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January 2013

“What Helps Muscle Growth?” Answer: Hard Work combined with Intelligence

There are now a seemingly countless number of online bodybuilding and fitness instructional videos. Along with these, we see dozens (if not hundreds of) downloadable reports available by self-proclaimed muscle building experts. Professional bodybuilders share their “secrets” of building muscle within the pages of hardcopy magazines. We’ve got literally hundreds of books that have been written and sold on the topic. And yet, people are still frustratingly asking…

Torso Muscles“… What helps muscle growth?”

It’s not helpful that many of the so-called experts merely answer the question with trite simplicity. They’ll say things like… “You’ve gotta work hard and be persistent”… and “you can’t miss workouts”… or “be patient; Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Of course, they’ll throw that last one at you only AFTER they’ve sold you a book they’ve marketed on the notion that there’s such a thing as fast muscle growth. First they’ll tell you what you want to hear and they might tell you the truth.

If you’ve heard all the above answers and you’re still asking “what helps muscle growth”, this article’s for you. I empathize with you. I feel your pain and frustration.

“Why”… you ask?

Because I’ve been in your shoes a hundred-fold. I’ve gone week-after-week, month-after-month, and even multiple years without making any muscle building progress at all. And, yes, I had to simultaneously listen to crap like those quotes above about being patient and persistent. Although these attributes are necessary, they aren’t nearly sufficient as answers to the question “what helps muscle growth.” I’d already demonstrated patience, determination, and perseverance in spades. All the while, I’d notice many of the guys with more muscular development than I had didn’t possess half the work ethic and perseverance that I was consistently demonstrating with my workouts and eating habits.

So I’d ask “what helps muscle growth” and I’d look to the slew of available bodybuilding supplements for the answer. I’d search where so many other frustrated trainees continue to seek answers to this day. I figured there must be some truth to the claims of marketers who touted the benefits of their advanced protein supplements and exotic testosterone boosters.


When I’d finally caught on that nearly all the consumable muscle building products were bullshit, I turned my attention in another direction with my question of “what helps muscle growth” – to the quest of finding the perfect bodybuilding workout routine. I used Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty System. I used Leo Costa’s workout methods that were said to be right out of the logbooks of scientific training discoveries made by eastern bloc Olympics coaches. I tried short workouts that consisted solely of ‘heavy compound movements.’ I experimented with every conceivable split routine you could come up with. And after fifteen years of natural bodybuilding, I was still frustratingly asking…

“… What helps muscle growth?”

It’s a good thing I kept at it so long. I eventually got an answer. And as you might expect, it came from a combination of discoveries along the way. I’ll share my ultimate answer, but first, let’s look at why it’s so hidden and difficult to find in the first place.

‘What Helps Muscles Grow?’ First… NOT following advice of Steroid Users

I’m going to attack this issue very bluntly. If you’re a frustrated natural bodybuilder, the root of your frustration is the very existence of bodybuilding drugs. Steroids have so distorted the realm of muscle building information that it’s no wonder there are literally millions of gym-goers who work hard while making little or no progress with their workouts.

Think I’m exaggerating?

If so, think again. Anabolic steroids speed up protein synthesis and tissue recuperation far beyond what’s achievable with one’s natural output of this hormone. Why would they not?

For example, let’s say a guy’s natural testosterone level averages around 600 ng./dl – give or take a few hundred. If that guy starts injecting high dosages of testosterone proprionate each week, he could easily end up with testosterone levels that are three or four times that amount. Given that testosterone is the most anabolic hormone in the body, you can envision the acceleration of recuperation and growth that would occur within his tissues. The difference is not even close; steroids provide a bodybuilder the leeway to be haphazard in training routine and still enjoy terrific muscle building progress.

Regardless of this stark contrast, the world is scattered with gyms that are replete with members performing workouts from which only a steroid user could make gains. They’re working hard in an attempt to “force” the muscles to adapt to more weight. They do forced reps and drop sets. They’ll sometimes back off on the number of sets performed because a bodybuilding guru advises they do so in a muscle building book. But they invariably give their muscle tissue the universally-prescribed (randomly-arrived-at) one week of rest before pounding it again. In short, they’re doing what can’t create muscle growth in an endogenously natural environment and then asking the resulting funny question: “What helps muscle growth.”

How about starting by NOT doing what will never work.

‘What Helps Muscle Growth?’ Hard work – Intelligently Applied

The obvious takeaway after contrasting the bodily environment of a steroid user versus a natural bodybuilder is that the training schedules of the two should not even closely resemble one another. When I say “training schedules”, I’m primarily referring to the ratio of restful recuperation days to workout days. Muscle tissue only grows between workouts; it actually gets torn down during workouts. If anabolic steroids greatly accelerate tissue repair and growth, then they reduce the number of needed rest days between workouts. Training without them, conversely, leaves muscles absent of such a growth rate and requiring a greater number of restful recuperation days. Barbell Curling

The million dollar question: “How many more rest days do muscles need when trained naturally compared to training with steroids?”

