There are a lot of articles on ROK about lifting weights and building muscle. All of them are very good. What I could not find was an ultimate guide, with all the most important information for building muscle the fastest way possible, naturally, in a single place.
Who am I to write an ultimate guide to building muscle?
I am just like you, your average guy trying to add muscle to his frame. I have done a lot of research and experimentation over 20 years to figure out what works for me in the gym. My journey to fast muscle gains started when I finally found the book that helped me crack the hardgainer label I had given myself for years.
I started lifting weights at age 16. I had some initial success in my 20’s, but also a lot of failures until I hit my 30s and found this book. It highlighted all the errors I was making in training and how to fix them based on scientific research.
I want to share with you not just what works for me, but what I also did wrong over the years. In doing so, it is my hope you will recognize some part of yourself in my muscle journey and learn from the path I have walked in trying to build my ultimate physique. With that said, let’s start with the basics.
Western Cancer wrote a great article on the origin of somatotypes – ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph.
While the origins of these body type classifications may be less than scientific by 21st century standards, there is no questioning the wise generalization of body types they attempt to describe. No matter how much you close your eyes and try to wish it away, you are your genes.
Your genetic profile—bone density, muscle fiber type composition, height, limb length, tendon insertion points, skeletal structure, etc.—is going to have a tremendous impact on your muscle building potential.
Your can’t escape your genetic legacy, but you can maximize it to it’s fullest potential and expression! When it comes to those former body type classifications, I now like to think of them in terms of muscle fiber type composition and proportion – i.e. your type I, IIa and IIb’s.
- Type I (ectomorph) – Slow twitch. Marathon muscle. Endurance. Light loads.
- Type IIb (endomorph) – Power lifting. Explosive. Heavy loads. Very, very short endurance.
- Type IIa (mesomorph) – The in-between fiber type. Fast twitch/oxidative-glycolytic.
Type IIa’s are literally a miracle muscle. They can actually mimic, be turned into, or switched from, a type I or a type IIb muscle fiber depending on the type of training you do. That’s right brothers, you have muscle in you that can transform.
So in one way, Western Cancer was right. You are not limited by any “type” of body per se because as you train, your body changes. That said, you are limited by your overall muscle fiber type composition, and thus, how much potential it has to be modified by training and diet.
Some guys will be bursting with type IIa miracle fibers that naturally just blow up and become huge with little fat gain and basic training regimens. Your classic mesomorph. The guy that just grows walking into the gym.
Other guys will take forever to grow because their overall muscle fiber type is for endurance (type I ectomorphs) and will forever be dominated by a more lean and athletic build instead of big and beefy.
Then you have the guys that can naturally lift huge weights and thus gravitate to power lifting where they find tremendous success (type IIb mesomorphs). They also give up the quickest on ever being able to lose the “insulation” around their mid-section. Shedding fat is almost impossible for them without God-like discipline and submission to a very strict diet and exercise regimen.
I think you can see where this is going. The science of muscle fiber types is now explaining why men on the same training program get different results. Each body is different in its muscle fiber type composition and proportion, and thus a single training program is not going to work for every man.
Your goal in training is to find out which muscle fibre type dominates your body as a whole (and perhaps even within each muscle group) and then optimize your training to develop ALL your muscle fiber types to their maximum genetic potential.
There ain’t no way around it. You want muscle? You want to get big? You are going to have to train hard and be prepared to make pain your friend. Here is where I made the most basic mistake about how to grow muscle. Select an exercise. Work the muscle to exhaustion. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Why is this wrong? We are putting our focus on the exercise, the routine, not the muscle. To grow muscle, we need to select exercises that work specific muscle fiber types.
How is this accomplished?
In Scrawny To Brawny, the authors break down their training regime into the following exercises and training phases.
Primarily large, compound joint movements. Squat. Bench. Deadlift. Chin-ups and pull-ups. Anything that involves multiple muscle groups working together to maximize complete, overall muscular recruitment and development.
First: A 5×5 phase – 5 sets with a weight you can handle for 5 reps, no more, no less.
Second: A very heavy progressive phase – 6 sets total broken into two, 3 set “wave’s” of 4/3/2 reps. First wave: 100 lbs for 4 reps, 110 for 3, 120 for 2. Second wave: 110 for 4 (10 lbs up from first set in wave one), 120 for 3, 130 for 2 (in theory, 10 lbs OVER your 1 rep max weight).
Third: A HIT style phase – Training four times a week, the whole body twice a week, with a mix of compound exercises plus isolation moves combined with supersets, etc.
Here is how this training approach works.
- The 5×5 phase helps you find a good heavy weight that is just a little above your 2 rep max to make the most out of the following super heavy progressive phase. You develop good strength and comfort with a fairly heavy weight before going super heavy.
- The progressive wave sets are super heavy. Your goal here is to try to push PAST your previous 1 rep max weight.
- Both the 5×5 and progressive phase focus on maximizing power and strength over endurance.
- The HIT phase allows you to take the increased power and strength you have developed to a more traditional gym routine (i.e. 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps) that allows you to lift heavier for longer.
That last point is key – lifting heavier and longer than you could before (i.e. more weight for more reps).
… although they [type IIa muscle fibers] don’t contribute much to overall strength development, they can help improve the appearance of your muscles to a substantial degree. – Scrawny to Brawny, pg 136
Fast twitch/oxidative-glycolytic type IIa muscle fibers – the miracle muscle!
Type IIa muscle fibers “put on some size, plain and simple” as the author’s of Scrawny to Brawny write because of their specific properties. Growth inside this cell takes place in a way that has nothing to do with making it contract, and everything to do with what happens between the muscle fibers, it’s size and shape.
But… those IIa’s can only grow in size and shape if they can keep pushing more and more weight! If you want to grow big, you have to lift big. Lifting big requires that you specifically train type IIb fibers FIRST before you train type IIa. Therefore, you must train specific muscle fiber types to exhaustion, in sequence, not just the muscle as a whole.
The 5×5 and near 2 rep max heavy progressive phases build power and strength that allow you to keep blowing through growth plateaus that were impossible to overcome in the past. With the added endurance aspect of HIT and superset style workouts that follow a strength phase, you then target the size of type IIa fibers for more complete muscular genetic development and fat loss.
In short, the order of training muscle fiber types is as follows:
- training for strength (type IIb with some IIa) in the first phase
- consolidating your gains and pushing PAST previous max weights in the second phase focusing on power (pure type IIb)
- lifting lighter for more reps, but at a heavier weight for the same rep count than before you began the prior two phases (primarily type IIa and type 1)
As you can see, this will result in you returning to the first phase always pushing more weight than when you started it!
Gee… I wonder if that might result in some muscle growth? Hmmm… let me think on it for a minute.
But exercise alone won’t get you there. You have to eat! Part II of this ultimate guide to muscle will go over nutrition and how to eat SMART to get big.