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“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.’


Scott Abbett

Hey Tirrr,

Well, thank you for commenting, but I'll have to completely disagree with you. And all I really need to do is cite as evidence the tens of thousands of naturals who are training in gyms everywhere and showing little or no progress. If you're making good gains with the training you mention and only a week's worth of recuperation, please post your before and after pics and link us to them.

As anecdotal as this might be, I'll keep updating my bodybuilding pics along with new polygraph tests as evidence that I'm always training naturally. That should give you a clue to at least consider that 12 days might not be too much recuperation time.

You'll need to provide more explanation on what you think is the contrast between the way naturals should train and steroid users should go about it. I have no idea where you're coming from with that one.

Actually, after 26 years of bodybuilding, I've noticed that drug users hardly need to put much thought or strategy into muscle building at all; they grow no matter how haphazardly they train. That's one reason they're dependent on that crap.

Come back with some more detail when you have time.



sorry, but i completely disagree with the rest for muscles for naturals. The best frequency for steroid users is once a week, high volume, because they have high testosterone and protein synthesis elevated for more time. Naturals need 1-3 days max to recover (and you don't need too high volume). If you need more than 3-4 days you are doing something wrong (too much volume/intensity).
So twice or three times per week per each muscle is the best for naturals. LOL hard at 12 days recover... come on...even 7 days is too much.


Hello Ian,

Great job; sounds like you've got the idea down and you've learned how to read the feedback your body's providing.

The wrist weights are a terrific idea. I personally use a product called 'PlateMate' for the same purpose. They're very light magnetic add-on weights that make it easier to nudge up the resistance in small increments. This allows subtle adaptation as opposed to a bombardment that too often results in an overtraining plateau.

Keep up the great work.



I try to keep other variables the same each time (2 minutes between sets, 3 sets and 10 reps per set) and all I adjust is the weight. As Scott said, when you keep track of how much weight you move each exercise it is easy to see when you reach a plateau. Occasionally I see a backward move in how much weight I can move one time but unless it happens a few times in a row I am not worried about it. I have 2 routines that hit different body parts and I do them on alternate Fridays giving my muscles about 14 days of rest. Compared to this time last year I can lift twice the weight that I used to be able to lift. One tip with the weights, I use dumbbells simply because that is all I have at home and sometimes a 5 lbs increase in weight on each arm is a little too much. I bought some 1.5 and 2.5 lb wrist weights and by using those I can ease upwards in weight.

Scott Abbett

Hi Jos,

Thank you for visiting, reading the article, and posting that great question.

Of course; there's a limit to how much rest we can provide for our muscles before they begin to atrophy. The ideal scenario - the one that creates non-stop bodybuilding progress - is one in which the muscle is trained again right when it's maximally recuperated, and just before it starts going the other direction and begins to atrophy.

The number of inter-workout rest days this requires is dependent on a lot of variables - not the least of which being how intensely the muscles are worked during muscle building workouts. But there are other factors to be considered too, such as age and the degree of muscular development one has already attained.

Discovering the 'sweet spot' that resides between overtraining and undertraining requires testing and attention-to-feedback. The only way to get that is to actually keep a written or digital record of what you're doing in the gym. But how many people do THAT? Next to none. I have no doubt as to what the reason is that so many natural bodybuilders end up frustrated with their progress.

Thanks again for reading and commenting. Hope your training's going great.



Hey Scott
What about the risk of undertraining when one becomes generous with workout rest days? Can a person's workout performance lack improvement due to atrophy of the compensated muscle growth due to waiting too long from the previous workout?

Considering that muscle growth is a slow process, what are some signs that the muscles are fully compensated from the previous workout? How does one find the right balance?

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