.
1. Lift to failure. For some of you, this is a no-brainer. For others, you might not know what it’s like to struggle through a “failure” rep. Lifting to failure is a learned practice. I’ve seen new trainees think they were going to failure when really they had plenty of reps left in the tank.
To reach failure you have to push yourself until you physically cannot do another rep. This is true failure. And it’s not as simple as just lifting until you can’t lift anymore. It takes real skill to learn what your true failure is.
To reach your full muscle-building potential, you must be going to failure regularly.
2. Avoid failure. Sometimes you should lift to failure and sometimes you shouldn’t. I would say about 80% of the time you should be training to failure… or very close to it. The other 20% of the time, you can utilize weight ranges of 60-80% of your 1RM and focus on lots and lots of quality reps.
3. Sprint. Sprinting is one of the most hormone-inducing activities the human body can perform. These hormones help build your entire body, not just your legs. Sprinting also helps burn fat and improves the hell outta your general fitness. Do sprints at least once a week.
4. Follow a weightlifting program. For general strength gain and muscle building, I recommend Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. Follow these programs as your basic strength template then add in your conditioning and GPP training.
5. Take water and whey immediately post-workout. Avoid the cheap and crappy shake ingredients that most use (peanut butter, cheap whey, milk) and stick with a simple brew of high-quality protein and water. (If you are trying to gain weight + muscle, check out this post.)
6. Use the highest quality protein you can afford. Better protein means more nutrition, absorption and muscle-building effect. These are my favorites: Upgraded Self, Progenex, SFH.
7. Eat a ton of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are the preferred “Paleo Starch” because they are loaded with nutrition and sport a lower glycemic load than white starches. Yams and sweet potatoes should be the “go-to” carb source for all weight training athletes.
8. Use white rice and white potatoes (strategically). White rice and potatoes can be useful for getting carbs into your system post-workout. They are also useful for those “bulking.” Just be careful with the amounts–a cup of cooked white rice is about 50g of carbs–as the glycemic load of the white starches will cause a large spike in insulin levels.
I recommend sticking with sweet potatoes the majority of the time and only using white starches if you are trying to gain weight and muscle.
9. Eat a Gluten-Free, Real Food Paleo-Style Diet. Proper nutrition will forever be the main ingredient (pun intended) in your muscle building program. The Natural Human Diet of Real Food will provide you with everything your body needs to produce more muscle.
Eating real food will produce the most anabolic state that, when used in conjunction with your weight training efforts, will elicit the most muscle building physically possible.
If you are serious about building real muscle, you need to be serious about eating real food.
10. Eat nutrient-dense foods full of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, omega-3s, and saturated fat. You will find this in nutrient dense foods like: fatty fish, grass-fed beef, game, organ meat, pastured dairy, coconut, and the bulk of fruits, veggies, and natural starches.
11. Do 30-50 Push-ups first thing each morning. This will get your blood flowing and a nice little uptick in those beneficial “exercise hormones.” Plus, you’ll be 30-50 pushups stronger than before.
12. Do full reps. Ladies and gentlemen, those half-reps, quarter-reps, third-reps, wtf-reps, aren’t doing jack for your results.
Now-a-days, when I walk into a “traditional globo-style gym” I cringe at the lack of proper movement I see. And it’s so easily avoidable: DO THE FULL FREAKING REP. It’s only a couple more inches. (BTW, this is a great reason to go to a Box.)
13. Use proper supplementation. Supplements can play an integral role in providing your body with the vitamins and minerals that our body is lacking from the food we eat. Because our food supply sucks in general, it’s best to cover all your “nutrition bases” with a few hand-picked supplements.
Note: This is my new favorite “Fundamentals Stack” by one of my new favorite companies: Natural Stacks–The Performance Essentials Stack – Vitamin D, Krill oil, and a Magnesium supplement (ZMA). Before switching to this stack, I would buy three different products from three different companies. Now, I just grab this stack. And yes, I’m truly impressed with the quality. The founders are great guys who have a passion for their product. I couldn’t recommend them more.
14. Do an “extra” set. Try this at the end of your next workout: Choose one of your weakest exercises—dips, strict pull-up, pistol, etc.—and do one max-effort set until failure. Then go home.
15. Sleep 8 hours a night. You. Have. No. Choice. Here’s why.
16. Put a pull-up bar in your closest/room doorway and do 10 reps every time you walk under it. This works.
17. Stretch and work mobility. Not only does this reduce the risk of injury, but it also helps you lift more as the result of your muscles working more efficiently… and we all know that lifting more = building more muscle.
18. Keep your workouts under an hour. You build muscle through rest, recovery, and nutrition. Most people think the way to get more muscle is to do more work. Sorry bra… your body doesn’t work that way.
There is a certain dose that will produce muscle and there is a certain dose that will reduce muscle. The key is finding the “sweet spot” between these two ends of the spectrum.
The “sweet spot” for most people is about an hour of work. Get in, go hard, get out. Then let your body rest, recover and GROW.
There are studies that show the negative effects on your hormones when training longer than an hour–(Remember, hormones are responsible for muscle building, fat-gain, fat-loss, and nearly everything else pertaining to your health).
*Of course, if you are training for a sport or endurance, you will have to invest a lot of training hours. Just know that you will be trading muscle in exchange for improving in these other areas. Everything comes with a cost.
19. Utilize calorie-dense, nutrient-filled, post-workout shakes of the finest ingredients. When I say “the finest ingredients,” it means you DON’T fill your blender with skim milk, peanut butter, and Wal-Mart protein.
