Many lifters think that building muscle is rocket science. Granted it takes some knowledge on how to properly stimulate the muscle, knowing how long to rest between sets, how many sets and repetitions to do, what to eat, how much cardio, etc. Various factors do play a role in building muscle.
Sure, this can all seem overwhelming and confusing, but I'm going to reveal a few secrets on how to unleash muscle gains without overtraining, without making training a two hour marathon, and without taking away from your social life.
First, let's start with how often you should train. Many people grossly overtrain, and are not even aware of it. Some of the training programs people e-mail me and ask me to critique are just a cardio mess, to put it bluntly. With the amount of training some of these people are doing, it's a wonder they can even maintain muscle.
Many people find these "holy training programs" from fitness and bodybuilding magazines, books, and forums. They fail to realize that these programs are thrown together without taking into consideration personal goals or body type and/or shape. Goals and genetics do have a tremendous affect on how you train and how often you should train.
One of the keys to muscle growth is stimulation. What is muscle stimulation? Is it lifting whatever weight you grab and cranking out 4 sets of 10 reps? That seems to be standard. Is muscle stimulation doing 4 sets? What about poundage? How much is too much and how much is not enough?
Muscle stimulation is hitting the targeted muscle group heavy, with maximum intensity, minimal sets, reps, and exercises, and utilizing proper form. That's it. This simply means to use the heaviest weight possible, 2 - 3 sets of 6 - 8 repetitions. Heavy weight with low reps stimulates the type 2b muscle fibers, those responsible for growth. If you can do this, then the chosen muscle has been stimulated. Once the muscle has been stimulated, you can't stimulate it again in that training session, so there's no need in adding more sets, reps, exercises, etc.
Proper rest between sets is important for muscle growth also. If you are putting maximum intensity into each set, you will need a good two full minutes rest between each set. This is to give the muscle enough time to recover before you hit it again. If you begin your next set before the full two minutes is up, you may have less strength, hence an inefficient set.
If you want to build muscle, you must force your body into growth. Your body is programmed for adaptation. This goes for nutrition, cardio, and training. If you don't give your body a reason to change, it won't.
This is where progressive overload can be useful. Progressive overload is a principle used to push your body out of its comfort zone. Muscles grow best when heavy poundage is used in the 4 - 6 repetition range to stimulate the type 2b muscle fibers, the ones responsible for growth.
For example, if you can bench press 60 pounds for 10 reps and you do that every week; it won't force your muscles to grow. The best you can do with that technique is muscle maintenance. Now, if you were to bench press 70 pounds and could only get 9 reps for each of the 3 sets, that's some more information you can use toward your muscle building goals.
As we previously discussed, muscle grows when it's forced to grow and when the type 2b muscle fibers are recruited. Seventy pounds for 9 reps is still not where you need to be to build your pectoral muscles, so your next chest training day should include 80 pounds so you could max 6 - 8 reps. This rep range is better, but it could still be improved so your third chest day should include 85 - 90 pounds in the 4 - 6 rep range. The idea is to keep increasing the poundage until you can safely mange to pump out 4 - 6 reps with heavy weight.
Keep moving forward each workout in this manner. Your goal each training session should be to have one more rep or more poundage than the previous training session. If not, you have failed to overload your muscles and you will not build muscle as you potentially could.
Another key to muscle growth is rest. Everybody preaches rest, but no one actually takes part in true rest for muscle recovery it seems, at least from what I read on forums.
If you want to build muscle, you have to rest. Weight training is the stimuli for muscle growth. You are not growing in the gym when you are pumping iron; you are only breaking your muscles down, creating a breeding ground for muscle growth to occur. Your muscles grow when you feed it quality nutritious food and when you allow them to rest.
It takes roughly 7-10 days for a muscle to recovery naturally. If you train a muscle group before it's fully recovered it will not grow because it wasn't properly healed. If you keep tearing down your muscles before it rebuilds, you will lose muscle. This is the reason rest is so important, because that's when the actual muscle growth occurs.
To help aid in muscle recovery, it's important to have a complex carbohydrate meal with 7-10 grams of simple sugar, and some protein 20 - 60 minutes post training. The simple sugar will shuttle the nutrients to the muscle and the complex carbs will keep it sustained without the insulin spike and crash.
In addition to getting the nutrients to the muscle, it is wise to invest in some Glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in the body. Although the body can make it, it is not enough to satisfy the body's needs and demands from training, dieting, and/or illness. It's the primary transporter of nitrogen into the muscle cells, improving protein synthesis and growth hormone levels. Glutamine also lowers catabolism and it boosts the immune system.
Now that you have the three basic steps to muscle growth, you can conquer each and start building the muscle you have been so desperately trying for. Keep the above factors in mind, stimulate, progressive overload, and rest.