Since answering that question scientifically is nary a possibility without extensive research, let’s just use our best estimation with an unscientific method. We established earlier that a fairly modest steroid regimen could raise a guy’s total testosterone level four-fold above what’s natural. This, of course, might exponentially accelerate the rate of tissue repair and growth. Then again, it might only double that rate. It’s difficult to say and its precise determination might depend on a good many variables. So for the sake of simplicity, let’s just guess that it might raise the rate as many times as the testosterone level itself is raised – four times.

Now, consider that many of the bodybuilding split routines that have become commonplace were created during the heyday of steroid use in bodybuilding. This could easily explain the notion that muscles need no more than 72 hours to recuperate and become stronger before being worked again; if you work your chest on Monday, you should be able to work it again on Friday, right?

Well, not if you’re training naturally and your recuperation rate is four times slower than that of the steroid user. In that case, the same intense chest workout, I would contend, might take you four times the recuperation days from which to recover and build compensatory strength and size. This would result in the need for nearly two weeks (12 days) of rest after the working of each muscle in order for the tissue to recover and grow.

As supporting evidence, just think of all the times you’ve heard the following, either from other bodybuilders or yourself:

“I took a two week break from working out. I thought I’d lose size and strength but I actually came back feeling stronger than ever.”

Again, ‘What helps muscle growth?’ For starters, being intelligent in responding to what feedback is telling you, no matter how drastically that goes against the grain of conventional belief.

‘What Helps Muscle Growth?’ Hard Work – and the Counterintuitive

 Once you’ve started down the road to greater muscle size through extended recuperation, you’ll realize there’s an additional piece to the natural muscle building progress puzzle. That piece is counterintuitive and can best be explained with the following equation:

Bigger Muscles = Longer Recuperation requirements for Further Growth

The so-called experts have left you in the dark by telling you the opposite – that via some unexplainable phenomenon your body’s recuperating capacity will somehow become greater as you gain experience. But think about it: nobody ever tells you how or why this would happen. They apparently just assume it will by merely accepting what sounds intuitive. But here’s some usable, snippy advice in answer to the question “what helps muscle growth”:

Be smart, and sometimes… counterintuitive.

As you gain experience, strength, and muscular development, add MORE recuperation days to those original twelve we talked about above. When muscles have gotten bigger, there’s more tissue that’s been torn down during workouts that’s in need of repair. This means that at some point in time, the muscles will begin needing a greater number of rest days between workouts in order to gain further in size and strength. By adhering to this principle, you’ll avoid a common cause of progress plateaus of which almost nobody else is aware.

Then, you’ll be able to tell those people ‘what helps muscle growth.’

“Muscle Gaining Tips”: Natural Muscle Building without the Nonsense

Do you ever wonder if oft-repeated ‘muscle gaining tips’ you continue to hear and read (ad nauseam) even make sense? If so, you’re not alone; I began questioning this conventional wisdom over twenty years ago. And you’d be well advised to continue engaging your inquiry; few ‘muscle gaining tips are “scientific” in the real sense of the word, despite their proponent’s insistence otherwise. Furthermore, the content within muscle building knowledge that can be accurately labeled ‘scientific’ is sometimes not much more experimentally proved than what those who champion it would characterize as so-called “bro science.” Barbell Plates

Let’s analyze an example of one in the slew of muscle gaining tips that’s treated as irrefutable fact. How many times have you heard that you “have to squat” if you want to get big? Free weight squats are said to be the “cornerstone of mass building exercises.” We’re told repeatedly that squats are not only the best leg building exercise, but that they’ll actually stimulate muscles throughout our entire bodies to grow.  Nobody ever logically explains why this is the case; they just say that it is, often because they’re simply repeating what they’ve heard others say.

Ironically, those “others” who’ve usually become the unquestioned arbiters of such ‘muscle gaining tips’ are pro bodybuilders. I’ve long found this particular deference to be, in many cases, absolutely idiotic. Pro bodybuilders are so jacked-up on stacks of bodybuilding drugs that they’re the last people on earth I’d look to for natural bodybuilding advice. So, honestly, if someone tells me that “squats are the king of mass builders” and I ask them “why” and their reply is:

“… because ‘Arnold Anabolic’… the pro bodybuilder… always said they are…”

… I just laugh out loud and wonder why guys who don’t take steroids value and adhere to advice from guys who do take steroids. Personally, I even take with a grain of salt the muscle building advice created and disseminated by “world class trainers” who spend most of their time training athletes and bodybuilders who are on steroids. If their advice is even decently effective at stimulating natural muscle growth, why do their clients continue slamming boatloads of drugs?

