If you ever struggled to build muscle naturally I completely understand you. I have been there for a very very long time where I tried every single imaginable program out there on myself in search of the secret formula. Let me tell you something straight at the beginning of this article. There is no secret or shortcut. Even if you optimize your workouts and nutrition, it still takes a very long time and a lot of hard work to get good results and build your physique.
However, what you do not want to do is to be stuck at the same place with no progress for years. A lot of lifters that I see in the gym where I train look pretty much the same for years, even if they are not advanced trainees. What usually happens is this: a completely new lifter starts working out and has decent results for the first 6-8 months (newbie gains), after which any further progress completely stops. At this point the same individual will blame genetics and blame everyone else who is bigger than him that they use steroids.
Instead, what this individual needs to realize is that after the honeymoon period is over, an actual plan and structure is required to brake through plateaus. This is where knowledge about nutrition and exercise comes into play and really shines.
Just to give you an idea, for a very long time I was looking like this.
However, after learning more about the best way to train as a natural trainee, I managed to transform my physique to this:
In this article I will brake down and explain the following points so you can fully understand what is required for maximal muscle growth as a natural trainee:
1.) Why you should not switch exercises all the time.
2.) Why you should spend at least 4 months bulking for every month cutting.
3.) How to optimize protein and fat intake for maximal muscle growth.
4.) Why focusing on external cues (getting the weight up) instead of internal cues (mind muscle connection) is actually better for muscle growth.
Lets get started.
Why you should not switch exercises all the time
The key driver for muscle growth is mechanical tension during an exercise. Mechanical tension is the stress that causes muscular adaptations to take place, resulting in muscle growth. However, just like any stress, our body can quickly adapt to it which is why we need to progressively increase the amount of stress over time to keep muscles growing. This is why progressive overload is so important, and why getting stronger is crucial for muscle growth.
The key to muscle growth is to get really strong in a medium rep range on a particular exercise with a proper form.
Dr. Hans Selye created a concept called general adaptation syndrome (GAS). After any type of stress, there is an alarm stage followed by an increase in stress hormones (cortisol), after which there is a resistance phase characterized by improvements in muscle strength and size (anti catabolic and anabolic) to improve resistance against this kind of stress.
Now that we got that covered, what is the biggest benefit of sticking to the same exercise? It is actually very simple, it allows you to practice the same movement pattern over and over again, allowing you to perfect the technique and get really strong. Strength is a skill, and to become very skillful at anything, you need to practice it on a regular basis. Just like a footballer needs to practice football every day in order to further develop and improve his shooting skills, the same way you have to practice the same exercise for a particular muscle group to get really strong at.
For example, performing heavy squats twice a week not only allows you to practice the skill frequently, but also helps to improve inter-muscular coordination which is a neural adaptation required for continued strength development. The reason why strength development is so important is because it is highly correlated with muscle size. The stronger you are, the more muscle size you have. This is why mastering the form on a specific exercise (usually compound exercise) and getting really strong at a moderate rep range practically guarantees you muscle growth.
Why you should spend at least 4 months bulking for every month cutting
Most people believe that in order to build muscle you need to be in an energy surplus, and to lose fat you need to be in an energy deficit, but this is not entirely true. Building muscle and losing fat at the same time is possible, however it works best for novice trainees, individuals coming back to tracking after a long pause, and very obese individuals. However, for someone who has been lifting for a while and is past its newbie gains, ideal conditions for muscle growth are different than ideal conditions for fat loss.
For example the ideal condition for muscle growth requires having a lot of amino acids in blood all the time. This is a problem for fat loss as amino acids are highly insulinogenic. Even if we look at the average throughout the day, insulin levels would be significantly higher than on a low energy intakes. This of course will limit the amount of fat we burn at that time. On the other hand, ideal condition for fat loss requires caloric deficit, which poses a problem for optimal muscle growth rate as we need both energy and protein to build muscle.
Even in my experience with many clients, a lot of upper intermediate and advanced trainees require surplus in order to further progress with strength and muscle growth. A Brazilian study on bodybuilders recently found that 10% caloric surplus resulted in substantially greater muscle growth compared with 1% surplus. It simply becomes increasingly difficult to signal your body to keep growing muscle size after a certain point.
