There is just far too much information out there these days (yes, I do believe there is such a thing as too much info.) Sure, it can be convenient to have everything available at your fingertips, just a Google search away. But how do you know if what you find is legitimate and accurate? Most of the information is also uncategorized and unorganized. We are often left confused and unable to reach a decision or conclusion because of this information overload.

You can end up seeing 50 different opinions or supposed ‘facts’ about the search term you are looking for. How do you know who and what to believe?

This is definitely the case when it comes to looking for information on exercise. Enter the search phrase, “How to build muscle”, or something along those lines and you will find countless different opinions and theories on the subject, ranging from the dogmatic rantings of Mike Mentzer about low volume, to Arnold’s theories of high volume (both theories have their place and some validity though.)

Who are you to believe? Well, there are 3 fundamental principles applicable when it comes to building muscle. The truth is most programs can work, provided they abide by these 3 principles, however, if the theory, training program or author’s opinion does not abide by these 3 principles, then its probably garbage.

So without further adieu, here are the 3 things you must know when it comes to building muscle.  

1. Training must be of a high intensity.

Muscles will only grow if they are exposed to exercise which is of a high intensity. The intensity needs to be greater than anything they have encountered before if it is to produce a growth response. The best analogy normally used to explain this that of sunlight and receiving a tan. 

Your skin responds to sunlight by becoming darker. If the sunlight is not intense enough, your skin is not forced to adapt to it, you do not get a tan. Once you have a tan, your skin has built up a bit of a ‘tolerance’ so you need to expose it to more and more sunlight if you wish to further enhance your tan..…you get the picture. 

The same is true for your muscles and their response to exercise – they will not adapt by becoming larger, unless the intensity is great enough. 

Once they adapt to one level of intensity, they will only grow further if they are exposed to even greater intensity and so on and so on.

2. The overload must be progressive.

As explained above, if the intensity is great enough, your muscles will respond by growing. However, once they have adapted to one level of intensity, they will not grow further unless they are exposed to an even higher level of intensity.

So, over the duration of your program, your muscles need to be exposed to an overload which they have never experienced before. This is NOT created by training for longer and longer, adding more sets or reps. 

It is created by making your exercises harder and harder, this is done by adding more weight, slowing down the tempo, emphasizing the negative portion of the lift, forced reps etc etc.

So if you’ve been doing bicep curls with 65lbs for 3 sets of 12 for the past 2 months and seen no improvement in your guns, then that’s why – you have not been making the exercise progressively more difficult.

The bottom line is if your training is not CONSTANTLY being made more and more difficult, you will not continue growing. No two workouts should ever be identical, you should always try to vary the weight used, tempo or other factors to make it more difficult.

3. The frequency of training needs to be appropriate as to allow for adaptation.

So you now understand that the intensity needs to be sufficient to trigger a growth response and also that you need to progressively increase this intensity to ensure continued growth. 

The problem with that, is that your body can only adapt at a certain rate, and if you expose it to too much intensity before it has had time to adapt, it will be unable to, in fact you might even cause it to regress.

To go back to the sunlight analogy, if you are exposed to too much intense sunlight at once, or too soon again after a ‘heavy dose’ of sunlight, you will burn and peel, undoing all the work your body has done to create your tan. 

The same is true of your muscles, if you zap them with high intensity training again too soon, before they have had time to adapt, you break them down and do not give them the opportunity to grow. 

So your training frequency should allow enough time for your muscles to adapt.

How much time is this exactly? 

I cannot say for sure, it varies from person to person. If you are just starting out, your intensity level is really low, so your body will adapt and respond quickly. You could probably initially get by with training a muscle 3 times per week. 

But, if you are an advanced trainer, you will have to exercise at extreme levels of intensity that are hugely taxing on your body’s recovery systems, and in that case even training muscle groups once per week could still be too much. I have heard of competitors in the World’s strongest man competition only performing deadlifts once a month when they train. They do them so heavy, that it takes their body a month to recover from it.

So to determine your frequency, your best bet is to keep a training journal (for more on measurement and tracking your training read this), keep records and check your progress. When your progress starts to stall and you are unable to increase intensity, you need to allow for more recovery, so decrease your training frequency, it’s an art and takes some time to get to know your body.

So next time you go to the gym, ask yourself if your training program incorporates these 3 principles!

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