“You have to change up your workouts more.”

“You have to eat more protein.”

“You have to increase your time under tension.”

“You have to use more/less weight in your training.”

If you’re looking for advice on building muscle, you’ve probably heard plenty of one-liners like those.

If you keep looking, you’ll hear a lot more. And, after it all, you’ll probably wind up like most people–confused, frustrated, and overwhelmed by a sea of contradictory tips, “hacks,” strategies, and shortcuts, with no idea who to believe and what to do next.

Well, I have good new for you:

Out of all the possible things you could know about diet and training, 20% are going to give you 80%+ of your results.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the average person looking to build a lean, muscular, strong physique can learn everything they need to know in 7 to 8 hours of reading. (And that’s what I try to provide in my books.)

Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for continuing to learn and improve, but if you don’t manage your “information flow” properly, you can easily fall into the trap of “analysis by paralysis.”

So, this episode isn’t going to teach you everything you need to know, but it’s going to give you a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of muscle building. Put these five principles into use and you will see results.

Episode Transcript:

Mike: [00:00:31] I am going to give you the five most effective things you can do to gain muscle faster, to build bigger muscles faster. Now, these aren’t the only things that you can do, of course, because there are many, many things that you can do that will impact muscle building to one degree or another. But these five things are really the 20 percent of muscle building that’s going to give you 80 percent of the results.

These are the fundamentals, the non-negotiables, the primary factors that drive muscle growth. So if you’re looking to gain muscle faster, then make sure you’re getting these five things right before bothering with anything else, really. Because if you don’t get these five things right, then nothing else is going to matter all that much.


[00:01:19] For example, if you’re not eating enough protein and enough calories every day, then your meal timing doesn’t really matter. So whether you are following intermittent fasting type of protocol or a more traditional type of protocol, whether or not you are eating before, during, or after your workouts, none of that matters if you don’t first get the fundamentals of caloric and protein intake right.


[00:01:43] Okay, so the first tip is to train harder, but not too hard. Now, when it comes to working out, most people fall into one of two buckets: they either push themselves way harder than they should in their training or they don’t push themselves hard enough. And as far as mistakes go, I would say the former is probably worse because it eats up time, it eats up your health, it eats up your motivation, and it also can eventually lead to overtraining.

Overtraining isn’t easy to do when many people think they’re overtrained. They are factually not. But you can get there if you push yourself hard enough for long enough and if you are in a caloric deficit as well, or at least in a deficit far more often than a surplus, you can get there.


[00:02:32] The key to making long term steady progress then is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. So you want to be training hard enough to overreach, to push your body a bit beyond its limits, so then it can adapt, but you don’t want to go so far as to overtrain and you also don’t want to fall into a rut of half-assed, kind of just good enough workouts that don’t really produce any results.


[00:03:02] And that last point is particularly important because it explains why so many people start out, do well, see great changes in the mirror, see a great progression in the gym, but then after six or nine months or so, fail to see any further progress. What they don’t realize is just how rigorous you have to be with both your diet and your training to continue making progress as an intermediate and then eventually an advanced weightlifter.


[00:03:31] In terms of your diet, your overall caloric intake and your macronutrient breakdown become very important. And consistency, in particular, becomes very important. When you start out, you can be pretty sloppy with your body, with your calories and your macros. And simply because your body is so hyper-responsive to resistance training, you are going to see results.

Not so once you are intermediate and definitely not so when you’re an advanced weightlifter. As the Instagramers say, you have to be “on point” with your diet if you want to see consistent progress as an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter. And that means you have to be very consistent with your calories.

They need to be where they need to be every single day or at least, you know, five or six days out of every week. And the same thing goes for your macros. You can’t have your protein all over the place, you can’t be eating a half a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for several days, and then back up to, you know, the 0.8 To 1 gram per pound where it needs to be. You really have to keep everything tight.


[00:04:36] And in terms of training, what many people don’t realize is just how much work it takes to continue building muscle and strength as an intermediate and advanced weightlifter. It comes very easily in the beginning. So let’s say for every unit of effort of work that you put in the gym in the beginning, let’s say you’re getting one unit of muscle or strength back.

Just for the sake of an analogy, when you go in your second year, you probably are getting a half of a unit back for every unit you put in. As you go into your third year, it’s probably now a quarter of a unit back. And as time goes on, what you get back just gets smaller and smaller.


[00:05:14] And what that means then is: you can’t get complacent with your training. You can’t turn it into exercise. If you want to continue progressing, if you want to continue gaining muscle and gaining strength, you can’t just go to the gym and go through the motions and get a bit of a pump and not push yourself all that hard, you know, just kind of maybe a little bit outside your comfort zone at most and then leave.