On the other hand, during the fat loss phase when you are in a caloric deficit, any muscle gain becomes increasingly more difficult for an advanced trainee. This mostly becomes a period where you want to preserve the most muscle mass possible while losing fat at the same time. It is also significantly easier and faster to lose fat than to build muscle. Typically you can lose up to 1.5% of body-weight per week when you are cutting. The rate of muscle growth when bulking is significantly slower as your body is literally building new tissue, resulting in around 1-2% weight gain per month. As a result, you can typically lose fat 4 times faster than you can build muscle as a natural trainee. Because of this difference, you should be able to finish the cut significantly faster and then transition into a lean bulking phase. Bulking phases are also more productive as this is the period that you will gain a lot of strength, make new personal records and build new muscle. On top of all of that, you will have more energy for daily activities and overall feel better because of an energy surplus.
How to optimize protein and fat intake for maximal muscle growth
We need protein to build muscle, that one is obvious. However what I have seen with most people is that they either do not consume enough protein (usually beginners), or they consume way too much of it (usually intermediate or advanced trainees). Very rarely do I see someone consuming optimal amount. Before we see how much protein is optimal for muscle growth, lets see what are the effects of consuming too little and too much protein.
The first one is quite obvious. If you do not consume enough protein you are limiting your muscle growth. On top of that, not consuming enough protein can lead to higher levels of hunger (protein leverage theory), which can lead to overfeeding and gaining fat. Moreover, protein intakes below minimum recommendations are associated with lower strength and muscle growth.
Having too much protein means your are unnecessarily increasing your energy intake. Every gram of protein has 4 kcal, and consuming extra protein does not mean more muscle growth, it just means that your body will burn the extra protein for energy. In case it is not burned, it can even be stored as fat as carbon skeleton of certain amino acids can be used to produce fatty acids. This also means that you could have used this energy for extra carbohydrates or fats for more optimal performance as the primary source of energy for your body comes from carbohydrates and fats.
There is also an argument that extra protein can help you with hunger management, however this only applies in case where there is insufficient protein intake. As soon as you reach your optimal protein intake, any further benefits simply stop.
So what is the optimal amount of protein? We have a lot of studies showing that going above 1.8 g/kg of body-weight has no additional benefits for muscle growth. So even if you consume, lets say, 3 g/kg, you will not have any additional benefits. Instead, your body will oxidize this extra protein for energy.
Protein intake above 1.8 g/ kg of body weight per day has no additional benefits for muscle growth, strength progression or satiety effect.
Even though total daily protein intake is most important, there is another side of the equation when it comes to protein intake. The leucine threshold determines the minimal amount of protein that you can have per meal. To fully understand this, I will quickly explain the effects of leucine as an amino acid.
Leucine is an amino acid that acts as a trigger for protein translation along the ribosomes. You can think of the leucine as a switch for protein synthesis which stimulates the master enzyme mTOR responsible for muscle growth. It is basically a signal for muscle growth. Now the trick is to have enough leucine with every meal to send strong enough signal to maximize muscle protein synthesis. From all the literature about leucine threshold, to match your leucine threshold, you should consume a minimum amount of 0.3 g/kg of high quality protein with full amino acid profile per meal. This will ensure that the muscle protein synthesis spike is high enough to maximize muscle growth.
To make sure that you hit the leucine threshold, consume at least 0.3 g/kg of high quality protein per meal.
Fat intake for muscle growth
Fat, on the other hand, has a lot of anabolic benefits for natural trainees. The main way it helps you build more muscle is through increased anabolic hormone production. On top of this, some types of fats are inherently anabolic. To be more specific, fat intake increases anabolic hormones such as testosterone, IGF1, estrogen, growth hormone by up to 20% when going from fat intakes of roughly 20% of energy intake to 40%! However if your fat intake is even below 20% of total daily energy intake, optimizing fat intake can increase your anabolic hormones by up to 40%. This is significant for natural trainee, which is why fat intake should not be overlooked. For example saturated fat, even with its undeserved bad reputation for being unhealthy, indirectly increases steroid hormones because it is a precursor of cholesterol, and cholesterol is a precursor of steroid hormones.
