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This article is an excerpt from the new third edition of Bigger Leaner Stronger, my bestselling fitness book for men.

If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.

—ERICA JONG

Nine of ten people you see in the gym don’t train correctly.

I could write an entire chapter cataloguing their mistakes, but here are some of the more common ones:

  • They spend too much time on the wrong exercises.
  • They undertrain and overtrain various muscle groups.
  • They use poor form, especially on the more technical exercises.
  • They use too light or too heavy weights.
  • They rest too little or too much in between sets.

In fact, what most people do in the gym doesn’t even qualify as training but is merely exercise

What’s the difference?

Well, exercise is physical activity done for its own sake—to burn calories or improve energy levels or mood—whereas training is a systematic method of exercising done to achieve a specific, longer-term goal, like increased strength, muscle definition, or athleticism.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with exercise (it beats sitting on your keister), but only training can give you the ripped type of physique that most guys really want

Exercise can make you healthier, but it guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss or muscle gain, the two biggest physiological levers you need to know how to work to build the body of your dreams.

Unfortunately, most gymgoers don’t understand this, and that’s why days, weeks, months, and even years can go by with them doing the same old exercises, lifting the same old weights, and looking at the same old bodies.

In the last chapter, you learned why so many men struggle to lose fat, and in this chapter, you’re going to learn why building muscle is far more difficult for most guys than it should be.

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Let’s get to it, starting with myth number one.

Myth #1
“Heavy Weightlifting Makes You Stronger but Not Bigger”

If there’s one mainstream misconception that causes more harm to men’s physiques than any other, it’s this one.

The idea that heavy weightlifting is purely or even mostly for strength and not muscle gain is absolutely incorrect.

In fact, the most reliable way to gain a considerable amount of muscle is to gain a considerable amount of strength. There are several reasons for this that we’ll discuss in more detail later in this book, but they can be summarized like this:

1. Heavy weightlifting produces large amounts of mechanical tension in your muscles.

As you’ll soon learn, producing more and more mechanical tension in your muscles over time is the single most effective way to stimulate muscle growth.

2. Heavy weightlifting causes greater activation of muscle fibers.

Research shows that this results in a greater effect across a larger percentage of the muscle tissue.

This is why your number one goal as a natural weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength. And the most effective way to do that is heavy weightlifting.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “if that’s true, then how can you explain those guys who are way stronger than they look?”

Many people chalk up these outliers to steroids, superior genetics, or flawless technique, and while these things can be factors, the most important one is something most people don’t consider:

Anatomy.

While we all have the same muscles in our bodies and they’re all located in the same general regions, there are differences in how they’re attached to our skeletons.

These discrepancies are usually small—only a centimeter or two—but they can translate into huge differences in natural strength.

We don’t need to get too technical for the purposes of this discussion, but what it boils down to is mechanical advantage. Because muscles function as levers, where they attach to your bones greatly impacts how much force they’re able to produce and thus how much weight they’re able to move.

These effects on strength can be staggering. Studies show that, thanks to anatomical differences, strength can vary by as much as 25 percent among people with identical amounts of lean mass.

In other words, one person can be up to 25 percent stronger than another with the same body composition.

Similarly, some people’s muscles and bones are arranged in a way that allows them to lift far more than you’d expect based on their musculature. 

For example, if someone has short upper arms, they have a major advantage on the bench press (the bar doesn’t have to move as far), and if someone has long arms and short legs, they’re going to be particularly good at deadlifting.

Some people are just born to push, pull, and squat tremendous amounts of weight, and some aren’t. 

If you’re worried that you’re in the latter camp, take heart because all this should only seriously concern you if you’re trying to become a competitive strength athlete.

If you’re in the gym to build a strong, muscular, lean, and healthy body, though, you can achieve your goals with or without an anatomical leg up.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Myth #2
“Some Guys Just Don’t Have the Genetics to Get Big and Strong”

For many, “genetics” is an unpalatable word.

It’s often associated with things you want to change but can’t, and I’m not going to blow smoke—muscle building is one of those things. We all do have hard limits as to how much muscle we can gain.

There are many physiological variables in play here, but you can get a fairly accurate estimate of your muscle-building potential by analyzing your bone structure.

Research shows that people with larger bones tend to be more muscular than people with smaller frames. Bigger-boned people also tend to have higher testosterone levels and gain muscle faster when they start lifting weights.

