People have always had an adoration for the lean and muscular physique. Broad shoulders, a wide chest, chiseled abs and a slim waist were regarded as signs of health, power and virility long before TV and muscle magazines were around.
The fitness industry was built on this innate love of muscle and strength.
“Want bigger muscles? Join our fancy gym and buy our super protein at this very special, one-time-only price. Want to lean down and sport a six-pack? Join our ab-training courses and buy the special, clinically proven fat torching pills.”
You’d think with all these products and short-cut solutions the streets would be crawling with physical specimens. But that’s not quite the case. Despite more and more money flowing into gym memberships, health products and sports equipment people aren’t really getting fitter, or healthier for the matter. Walk into your average gym and what do you see? If you’re not training in a hardcore bodybuilding facility, chances are most people in there are out of shape.
“Of course they’re out of shape that’s why they go to the gym.”
Fair enough. The folks starting out, however, are not the ones I talk about. I’m talking about the guy that hits the gym 5x a week, diligently performs his muscle mag routine and finishes every workout with the obligatory protein shake to ensure his muscle building efforts are met with actual muscle gain. He undoubtedly has the determination and the drive to build a better body, but even after months, maybe years of training, he doesn’t really close in on his goals.
But why? What’s wrong with our current approach to fitness?
1. Ignoring the biological reason for muscle gain and fat loss
Why do muscles grow? Modern fitness neglects the biological reason behind muscle gain and fat loss. The issue at hand is that very few individuals understand the processes behind physical adaptation. And I understand. Not everyone wants to invest the time and mental equity to educate themselves and obsessively strive to find the ultimate performance solutions (no worries, I do this for you). The fitness and health industry thrives on the individual’s inability to comprehend human performance.
I don’t have an issue with gyms or training facilities per se. I also believe that some (very few) supplements do have their place in a well-formulated fitness protocol. My problem is with the overreliance on these products. The notion that in order to build muscle you need to supplement with protein powders or with other magic formulas when in reality, all you have to do is give your body a reason to change and provide sufficient nourishment. Work hard, eat properly and rest. Simple really. (Simple, not easy!)
2. Vanity over functionality
There’s nothing wrong with training purely for vanity reasons. If your sole purpose for working out is to look good naked, hey more power to you! But make no mistake, training the body as a functional unit will deliver aesthetic results. I believe vanity and performance can and should go hand in hand. Having big muscles for the mere sake of being “big” defeats the purpose of human fitness.
3. Lack of real-world transferability
Fitness today doesn’t focus on real-world application. Many of the movements you see performed in gyms don’t transfer to everyday activities. They isolate muscles instead of recruiting the entire body. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional biceps curl (I love curls) or incline chest fly. These exercises can be valuable additions to a muscle building program, but isolation movements can never be the foundation of your routine.
Train your muscles to work as a functional unit. Make compound movements the core of your workouts. Now, I’m not saying you need to do the “magic 3” squat, deadlift and bench press (even though this is a good starting point). What you should do, however, is base your training on exercises that work multiple muscles simultaneously. Look at the push-up (the king of upper body movements) for example. It works the deltoids, the triceps, the chest, the core muscles and even the lats (ever get sore lats from performing push-ups?) all at the same time.
This is exactly what you want. Compound exercises provide a greater stimulus for growth than machine or isolation training. I also firmly believe that the strength and power you gain from these exercises are more transferable to everyday activities. Train the body the way it was meant to be trained.
4. Stuck in dogma
“You can’t build muscle with bodyweight training.”
“You have to bench press if you want to get a big chest.”
“You have to eat protein every 2 hours if you want to build muscle.”
Any of these statements sound familiar? Break free from restrictive patterns of thinking. See beyond the mindless propaganda and start being more open-minded. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
5. Listening to everyone… but yourself
We have lost touch with ourselves.
We don’t trust our instincts to come up with the right answers anymore. So we read journals, listen to experts (I’m no expert so keep reading) and rely exclusively on external input to find the right strategies for us. I have made this mistake myself (more than once). Constantly searching for that one answer, that one way, and jumping from one bandwagon to the other. It was only when I took a step back and started listening to my body that I finally broke out of this rut.
You need to find your own way if you want to go far in this sport, hobby, whatever you wanna call it.
Use the information you get from magazines, journals, and experts as “seasoning”, but never blindly follow anyone’s advice. Trust no one other than yourself. Yes, this will take more time and effort than typing the words “diet” and “building muscle” into your Google search bar but it will deliver sustainable results (unlike the latter option).
You need to become more independent and start figuring shit out for yourself. Nobody can figure your shit out for you! Educate yourself. Study, learn, experiment and most importantly…listen to your body!
How to get the results you want
“OK, so where do I go from here? How do I build muscle, burn fat and reach my goal physique?”
Give your body a reason to adapt. And do it consistently.
You want to get stronger? Lift heavy weights. Want to increase the endurance capacity of your muscles? Incorporate drills that force your body to increase energy utilization and efficiency. Looking to lose weight? Provide less energy than your body expends without resorting to restrictive templates or “diets”.
Mindless pumping and fitness magazine routines do not signal your body a need to adapt. Ramp up the intensity. Lift progressively heavier loads and/or perform increasingly difficult bodyweight exercises. Decrease rest periods between sets. Incorporate super-sets, explosive drills, and endurance work in order to increase overall physical performance. The possibilities to add intensity and complexity are nearly limitless.
Focus on progression.
Consciously look for improvement every time you step inside the gym. Increase the resistance, the intensity and/ or the amount of work you do. Do not, however, overemphasize numbers. Numbers will always remain secondary to bodily signals.
Numbers don’t lie? Perhaps, but the human engine is much too complex to be measured in numbers. I’ve had sessions where I felt fantastic but failed to add any additional repetitions to my working sets. Conversely, I’ve had days where I felt tired and sluggish but managed to crush long-standing personal records. It’s not just a numbers game. Stop focusing solely on numbers when evaluating your progress.
Understand that physical improvements can be very subtle i.e. better exercise form, slightly more explosive execution, shorter rest intervals etc. Look at the whole picture. No need to overanalyze though. Simply make sure you keep moving forward. Always.
Consistency above all else.
In order to keep progressing, training must take place on a consistent basis. You need to introduce the stimulus regularly to promote adaptation. Consistency will get you results even with subpar training routines, so get to work!
Muscle building in a nutshell:
- Introduce the stimulus for adaptation
- Provide periods of rest and recovery
- Do it again…and again. Consistency, remember?
Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nothing worth having comes easy. But it’s not as complicated as you’ve been told and no, you don’t have to belong to the genetic elite in order to improve body composition.
What’s your perspective on the current state of fitness? What routine do you follow and why? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you for reading