It’s great to be muscular. Not just because it looks good to have strong, well-developed abs, shoulders, arms, and glutes, but also because muscles are useful to have in everyday life and it’s healthy to be fit and strong. Muscular people have an easier time conducting many common tasks than weak people and tend to be less prone to develop osteoporosis, back and knee pain, and a variety of other health problems.
With that said, not all muscular people are healthy. Far from it. Appearances can be deceiving. Many bodybuilders and strength trainees either knowingly or unknowingly sacrifice their health in pursuit for chiseled muscles. They may look strong, robust, and muscular, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re thriving on the inside. I should know, seeing as I’ve been one of these people. I’m a former gym junkie. In this article, I thought I’d share some of the reflections I’ve made pertaining to that time and what I’d have done differently if I was able to start my fitness journey again from scratch.
My background in fitness
When I was younger, I was obsessed with strength training. For a time, I went to the gym 4-5 times every week, where I did a great number of sets for each muscle group, many of which were performed to failure. I was also active outside of the gym, taking part in a variety of sports and activities, including volleyball and soccer. This high-intensity, high-volume exercise routine was coupled with a bodybuilding-type meal plan, which involved eating every 2-3 hours every day, starting with an early breakfast. I didn’t use many supplements except for whey protein powder, and I never even considered touching any performance-enhancing drugs; however, I was very much obsessed with getting fit.
I built quite a bit of muscle from following this routine (If I remember correctly, I weighed a little more than 265 lbs at my heaviest. I’m a tall guy, but that’s still a lot); however, I also damaged my body. I trained too often and too hard and was doing too many exercises, sets, and reps. Moreover, the diet that I was eating, which at the time I thought was a very healthy one, wasn’t doing my health any favors. Basically, the total amount of physical activity I was doing far exceeded my body’s exercise tolerance.
In the years that have passed since then, I’ve recognized that I did a lot of things wrong in the past, and as a result, my fitness ideology has changed a lot. I’ve not only altered my own approach to diet and exercise, including dramatically reducing the amount of strength training I’m doing, but in my work as a coach/trainer, I’ve helped a lot of other people reach their health/fitness goals.
One of the most important things I’ve come to realise is that intense bodybuilding is antagonistic to health. That’s not to say that strength training per se is bad or that it’s impossible to build muscle without compromising one’s health though. As long as one is smart and doesn’t take things to the extreme, it’s possible to build a nice physique without inflicting bodily damage.
Here are 12 lessons that can help you do just that…
1. Try to create a “foundation of health” that can safely support your strength/fitness endeavors
This point follows from some of what I talked about in the intro. It’s extremely important; only rivaled by point 12 for the title of the most critical point on the list. Many bodybuilders and iron addicts don’t pay that much attention to their health. Their primary objective is to build muscle and strength, not to be healthy. They typically eat a lot of whole foods and try to get plenty of sleep; however, they also do a lot of things that are not particularly good for the body. If they had paid more attention to their general health, they would probably have gotten better results with their training.
A healthy body is able to tolerate a lot more exercise than an unhealthy one. It not only recovers faster between workouts and is able to cope with a greater exercise volume and intensity, but it also builds muscle faster. Chronic inflammation, which goes hand in hand with many chronic ills, is one of your muscles most powerful nemesis. If you are inflamed and/or otherwise in suboptimal health, then your immune system will tear away at your muscles, and you certainly won’t be able to perform optimally in the gym or attain the best possible results from your workouts. If that wasn’t bad enough, you may increase your risk of a variety of health problems if you exercise a lot while in an inflamed state. This is particularly true if you push yourself very hard, despite feeling like crap and that your body really doesn’t want to do what it’s forced to do.
All of this is to say that you should take your health into account when you plan your fitness program. If you’re very healthy and filled with energy, then you can simply get under the bar and start lifting heavy. If you’re not that healthy however, you may want to consider slowly easing into the whole strength training thing. Initially, you would probably be wise to focus on improving your diet, the quality of your sleep, the composition of your microbiome, and your immunity, as opposed to gaining a lot of muscle.
2. Eat healthy, but don’t be afraid of calorie-dense foods
If you’d like to be able to eat a lot of food without gaining weight, then one of the best things you can do is to lift weights. People who regularly stress their muscles via resistance training require quite a bit more calories to keep their bodies satisfied than sedentary folks. Whereas the latter people would be wise to limit their intake of very fatty or sugary foods, the former typically benefit from eating certain types of calorie-dense foods on a daily basis; the reason being that they need energy to build muscle and perform optimally in the gym.
That said, it’s obviously unwise to consume chocolate, doughnuts, pizza, and other highly processed foods, at least on a regular basis. It’s important to eat healthy. That’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about a couch potato or a very active athlete. Fatty seafood, nuts, dried fruit, avocados, virgin olive oil, and eggs are all fairly rich in calories. They don’t contain as much energy per gram as fast food, but they are a lot healthier.