What this means, then, is “big-boned” people have more genetic potential for strength and size than smaller folk. What qualifies as “big boned,” though, and how do you measure up?

Two of the best indicators of your overall bone structure are the circumferences of your wrists and ankles. Height being equal, people who have wider wrists and ankles tend to be naturally more muscular and have a higher potential for muscle growth than those with narrower ones.

If you’re like me and you don’t even need to measure anything to know you have slender bones, don’t worry. Again, unless you want to be a top-tier bodybuilder or fitness competitor, you have nothing to worry about. You can gain more than enough muscle to look fantastic. 

Realize that most guys only need to gain about 20 to 25 pounds of muscle to have an impressive physique, and literally anybody can do that, no matter how skinny and weak they are when they touch a barbell for the first time.

Myth #3
“Heavy Weightlifting Is Dangerous”

Many people think weightlifting, especially heavy weightlifting, is inherently dangerous, and I understand why.

When you compare deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing large amounts of weight to other forms of exercise, like jogging, cycling, or calisthenics, weightlifting looks more like a death wish than a discipline.

Poke around on internet forums and you’ll find plenty to feed your anxiety. Personal stories range from the tame—mild joint and muscle aches and the like—to the downright horrific, with some long-time bodybuilders so incapacitated that they can’t even tie their shoes until the ibuprofen kicks in.

And so weightlifting, and strength training in particular, has been saddled with a bum rap for decades now. Thankfully, the tides are turning and strength training is gaining more and more mainstream popularity, but many people still think that its dangers far exceed the benefits.

While weightlifting does have its risks, they’re not nearly as bad as many people think. Ironically, research shows that when done properly, it’s actually one of the safest kinds of athletic activities you can do.

For instance, in one review of 20 studies conducted by scientists at Bond University, it was found that bodybuilding produced an average of just one injury for every 1,000 hours of training.

To put that in perspective, if you spend five hours per week weightlifting, you could go almost four years without experiencing any kind of injury whatsoever.

Researchers also noted that most of the injuries tended to be minor aches and pains that didn’t require any type of special treatment or recovery protocols. In most cases, a bit of extra R & R won the day.

As you’d expect, more intense and technical types of weightlifting, like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, result in more injuries, but fewer than you might think. These activities produced just two to four injuries per 1,000 hours of training.

For comparison, studies show that sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of pavement pounding.

In other words, you’re about 6 to 10 times more likely to get hurt playing everyday sports than hitting the gym for some heavy weightlifting.

The payoff for weightlifting is also tremendous. It delivers a number of health and fitness benefits that you simply can’t get from other types of sports and exercise.

Here’s a short list of what a well-designed weightlifting routine can do for you:

When you compare all that to the rather negligible risk of injury, and the generally mild nature of the injuries that do occur, the choice is clear: choosing to lift weights is far better than choosing not to out of fear of getting hurt.

If you’re adamant about experiencing no physical injuries whatsoever, then your only surefire option is to never leave your bed (and even then you’ll have to contend with bedsores!). Remember that every time you step into your car, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or, heck, type on a computer, you’re flirting with one kind of injury or another.

Dealing with risk is just part of life. All we can do is weigh the probabilities and potential upsides and downsides, make choices that are most likely to play out in our favor over time, and do everything we can to create positive outcomes.

Myth #4
“You Can’t Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time”

Yes, you absolutely can. Well, most people (including you!) can at least.

The major determining factors here are your training state and history. Here are the rules of thumb:

  1. If you’re new to weightlifting or are just getting started again, you shouldn’t have any trouble building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
  2. If you have at least six to eight months of heavy weightlifting under your belt and aren’t coming off a long break, you probably can’t do both and will have to optimize for one or the other (muscle gain or fat loss).

Why are those the rules? Why can’t everyone gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, regardless of their circumstances?

Physiologically speaking, fat loss and muscle growth have “irreconcilable differences.” Their mutual incompatibility stems from their relationship to the body’s energy balance.

When you place your body in a calorie deficit, your body fat levels drop, but so does your body’s ability to create muscle proteins. Testosterone levels also decline and cortisol levels rise when calories are restricted for extended periods of time. 

This is why it’s easier to lose muscle while dieting, and why most people can’t gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. By restricting your calories to lose fat, you also restrict muscle growth.

Why can people new to weightlifting successfully get bigger and leaner at the same time, though?

