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How to build more muscle and strength by working out less

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by Yuan

If you’re not happy with your current level of growth, it could be because you’re doing too much work in the gym. I’m sure we’ve all seen the fitness motivation videos where the fitness model is doing a ton of work in the gym. Lifting set after set, exercise after exercise with high intensity. The message is usually the same: “Want to build muscle and look good? This is what it takes.”

Watching these videos can be pretty motivating, but the advice is terrible for the majority of people. The majority are beginners and it would crush them if they tried to do the same. We’ve been conditioned to believe that crushing yourself in the gym leads to results, but in reality it does excessive damage to the body and it dramatically slows down growth.

A friend came to me last year because he wanted to look good with his shirt off for the summer. There was 6 months left, he was a complete beginner with good genetics and he wanted to add another 10 lbs while having nice abs. The workouts lasted 30-40 mins per session, 3 times a week and we reached the goal without a hitch despite the fact that he had a physically demanding job.

When I talked to him again this year, he told me that he lost 10 lbs and kept regressing. It really sucked because he didn’t know why it was happening. Turns out that he was working out for one and a half hours every session and added in a ton of cardio. He basically increased the workload by a factor of three or four.

Work smarter, not harder

This case is extremely common. Every time I talk to a beginner that struggles to grow, it’s the same combination of a high workload and 1500-2000 calorie diet. If you’re in this situation, the solution is simple: work out less and eat more.

How to build more muscle and strength by working out less 1

The key is doing just enough work to stimulate optimal growth. This is why the basic barbell exercises are so important. These exercises work the most muscle mass which makes it the most efficient at disrupting homeostasis (which stimulates growth). Doing minimal work to stimulate optimal growth will let your body commit all of its resources to growing instead of repairing damages from excessive work.

Most of the effort needs to be spent on eating enough food and getting enough sleep everyday, this is the hardest part. In my post about the hardgainer bulking diet, I went over a few celebrity transformation case studies. Actors that went through the most impressive transformations all admitted that eating was the hardest part.

If you want to do more work, you will have to eat more. Your muscles can only grow at a limited speed, it doesn’t make any sense to waste precious resources on work and food you don’t need in the first place. Do just enough work to make consistent progress every week.

How to build more muscle and strength by working out less

Follow a proven routine and don’t add in a bunch of assistance exercises. Only modify the routine when it stops producing results. In the case of Starting Strength, you should be able to raise your work weight every session. Most intermediate programs should let you raise the weight every week. Spend the excess energy making sure that you will eat and sleep the right amount every day, this will help you grow so much better than obsessing over routines and supplements.

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