Sure, could the one of many ‘muscle gaining tips’ that says “free weight squats are the king of mass builders” be based on a true phenomenon that transcends the physiological difference between a steroid user and a natural bodybuilder? Of course it could. But something I’ve noticed in my many years of bodybuilding is that steroid users usually make big gains “on-cycle” no matter what they do. Moreover, they often make little or no gains while between cycles. That’s why they go back on their drugs relatively soon after going off them.

So why would I be skeptical of an orthodox generality that says free weight squats build muscle better than any other leg exercise? Isn’t this piece of knowledge a bodybuilding given? Doesn’t it fall under the category of ‘irrefutable’ simply because so many bodybuilders believe it? After all, it must be derived from long-term collective experience, right? Calf Raises

Speaking personally, if free-weight squats were the undeniable key to leg and overall muscular development, I’d have been the epitome of natural bodybuilding development while in my twenties. I did them religiously. I performed them with gut-wrenching intensity. I did set after set of free-weight squats, flat-footed and to the rock-bottom position. In a couple words, I was a “hardcore squatter.”

Interestingly, I never experienced as much leg development from years of free-weight squatting as I have from various leg pressing exercises. This is why when I see squats included as a ‘must-do’ exercise in a list of ‘muscle gaining tips’, I become peeved with the “me too” mentality with which parts of these lists are unthinkingly composed.

‘Muscle Gaining Tips’: A Counter-Orthodox List

I recently ran across a list of 150 “muscle building tips that fit the bill of being partially valuable while mixed with a whole lot of… well, principles that make about as much sense (in my opinion) as the one saying “free weight squats are the key to overall muscle growth.”

In order to avoid redundancy and make the information you’re about to read as valuable as possible, I’ll rebut some of the principles I saw, along with replacing those rebutted with something I view as more important in the context of ‘muscle gaining tips.’ I’ll also list those I think are beneficial if only buttressed with a caveat, and I’ll explain the add-on advice that would make that principle in the list of muscle gaining tips into something of more value.

Each of the ‘muscle gaining tips’ from the list is pasted in bold, exactly as written in the list. In other words, ‘Warning’: Beware of non-sequiturs.

“Anyone that insists a topic or training concept is 100% black or white should be approached with caution. Different things work for different lifters.”

I thought I’d begin with the most asinine non-sequitur in the list of tips. Excuse me, but didn’t the person who wrote the list effectively negate everything he or she asserted in the rest of the list when this one was added? If we’re supposed to attribute something less than 100% effectiveness to the other ‘muscle gaining tips’ listed, by what percentage should we deem them effective? Absolutely amazing; this is the kind of writing that gives us bodybuilders the reputation of being “stupid”.

“Progression of weight is the magic muscle building key.”

The writer of the list was on the right track with this one. It’s just one of those ‘muscle gaining tips’ that’s badly in need of an important caveat.


"Heavy" Compound Lifts': Keep in mind that if your muscle breakdown/recuperation ratio isn't optimized, your muscle gains could come to a screeching halt regardless of which exercises you choose.


Face it: If it were as simple as regularly “adding weight” to lifts when working out, nobody would be having trouble with muscle gains. The weight actually needs to be added in the right increments and at the ideal time. Moreover, adding more weight without adherence to volume moved within time constraints can be an exercise in futility. Case-in-point: If Ben Pakulski can walk up to a 100-pound curling bar and do ten strict reps with it within thirty seconds – and I can walk up to the same bar and do ten repetitions with a 15-second rest-pause between each rep – my biceps won’t be nearly as big as his even though I’m “lifting” the same amount of weight.

Bottom line: “Adding weight”, while well advised, is also woefully inadequate; it’s simply a component of a greater concept – that of volume overload combined with compensatory recuperation.

“Why does every workout seem to work? Because a lifter who is dedicated, eats right and gets stronger can thrive on even the most unorganized muscle building workout.”

When I take in these words, I detect all the vast experiential knowledge of a world class… steroid user. Do I have proof of that? No, but I’ve been in the natural bodybuilding world for a long enough time to know when I’m hearing nonsense from someone who’s never experienced building natural muscle over the long term.

Are some guys so meat-headed that they actually believe training “hard”, eating “right”, and being “dedicated” can compensate for haphazard training routines that result in ambiguous progress at best and extreme overtraining at worst? Amusingly, within the same list of ‘muscle gaining tips’, the writer advised that lifters should “not train to failure” and, instead, take each set to one repetition short of failure. That’s great advice; I agree with it. However, advocating such a tip is an implicit admission that overtraining is a real threat to muscle building progress. Does anyone else notice these blatant contradictions that become the basis of such widespread workout confusion?

