“What is Macro Nutrition”; will it help you get in great shape?
“How Much Rest between Sets”… and why it DOES matter

“How can I Build Muscle?” Answer: ATF

If you’re asking the question “how can I build muscle”, I hope I’ve grabbed your attention. After all, the internet is filled with information that attempts to answer the muscle building question. Some of that information is sound. Other bits of it are nonsense. And still some other stuff sits right in-between; it’ll help you somewhat or for a short time, until you stop gaining natural muscle and hit a sticking point again.

Dumbbells Curling (2)My answers to the “how can I build muscle” question will be different than much of what you’ve seen. That’s because a lot of what is considered conventional wisdom in natural bodybuilding is completely useless.

Do I say that just to be controversial or “different?”

Not by a long-shot. I sincerely don’t give a fat rat’s butt if nobody listens to me. I will just keep enjoying the incredible and steady body transformation that I’m making. I’ll keep walking past people in the gym who insist on wasting their time. I’ll watch them pay hard-earned money to “personal trainers” whose only credentials are the awesome physique they’ve built… with the use of steroids. I’ll shake my head in bewilderment as these people spend big bucks for supplements that do absolutely nothing, while at the same time, listening to irrelevant advice that shouldn’t even resonate on a common sense level.

Would you like an example of something that shouldn’t resonate on a common sense level?

Okay… think about this: I just saw some advice given in the comment section of a blog. The commenter subscribes to the wide-spread belief that if you’re asking the question ‘how can I build muscle’, then you need realize that “the body will adapt”… unless, of course… you constantly “change your routine.” He went on to say that a bodybuilder’s muscle building repetitions scheme needs to be changed “every few weeks” in order to… “keep the body guessing.”

Do you really think THAT’S the problem; that you haven’t kept your body guessing?

Let’s just take a look at what a regimen of “keeping the body guessing”, as defined by him, can do.  For the sake of example, let’s say you’re working your biceps once every seven days in order to build your upper arms size. You’ve spent a few weeks performing workouts in which you do 10 to 12 repetitions. Now, in the name of changing your routine, you decide to start doing 6 to 8 repetitions. We’ll illustrate what can happen by first looking at the possible volume of weight you were moving in the 10 to 12 reps range. Your last workout of sets of barbell curls with those reps looked like the following:

70 lbs./12 reps,

65 lbs./12 reps,

60 lbs./10 reps,

60 lbs./10 reps

By multiplying the number of reps by the poundage of weight, we get the weight volume moved for each set. After adding those four set-volumes together, we get a total volume for the exercise of 1,620 lbs.

BTW, keeping track of and improving weight volumes is a big key to answering the ‘how can I build muscle’ question. This sits in stark contrast to the common method that keeps many natural trainees stuck: Simply piling on more workout weight whenever possible.

Now you’re about to start doing heavier sets of 6 to 7 reps for a few weeks. Since you’re reducing the reps by at least 42%, you’ve decided to increase the poundage by nearly the same percentage. Thus, you’ve decided to start your sets with a 90 pound barbell instead of a 70 pounder. Let’s guess that your four sets of the lower reps range workout looks like the following:

100 lbs./6 reps

85 lbs./6 reps

80 lbs./7 reps

75 lbs./6 reps

Now you’ve managed to move 2,120 lbs. of volume on the standing barbell curls.

Sounds great… doesn’t it?

Not necessarily! You see, unless you’re moving a higher volume of weight by the time you get done doing your few weeks of the lower reps, your biceps won’t get any bigger. Moreover, you’d need to move that higher volume of weight without taking any greater amount of time to do it in order that your biceps increase in size.

But here’s a more long-term possible problem: If you manage to move up to a higher volume in the weeks of using the heavier low-reps sets, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be capable of a higher volume movement at the high-reps sets when you go back to them. And in the bigger picture, there’s no guarantee that you won’t slip down in volume-lifting capability on the heavier sets after you’ve gone back to weeks of using the lighter sets for higher reps. If you never move significantly more than 1,620 lbs. of volume on the higher reps, your biceps won’t get bigger. Likewise, if you don’t become capable of lifting substantially more than 2,120 lbs. on the lower reps, your biceps won’t get any bigger. If you move upward in volume on either reps scheme while using substantially more time to perform the workout, your muscle size will also remain plateaued.

