One the great things that has happened in the past decade is that weightlifting has become a lot more commonplace for both men and women. Women in particular are becoming a lot more confident in lifting weights thanks to social media efforts. The one problem I find with this weightlifting movement however is that probably 90% of gym lifters do not lift with proper form or know the basic principles on how to build muscle.
As a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist, it’s important for me to educate my clients not only on how to get them to their goals but to also cut through the BS of information that is out there on how to build muscle. Today’s post will highlight four necessary steps to building muscle, the smart way.
1. Create a good foundation FIRST before tackling heavier weights
A good foundation must be created before you handle heavier weight loads safely. Reason being, your tendons, ligaments, and muscle tissue need time to adapt to new stresses put on them. The way you create a good foundation is to build stability before strength. Stability exercises are needed to strengthen stabilizer muscles or muscles that stabilize your larger ones (chest, back, arms, legs, etc.)
Out of all stabilizer muscles in your body, your core is the most important, as its strength impacts on the overall strength of the rest of your body. Due to the nature of most of jobs however, most individuals are sedentary and lack core stability. While we sit the majority of our days, intrinsic muscles in our core shut down since they are unused. Your core muscles are not simply your abs. Your core is actually made up of lots of different muscles (big and small). These include the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae. and the diaphragm. Minor muscles involved include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius.
Core stability can be gained through exercises such as plank variations, deadbugs, bird dogs, glute bridges, pallof presses, etc. which can be progressed or regressed based on your fitness level. Below is a video of me showcasing the dead bug, one of the most effective core stability exercise for any fitness level. The key to this exercise is to The key to doing this exercise correctly is to 1️⃣ Keep rib cage down and lower back pressed against the floor 2️⃣ Go SLOW 3️⃣ Inhale through nose on way up and breathe out through mouth on way down. I shoot for 2-3 sets of 8-10 on each side.
If you are uncertain about how to do more of the exercises mentioned, let YouTube be your best friend and guide – it has helped both my clients and myself tremendously.
On a different note, while there are many machines to use in most commercial gyms, do not let their abundance fool you. Machines can have their advantages, especially with special populations, but most sedentary people will benefit more from using free weights (e.g. dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc.) Reason being is free weights help to strengthen your stabilizer muscles much more than machines. Creating an improper foundation by skipping stability will most likely lead to injuries down the road, as I and my clients have personally experienced.
2. Learn how to incorporate progressive overload into your program
A workout program that is designed to build muscle must include principles of progressive overload. This means there are programmed changes made over time to certain variables such as weight reps, sets, tempo, rest time, difficulty of the exercise, etc. Muscles easily adapt to stresses put upon them, especially if those stresses do not change over time. Building muscle starting out is usually relatively easy for beginners since everything is new, but slows as you get more advanced.
Progressive overload can be done in hundreds of different ways. For example, if you did 3 sets of 12 reps of squats one day, you could do either 4 sets of 12 reps next time or 3 sets of 15 reps. Or you could also increase your weight and do 3 sets of 8. This is all up to you. What is important to remember however is that you not simply have to add weight to progress an exercise. Your body does not know how much weight you are lifting – it just knows whether it is easy, medium, or hard. You can trick your body into working harder by manipulating the variables above without sacrificing your safety (and sometimes your sanity).
3. Consider your workout volume and frequency
When just beginning weightlifting for the first time, it’s easy to pick a program someone else is doing or one that you saw in a magazine. The problem with this approach however is that a program like this is not customized to YOU. This is extremely important, as everyone has different body mechanics, previous injuries they need to work around, different muscular imbalances, experience level, etc. Also, if you’ve never lifted weights before, picking a program that someone more advanced is doing will only increase the risk for injury as well as making you feel defeated.
When working with beginners, I recommend doing some form of weightlifting at a frequency between 1-3 times per week every other day. This allows the body enough recovery time when first starting as well as makes sure the tendons, ligaments, and muscles don’t get overused and too sore. I do not recommend working out the same muscle group as a beginner on back to back days because this does not allow the muscle enough time to repair itself and could do further damage than good.
As a beginner, it’s important to manage your volume of work done as well. Volume = weight x sets x reps. For instance, if you did a squat with 10 pounds for 12 reps for 3 sets, your volume would be 10x12x3 = 360. Increasing volume too fast can lead to bad form and injuries, especially if you have not developed a good foundation as discussed in step one of this post.
At the beginning, it will be easier to increase volume, as your body will respond quickly to the new changes. Usually it is easier in this stage to add weight to the bar. Many people like to call this “newbie gains.” Over time however as you get more advanced, increasing volume can get more challenging and special programming may need to come into play. If your goal is not to be an athlete, bodybuilder, or powerlifter, however, most people can have a little bit more freedom to tinker around with the variables discussed in step one.
Bret Contreras has written a great article on allocating volume for optimal muscle growth which you can find here. He mentions that anywhere between 15-30 sets per week for different muscle groups is optimal for putting on muscle for those who are more advanced. For beginners, less sets is usually optimal and can be increased over time. For beginners, I would recommend keeping it simple by choosing mostly compound exercises (ones that work more than one muscle group) and picking 5-7 exercises for anywhere between 2-4 sets.
4. Watch your form to avoid injuries
Your form is probably the most important part of your weightlifting journey. If you do not use proper form, you WILL injury yourself somewhere down the line. It might not be that day, but doing an exercise improperly over time will cause stress on those joints, tendons, and ligaments over time.
If you are unsure if you are using proper form, I would encourage you to find a mirror at home or at the gym where you can spot check yourself. You can also record yourself on your phone and replay it to analyze how you did. Don’t worry about looking silly! It’s better to do an exercise with correct form than to keep cranking away with bad form. I would also look into watching some YouTube videos on the exercises you are trying to attempt. Unfortunately, even on YouTube, many people still don’t showcase proper form.
If you need some go-to people to watch, I would recommend Bret Contreras, Tony Gentilcore, Eric Cressey, and Sohee Lee (Sohee Fit). If you need help with mobility, I would recommend watching some of Kelly Starrett’s videos or buying his book, Becoming a Supple Leopard. If you need further guidance on form or just a workout program in general, consult with a certified personal trainer.
Many times I’ve heard that people do not want to weightlift because it’s dangerous. Well, I can also say, that doing an exercise with bad form and mobility is also dangerous. As Bret Contreras has said, “Being Weak is Dangerous.”
In summary, here is a small recap of today’s post on building muscle:
- Create stability before strength to avoid injuries and build a good foundation
- Include progressive overload methods in your programming to optimize muscle gain
- Decide what volume and frequency is best for you to reach your goals without overdoing it
- Watch your form, do your research, or work with a certified personal trainer to prevent injuries