6 top tips for building muscle

Lift weights, rest, sleep, eat more calories than you burn each day, repeat. These are the basic guidelines for how to build muscle size and strength as outlined in two previous articles: Building muscle for strength and Building muscle for size. But if you’ve been doing this for a while and have seen a plateau, here are some added tips to help you progress.

1. Focus

  • No texting during sessions
  • Think about your reasons for improving your body

When you are looking to lift weights, you need to focus. Don’t text and don’t chat mindlessly. Every second needs to be geared towards your goals. It is only 45-60 minutes over 24 or 48 hours so it’s not much to ask. If you focus correctly on your technique and on your goals and reasons for changing your body, you will have a greater impetus for lifting heavier and for longer. However strong you are, lifting heavy weights is never easy. Those that are psyched up for each set are those that make the progress because of their desire to want to lift heavier and for longer every session. You can’t lift heavier or for longer without wanting to do it.

Doing the exercise doesn't automatically mean your muscles develop as the exercise says it will on paper

Doing the exercise doesn’t automatically mean your muscles develop as the exercise says it will on paper…

2. Fuel your workout properly

  • Carbohydrates
  • Caffeine

If your muscles, your brain and your blood aren’t full of energy, you won’t be able to focus or lift heavier or for longer. People have different metabolisms and preferences for eating and digesting food, but I recommend not to workout on a full stomach. Because of this, you should ensure that the food that you eat 3-24 hours before (depending on your levels of glycogen depletion) is full of slow-release complex carbohydrates. This will give you a solid energy base for your muscles to use. Then within one hour before a workout, have a carbohydrate source with a quicker release. Just before you workout, if you can stomach it, have some caffeine too. This combination can come in the form of a pre-workout ‘shake’ but it can also come in the form of dried fruit and coffee too. This will give your brain and blood a final top up of energy through the carbohydrate source, whilst the caffeine stimulates your adrenalin and cortisol hormones to be released which increases alertness, concentration and frees up stored glucose for a ‘fight or flight’ response.

I must state that this method can help for creating bigger muscles but it is not the optimal method for burning body fat. But this is not what this article is focussed on. Thus, if you feel you need a top up during the workout to keep your energy and concentration, do but just not with an amount that will impair your performance through indigestion. Studies have shown that merely swilling a carbohydrate/caffeine drink in your mouth will be enough to trick your brain to thinking that it will be receiving another carbohydrate source and will give you a temporary ‘pep up’ to finish your final 20 minutes of the session.

3. Concentrate on your muscles

  • Contract the muscles you’re wanting to work out
  • Completing a set doesn’t automatically mean you will get bigger muscles

This one may seem obvious but it is one of the most frequently neglected things in weightlifting. Just because you have completed three sets of 12 reps on the bench press doesn’t mean that you will get a bigger chest. Your muscles and your brain, whilst intrinsically linked, are separate entities. The reason for performing the movement that’s namesake is ‘the bench press’ is because it has been found to be a movement that can activate and contract the pectoral muscles to tear, repair and make them stronger. Doing the exercise doesn’t automatically mean your muscles develop as the exercise says it will on paper. You have to actually use those muscles in that way and make them work and cause the micro tears. The muscles don’t know that you’re ‘at the gym’ or that you’re ‘benching rather than using dumbbells’ or that it’s ‘chest day Tuesday today’. All they know is the weight and force they are currently being subjected to whether at the gym or lying on the sofa, the direction they are being pushed or pulled into at this present moment in time and the amount of stored energy they have available to continue under this stress.

Going to the gym or doing the bench press doesn’t get you a bigger chest. Making your pectoral muscles continually contract under duress does. Thus, whichever exercise you are performing, make sure you concentrate on contracting the muscles you are looking to use.

Two further tips:

  1. Closing your eyes every now and again can help with this to make you feel which muscles are being used.
  2. It is better to use a lower weight and strongly contract the correct muscle than it is to use a heavier weight and not create the desired contraction on the muscle it is intended to be working.

4. Don’t just follow the crowd

  • Do the exercises that work best for your body
  • You don’t have to do an exercise because of its prestige amongst peers

Squats, barbell bench press, pull ups. These are all classic exercises for building muscle. But, similar to point 3, just because everyone else does them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you do. These exercise examples have been shown to be some of the best movements for activating specific areas of the body through contraction and extension. However, we are all built differently. Some people have protruding shoulder blades and some people have wider hip bones, and also, some people naturally look to use certain muscles more when performing some movements that other muscles. So if you find out that you can activate your chest muscles better doing dumbbell chest press or a standing cable chest fly, rather than performing barbell bench press or incline dumbbell chest flyes, then do them over the others and don’t worry about it. We go to the gym out of choice; we chose the body we are looking to achieve through choice.

No one person’s body image goal is better than another’s. Do what will safely get you the body you’re looking to achieve, not what the bro in the gym says gets him ‘killer gains’ or boasts that he can lift.

"Isometric tension increases time under tension which creates further muscle stimulation,,,"

Isometric tension increases time under tension which creates further muscle stimulation…

5. Use isometric tension

  • Flex your muscles after a working set
  • This action provides further muscle stimulation

Vanity is not always the reason why you see people flexing their muscles at the gym in front of the mirror.  Statically tensing and holding a muscle contraction is called isometric tension – it’s the same principle behind performing the exercises ‘wall sits’ and ‘the plank’.  For greater muscle growth, look to perform an isometric contraction of the muscle or muscle group being worked out after a set of contractile weight exercises. For example, perform 12 repetitions of the biceps curl, put the weight down and then flex and squeeze the biceps as hard as you can for 6-10 seconds. Rest and then repeat 45-90 seconds later.

The reason for this is fourfold:

  1. Studies have shown that more muscle fibres are activated when performing isometrics compared to contractile repetitions. The benefits of weight bearing contractions though are that you can create a weighted overload to create micro tears in the muscles through continued movement. Performing the isometric contractions after a contractile set allows you to expend the necessary energy reaping the benefits of weighted contractions before activating even more muscle fibres after the set. The more fibres that are activated, the more growth potential.
  2. Flexing sends blood rushing to the muscles creating a greater ‘pump’ sensation which not only feels great but also flushes more fuel to the muscles to perform the exercise again when it is asked to.
  3. Time under tension is increased which creates further muscle stimulation. If you perform 12 repetitions of an exercise to your limit and you can’t perform any more controlled reps, you have gone as far as you can with that weight and with that motion until you rest. Adding an isometric hold after a working contractile set safely increases the time that the muscles are being used without compensating on the weight or duration of the weighted contractile set.
  4. We need to be able to focus on and use specific muscles for them to be subject to micro tears in all exercises. If we cannot focus on the muscle, or you cannot flex a certain muscle and feel it contracting – with or without a weight – your mind-muscle neurological pathway isn’t strong enough. Flexing allows you to safely strengthen the mind-muscle connection which, after practice, will provide you with a more efficient and worthwhile set of contractile exercises.

6. Get a personal trainer

All of the above can be improved by having a personal trainer. Having them there will provide more focus as you are held accountable to someone before, during and after your session. Furthermore, you can have someone to support you in each lift and exercise so that you can safely lift heavier and for longer without the fear of failing at an exercise, finding yourself crumpled on the floor under a barbell with a serious injury. Each session can be progressive and planned for you based on your goals, and all you have to concentrate on is your focus and the muscles you are meant to be activating or recovering at each moment.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 18.54.59Chris James MA O.A. Dip

Director, Head of Fitness and Nutrition

Fitness Body Pro


Chris James
Top Local Trainer Author
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