by Robert Maxwell
Despite the recent, trendy idea that it’s possible to get a very strong without gaining muscle, it’s been amply proven by study after study that bigger is stronger. All other variables being equal, a man with larger muscles will be able to lift more weight than one with smaller muscles. Of course, other variables are never fully equal. Training experience, nervous system efficiency, overall height, limb length and ratios, and muscle insertion points all have an impact on how strong a person can become. Within this list, only training experience and nervous system efficiency can be changed. The rest, although impactful, isn’t worth thinking about, because you can’t change it. In my time as a strength and fitness coach, I’ve helped a number of guys overcome the problem of insufficient muscle mass. Although in general, my clients tend to come to me on the heavy side, occasionally I’m approached by a skinny man who, no matter how hard he’s tried, has been unable to gain any of the right sort of weight – muscle. “I just don’t have good genetics for building muscle,” guys like this often say. “I’m decently strong, but just not built to be muscular. Besides, I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder.” My usual responses to tell them not to worry. They are far more capable of building muscle than they think, but they needn’t be concerned about looking like a bodybuilder. Even with the help of anabolic steroids, this takes years. Bloated, bodybuilder style physiques are not the goal of most guys who want to get fit and strong. However, some muscular development is absolutely necessary if you’re going to get anywhere close to your strength potential. If strength is your goal but you haven’t been progressing, lack of muscle might be what’s holding you back. If so, it’s for you that I wrote this article. Here are two things that are more likely than any others to prevent you from gaining strength.
1. YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH
This might sound like an oversimplification, but you’d be surprised how many guys aren’t gaining muscle and strength because they’re just not putting enough food into their bodies. Time and time again, I’ve had skinny, weak, frustrated guys come to me asking what their problem is. Why, no matter how hard they work out, can they not gain any muscle? My first question is “how much are you eating?” Almost always, their answer is some version of “not enough”, even if they don’t realize it. Most of these guys will blame other things before they’ll blame food intake. Poor muscle building genetics, a naturally slender frame, Or abnormally fast metabolism all commonly take the rap for poor muscle building results. Truth is, these factors are almost never the root cause of small or nonexistent gains. If you’re working out regularly with a barbell, continually pushing your physical limits, and still aren’t seeing the results you hoped for, there’s an excellent chance you just need to eat more food. Most people can’t gain significant muscle mass without being in a calorie surplus. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but chances are you’re not one of them. If you’re naturally slim, work a physically active job five or more days per week, figure your metabolism runs faster than average, or possibly all of the above, you probably just need to eat more. Particularly high-quality protein. I’ve seen guys work out for years and gain almost no muscle. Some have even gotten skinnier while hitting the gym. Insufficient food intake is why. If you’re skinny and can’t seem to gain muscle, do yourself a favour and spend a little longer at the grocery store. Figure out your calorie maintenance level, then start eating at least 200–300 calories more than that. Make sure you add enough calories to overcome all physical activity. Aim for a gram of protein for every pound of your current bodyweight.
2. YOU’RE NOT TRAINING PROPERLY
I’m amazed how many guys expect to gain impressive muscle and strength with poor or nearly nonexistent training programs. If you eat in the way described above but don’t train long and hard enough, you’ll just get fat. Pumping your rusty set of 20 pound dumbbells in the garage is not proper training if strength is your goal. Neither is jogging 5 kilometres or spending half an hour on your elliptical machine. If you want to gain serious muscle and strength (the two go together), you need to have access to a proper gym, either at home or in a fitness centre. A proper gym means barbells and lots of weight. You may not be using lots of weight at first, because as a beginner, chances are you’re fairly weak. No shame in that. The crucial aspect of a proper, barbell-equipped gym is the ability to gradually increase resistance. The problem with your set of dumbbells in the garage is that they will always be the same weight. Using them will make you a little stronger, but your gains will soon plateau, since there’s never an increase in training stress. You could do more reps, but this only works for a while. Without the ability to incrementally increase training stress, your muscles and strength won’t increase, either. Another common training deficiency is poor programming. The best equipped gym in the world won’t help you if all you do is curls and leg extension. Correct training means working the whole body every week. Start with more complex movements that hit lots of muscles, like squats and deadlifts. Then work down to less difficult exercises like dips and curls. As you get stronger, gradually increase weight, a few pounds at a time. Maybe less. The main thing is to lift slightly more than you did last week or last month or last year. Do this, and eat in the way described above, and you’ll gain muscle and get stronger, without a doubt.