Getting Big the Smart Way

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There are many reasons why people hit the weight room. Some want to improve their cardiovascular health—a low weight/high repetition workout is great for that—some want to get toned, and some are happy to stand in the corner and ogle members of the opposite sex (the ‘confusing the gym with a nightclub’ crowd). However, the majority of guys—and some girls—simply want to get big…or ‘swole’, as the kids say today (that’s right, I’m socially conscious). But whether it’s about getting bigger beach muscles (chest, biceps, shoulders), or bigger in areas that aid with functional strength (back and legs) there are smart and not-so-smart ways to achieve those goals.

Pumping iron, as well as providing pleasing aesthetic results, is great for your health—but only if it’s done safely and correctly. Walk into any gym and you’ll see people lifting who are making serious errors that could result, at the very least, in them making zero progression, and in the worst-case scenario, serious injury. Of course, getting big is cool—big guys don’t get sand kicked in their face at the beach (Charles Atlas reference)—but it’s cooler to do it smartly and safely. Here are 5 tips to help you build muscle without building a long-term relationship with your physiotherapist.

Good form is essential
 
 

To get bigger muscles it’s necessary to haul around a fair amount of iron—that much is pretty obvious. But that doesn’t mean that you should go above and beyond what’s humanly possible. If you can’t do an exercise in perfect form, don’t do it at all. And if you’re doing a compound exercise—deadlifting, squatting, or bench-pressing—make sure you warm up your muscles with a lighter weight, getting your form down perfectly, before progressing to heavier sets. Just as important, if it’s your first time doing a particular exercise, set aside your ego, ignore the guys dead-lifting 500 pounds, and ensure that you know how to do the exercise safely and correctly.

Many guys, for example, load up on the deadlift—a great exercise if done with good form—before really knowing how to do it right. For your health and progression it’s a lot better to deadlift 225 with a straight back, taking the pressure on your thighs and glutes, than it is to haul 500 pounds with your back and shoulders rounded (a big No-No). Don’t make the medicine worse than the disease.

Don’t be a hero
 
 

Building muscle, even when you’re working out in perfect form, inevitably comes with its aches and pains. As they say: no pain, no gain (TNT aren’t the only ones promoting that new Mark Wahlberg movie). But it’s important to distinguish the general aching that comes with heavy lifting, from serious injuries that need to be addressed by a professional.

Professional athletes are constantly lauded for playing through the pain barrier—who doesn’t love Joakim Noah?! But you’re not a professional athlete; you’re not getting paid millions to make physical sacrifices for your team. You may feel a sense of masochistic pride in bench-pressing with a shoulder that feels like it’s on fire, but trust me, in the long-run that sense of pride will wear off when you can barely lift a protein shake towards you mouth—I know a guy who continued to bench 600 pounds with a dodgy rotator-cuff, and it didn’t turn out well. You’ll make far more progression if you properly address injuries by resting and rehabbing instead of trying to work through them.

Don’t make the gym your permanent home

Just as it’s important to recognize when you have a serious injury, or the early stages of one, it’s also necessary to understand that quantity does not equate to quality. When it comes to building muscle, sometimes less is more—both in terms of repetitions, and in terms of time spent in the gym.

Firstly, if you’re attempting to put on size, it’s good to limit each exercise to sets of 5-8 repetitions. If you’re looking to improve your endurance then doing a lighter weight, with 12-15 reps, is perfect. But for size, too many repetitions increases your chance of getting injured and hinders your ability to put on solid muscle. Secondly, when you want to put on muscle, it’s essential to remember that resting is just as important as the work you do in the gym. You make progression when you recover from exercise—when you allow your muscles to repair themselves after the trauma you’ve put them through. Overtraining is a big hindrance to putting on muscle, and can result in injury. Take a rest day in between your workout days, and get plenty of sleep in order to see good results.

Work on your weaknesses

There’s a common saying—well, common in weight-lifting circles—that goes: friends don’t let friends skip leg days. It speaks to the broad notion that when it comes to exercise, people tend to gravitate towards their strengths, while ignoring their weaknesses. For many of us, working our upper bodies—our shoulders, biceps, and triceps—is easy. These are the vanity muscles, and there are obvious psychological rewards to be gained from watching those biceps bulge as you curl in front of the mirror. Plus, few people ever feel nauseous after working out their arms.

Leg exercises, on the other hand, plain suck. Squatting hurts and it’s REALLY hard. And your muscular legs are usually the last thing that people notice—so minus 100 for your ego padding. But working on your weaker areas, which in many people’s cases are their thighs, glutes, hips, and hamstrings, can help prevent injury and aid in muscle growth. Explosive power, for instance, comes from the lower body. Build yourself a great foundation and you’ll be able to build up everything else. Bicep curling heavy weight is much easier, and safer, when you’re able to stabilize yourself with strong hamstrings and quads; and although deadlifting aids in strengthening your hamstrings, you’ll be able to load up on more weight if you work those muscles in isolation.

Put the right fuel in your engine
 
 

Making progression in the weight room depends significantly on what you do when you’re not in the weight room. I’ve already addressed the issue of rest, but good nutrition is of equal importance. If you’re looking to put on weight, without resembling Ray Jackson from Bloodsport (big everywhere, stomach included) then lean proteins (fish, chicken, and eggs) and complex carbohydrates (vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, etc.…) are essential.

Eat 5-6 small meals a day, drink plenty of water, and supplement your nutrition with additional protein, in the form of bars and shakes, to help build muscle. And remember, although it’s important to be disciplined regarding what you put in your body, depriving yourself of food isn’t smart. No one ever put on muscle and improved their lifting by skipping meals. It’s pretty hard to squat at the best of times, let alone when you’re weak and hungry.

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