You can do that if you want to just burn some energy and you want to reap the health benefits of exercise, sure. But again, if you want to continue improving your physique, that’s not going to work.


[00:05:47] You have to maintain the training mentality. And what that means is: you have to have clear goals in terms of progressive overload, in particular, in terms of increasing whole-body strength, because that really is what it comes down to, especially as a natural weight lifter. If you want to continue getting bigger over time, you have to continue getting stronger.

So then that means you have to program for that with that goal in mind and you have to be structured with your workout program. You can’t just kind of show up and do whatever you want to do for as long as you want to do it and leave. You have to pay attention to the details. And you have to push yourself hard in your workout and your workouts are going to get harder over time.

They will. Because if you want to continue forcing your body to adapt, if you want your body to continue to get bigger and stronger, then you have to make it work harder and harder. And you can look at that in various different ways. One simple way to look at it could just be heavy sets or hard sets. So, you know, that’s why you’ll see many advanced weightlifters, especially bodybuilders.

And it’s hard to say, of course, if any given bodybuilder is natural or not. But if you look at someone like Eric Helms, for example, who I do think truly is a natural bodybuilder, you’ll see that his workouts are difficult. He does a lot of work in his workouts. A lot more working sets than he would probably recommend to somebody new just starting out. And that’s because that’s what it takes, you know, for his body to continue to progress, it takes that much work.


[00:07:24] Okay, so the next step here is something I mentioned earlier, and that is eating enough protein. Now, dietary laxity is simply one of the biggest mistakes you can make as an intermediate-plus weightlifter. The bottom line is no workout program, no matter how well it’s designed and no matter how willing you are to work hard at it, can overcome a poor diet.

And that’s especially true when you are an intermediate-plus weightlifter. When you’re new, you can get away with quite a few mistakes if your training is set up correctly, because as I mentioned earlier, your body is just hyper-responsive to it. So your protein intake can be lower than optimal, your calories can be lower or even higher than optimal, and you can still see good results.

But once the newbie gains are done, then you are simply not going to get very far if you don’t really get your food right. And a big part of getting your food right, of course, is getting your protein right. And not just getting it right in terms of a single number, but getting it right consistently. Hitting that number every day.

I really should emphasize that because, you know, I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of people now over the years and one of the most common mistakes that intermediate-plus weightlifters make in terms of protein intake is not eating enough consistently.


[00:08:54] For example, many people tend to eat a good amount of protein on the days that they train and then eat a lot less on the days they don’t train because they would rather eat carbs or fats than protein because they’re tastier. And while I understand that that is a mistake. Remember that your body is recovering from your workouts for the next few days.

Protein synthesis rates start dropping, I think, around the 36 hours or 48-hour mark. So after a day and a half or two days, you’re not really building muscle anymore. But there still are other recovery processes that are going on that in some cases require amino acids. So if you train, eat enough protein on that day, that’s good. But then drop your protein and take to, you know, half of what it should be for the following days, your body is not able to recover properly.


[00:09:43] Oh, and in case you’re wondering how much is enough protein, somewhere around one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is good. If you are maintaining or bulking and you want to squeeze in, I guess, a bit more carbs or fats, you can go as low as 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day. And if you’re cutting, and especially if you are lean already and fairly muscular and you’re cutting, I recommend you go a little bit higher. Go up to somewhere around 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day just to maximize muscle retention.


[00:10:15] Another thing worth mentioning is because we’re talking protein intake is protein timing. So when you’re eating it and how frequently you are eating it. This isn’t nearly as important as the overall amount of protein that you’re eating and I actually don’t want to be into all the details of it, because it’ll just make this wait too long.

But if you do want the details, then you can head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “protein timing” and check out an article I wrote on it. And I may have actually already done a video on this, too. Search my YouTube as well, you might find a video, too. But the long story short is that eating 20 to 40 grams of protein every three hours or so may actually be better for muscle building, especially over the long term, than eating larger amounts of protein more infrequently.

Furthermore, having some protein before and after your workouts is probably better for muscle building over the long term than not. So having 20 to 40 grams of protein anywhere from, let’s say, an hour and a half to two hours before your workout to an hour to an hour and a half after your workout is probably better than not.


[00:12:53] Okay, so the next step here is: don’t cheat your form. And there’s a reason why using improper form is called cheating because you are cheating yourself out of gains, and also, depending on the exercise, increasing the risk of injury. Remember that the goal with every rep that you do is not to see how much weight you can move. The goal is to make your muscles work as hard as possible. And the better your form is, the better you are going to be able to do this.


