It's no surprise that millions of natural bodybuilders are searching for the best way to build muscle. The consistent and long-term addition of solid muscle to one's body without using steroids is tricky. And while hundreds of printed workouts have the claim of "new" or "cutting edge" attached to them, even a casual analysis reveals many to be nothing more than the same tired-out regimens wrapped in different packaging. Worse, even with the numerous variations with which routines can be designed, many produce lackluster results at best and absolutely nothing at worst. This has left a lot of natural trainees in a frustrating and seemingly perpetual state of seeking the best way to build muscle.
In this article, I'm going to provide guidelines on the best way to build musle when training naturally. This is an important distinction to make - the acknowledgement that training without steroids requires a drastically different set of rules than training with them. It's a distinction that's often not made, or not emphasized with enough contrast. That comes much to the detriment of natural bodybuilders. If you're a life-time natural bodybuilder (like I am), or you're a steroid user who's currently training naturally, your training routine should not resemble those of drug-using bodybuilders.
With that clarification made, let's delve into what twenty-five years of natural bodybuilding has taught me about the best way to build muscle for natural bodybuilding.
The Best Way to Build Muscle: 5 Principles that Make the Difference
Some of what I'll say about the best way to build muscle might sound controversial. That's not because I want it to be; it's because much of what you've already seen and heard on this topic is worthless. And think about it: Why should you feel off-put if some of what I say flies in the face of conventional wisdom? After all, if the information that's already out there were effective, you'd already be making grains and you wouldn't be looking for the best way to build muscle.
All I ask is that you keep an open mind while reading these principles. Run them through your rational thinking process. Look at them from the standpoint of what's worked semi-well for you in the past versus what's not worked at all. And consider that the best way to build muscle is to combine just the right elements in a perfect, synergistic combination so that the resulting outcome is greater than the sum of its parts.
Principle #1: Use Volume Overload against Constrained Time
Many people have already heard of The Overload Principle in bodybuilding. However, it's often mentioned or discussed in an ambiguous manner. Consequently, it's become a nebulous principle in both theory and practice. Think about it: What immediately comes to mind when you think of the overload principle? You probably think it refers to simply working your muscles with increasingly heavier weights.
But this is only partially true. The best way to build muscle is to incrementally increase 'volume' while constraining the time in which it's moved. Let's look at an example of what can happen otherwise.
Let's say you walk into the gym on Monday morning, grab a 70-pound barbell, and do ten standing curls with it. You'll have just moved 700 pounds of weight. If you perform three sets like that, you'll have moved 2,100 pounds of weight. If you time your rest between sets and perform the reps with consistent cadence, you'll have moved the 2,100 pounds within a time constraint. Let's just say you get the entire three sets done in just under ten minutes.
Given this simple example, many bodybuilders will assume their biceps will be bigger if they can perform those same curls in the near future with a heavier weight. But this might or might not be true. If in the future you can curl an 80-pound barbell for the same three sets of ten, you'll have slightly bigger biceps if you can keep the time used to move the new volume down to the same ten minutes. You'd be up to moving 2,400 pounds of weight. However, if you unknowingly increase the time between sets and, thus, extend the time used to move the new volume, you'll likely have the same sized biceps as before.
So the number one principle in the formula for the best way to build muscle is to apply volume overload against time constraints. This allows for granularly incremental overload, reduces the chance of overtraining, and applies a time constraint that keeps the overload relative to something.
Principle #2: Apply Adequate Intensity of Effort
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that some people work out with weights using all the intensity of effort they'd require to pick a dropped paperclip up off the floor. They don't get results because they just don't apply the necessary work ethic.
Repeating Principle #1 of the best way to build muscle, volume within time constraints must be increased. But this won't happen without a good dose of gut-wrenching effort. Getting those increased volumes requires that muscle fibers be challenged to beat their previous best performance. A lackluster effort of simply showing up at the gym and tossing some weight around just won't accomplish that.
It's worth mentioning, however, that having a time-constrained volume goal for a workout can improve a person's intensity of effort. Sometimes people lack adequate work ethic because they have no target for which to shoot. Having target goals for each workout can create more determination, which can awaken a greater willingness to intensify efforts.