By sticking with awesome ingredients–like almond butter, coconut milk, water, grass-fed whey, etc.– you are going to mitigate fat gain and give yourself the best chance at building quality muscle mass by shuttling in plenty of nutrition into your body. See this post for more on Gaining Clean Weight.
20. Do less “conditioning” or “cardio.” This might be the hard for some of you to hear, but it also might be one of the greatest “tweaks” you can make in your program to induce more muscle growth.
More training equals more cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that eats away muscle. The longer you train, the more stress you inflict on your body and the more cortisol you release into your system.
While the goal of training is to induce a “healthy” stress, there is still a delicate balance between too much and just enough. If you want to train for a marathon by running everyday, you are going to have to “give up” some muscle as the cost. And if you want to be as anabolic and “jacked” as possible, you are going to have to minimize how much time you spend training.
You can’t have it all. The key is knowing what you are wiling to give up in exchange for what you want.
21. Do big, compound movements. Aim for 25-50 reps per exercise over a few sets (3×10, 5×5, 5×7, etc.). The bigger the movement, the more muscles that are activated and the more beneficial hormones you trigger with each rep.
22. Focus on the “Big Three” lifts. Squat, Deadlift, Press (and Bench press for the dudes). These three lifts should comprise the “core” of your strength program. Aim to tackle each one at least once a week.
You wanna know how weightlifters got big in the ol’ days? They squatted, deadlifted, and pressed as much weight as they could, as often as they could.
23. Practice Intermittent Fasting. I practice IF every day. Check out Leangains.com for the protocol I follow–a 16-hour fast followed by an 8-hour feeding window. I skip breakfast in the morning and eat my first meal post-workout usually 4-8 hours after waking.
IF has many health benefits—increased insulin sensitivity, reduced inflammation, etc.—all of which help you build more muscle.
It might seem like a paradox: skip food and build muscle. But the most commonly misunderstood aspect of fasting is the confusion between fasting and calorie restriction. Practicing IF is about meal timing and not calorie intake. Typically, when one practice’s IF, you consume the same amount of calories you normally would, you just consume them on a certain schedule.
For example, after I break my fast with my first meal of the day–usually around 4-5pm–I will eat my last meal approximately eight hours from that time. This creates a “feeding window” of 8-hours and a “fasting window” of 16-hours. I still get the same amount of calories I normally would, I just get them during the “feeding window.”
You should definitely try it. It could change your life.
24. Lose body fat. The more fat you have, the lower your testosterone levels (among a bunch of other negatives) . If you make it your goal to lose the fat first, you can then focus on building muscle when your body is in the most muscle-promoting state possible.
Unnecessary fat on your frame will severely limit your body’s ability to build muscle (among other things).
25. Walk a lot. Walking improves digestion, burns calories, and does a bunch of other healthy things for your body. (Check out 17 ways it makes you better here).
26. Take a nap. Sleep is the most anabolic and muscle-building state you can be in. The more you are in this state, the more muscle you will build. (Further reading)
27. Utilize a quality Fish Oil. Fish oil improves a million things in your body–one being the reduction of cortisol levels. Reducing cortisol and inflammation will promote more muscle building. These are my two favorite brands: Natural Stacks and Carlson Cod Liver Oil.
*An even better alternative to taking fish oil caps is eating fatty fish! my favorite brand is Season Products. I buy them in bulk and try to eat a can a day with some mustard and/or hot sauce. This is the fastest, easiest and most nutritious food you’ll ever eat.
28. Limit alcohol. Alcohol lowers your testosterone levels and promotes fat gain. Both of these are to the determent of your muscle building efforts.
29. Improve gut health. Digestion is the “gateway” to your nutritional health. Everything you eat passes this way first. If you have gut issues, you are less likely to absorb the vitamins and minerals you are eating. And if this is in conjunction with an already less-than-stellar diet, you could be in big “nutritional” trouble.
When you are lacking in necessary nutrition, your body will not function the way it should. As a result, everything will suffer, especially muscle building.
30. Eat more egg yolks. Contrary to popular misbelief, eating egg yolks does not raise your cholesterol. You can eat as many as you want—in fact, they are the best freaking part of the egg. (Debunking the “Yolk Myth”)
31. Eat saturated fat from healthy animals. Grass-fed beef, bison, and game have oodles of nutrition that increase testosterone levels. Fat also blunts insulin secretion and increases testosterone production.
32. Eat more “clean” fat. Avocado, fatty fish, egg yolks, pastured butter, coconut oil/milk, raw nuts/seeds, pastured beef/game, organ meat. A diet higher in fat has been shown to raise testosterone levels (Higher fat diets raise testosterone levels). (In case you didn’t know, I recommend 30-60% of your calories come from fat.)
Check out “50 Ways To Lose Weight,” “How To Gain Clean Weight: A Hardgainers Guide” and “Why You Don’t Get Results” for some of the basic nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
Muscle building is rooted in the fundamentals. Once you have them down, you can make small tweaks to increase the amount of time you are in the anabolic state.
The most important parts of muscle building are sleep, nutrition, and recovery. If you have fat to lose, you should be focusing on losing the fat before trying “gaining” or “bulking” strategies.
Remember, the best way to build muscle is to take a balanced approach by treating your body like the temple it is. Treat it gently and nurse it into growth.
If you think you can plow your way to more muscle by overtraining, eating junk food, and never taking a break, you are in for a rude awakening.
Yours in Fitness,