[00:13:25] Now, when I say form, what I’m talking about is technique and range of motion. Right? Those are the two aspects of form. So examples of proper technique are moving the weights in a controlled manner, keeping your elbows tucked in when you bench press, maintaining a neutral lower back when you deadlift, and not letting your knees cave in when you ascend on the squat.

And as far as range of motion goes, we have getting the bar down to your chest when you bench press, we have getting your hips slightly below parallel when you squat, and we have getting the bar to your collarbone area when you’re overhead pressing. And it’s very important that you get both of these things right because poor technique increases the risk of injury.

And in some cases, shifts the workload to muscles that you are not trying to target or emphasize. And reducing the range of motion simply reduces the effectiveness of the exercise because it makes your muscles do less work.


[00:14:27] So if you haven’t put much time into learning or practicing proper form and the exercises that you do most often, and I would say especially on the big compound exercises like the bench press, overhead press, squat, and deadlift, it’s time well spent. I’d recommend that you really groove it in so well that it becomes unconscious because when the weights get heavy and the sets get hard, it can be easy to let your form slip without realizing it.

And if you let your form slip intentionally so you can get an extra rep or two, or if you use poor form intentionally so you can move more weight, just stop. It’s not worth the risk.


[00:15:10] Okay, so the next step here is to eat enough calories. Now your body’s ability to build muscle is heavily impacted by how much food you eat, by how many calories you eat. Eating enough protein isn’t enough. If you want to build muscle as quickly as possible, then you make sure you’re eating enough calories as well.

Because if you under eat, if you don’t eat enough calories, then your body’s muscle-building machinery is just not going to work as well as it could. Now, this is simply a matter of energy balance, of course, which if you’re not familiar with. I would recommend that you head over to muscleforlife.com and search “energy balance” and check out the article I wrote on it.

But the long story short is that if you are eating more calories than you’re burning, you’re in a calorie surplus. If you’re eating fewer calories and you’re burning you in a calorie deficit. And you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight or lose fat, of course. But there is a price to pay, at least in terms of muscle building, when you are in a calorie deficit.


[00:16:13] Specifically, studies have shown that a calorie deficit directly impairs muscle protein synthesis. So that means that your body is simply just not able to build muscle tissue as efficiently when it is being consistently fed fewer calories than it’s burning. Research also shows that a calorie deficit reduces anabolic hormone levels like testosterone levels, for example, and increases catabolic hormone levels like cortisol, which is basically the act opposite you want if you’re trying to maximize muscle growth.

And a calorie deficit also just impairs your workout performance, it makes it harder to continue progressing in your workouts and especially for intermediate and advanced weightlifters, you can pretty much forget about progression. Your goal is to maintain as much strength as possible, really.

You are probably going to lose at least a few reps on your big lifts, especially on – well, it impacts some people differently. Some people tend to lose more on their upper body than their lower bodies. And some people it’s the other way around. But regardless, at the end of a cut, you are usually a bit weaker than when you started. And of course, you don’t gain muscle by getting weaker.


[00:17:20] And so those are all reasons why maximizing muscle growth requires that you stay out of a calorie deficit as much as possible. So when you look at it on a day to day basis for every seven days, if you want to look at it at a week or a month or however you want to look at it, you want to be in a calorie deficit as few of those days as possible if you want to maximize muscle growth. And the most reliable way to do that then is to overshoot your body’s caloric needs.

So you calculate your total daily energy expenditure as accurately as you can. Of course, it’s always a moving target, it’s always kind of a guess, but you try to get it as accurately as you can and then you eat about 10 percent more than that to make sure that you are not in a deficit. You do that every day. That is the key to a good lean bulk and especially as an intermediate and advanced weightlifter.


[00:18:11] Okay, so the next tip here is to track your progress. And this is a hugely important part of training as an intermediate-plus weightlifter that many, many people get wrong. I used to get it wrong myself. I used to show up and do more or less the same exercises every week with the same weights and even probably the same reps because I wasn’t tracking my progress and therefore I didn’t know whether I was going up or down. And I was stuck in a rut for quite some time and that’s one of the big reasons why.


[00:18:41] So what this boils down to is on the dietary side of things, tracking your food intake, using an app like MyFitnessPal, or just following a meal plan, which is what I prefer to do. So I like to just work everything out, make sure that, you know, I have a perfect day of calories and macros and also food choices, you know, that I’m eating enough nutritious foods.

