Top muscle tips
Follow these 15 rules and you'll get bigger muscles. Don't, and you won't
For good posture you need to do a higher ratio of exercises for your back than your chest and shoulders
1 Stabilise yourself
Before you launch into a heavy weightlifting programme, your body needs to be prepared. Your stabilising muscles, which support your bigger muscles, need to be strengthened first.
‘I tell my students that you can only lift what you can stabilise,’ says Sean Singleton, expertise coach at David Lloyd. You should spend four to six weeks in this phase before you start lifting heavier weights. Training stabilising muscles usually involves lifting lighter weights in an unstable environment.
Doing bench presses on a Swiss ball is one example. You should do 12 to 15 reps per set. If you skip this stage your big muscles will become too strong for their stabilising muscles, leading to injury.
2 Cycle your workouts
After the initial stabilising phase, you should then enter the muscle-building phase (also called ‘hypertrophy’). ‘For four to six weeks you should lift heavier weights for eight to 12 reps, with two to three sets per exercise and about eight exercises per workout,’ says former bodybuilder and MF fitness expert Jason Anderson.
Then you should switch to the strength training phase for the next four tosix weeks. For this you will need to lift even heavier weights for up to six reps. Then you will return to the stabilisation phase, for one very important reason: ‘Because you are working aerobically, you will set up new capillary networks in the muscle, providing it with more energy. If you don’t do this, your muscles will grow but their energy source will not, setting up a starvation scenario,’ says Anderson.
3 Balance your body
Your body will stop itself building too much muscle in one area if the opposite muscle isn’t strong enough. For example, even if you spend hours bench pressing you won’t build huge chest muscles if you neglect your back muscles – your body won’t let you create such an unbalanced muscle system.
‘Remember that gravity is already bearing down on you and putting you into a crouch. This means that for good posture you need to do a higher ratio of exercises for your back than your chest and shoulders,’ says Singleton.
4 Go big to get big
The big multi-muscle exercises such as squats, deadlifts and pull-ups are the most effective for constructing new muscle. ‘These compound exercises use more muscle and put much higher demands on the body,’ says Singleton. ‘They also burn more calories, which helps your muscle mass to stay lean. Our own studies have shown up to 50 per cent more calorie burn than in single muscle exercises.’
5 Change your life
‘Make small, achievable lifestyle changes and stick to them, such as drinking more water,’ says Singleton. ‘Muscle is 70 per cent water so if you hydrate properly you’ll be able to work harder and get better results.’ Other changes that are easy to achieve include eating good complex-carbohydrate foods such as grains and vegetables and avoiding bingeing on alcoholic drinks because this breaks down muscle.
6 Increase the tension
‘Muscle-building isn’t about the weight, it’s about the tension,’ says Anderson. If you want to get bigger muscles, you need to focus on the effort your muscles are making rather than the number of kilos on the barbell. ‘The idea of doing eight to 12 reps per set for muscle-building is based on the “two seconds up, two seconds down” count. This means you have four seconds of tension per rep for a total of 48 seconds of tension per set.’
7 Fuel your growth
Take on board 1.5g of protein for every kilo of your bodyweight and make sure you eat enough carbohydrates for your energy needs inside and outside of the gym. ‘Go for unprocessed, wholegrain carbs. Fish and poultry are great for protein but also have a couple of portions of red meat a week to get your creatine, which helps with muscle growth,’ says Singleton. If you can’t fit in enough protein, try a protein supplement to fill the gap. ‘But these should be additions to food, not replacements,’ says Anderson.
8 Push harder every session
To keep your muscles growing you need to stay one step ahead and constantly increase your effort. This could mean the amount of weight you’re lifting or the number of reps you do in an exercise. ‘Try to improve your performance every time you train even if it’s only by one more rep. Never go backwards,’ says Lisa Posel, personal training instructor at The Third Space gym. Keep an exercise log to chart your progress. Beware of working hard but seeing the weight you lift drop, because this is a sign of overtraining.
9 Keep it intense
You’re aiming to exhaust all the muscle fibres within the targeted groups by the end of the workout. If you spend too long resting you will allow the muscle to recover too much and you will never reach exhaustion. Between sets, rest only for the amount of time it takes to do an exercise (or just over). ‘With my clients I look for between 30 and 90 seconds in between sets,’ says Singleton.
10 Stop after an hour
Every workout should start with a ten-minute cardiovascular warm up, which can include warm-up sets of the exercise you are about to do, using lighter weights. Once the weightlifting starts in earnest you have only around 40 minutes until the body’s available energy (glycogen), which is stored in the muscles and liver, runs out. This means that you should limit your workouts to one hour at most. ‘In addition testosterone, which is the body’s natural growth hormone, stops secreting after about 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise,’ says Singleton. If you work out for any longer, it feels tiring but your muscle response tails off so you don’t get any more benefit.
11 Work out at least twice a week
If you are doing a total-body workout and using multi-muscle exercises, you can get away with doing two workouts a week. ‘If you are doing split sessions targeting specific body parts, you can increase this to four or five times a week but make sure the volume in that workout isn’t too high. Only do five or six exercises,’ advises Singleton.
12 Get your rest
Giving your muscles time to recover and grow is at least as important as lifting weights in the first place. Rest individual muscle groups for 48 hours before training them again. ‘After a big session you get a massive hormone surge, which makes you hungry and sleepy,’ says Anderson. Sleep is a vital component in any muscle-building programme. Ideally you should get eight hours a night.
13 Keep doing cardio
‘The problem with cardiovascular exercise is that it’s technically counter-productive to muscle-building, but it’s still absolutely essential for maintaining a healthy heart,’ says Anderson. You don’t have to hammer it, though. ‘Three 20-minute sessions every week of moderate cardio, with an effort level of six out of ten, is enough and it won’t impact negatively on your muscle mass.’
14 Fail on the last set, not before
Workouts often call for you to train to failure. The idea is that by the last rep of the set you are struggling to lift the weight and you would be unable to complete another. This is good practice, but you should not reach failure until the last set in the workout for that muscle. ‘If you can’t get past a full set the first time around then your muscle is blown already so you won’t get enough time under tension for the workout to be effective,’ says Anderson.
15 Avoid stretching afterwards
Staying flexible guards against injury and lengthens the range of motion of your muscles. But static stretching, where you hold a stretch for ten seconds or more, should be avoided in the same session as lifting heavy weights. ‘The microscopic tears you intentionally make when weight training can be lengthened by static stretches, damaging the muscle too much,’ says Posel. ‘Dynamic stretching beforehand is OK but you won’t really need to do it if you do a proper warm-up.’
Sean Singleton is expertise coach at David Lloyd Leisure (www.davidlloydleisure.co.uk).
Lisa Posel is a personal training instructor at The Third Space (www.thethirdspace.com).