Research shows that when you first start weightlifting, your body is hyperresponsive and can gain muscle at a very fast rate. For instance, many guys can gain up to 25 pounds of muscle in their first year of weightlifting, whereas the best someone like me can hope for is a pound or three of muscle gain in the next year.

This “newbie gains” or “honeymoon” phase generally lasts six to eight months for most people, and it can simply overpower the muscle-related disadvantages of a calorie deficit.

In other words, a calorie deficit can still slow down muscle growth when you’re new but can’t halt it altogether.

Eventually this advantage fades, however, and with it goes your ability to effectively “recomp” (short for recomposition) your body. 

From that point on, your goal will be to lose fat and not muscle while in a calorie deficit and to gain muscle with minimal fat while in a calorie surplus (more on this soon).

Myth #5
“If You Do the Same Exercises Too Often, You’ll Get Stuck in a Rut”

How many times have you heard that you need to constantly change your workout routine to continue making progress?

That you have to “confuse” and “shock” your muscles into growth by regularly subjecting them to new exercises and workouts?

This sounds sensible. If we want to improve something, whether a skill or a muscle, we have to continually push the envelope and challenge ourselves in new ways, right? And what better way to challenge our muscles than subject them to new types of physical demands again and again?

While it’s true that doing the exact same workouts every week will eventually result in stagnation, the “muscle confusion” theory misses the forest for the trees.

Your muscles have no cognitive abilities. They’re not trying to guess what workout you’re going to do today and can’t be “confused” by fancy workout programming. Muscle tissue is purely mechanical. It can contract and relax. Nothing more.

That said, there’s validity to the basic premise that for your muscles to keep growing in both size and strength, they must be continually challenged. Where muscle confusion goes astray, however, is with the type of challenge it emphasizes.

You can change up your workout routine every week—heck, every day—and hit a plateau because “change” doesn’t stimulate muscle growth.

Progressive overload does, and more so than any other single training factor. 

Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and the most effective way to do this is by progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting. 

In other words, the key to gaining muscle and strength isn’t merely changing the types of stimuli your muscles are exposed to—it’s making your muscles work harder. And this is exactly what you do when you force your muscles to handle heavier and heavier weights.

This is why your number one goal as a weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength over time, and why that’s one of the primary goals of my Bigger Leaner Stronger program.

Myth #6
“You Must Use Bands, Machines, and Other Contraptions”

You’ve just learned a major part of my plan for you: I want to make you as strong as possible. 

To do that, I’m going to have you train very differently from most guys in the gym. 

Instead of telling you to work with big rubber bands, superset every machine in the gym, or play around with the Bosu ball or other toys, I’m going to have you focus on just a few basic things:

  1. Pushing
  2. Pulling
  3. Squatting

Not only that, but I’m going to have you spend most of your time in the gym with a barbell or pair of dumbbells in your hands, because free weights give you the most muscle-building bang for your buck.

Some people would disagree with that statement, pointing to studies that have shown that machines and free weights are equally effective for gaining muscle and strength.

You can’t take such research at face value. You have to look deeper to get the whole picture.

For instance, in almost all cases, the subjects in these studies—at least all the ones I’ve seen—are untrained individuals, meaning they’re brand new to resistance training. 

This is important because your body and muscles are hyperresponsive to resistance training in the beginning. This “newbie gains” or “honeymoon” phase generally lasts three to six months in most people, which means that for a little while, you can do just about anything in the gym and see progress and results. 

Once that mojo runs out, however, it’s gone forever, and what has been working can suddenly stop producing any change whatsoever. 

Furthermore, a number of studies have demonstrated that free weights are superior to machines for gaining muscle and strength. For example:

  • In a study conducted by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan, the free weight squat produced 43 percent more leg muscle activation than the Smith machine squat.
  • In a study conducted by scientists at California State University, the free weight bench press produced 50 percent more shoulder muscle activation than the Smith machine bench press.
  • In a study conducted by scientists at Duke University Medical Center, the free weight squat produced 20 to 60 percent more quadriceps activation and 90 to 225 percent more hamstring activation than the leg press.

Anecdotal evidence agrees here as well.

For decades now, the most successful bodybuilders have almost always emphasized free weights over machines, and I’ll bet that the strongest people in your gym do the same. 

Myth #7
“You Should Spend Most of Your Time on Isolation Exercises”

If you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, it’s not enough to just do any type of free weight exercises. 

You have to do the right free weight exercises, and for our purposes, the best ones we can do are known as compound exercises.