Another consideration: Different repetition schemes tear down different muscle fiber types. The heavy lower reps will generally tear down the ‘Type 2b Fast Twitch fibers.’ The higher reps will tear down the ‘Type 2a Fast Twitch’ or the ‘Type 1 Slow Twitch’, or a combination. These different muscle fiber types don’t possess a universal amount of recuperation time after being torn down; the ‘Type 2b Fast Twitch’ fibers often require more rest days for growth. This is a factor often not accounted for by muscle builders who simply “change their routines” in the name of mixing things up.

Here’s the point: Changing your routine is NOT some magic bullet for making muscle building gains. The real answer to the question “how can I build muscle” is in ‘volume overload’ applied during workouts combined with compensative adaption during recovery between workouts.

‘How Can I Build Muscle?’ By Paying Attention to Feedback

What this all points to is a need to apply ‘attention to feedback’ (ATF) to your muscle building regimen.

When I was in the military, the phrase that was pounded into our heads was ‘attention to detail’: “Pay attention to detail, son”… was what we constantly heard as we were going through BUD/S Training.

While ‘paying attention to detail’ is great advice, I want to recommend that you to apply it more pointedly in the context of muscle building. The detail you pay MOST attention to is what can make the difference between making non-stop gains and being stuck in a frustrating plateau. You need to pay attention to feedback. This means noticing the number of rest days between workouts that’s commensurate with the amount of stress you’ve applied to the muscles. It means noticing the amount of volume improvement you’ve made in your past few workouts. It requires seeing any halt or slowdown in that improvement. In a nutshell, it means…


… The question “How Can I Build Muscle” has One Best Answer

That answer is simply the following: ‘Keep a Record of What You Do’

Before you begin rejecting that idea with the notion that it would be “confining” or “limiting” or “laborious”, consider the fact that I once thought the same things. How wrong I was; it’s exactly what UNLEASHED my muscle building potential.  Recording my workouts in a log book is what started making workouts rewarding. They went from being merely rewarding to providing results that were nothing short of EXCITING.

“Why would that be”… you ask?

Because natural muscle building gains need to happen on the micro level of sets, reps, exercise selection, inter-set rest, workout time, etc…, before they show up on a scale or in the mirror. They have to happen at the micro level before they’ll occur at the macro level.

Likewise, if there’s a problem at the micro level, you’ll feel frustration as you simply generalize that you’ve “hit a plateau” without being able to see what the probable reason is and what should be the likely remedy. Seeing what’s happening at that more detailed level will allow you to quickly identify a solution and get back to gaining muscle.

Muscle Building ATF: Isn’t it Painful?

Many aspiring muscle builders fear that paying ‘attention to feedback’ through workout record-keeping might be a chore. They’re afraid that recording workouts might transform the activity of going to the gym and “releasing stress” into just another stressful endeavor, like work.

I once believed the same thing. In retrospect, it’s no coincidence that at the time that  I believed that, I was constantly asking the question “how can I build muscle.”

One reason for muscle building aspirants to think this is that they’ve never been shown how pleasurably easy it can be. Personally, I use a muscle building system and a method of recording it that’s so simple… it actually becomes easier to keep a record of workouts than to go back to NOT doing it.

Why would I ever go back to asking ‘how can I build muscle’ when I can do it with exciting predictability?


Scott Abbett

Hi Sammy,

I couldn't have put that last sentence of your comment any better.

What's even more amazing to me than trainees who refuse to record their workouts are people who pay "personal trainers" who don't keep records. It's difficult enough to build up one's own fitness level without recorded feedback - It's nearly a joke to think a trainer can do it with another person's body.

Your personal adjustment of your workout routine and rest schedule is exactly what I'd expect from the feedback of good record-keeping.



Even though I've changed my training protocol from your recommendations (to more frequency, more compound movements, and an upper/lower split), the single most important thing I got from your book is progressive overload. And you can't correctly move up in weights/reps unless you track progress. My training binder is more important than my shoes, dip belt or any other piece of equipment in my gym bag. Every workout includes a glance at the last time I did that workout to see how much weight I lifted and for how many reps.

You cannot look forward unless you know exactly where you've been.

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