Many brothers ask me how to gain strength and size. It’s actually a simple formula: Add progressive overload through a resistance training regiment and consume enough calories in order to bring about muscle hypertrophy. Wh.. what, English please? Begin a weight lifting program, strive to lift heavier weights and stuff yourself with boatloads of food to grow. Hmmmmmmmm? Lift weights and eat food? Heading to the gym all excited already? Not so fast. Not exactly rocket science but a lot of people get certain things wrong.
Beginner’s mistakes are plenty. Even seasoned weight lifters error on what I am about to discuss. If I had a mentor telling me what not to do and what to do properly I would have been so ahead of the game. Why start off on the wrong footing when you can start things correctly right off the bat? Avoid the mistakes, save yourself time and progress properly. That’s what I intend to briefly cover with this article.
Starting complicated programs
A lot of people screen bodybuilding websites and magazines for ‘the right program’ for them. I know it’s a bit ironic that I will be writing articles with the same sort of intent after this one, but the purpose of my upcoming articles will be to teach you the fundamental foundational basics. Things that worked for those many successful bodybuilders and power-lifters before they ever wrote about ‘their programs’ as sold through many magazines. That’s if they even do them or write about them as magazine authors use their names while they just earn money. 10 sets of 10 reps of x exercise z exercise with their signature exercise. Not a bad thing, I ventured like that as a newbie as well. You learn a thing here and there, but you waste a lot of time too. There is absolutely no need to do anything over complicated. Keeping it simple is the key to success, especially for a beginner in need of building a foundation.
Starting with isolation exercises
You are probably already guilty of it, I was too, I admit it. Very few people are thought how to start lifting to build their body’s foundation. Walk into a gym and pick up a pair of dumbbells. First exercise? Bicep curls. Amazing how such a tiny pair of muscles fascinate so many aspiring alpha males. If you think a muscle pulling grocery bags or a door knob is the most important muscle to work, man do I have some bad news for you. Biceps brachii or simply biceps, as it’s latin name implies are two tiny muscle heads on the arm. If you want bigger arms they are not even what you should be targetting. Triceps give overall arm size.
Basically isolation exercises are not what you should start off with at this point of the game. Regardless if you’re fat and think you’re huge or if you’re skinny and have legs, arms and a torso that the wind can blow away you shouldn’t be concentrating your efforts on isolation exercises. You need to build a foundation first using calisthenics and barbell compound exercises.
Not having goals
You have to know what you want to achieve. You can neither ‘do it all’ nor can you not know what you want . If you just want to get stronger you have to work at strength training. If you just want to get massive there’s a different method to achieving that goal. If you want to lose fat you must focus on losing fat and maintaining strength. You really can’t do it all at once, you’re setting yourself up for failure or for mediocre results at best. During the first six months from when you start training no matter what you do if you keep at it, your body will lean up, gain muscle and gain strength. Over time to progress further you will have to train with specific goals in mind in order to elicit any good results. Short term goals and long term goals are a must. Understanding your long term goals is important so you can be focused on achieving them otherwise you will waste time by doing wrong things not tailored for your goal.
Hypertrophy vs Strength training
There is a co-relation between strength and size but ultimately one does not equal the other. You will get some size through pure strength training, it’s inevitable that you will have to grow some lean mass to perform the movements you are doing.
At the same pure hypertrophy and volume training for all out mass will not necessarily get you stronger but will inevitably result in you getting stronger.
To gain size you must eat more food and focus on volume of repetitive sets and reps. Not focusing necessarily on strength but still over time lifting heavier, generally through focus on contractions, pumps, exhausting your muscles, doing drop sets resulting in muscle break down, then resting and eating. You NEED food to grow for size.
On the other hand you can get stronger without eating more food or getting bigger but what that sort of training results in is CNS (central nervous system) training. Developing your mind-muscle connection between firing motor neurons and twitching muscle fibers rather than growing your muscles. Sounds cool and looks cool when you see a 160lbs power-lifter dead-lift 600lbs but it is not exactly a way to build muscle. Seems like a paradox to new comers that lifting so much weight will not necessarily elicit maximum muscle size but it’s true.
Conclusion? As far as growing muscle tissue is concerned, yes you need food. Can’t build a house with sweat alone. As far as strength training is concerned, yes you can get stronger without getting bigger or growing more muscle. The two interrelate to one another but are different and achieved differently. All out strength training in the 1 to 5 rep range and hypertrophy focused training in the 6 to 12 rep range are two different things for two different goals. As a beginner I advise users to start a 5×5 program in order to build up some strength then switch over to some hypertrophy training. It all takes time.
Not understanding your body type
There are three main body types. Ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs. In order to tailor your training and nutrition you must understand which body type you are.
There are a lot of so called hard gainers but truly there are some people who are actually hard gainers, these are the ectomorphs. These kinds of people are generally very skinny but can walk around shredded/ripped all year long no matter what they eat while unable to gain weight. The answer is to properly train and eat more and you will remain lean but get more muscular/stronger. If you are forcefully stuffing yourself with food and not training yes you can still get fat, I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also met trained ectomorphs who eat McDonalds and walk around shredded with no fat. It’s not smart health-wise but wow. Proper weight training and more food is the way to go. Bottom line, you can gain muscle you just have to work at it. Over training and over doing it with training volume is a mistake for ectomorphs. Playing basketball every day will never make you gain weight. It’s the second mistake besides not eating more. Cardio is something you should throw out if you want to grow. Other than cardiovascular health it has no place in an ectomorph’s fitness arsenal.
