10 things you didn’t know about building muscle
Whether you’re new to lifting, stressing over your lack of progress or you’re mainlining protein powder without an action plan, it’s time to hit pause. There’s more to muscle than what are telling you, and we’ve got the science to prove it. Here are ten weird facts about building muscle you’ll wish you looked up years ago.
1. Get your timings right
“When it comes to getting your protein, when you take it can be just as important as what you take,” says nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert. The two chief proteins in milk are casein and whey, and it’s casein that provides a slower release of amino acids into the bloodstream, making it ideal for taking during the evening to ensure a steady supply of protein overnight.
2. Leucine it coming
Have you ever wondered what actually causes the muscle-building process? Protein synthesis is triggered by leucine, an amino acid that turns up in most high-protein foods. A whey protein shake with 25g of protein will contain around 2.5g of leucine. Up your dose with a BCAA supplement.
(Related: the complete guide to sports supplements)
3. You don’t have to lift big
Yes, the point of lifting is to get stronger, and we defy any serious weightlifter not to feel good after ripping a disgustingly heavy bar away from Terra Firma. But researchers from McMaster University got a group of men to train legs 3 times a week for 10 weeks (the horror!). One leg was trained using high reps and light weights, and the other with heavy weights and lower reps. The amount of new muscle added to both legs was almost identical. When in doubt, drop the weight and focus on form, otherwise you’ll end up like these five form fails:
4. Less is more
Overtraining won’t be doing yourself any favours; if you’re not allowing time to build the muscle back up, all your efforts will be for naught. A study in theJournal of Applied Physiologystates that just 3 days of resistance training a week is optimum for muscle growth.
5. Sore doesn’t mean swole
“There’s actually no scientific link between soreness and growth,” says PT Rogan Allport. Separate studies from theJournal of Strength and Conditioning Researchand theJournal of Applied Physiologyfound no correlation between individuals that had trained sore muscles and a dearth of muscle growth. While your rest days are vital, simple DOMS can be trained on guilt-free – providing you can push past the pain.
(Related: how long should I rest for?)
6. Stress can tank your gains
“Cortisol, the stress hormone, is actually catabolic,” says Allport. This means excess cortisol harms the muscle-building process (anabolic, as in ‘anabolic steroids’, encourages growth). Step out of the fast lane and spend some time on yourself: ourweird ways to de-stressshould keep those cortisol levels down.
7. Never skip leg day
For a whole-body pump, jump straight to the squat rack. Not only do explosive movements cultivate fast-twitch muscle fibres, promoting size, but training your trunks will encourage human growth hormone. “Working on legs produces more growth hormone than training your upper body alone,” Allport tells us. You can't go wrong with this leg-day triset:
Barbell squat: Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart - this wide stance will allow a deeper squat, getting your glutes and hamstrings involved. Hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip – avoid resting it on your neck. Hug the bar into your traps to engage your upper back muscles.
Take the weight of the bar and slowly squat down – head up, back straight, buns out. Lower yourself until your hips are aligned with your knees, with legs at 90 degrees – a deeper squat will be more beneficial but get the strength and flexibility first. Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up. Keep form until you’re stood up straight: that’s one
Kettlebell goblet squat: Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, clasping a kettlebell in each hand in front of your chest with palms facing each other. Bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat, keeping the kettlebells in the same position and ensuring you don't round your black by tensing your glutes throughout. Drive back up and repeat.
Burpee: From a standing position squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and place your palms on the floor. From there kick your feet back as far as you can while keeping your arms extended. As soon as your feet land jump them back in towards your hands, then jump up into the air. Land and immediately squat down to go into the next rep.
(Related: 5 tweaks for bigger legs)
8. Bare bones
If you’re struggling with your deadlift, look down at your feet. Are you wearing running shoes? If so, your heels are already being forced into the wrong position. Training barefoot for compound exercises such as squats and deads promote better form and more natural movements – just don’t drop the weights on your toe.
9. What goes up, must come down
Rather than focusing on lifting the weight off the ground, a 2012 study in theJournal of Physiologyfound that the most muscle fibres were recruited during the controlled lowering of a weight, increasing the muscle’s “time under tension”. It encourages protein synthesis for up to 30 hours after a heavy session, so it’s worth sacrificing a bit of weight in order to focus on controlling the lift.
10. Don’t mainline supps
Protein shakes are an important part of getting your nutrition in, but there’s no need to overdo it. A study in theJournal of Applied Physiologylooked at novice lifters who doubled their recommended liquid supplement intake within a month of training and found no significant increases. Stick to solid foods if you’re gunning for extra gains.
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