I Want to Look More Muscular. What’s the Best Way to Make Gains?
There’s one thing that all the biggest, most muscular people on the planet have in common.
It’s not great genetics.
(Good genes help, but plenty of people have gotten huge without having been blessed with it at birth.)
It’s not that they all just live at the gym and do nothing else, or follow some magical workout. (When it comes to building muscle, many different approaches — low rep/high weight, high rep/low weight, straight sets, supersets, and on and on — can work. There is no one that’s “best.”)
And it’s not that they’re on performance-enhancing drugs. (You can pack on plenty of muscle naturally — look no further than any drug-free bodybuilding competition for proof.)
The thing they all have in common is this:
Not the answer you expected? Here’s why being patient is so important.
The Problem with Bulking and Cutting
First, when most people set out to build muscle, they go through a phase where they eat a lot and train a lot. You’ve probably heard it called “bulking.”
Then, after a few weeks or months, they switch. Maybe they get self-conscious about the size the gained. Or maybe they think they’re starting to look fat. So they trim back on calories and change their training to try and burn the fat off. This phase is called “cutting.”
Most people bounce back and forth between these two phases — bulking and cutting, bulking and cutting — without making any real progress. Why? Because each new phase undoes the success of the last.
On our website, we’ve talked about Set Point Theory. It’s the idea that the body identifies with a certain weight and then becomes resistant to change. In our previous article, we discussed how it applied to weight loss. It’s one of the reasons why losing weight — and keeping it off — can be so hard.
But the concept also applies to muscle gain. Your body is used to being a certain weight. When you change that through strength training, it will take measures to go back to how it was — unless you teach it that this more muscular weight is it’s new normal.
You teach your body that through what’s called a maintenance phase. In a lecture on his site Renaissance Periodization, Dr. Mike Israetel discusses how people hold themselves back if they do not include this phase in their training. (The content itself is paywalled, but totally worth buying if you like to nerd out on the science of muscle-building.)
I don’t want to give too much away or do violence to the quality and depth of his explanation. So I’ll summarize it like this: During a maintenance phase, you ease up on training a little bit. And you aim to eat what’s called an isocaloric diet, meaning you try to eat as many calories as you’d need, but not more.
Sample Muscle-Building Macronutrient Formula
This formula from Adam’s Great Abs Experiment will help:
For Total Calories Per Day:
Take the body weight you wish to maintain and multiply it by 10 if you are training 1 hour or less per week. For each additional hour you train per week, add 1 to the multiplier. So if you’d muscled up to 200 pounds, and trained 4 hours per week, you’d multiply 13 by 200 and get 2,600 calories per day as your mark. You can split that total across however many meals per day you prefer to eat (two, three, four, five, whatever).
Eat at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. So if you were 200 pounds, you’d aim for 200 grams of protein (800 calories total) per day.
Eat half a gram of fat per pound of bodyweight. So at 200 pounds, you’d target 100 grams of fat (900 calories) per day.
Determine how many carbohydrates to eat by subtracting the protein and fat calories from your daily total, and then dividing the remainder by 4. To continue the example we’ve been using here, it would be 2,600 calories total minus 800 calories (protein) and 900 calories (fat), leaving you with 900 calories for carbs. Divide that by 4 and you get 225 calories of carbs per day.
While the length of your maintenance phase can vary, you’d want to approach it as if it were something you could do for several months or even years. Why? Because — again — you want this to be your new normal.
You want to think of building muscle not in terms of days and weeks, but months and years. The biggest, most muscular people in the world are the ones who show up for training, again and again, for years on end.