Time to wrap up the last 4 myths about building muscle and the common mistakes people make that wastes time and energy in the gym. How many commercials have you seen selling must have muscle “sculpting” equipment? Remember the thigh master? (Shout out to Suzanne Somers). Then there was the ab roller, bands, balls and now you can spend thousands on mirror trainers, virtual trainers, etc.. Is all this necessary? Let’s see what science says.
“YOU HAVE TO CHANGE UP YOUR EXERCISES OR YOU’LL GET STUCK IN A RUT”
Have you ever heard this one? Eventually your body will adapt to the exercises you do and your progress will plateau. If you don’t “confuse” and “shock” your muscles they won’t grow so you have to regularly switch up your exercises. Sounds like it could make sense, muscles need stress so they can adapt and if you are doing the same thing over and over your body won’t have to adapt. This is partly true, but it misses one major principle when it comes to building muscle: muscle tissue doesn’t think, it is purely mechanical. It contracts and it relaxes. It responds to tension, load, and stress. Changing up your exercises each week, twice a month or every day isn’t going to build muscle because change or variance doesn’t stimulate muscle growth. Progressive overload is the most pertinent factor to stimulate muscle growth which simply means you are making your muscles work harder and harder. That is what heavier weight does to your muscles and to handle that stress they get bigger. It’s really that simple. If you want more science on the physiology of building muscle you can go back to my blog A common language of health to brush up on the science.
“YOU MUST USE BANDS, MACHINES AND OTHER EXERCISE TOOLS”
You may have already noticed a trend in the message I preach. Keep it simple and follow the science that points to the most effective and efficient methods.
So of course, I’m going to tell you buying all kinds of giant rubber bands, needing access to fancy machines, and trying to copy all the crazy exercises you see “famous” IG influencers doing is absolutely unnecessary. By focusing on 4 basic movement principles you can gain all the muscle you will ever need:
If you are concentrating on these movement patterns then you will get the most bang for your buck with dumbbells, a barbell, and free weights. Using these tools will not only make you stronger, it will make you a better athlete by challenging your balance, coordination, and proprioception.
If you look through the science, you may be questioning what I just said. The problem with most studies is that they are done on untrained young males so any kind of stimulus is going to produce results since they are brand new to strength training. These “newbie” gains are a real thing but long term progress and real results have to be accomplished with free weights.
In a review of muscle activation studies (electrical nerve measurements with muscle contraction):
At Cal State University, the free weight bench press produced 50% more shoulder muscle activation than the Smith machine bench press (the bar is supported in a rack and slides on rails).
At Duke University, the free weight squat produced 20 to 60% more quadriceps activation and 90-225% more hamstring activation than the leg press machine.
These aren’t just a few percent better with free weights, they are over 2x more effective at muscle recruitment and that equals strength and muscle hypertrophy. Bottom line, pick up weights, put them down and work hard.
“YOU SHOULD SPEND MOST OF YOUR TIME ON ISOLATION EXERCISES”
Let’s go back to a basic tenant of mine. Be efficient and effective in the gym. Even if you are doing free weight exercises you need to do the right ones. As you’ll recall from the myth we busted above, push, pull, squat and hinge. These are all compound exercises so they move multiple joints through a full range of motion and utilize more muscles at once.
Let’s take the deadlift for example, you flex and extend your ankles, knees and hips while stabilizing the weight with your shoulders and back. This involves the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lats, and all your back muscles. Compare that to a hamstring curl machine where you lay on your stomach and the only moving joint is the knee into flexion. There is no upper body movement or even stabilization against gravity so the hamstrings are isolated in a nonfunctional position. Have you ever laid on the ground and done anything that required you to curl it up with your legs?
One of the biggest fitness mistakes people make is not utilizing compound exercises and making them the heart of your program. Here is why:
Training more muscles at once requires more energy (calories) and it produces more muscle in less time as a result. Essentially, one compound exercise can do the work of several isolation exercises.
Progressive overload is king and with effective compound exercises you can work dozens of muscles and multiple joints through a full range of motion. That means you can lift more weight and progressively overload your muscles to result in faster muscle growth.
The hormone cascade produced from compound exercises results in more anabolic hormone production because it’s directly related to how many muscles are worked. This isn't the most important factor in muscle hypertrophy but it is necessary to stimulate muscle growth as well as repair and strengthen connective tissue.
Anecdotally, I can say that I have gotten the best results with compound exercises over isolation exercises and pretty much every world class bodybuilder swears by compound dumbbell and barbell exercises to build muscles.
“YOU HAVE TO DO CARDIO TO GET A GREAT PHYSIQUE”
I’m sure you have heard a friend say they do 1.5 hours of cardio everyday to stay skinny. Maybe you watched the biggest loser and saw them doing hours of cardio work to lose weight? But I will save you hours of your life staring at the wall as you grind away on the treadmill or elliptical machine. The truth is losing weight is greatly expedited by doing cardiovascular exercise but most of that weight is not lost body fat, it’s lean muscle loss...for two reasons.
It interferes with strength and muscle gain by inducing general fatigue and this makes it harder to progress with your weightlifting workouts.
In the long term, cardiovascular exercise interferes with strength and muscle gain by disrupting the cell signaling related to muscle growth.
So if the goal is gaining muscle to build a lean and toned body, too much cardiovascular work can be a direct hindrance to that goal. However, the right amount of cardiovascular exercise can be a very effective tool to lose body fat and not muscle/lean tissue.
In summary to the last two articles and this one, you now know that women can build muscle and that gaining 10-15 pounds of muscle and getting your body fat percentage down around 20% will make a smoking hot babe. You also know that cardiovascular exercise can help you be more healthy and lose body fat but if you do too much and aren’t lifting weights you will only lose lean tissue and be skinny fat. So eat your protein, 0.7-0.9g/pound of body weight, and progressively overload your muscles with compound exercises to get the body you have always wanted.
With all this knowledge of the myths and mistakes that people make trying to lose body fat and build muscle, you are armed with power in the form of knowledge. I will see you in our next series of articles about what you want to do in order to effectively and efficiently lose body fat and build muscle. See you then.
Move Well, Move Smart