A compound exercise involves multiple joints and muscles. For example, the squat involves moving the knees, ankles, and hips and requires a whole-body coordinated effort, with the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes bearing the brunt of the load.

On the other hand, an exercise like the Nordic hamstring curl involves moving the knees and focuses on strengthening the hamstrings and glutes.

That’s why the Nordic hamstring curl isn’t considered a compound exercise. It’s an isolation exercise, which involves just one joint and a limited number of muscles.

The biceps curl is another example of an isolation exercise because the only joint involved is the elbow, and the biceps muscles do more or less all the work.

One of the biggest fitness mistakes people make is underestimating the importance of compound exercises. They deserve a lot of your time and effort for several reasons: 

1. They train many muscles at once.

The more muscles you can effectively train in a given exercise, the more muscle you can gain as a result.

This also makes for more time efficiency. One compound exercise can do the work of several isolation exercises.

2. They allow you to lift heavier weights.

The best compound exercises put dozens of muscles and multiple joints through large ranges of motion. Consequently, they enable you to move more weight than isolation exercises and thus better progressively overload your muscles. This means faster muscle growth.

3. They significantly raise testosterone and growth hormone levels.

The magnitude of postworkout elevations in anabolic hormones is influenced by the total amount of muscle involved in the workout. This is why research shows that compound exercises produce larger increases in both testosterone and growth hormone than isolation exercises.

These effects don’t influence muscle gain as much as some people would have you believe, but they do have other benefits as well.

I attribute much of my success with my physique to the fact that, after learning about the power of compound exercises, I’ve made them 70 to 80 percent of the work I do in the gym. And I’m going to have you do the same.

Myth #8
“Progressive Overload Isn’t That Important”

If I could go back in time and share just one bit of workout advice with 17-year-old me, it would be this: whatever you do, make sure you progressively overload your muscles.

And I would have gotten bigger muscles a lot faster (*single tear*).

We recall that progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and that it’s the primary mechanical driver of muscle growth.

This sounds simple enough, but how do you actually accomplish it? 

Most people don’t. Instead, they go through more or less the same motions for weeks and months on end and wonder why they have so little to show for it.

You must do three things if you don’t want to be one of these people:

  1. Follow a proven progression model.
  2. Track your workouts.
  3. Adjust your diet and training as needed.

And later in this book, you’re going to learn how to do each of these things correctly, and when you start Bigger Leaner Stronger, you’re going to experience their transformative power firsthand.

Myth #9
“You Have to Get a Big Pump to Get Bigger”

How many times have you heard guys in the gym telling each other to really make it burn and hurt, because “no pain, no gain”?

There’s some truth here.

Every time a muscle contracts, metabolic byproducts like hydrogen ions build up in and around the cells. This causes the burning sensation you feel when you lift weights. 

Your body then pumps more blood into your muscles to carry these compounds away, which makes your muscle cells swell. These compounds also pull water into your muscle cells, making them swell even larger. This reduces the amount of blood that’s able to escape, causing still more swelling. 

This phenomenon is what weightlifters call the “pump,” of course, and there’s strong evidence that it increases protein synthesis, which is the creation of new muscle proteins.

That said, as enjoyable as pumps are, they’re not a strong muscle-building stimulus—not nearly as strong as mechanical tension, for instance—which is why prioritizing pumps in your training is an easy way to hinder muscle and strength gain.

Myth #10
“You Have to Do Cardio to Have a Great Physique”

You’ve probably heard that you must sacrifice inordinate amounts of time to the treadmill or StairMaster to look good. 

Allow me to disabuse you of such nonsense. 

When it comes to improving your body composition (how much muscle and fat you have on your bones), cardio is a double-edged sword.

It burns energy and thus contributes to your fat loss efforts, but it can burn up muscle too. This detracts from your ultimate goal of building a lean, powerful physique, because that requires gaining a fair amount of muscle.

Furthermore, if you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, then you want to limit your cardio for two reasons:

  1. In the short term, cardio can interfere with strength and muscle gain by making you more generally fatigued, which makes it harder to progress in your weightlifting workouts.
  2. In the long term, cardio can interfere with strength and muscle gain by disrupting cell signaling related to muscle growth.

That doesn’t mean you should completely shun cardio, though.

It does have significant health benefits—some of which you don’t get from resistance training—and it can help you burn more energy, which means faster fat loss and easier weight maintenance. 