Then I just eat those foods every day until I get sick of something and I make a substitution. So let’s say, you know, if my lunch gets boring, then I will take my numbers that I’ve allotted to that lunch and just come up with something different that fits those numbers and then eat that every day until, you know, eventually I want to make a change.

But because, you know, with flexible dieting, you are eating foods that you like, I find that you know, I don’t really get food burnout. I keep the same things every day for months on end with slight variations here and there and actually look forward to every meal.


[00:19:35] And in terms of training, it means tracking what you’re actually doing in your workouts. So you can see if you’re progressing, because, again, as I mentioned earlier, your number one goal is a natural weightlifter, is to increase your whole body strength over time. And to do that, you have to be adding weight to the bar over time. And to do that, you have to be gaining reps on your exercises over time because eventually, you can turn those additional reps into more weight.

And for tracking, you can use an app, you could use my app Stacked, you could use another app, you can use the notepad app on your phone, you could use a Google spreadsheet, or you could just bring in a notebook into the gym. Whatever you want to do works so long as you can see historically where your numbers are and where they’re going and where they need to go for you to be continually pressing.

If you don’t do that, then I promise you you will get stuck in a rut unless you have eidetic memory or something and you can perfectly recall every set of every workout that you do, then you’re fine. But if that’s not you, then you need to track your workouts. 


[00:20:38] All right, the fifth and final tip is to do everything that you can to enhance your body’s ability to recover from your workout because as we all know, you don’t build muscle in the gym, you build muscle out of the gym. Right? So in the gym, you’re putting in the work. That is a stimulus, right? You’re breaking muscle down and you’re telling your body, “hey, you need to repair this muscle damage.

And ideally, you need to add a bit to it and you need to get stronger to better ready yourself for the next training bout.” And therefore, the better your body can recover from your workouts, the more you can benefit from them individually, the harder they can be, and the more often you can train, the more work you can do.


[00:21:21] Now, we’ve already covered a couple very important aspects of recovery, which are eating enough calories and eating enough protein, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning as well. And one of them is to make sure that you are giving your muscles enough rest in between the workouts that you’re doing. This is particularly relevant these days because high frequency and high volume and even just high load training is fairly popular.

So you have workout programs that have you training all the major, most groups several times per week with rather high amounts of volume and rather heavyweights and that’s dangerous territory, at least for us natural weightlifters. For people on enough drugs, that’s great. But if you’re not on the drugs, not so great.


[00:22:08] Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t train a muscle group a few times a week, but if you are not managing your total weekly volume and if you’re not managing the intensity, so the load, how much weight you are lifting in those workouts, it can get pretty grueling, pretty fast. And again, that’s the road to overtraining.

That is how eventually you run yourself into the ground. And if you want to learn more about all of that, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “muscle building workout” and you’ll see an article I wrote called “How to Create the Ultimate Muscle Building Workout”, it breaks it all down.


[00:22:44] Getting enough sleep is another hugely important aspect of recovery. Most people need about seven to eight hours per night. And if you get less than that too often it is going to impact your training negatively. And if you have trouble sleeping, if you have trouble getting enough sleep, there are a number of things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep and also the duration of your sleep. Head over to muscleforlife.com, search for “sleep” and you will see an article I wrote on that.


[00:23:12] And lastly, we have supplementation, which is the least important but worth mentioning because the right supplements can help speed up your recovery. And the two in particular that I like for this purpose are creatine, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. It is probably the most researched molecule in all sports nutrition and the weight of the evidence makes it very clear that it works.

Most people are going to respond well to it and it’s going to help them gain muscle and strength faster. Now research shows it can also reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation, which, of course, then means less damage to repair and better recovery.


[00:23:51] And the other supplement that I like for the purposes of recovery is carnitine and specifically the form L-carnitine L-tartrate because research shows that it also reduces exercise-induced muscle damage and helps reduce muscle soreness resulting from workouts and improves muscle repair.

So it’s just an all-around great compound for improving recovery. And all that is why you find both creatine and L-carnitine L-tartrate in my post-workout supplement Recharge, which you can learn more about at Legionathletics.com/recharge if you want to check it out.


[00:24:31] All right. So that’s it. You have: train heavy, train hard, but not so heavy and hard that you eventually overtrain. Eat enough protein and enough calories. Track your progress and always push yourself to be improving over your previous workouts. Make recovery just as much of a priority as training. And be patient. If you do those things, you will have no trouble gaining muscle and strength.

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

+ Scientific References