Workout routines are not of some relative unimportance for success compared with good eating habits, hard work, and dedication. To the contrary, I believe there’s such widespread frustration in natural muscle building for the precise reason of this fallacy being incessantly perpetuated. If you go to the gym today and blast your thigh muscles with an intense workout, there are a certain number of restful recuperation days the tissue will require in order to be stronger for your next thigh workout. Although good nutrition and adequate sleep will certainly be ideal for optimizing this recuperation, these things just won’t accelerate the process beyond a certain point. Whatever amount of time the tissue needs given the degree of “damage” you’ve inflicted on it – that’s the amount of time it will take. Kettlebell Curls

What this ultimately means is that the muscle breakdown/recuperation ratio is of UTMOST importance for muscle building success. All your “well-timed” protein drinks and deliriously long sleeping hours could be a waste of time, money, and effort if you buy into the idea that workout routines are all ‘relative’… i.e., “one’s as good as the other.”

“Stop calling yourself a hardgainer. Focus on getting your bench press to 300, squat to 400 and deadlift to 500. Once there, look in the mirror and see if you're still a "hardgainer."”

This one in the list of ‘muscle gaining tips’ starts with a brilliant bit of advice and follows that with idiocy.

“Why’s that”… you ask?

Because obviously, if someone is labeling themselves a “hardgainer”, they’re most likely having trouble increasing their bench press, squat, and deadlift weight. I think even the novice bodybuilder has it figured out that the capability of lifting more weight is a component necessary for adding more muscle. The problem lies with the fact that simply advising someone to “focus” on lifting more isn’t going to miraculously make it happen.

Nine times out of ten, when a bodybuilder hits a strength/muscle gain plateau, it’s because the muscles are being under-recuperated for the degree of tear-down they’re incurring. I would assert, therefore, that advising a bodybuilder in such a predicament to ‘add more rest days’ is probably going to be more productive than simply admonishing them to “focus on lifting more.”

That said; the portion of the tip that recommends not labeling oneself a “hardgainer” is terrific. Applying a self-limiting belief through a negative label is one of the surest ways to inadvertently create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Eat more eggs, including the yolks. Egg yolks are nutritionally dense.”

I thought this one was kind of funny so I’ve included it. The author of the 150 muscle building tipsis right; eggs are of high quality protein and the yolks possess some good nutrients. Of course, those nutrients can also be obtained from other food sources. Some cholesterol from the egg yolk is also beneficial, to a degree. All these things considered, I’d never advise someone to eat whole eggs with abandon. I’ve been there and done that. Currently, I’ll scramble four or five egg whites with two whole eggs. However, when I’ve eaten a ratio of yolks that’s equivalent with the whites, it’s transformed me into cholesterol-laden slob with rising blood pressure and a protruding gut-line (not necessary for muscle growth).

“Cardio will not limit your gains. Only poor effort in the gym and a weak diet will limit your gains.”

Wrong! Overtraining will not only “limit” your gains – it will stop them dead in their tracks and sometimes send them backward. I’ll agree that cardio workouts are not necessarily a prescription for limited muscle building gains. However, anything that produces overtraining can create that undesirable effect. Moreover, if you work a muscle before it’s fully recuperated from its previous workout, you’ll send it into what I call ‘recuperation deficit.’

What does this mean?

Wide Grip Pull-Ups (2)It means that if the tissue originally needed 7 days of rest (just an example) in order to recover and become stronger – and you only provided it 5 days – you’d now be tearing it down again while it’s in a two-day sub-recuperated state. Let’s just use our common sense to determine what that might result in: Ah… hmm… a situation in which we might now need OVER 7 days to recuperate and get stronger?

It’s a wonder anyone makes natural gains at all after reading common ‘muscle gaining tips.’

“Pound for pound the best bicep builders are heavy rows and pull-ups/chin-ups. Barbell curls are a good addition to these exercises.”

What? This one actually ticks me off. You show me a guy or gal who makes great gains on biceps by using rows and pull-ups and I’ll show you someone (among many) with downright lousy lats development. Enough said about that.

Having pointed out one that outright peeved me (LOL), I’ll finish off with one (of many, actually) that I thought was brilliant:

“Log your workouts. You must use some system of tracking your progress.”

This one piece of advice is invaluable. Just observe the percentage of people in any given gym who make little or no natural building progress, month after month… year after year. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s about the same percentage of individuals who record absolutely NOTHING while in the gym.

Enough said about this most important of ‘muscle gaining tips’ as well.