Achieving the results you want in the gym doesn't require a Masters in Sports Science, nor a workout plan that's measured down to the millisecond. But knowing the basics of how your body functions can be hugely valuable when you're trying to ensure steady progress.
Our guide will help you cut through the misinformation and ditch the bro science, to ensure the techniques you employ always deliver the effects you're after. It'll get you out the door quicker, too.
#1 – Soreness Is Essential for Muscle Growth
You may consider the pain and tightness you feel a day or two after blasting a muscle – known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – a badge of honour. Identified in 1902, it’s often a result of muscle fibre micro-tears. If you’re new to training, these can spur growth. But more damage doesn’t equal more gains, warns Andy Galpin, a doctor of exercise physiology at California State University. “On a scale of one to 10, pushing yourself to a seven of soreness might stimulate some growth,” he says.
Track your workouts based strictly on effectiveness. Choose key exercises, like squats, and do them at least once a week. If you’re improving your reps, form or weight on these each month, you’re on the right track, even if you’re only a little tender afterwards.
#2 – You Have a Half-Hour Window after Lifting to Feed Your Muscles
Gyms sell protein shakes because bro science states that there’s a 30-minute “anabolic window” for protein after a workout. This is partly true: you need protein if you’re chasing muscle – about 0.7g to 1g of it per pound of bodyweight each day. The easiest way to consume this is in three to five meals, and a post-lift shake counts as one of these. But according to a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, your muscles are primed for protein for a far longer window of up to four hours around your workout.
Focus on your protein intake by eating well at mealtimes to get your muscle-fuelling protein within the actual anabolic window.
#3 – Lift at Your Max to Optimise Your Gains
The biggest men in your gym are the ones lifting the heaviest weights. So, you’ve got to go heavy, right? A Brazilian study published in PLOS One suggests that it’s not so simple. Participants performed sets of seven to nine reps, or 21 to 36 reps. The first group lifted more weight, but both showed similar muscle growth. Should you lift heavy at times? Yes. But if you’re tired, you won’t lose any muscle (and you may even gain some) by trading heavy bench presses for press-ups.
Vary your rep ranges every few weeks, says Hollywood trainer Don Saladino. For two weeks, do 12 to 15 reps per set; for the next fortnight, do eight to 10 reps; then switch to four to six reps. He believes the body needs to train with a variety of rep ranges. We trust him.
#4 – Isolation Exercises Have No Place in Your Plan
An isolation exercise works just one muscle – think the biceps curl. But the rise of CrossFit has convinced most trainers that such moves are surplus to requirements. Why do a curl when you can do a chin-up? Surely moves that activate more muscles build more real-world strength?
Not so, according to a recent review of research on the leg extension. The move is simple, asking you to straighten your knee. But a Tufts University study found that doing that alone still increased the walking speed of elderly men by almost 50%. Even isolation exercises recruit stabilising muscles, if done correctly.
Turn every movement – whether it’s a squat or an isolation move, such as a skull crusher – into a full-body exercise by starting with three steps: flex your abs, squeeze your glutes and tighten your shoulder blades.
#5 – If You Binge on Junk Food, You Need to Train for Longer the Next Day
According to conventional wisdom, working out burns calories, so to burn more, you simply need to train more. However, a Hunter College study on hunter-gatherers in Tanzania found that the Hazda people exercised four times as much as an average American, yet burned virtually the same number of calories. Here's why: exercise pushes your body to burn calories, but everyone has a unique cut-off point. Approach that threshold in your workout and your body starts to burn far fewer calories and can even begin to shut down certain functions – such as building new muscle tissue – in order to operate efficiently.
If you’re trying to maintain a calorie deficit, calculate over the course of a week. This allows you to have cheat days. Schedule workouts so you’re consistently burning calories over that week, too. If you want to burn a few extra, don’t make your workout longer. Just spend the last 10 minutes doing high-intensity interval training.
#6 – Everyone Is Born as Either an Explosive Athlete or a Plodder
Exercise scientists long divided muscle fibres into two categories: slow-twitch fibres, the kind that get you through a marathon; and fast-twitch fibres, the ones that power you through a sprint. Decades ago, researchers believed their distribution was genetic, so no training could turn a skinny, slow-twitch distance runner into a muscular sprinter (or vice versa). But then a landmark 2018 study of identical twins – one sedentary and one a life-long distance runner – changed all that. Thanks to miles of running, the active brother’s muscles were almost entirely slow-twitch. The sedentary brother’s? A 50/50 split between fast- and slow-twitch.
To build total-body function and overall health, include both fast- and slow-twitch exercises in every workout. Lead with a fast-twitch move, such as an explosive bench press.End with slow exercises, such as bent-over rows, in which you take three seconds to lower the weight. Cover all bases.
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