You just need to know how to do cardio correctly. More on that soon.

#

You’ve just learned some of the most important lessons about how to effectively gain muscle and strength: free weights, compound exercises, and progressive overload are at least half the game.

You’ve also learned the biggest reasons why so many guys wallow in muscle-building misery: they waste too much time with light weights and ineffective exercises and spend too many hours on the treadmill. 

Later in this book, you’re going to learn how to turn all this newfound knowledge into a simple, practical system for transforming your body, but first, let’s return to fat loss and learn exactly how to do it right.

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise can make you healthier, but it guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss or muscle gain, the two biggest physiological levers you need to know how to work to build the body of your dreams.
  • You can’t “lengthen” and “tighten” your muscles, fundamentally change how they’re shaped, or selectively strip fat away so they look more defined. 
  • You can add muscle to your frame and remove body fat—nothing more or less. 
  • The claims that certain forms of exercise produce “long, lean” muscles, like a dancer’s body, while others produce “bulky, ugly” muscles, like a bodybuilder’s, are bogus. 
  • It’s very hard for women to build a big, bulky body. The real reason some women look “bulky” is they’re carrying too much body fat. 
  • The more muscle you have, the less body fat you must have to avoid looking bulky.
  • Most women I’ve worked with are happiest when they’ve gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and dropped their body fat percentage to about 20 percent. 
  • The most reliable way to gain a considerable amount of muscle is to gain a considerable amount of strength.
  • Your number one goal as a natural weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength. 
  • Thanks to anatomical differences, strength can vary by as much as 25 percent among people with identical amounts of lean mass.
  • When done properly, weightlifting is one of the safest kinds of athletic activities you can do.
  • Weightlifting delivers a number of health and fitness benefits that you simply can’t get from other types of sports and exercise.
  • Height being equal, people who have wider wrists and ankles tend to be naturally more muscular and have a higher potential for muscle growth than those with narrower ones.
  • Most guys only need to gain about 20 to 25 pounds of muscle to have an impressive physique, and literally anybody can do that, no matter how skinny and weak they are when they touch a barbell for the first time.
  • Women can build muscle more or less as effectively as men due in part to higher levels of estrogen and growth hormone, which promote muscle growth.
  • If you’re new to weightlifting or are just getting started again, you shouldn’t have any trouble building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
  • If you have at least six to eight months of heavy weightlifting under your belt and aren’t coming off a long break, you probably can’t do both and will have to optimize for one or the other (muscle gain or fat loss).
  • When you place your body in a calorie deficit, your body fat levels drop, but so does your body’s ability to create muscle proteins. Testosterone levels also decline and cortisol levels rise when calories are restricted for extended periods of time.
  • When you first start weightlifting, your body is hyperresponsive and can gain muscle at a very fast rate.
  • This “newbie gains” or “honeymoon” phase generally lasts six to eight months for most people, and it can simply overpower the muscle-related disadvantages of a calorie deficit. Eventually this advantage fades, however, and with it goes your ability to effectively “recomp” (short for recomposition) your body. From that point on, your goal will be to lose fat and not muscle while in a calorie deficit and to gain muscle with minimal fat while in a calorie surplus.
  • Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and the most effective way to do this is by progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting.
  • The key to gaining muscle and strength isn’t merely changing the types of stimuli your muscles are exposed to—it’s making your muscles work harder. 
  • Your number one goal as a weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength over time.
  • Free weights give you the most muscle-building bang for your buck—far more than machines, bands, and other contraptions in the gym.
  • Compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises for gaining muscle and strength because they train many muscles at once, allow you to lift heavier weights, and significantly raise testosterone and growth hormone levels.
  • As muscle tissue is made mostly of protein, it’s no surprise that a high-protein diet is better for gaining muscle and strength than a low-protein one.
  • Women need to eat around 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to maximize muscle gain.
  • As enjoyable as pumps are, they’re not a strong muscle-building stimulus—not nearly as strong as mechanical tension, for instance.
  • If you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, then you want to limit your cardio because it can interfere with strength and muscle gain by making you more generally fatigued and disrupting cell signaling related to muscle growth.
  • Cardio does have significant health benefits—some of which you don’t get from resistance training—and it can help you burn more energy, which means faster fat loss and easier weight maintenance.

This article is an excerpt from the new third edition of Bigger Leaner Stronger, my bestselling fitness book for men, which is currently on sale for just 99 cents.

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