Principle #3: Recuperate Longer than 'Normal'
One of the most important elements I've discovered as one in the 'best way to build muscle' is the idea of taking a lot of rest days between workouts. In fact, I've turned conventional wisdom completely on its head with regard to number of rest days. There's nobody else in bodybuilding who dares recommend you rest a muscle well over a week (sometimes two weeks or more) before training it again. But then there's nobody else in bodybuilding who hands you a workout routine that'll prompt you to wholeheartedly endorse it and completely drop your search for the best way to build muscle.
If you fully apply principles 1 and 2 above, then Principle #3 will naturally fall into place. Volume overload with time constraints is demanding. Applying adequate workout intensity makes that demand even greater. The only way for muscles to grow is with sufficient recuperative rest between workouts. In fact, that's the only time muscles are actually growing.
Personally, I find it amusing how people assume that rest time for a worked muscle exceeding one week is excessive. What makes bodybuilders think their muscles know how much time a week is anyway? Muscle tissue has no concept of time; it just recuperates at a steady and methodical pace with no awareness of needing to be ready for the next workout. Moreover, if muscles are worked again any time prior than the full time they need for recuperation, they simply won't get stronger and grow.
So Principle #3 of the best way to build muscle is this: Begin with giving each muscle about seven days of rest to recuperate between workouts. Thereafter, keep incrementally adding rest days if the current number stops being effective. After all, as muscles get bigger, they possess more tissue that needs to be recuperated. Thus, increased muscle size necessitates more inter-workout rest days so as to increase muscle size even further.
Principle #4: Learn and Apply Effective Exercise Form
Upon first consideration, you'd think anyone would recognize good exercise form as a no-brainer for optimal muscle growth. You might be surprised; even seasoned veterans of bodybuilding either don't know how or refuse to execute some very basic exercises with the most effective form. But this is a very important element within the ingredients of the best way to build muscle.
Take, for example, lats-building exercises like pull-downs and rows. Nearly everyone in any given gym is performing these ineffectively. They're using too much weight and simply "yanking" the weight using momentum and their arms. This is the reason that good lats development is so rare.
Here's what's ironic: Many guys who are performing these ineffectively are the same guys who desperately want to "gain weight." Interestingly, the latissimus dorsi muscles just happen to have some of the best potential for adding massive size to the torso region. Gain bigger lats and you gain weight, simple as that. But most bodybuilders never tap the excitingly prospective mass gains of the lats because they don't effectively target them.
The best way to build muscle is to use stellar form on every exercise so as to maximally target the muscle you're attempting to build.
Other muscles that are often targeted ineffectively are the pectorals, deltoids, and abdominals. When you learn and use effective form, you'll develop a more aesthetically balanced physique.
Principle #5 Keep a Workout Record
This is the final principle listed because it really binds the previous four together. The best way to build muscle that I've encountered is through always keeping a record of what happens during workouts.
The way to know if the volume overload you're applying is actually working is by keeping a record. Likewise, choosing an optimal number of rest days between workouts given a particular workout load and intensity is best done by keeping a record. Even acquiring knowledge of which exercises for each muscle are stimulating the most impressive gains is best done through looking back at a record. Recording workouts is essential to making non-stop natural gains. It's no coincidence that very few people record their workouts while at the same time, very few natural bodybuilders appear any more muscular from one year to the next
If you're averse to recording your workouts, consider this: I was once the biggest critic of the idea; you couldn't have paid me to log down my workouts. Now I'm a polar opposite; you could not get me to train without logging the training session, either on paper or digitally. I'd see it as a complete waste of my time and effort. My strength and muscle gains have shot up dramatically as a result of logging down my workouts.
So, with regard to the best way to build muscle, what is the specific information that needs to be recorded?
Answer: Everything of pertinent value from principles 1 through 4 above. You need a simple system that allows you to nudge up your weight volumes within time constraints. You need a system that shows you just how much intensity will be adequate during each workout without overtraining. You need a system that provides micro-feedback so you can clearly see how many rest days are needed given a specific number of exercises and sets. You need a system whereby you can see which exercises are creating progress for each muscle group and which need to be replaced.
Another benefit of recording workouts is its effect on motivation. You'll often need to see strength and muscle gains through volume numbers before you'll see them in the mirror or on the bathroom scale. Once you see ongoing gains ticking upward in your workout log, it becomes nearly impossible to quit or take a lay off. That's powerful motivation.