Most anabolic fats
One of the most anabolic fats are omega 3. This type of fat not only affects muscle growth through hormones, but it directly increases muscle protein synthesis with its consumption. Omega 3 has other positive effects such as:
Decreases chronic inflammation levels
Protects against muscle damage
Lowers cortisol levels
Increase in thermic effect of food by 50%
Increases anabolic signaling
Increases testosterone production
Recommended intake for maximal anabolic effect is 3 grams of combined EPA and DHA per day. Since supplementation can be an issue due to quality and oxidation (many brands contain only 40% of what is stated on the label), I highly recommend eating fatty fish such as salmon every day. Only 100 grams of salmon will cover all the needs for omega 3.
Omega 6 has similar anabolic effects to omega 3, however it is pro inflammatory which is why it is important to have a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 at most 3 to 1. In terms of its anabolic effects, research showed that consuming omega 6 compared with saturated fat, the benefits for muscle growth can be three times bigger.
With a bad reputation, people often get surprised when I recommend cholesterol intake for muscle growth. First of all, its bad reputation is completely undeserved. Research showed no evidence that cholesterol intake is bad for health. Actually, dietary cholesterol intake has no relationship with blood cholesterol levels because it is completely auto regulated. Cholesterol is so important for your body that if you do not consume enough of it, your body will make its own.
For muscle growth, cholesterol intake helps muscle cells resist damage, improves their ability to repair themselves, and is a precursor for anabolic hormones. All of this in combination can help you build more muscle naturally.
Recommended intakes for maximal muscle growth is 7.2 mg/kg of bodyweight per day.
How anabolic hormones help you build more musle?
Testosterone directly activates androgen receptors, meaning it is sending signals to muscle cells to start producing proteins for muscle growth. As such, it is directly responsible for the amount of muscle mass we have. The more testosterone you have, the more muscle mass you have. However, testosterone does like to take is slow, since it acts on a cellular level, it takes months to notice the difference. The testosterone has the same effects in women as well, however, women can also benefit from another hormone called estrogen. Estrogen hormone has a lot of positive effects on fat loss and muscle growth such as: faster muscle repair, anti catabolism, decentralization of body fat, protection of joints, increase in metabolism. This is why women can actually benefit even more from higher fat intakes than men.
Why focusing on external cues (getting the weight up) instead of internal cues (mind muscle connection) is actually better for muscle growth.
Mind muscle connection is real. It is indeed possible to focus on a particular muscle group for higher activation of the muscle but only in certain circumstances.Mind muscle connection does not work with very high intensity on compound exercises (above 80% 1RM). For example try heavy deadlifting with focusing on your quads. Same for bench press, numerous studies found through EMG activity measurements that it is impossible to focus on your chest with intensities above 80% of 1RM. On top of this, our ability to feel the mechanical tension in the muscle is very poor. What we feel is mostly metabolic stress or the pump, and stretching of the muscle. This is why going by the feel can often be misleading. For example a lot of people do not feel their glutes working during squats, however their activation is maximal during squats. It is just that our ability to feel the muscle working during is bad.
The reason behind this is that your brains motor cortex is so complex and efficient when it comes to movement, that interfering with it results in reduction in performance. Basically what that means is if you try mind muscle connection during squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press or any other compound exercise, you will perform less repetitions with the same weight. Less reps means less time under tension, which results in less mechanical tension and muscle growth.
Instead, focusing on a good range of motion, good form, and progressive overload should be the goal if you want to maximize your muscle growth. This is why external cues (getting the weight up) work better. Of course, the form needs to be perfect to prevent any cheating and reduce injury risk.
Progressive overload is still the king for muscle growth, focus on external cues to maximize your performance.
There is no shortcut to building muscle, and the formula is quite simple: Keep doing the right things consistently, and over time you will see your physique completely transform. Fortunately now you know what the right things are, all you need to do now is take massive action and start implementing things you learned here to your daily habits. Again, if you expect any miracles you are at the wrong place. Even steroid users have to train super hard to get where they are. For natural trainees it is even harder. Its a long process that takes time. Have patience, and be consistent.
If you want to take action today and take your fitness to the next level, here is the next step.
What you will get from this call:
I will see what is your current situation and give you my feedback on what is the best way to go forward.
You will understand exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve your desired fitness goal.
We will talk about strategies that can help you to reach that goal and how to fit them in your lifestyle.
If we both feel that my program and my coaching is a good fit for you, we can talk about working together.