Mesomorphs are the second bunch. These are the mashAllah naturally born athletes. Broad shoulders, built wide with wings, a v shape or x frame if trained minimally. Mesomorphs can gain/lose fat and gain/lose muscle. It’s generally considered the ideal body type. A mesomorph can still get horribly fat without training and proper nutrition. Unlike an ectomorph a mesomorph does have to put effort in getting shredded but will have an easier time gaining muscle than an ectomorph who will struggle. It’s a balanced body type.
Endomorphs are the cursed to be forever fat. No no, it’s not impossible but generally very challenging especially naturally to get shredded. Endomorphs are the bulldozers, the tanks. They can gain muscle from lifting pencils, but will always struggle in getting and staying lean. Reduced calories and increased volume of cardio and resistance training is a must for an endomorph. More training vs less food is generally the better path. Avoiding carb heavy sugary heavy foods and focusing on balanced clean eating is key.
Generally everyone is a slight mix of one of these and not purely one only. I am partly a mesomorph and partly an endomorph. Mesomorph like body shape yet I can get fat so quickly and I’ve never been all out shredded. I am not naturally lean it takes me delicate work to get and stay lean. Over time I have learned what works and doesn’t work for me. It will take everyone some time through experimentation to figure out what works best for them. Just be weary of the signs and responses that your own body gives.
Not eating enough
Keeping in mind that quality muscle takes time to grow, if you’re training properly and still not gaining muscle mass you are probably not eating enough. With strength in mind you will also hit barriers without increasing food from time to time. There’s no other point to make. Don’t eat enough and you will neither progress or even be able to maintain what you’ve achieved if you back off with food.
Eating too much
A lot of websites and gym goers will tell you: “bro you just have to eat like a horse” or “eat lots of peanut butter” or “GOMAD”. No not go mad, but go on the gallon of milk a day ‘diet’. I did all three. You will gain weight and muscle/strength, but you’ll also get fat very fast. What you ‘gain’ on the eat fast advice is bloat and fat, not muscle. Quality muscle takes time to build, period! Endomorphs and some people like myself also happen to be pretty calorie and carb sensitive and it’s a terrible idea. Generally you must gain some fat while bulking, but I highly advise everyone against all out bulking unless you’re a hard gainer. Eating smart and gradually increasing calories little by little when you stagnate is the way to go. For the ectomorphs on the other hand, not such a bad idea, in fact try it but still take it easy at first.
Supplements are useful, there are many that I use all year round as a staple. I will have a more elaborate article on supplements in the near future inshAllah. That being said they are a problem for many people who over depend on them right from the start. Supplements, even protein powders are NOT a replacement for whole food, nutrition and training. They will give you some edge based on what they are intended to do but will not resolve mediocre results due to poor nutrition and/or training. As far as protein powders are even concerned, most people don’t even need them, you can get plenty of protein from meat. As a quick tip, avoid soy at all costs. It’s a garbage protein and harmful to men (it’s Estrogenic). Bottom line? Supplements are ‘supplements’, not ‘replacements’. I take protein powders out of convenience not out of need. I eat plenty of meat and whole food all day long.
Not getting adequate quality sleep
Sleep is very important for a number of reasons. Mental clarity, hormone release, hormone balance, bodily repair, etc.. You grow when you rest. If you skip out on sleep you will have trouble losing fat and gaining muscle. In fact you might gain fat and lose muscle. Your stress hormone levels will sky rocket which will directly impact your testosterone levels. Your growth hormone levels will not be right either as it is during sleep that the majority of growth hormone is released. The list goes on. Make sure that you sleep at least 7 quality hours and ideally 9 hours every night. Naps are cool too if you can manage them, I know this is a common practice in Arab countries middle of the day.
Not keeping notes vs obsessing over numbers
It’s wise to keep notes. How can you know what to do, when you don’t know what you did? The same rules apply for what you eat. When you hit a plateau/stagnate/run into problems, you look back and analyze everything about your results, workouts and nutrition. That’s the only way you can know what you did and what you need to change inshAllah to progress forward. Often times people ‘train by feel’ which is excellent in a way as you are listening to your body, however you can miss out on the opportunity to progress if you don’t know what you’re doing all the time. On the other hand obsessing over numbers is a bad practice. If you expect each time to lift more weight and perform more reps you will get carried away with the numbers and your form and training will suffer. As a result you will end up going backwards by not training proficiently and worse yet you may get injured. Your ego may grow but your muscle and strength won’t. I see it all the time, quarter squats, swinging bicep ‘back’ curls, it makes me sad. Bottom line? Keep notes, keep track, train smart.
Expecting instant results and every day results
I’ve heard it so many times from people “I went to the gym and didn’t get results”. When I ask them how they trained, how often and how long I just shake my head. It takes time, please be patient, persistent and consistent. Finally not every day is a great day. You may stumble, you may rumble, you may tire, but you keep going. Not every day will be a PR day, it’s not suppose to be. Not every day is your best day. Sometimes you need a few days rest, but don’t make it a habit to slack. What matters is that you keep going.
Calisthenics and barbell compound exercises are what I will address in my next article inshAllah. When it comes to a beginner’s routines nothing beats good ol’ calisthenics and 5×5 strength training to build up a foundation. Almost all the successful bodybuilders have begun with a power-lifting/strength training routine. Form is important. Proper nutrition is important. All that I’ve mentioned in this article is important. Until next time inshAllah, Assalamu Alaikum