How to Choose the “Best” Muscle Building System
Aside from the misguided questions regarding supplements and “secrets” for muscle growth, one of the things new lifters most often ask me is what training program they should use to build muscle. Even when muscle mags were the only source of information, there were already a dizzying number of programs to pick from, and now that the internet has made everyone into a supposed guru, there are too many for anyone to keep track of. You’ve got the tried-and-true bodybuilding programs like German Volume Training and High-Intensity Training, as well as plenty of strength-centric routines like 5 x 5. But there are also hundreds if not thousands of branded and copyrighted routines whose authors claim are the best – and only – ways to train.
Fortunately, you don’t need to worry about picking the “perfect” system because it doesn’t exist! Just about any program will work if you apply enough effort, especially if you’re still a beginner lifter. In fact, if you’ve got one guy busting ass on a ridiculous routine with 100% effort and another guy half-assing the smartest, most well-designed program in existence, I’ll put my money on the hard worker every time.
That being said, there are a definitely a few elements of proper program design you should look for. Smart training is great, hard work is even better, and a combination of the two will bring you the fastest results possible. Whether you’re designing your own routine or starting off with a cookie-cutter program, the following are a few things you need to consider before you begin.
Firstly, anyone claiming that their system is the “only” way to train is probably full of crap! There are certainly basic principles you should follow, but far too many lifters get caught up in one system or one way of thinking about training, and they don’t try anything different or new for years – even if they’re not making progress! If you want to pick the right routine now AND in the future, drop the dogma and keep an open mind about training. Even the tried-and-true basics won’t work forever, and you’ll eventually need to change things up to make continual gains.
Addressing Your Long-Term Goals
Any program worth its salt will also fit your long-term goals. You may want to increase your bench by a certain amount in 12 weeks, or lose a pound of fat per week until you reach your desired body composition – but those are extremely short term goals! Training is a lifelong endeavor, and building a great physique and significant strength will take years. Sure, you can make great leaps in development in a short amount of time, but you should not have to hop from one program to the next every few months. So, pick a program – or better yet, a set of training principles – that will keep you moving forward, even as you occasionally shift focus from muscle gain to fat loss.
Fancy exercises can have their place in a routine, especially once you’ve reached an advanced level of development and need different movements to keep progressing. For any beginner or intermediate lifter, however, the majority of a good program should be basic movements – squats, presses, pulls and their variations with barbell and dumbbells. Machines and cables can work well, too, but even then, you’re generally better off using machines that simply mimic a barbell exercise in a fixed plane of motion. If you look at the way most world-class bodybuilders and powerlifters train, even they rarely deviate from tried and true exercises.
Here’s one element that far too many muscle mag programs lack – progression! You can do endless sets and reps of every exercise imaginable, but your progress will soon come to a halt if you’re not adding weight to the bar. And, while this may seem obvious to lifters who haven’t spent too much time on the internet and message boards, the myth still prevails that you don’t need to get stronger to build muscle.
Still, adding weight to the bar isn’t the only way to progress, and you’re not going to be able to go heavier and heavier all the time. Other forms of progression include extra reps, extra sets, extra sessions and even shorter rest periods. Heavier weights should always be the end goal, but you’ll still be moving in the right direction if you can track tangible progress from one session to the next.
I’m all about lofty goals, and I think most guys can gain an incredible amount of muscle and strength if they put forth a full effort – but you’ve got to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a given time frame. If you’re genetically average and have already experienced your “newbie gains,” chances are you’re not going to build pounds of muscle per week or double your strength in a year or less. Set your long-term goals sky-high if you want, but break them up into shorter-term goals that you can realistically accomplish in a few months.
Also, forget the concept of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, at least until you’ve built the vast majority of the mass you want to gain. If you’re too fat for your liking, cut weight until you’re comfortable with how lean you are. Once you’re lean enough, steadily gain quality weight for a year or more at a time! You can’t serve two masters, and waffling between cutting and bulking will leave you looking the same year after year.
You probably understand how important proper nutrition and rest are for recovery, but even with the right foods and plenty of sleep, you can still end up run-down and fatigued. To ensure adequate recovery and constant growth, you also need to address recovery within your training plan!
Still, you don’t necessarily need to plan week-long deloads, or even worse – a week or more of time off from the gym. You never really know how strong you’re going to be until you get in the gym and try, and long, rigidly planned periods of “taking it easy” may just cost you productive training time.
Instead, your program should allow you to make adjustments on the fly. Some days you’ll feel like crap but still hit personal bests, and other days you’re just not going to be able to perform at your best. On these days, you need to be able to switch up your weights, rep schemes and overall training volume to ensure that you’re fresh and ready to go for the next session.