As for nuts, it’s important to not go overboard; the rationale being that nuts can be fairly hard on the digestive system, particularly if they are completely raw (i.e., not soaked, sprouted, or processed in any other manner). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them, but you shouldn’t take in massive quantities every day. Also, you may want to try a variety of different nuts, so as to determine which types that agree the best with you.
3. Steer clear of bodybuilding-type training programs that involve completely destroying each muscle group once a week
The type of training program that modern bodybuilders adhere to doesn’t match well with the human biology. The physical activity patterns that contributed to sculpting the human genome were characterized by mixed, fluctuating activity. Our primal ancestors walked a lot. Every now and then, they also ran at high speeds, lifted some heavy stuff, climbed trees, and danced.
Obviously, those types of activities won’t equip you with massive, powerful arms or a wide back. You shouldn’t exercise exactly like a hunter-gatherer if your goal is to build a lot of muscle. That said, I’d argue that we’d be wise to pay attention to what our ancestors did when we set out to plan our training programs. The human body is fairly adaptable with respects to the amounts and types of physical activity it can safely handle, but it doesn’t do well on extreme training programs, which is the category the routines of many gym junkies fall into.
If you head into the gym 4-5 times every week, completely destroying 1-3 muscle groups each session, you will certainly build muscle; however, you’re also going to compromise your health. If you couple such a high-volume strength training program with injections of testosterone, growth hormone, or other substances that many bodybuilders fill their bodies with, you’ll probably be able to better cope with the high exercise volume, but you’ll also put yourself at risk of developing a number of health problems.
4. Train every major muscle group several times per week
This point follows over from the last one. When I first started lifting weights many years back, the idea that it’s best to train each muscle group once a week was heavily ingrained into fitness and bodybuilding culture. In the time that has passed since then, it’s possible that this muscle-building tactic has lost some of its appeal and following; however, my impression is that it still has a fairly big fan base.
That’s somewhat strange, considering that the best available evidence I’ve seen clearly indicates that it’s best to train each muscle group multiple times per week, as opposed to just once per week. I’d argue that we don’t even need to look at the science on this matter to understand that that is the case. All we need is to have a quick look at how the human musculoskeletal system functions. It doesn’t take 7 days for strength and hypertrophy-related adaptations to a workout to occur, and even if it did, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that it’s best to let the muscles in question take it easy for a week before they are stressed again.
Such a strategy may perhaps work well for some advanced bodybuilders; however, as I see it, the rest of us are better off upping the frequency. By stimulating your muscles more often, they grow more rapidly. The caveat being of course that you don’t overstrain yourself. You should keep the volume at a modest level each workout.
5. Stay far away from stereotypical bodybuilding supplements
Most of the supplements that are a part of the nutritional arsenal of the modern bodybuilder are filled with crap. This doesn’t just hold true for pre-workout supplements, weight gainers, and the like, but also for most protein supplements. These products don’t just contain various artificial foodstuffs that up until very recently was not a part of the diet of any humans on this planet, but they also have a weird nutrient composition that looks nothing like that of whole foods.
If the average lifter were to remove these products from his nutritional repertoire, replacing them with healthy, natural foods, his workout results would probably improve. I know this statement conflicts with conventional bodybuilding wisdom; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. The reason I hold such a “crazy” belief is that many dietary supplements adversely affect gene expression and immunity, which in turn compromises the body’s ability to maintain and build muscle and recover between workouts. This is something I’ve written quite a bit about here on the site.
I know well that some supplements, such as creatine, have been proven to be effective for certain purposes; however, I don’t think the average Joe or Jen who’s looking to build a bit of muscle has much to gain (if anything) from getting into the whole supplementation thing. First and foremost, he/she should dial down his/her diet.
6. Choose 4-6 multi-joint exercises that you make the foundation of your strength training program and try to gradually get stronger in
When I started lifting weights in my teens, I remember constantly changing my training program and trying different exercises all the time. After a while, my program became more structured; however, it didn’t really have a solid foundation. If I could go back, I’d do several things differently. Among other things, I would have picked 4-6 multi-joint exercises that I would have strived to fully master and gradually become stronger in.
Most likely, I’d chosen one exercise for the legs, such as the barbell squat; two exercises for the back and biceps, such as the pull-up and deadlift; one exercise for the chest and triceps; for example the bench-press, push-up, or dip; and one exercise for the shoulders, probably the standing barbell press. The good thing about these exercises is not just that they are effective muscle-builders, but that they arguably stress the body in a “natural” way, as long as they are executed with good form of course.
I think this is something most people probably agree with; however, it’s not a widespread practice among strength trainees to stick with such principles nonetheless. Many, if not most, gym goers do what I did when I was young. Instead of sticking with the basics, they drift around in the weight room, doing a lot of random stuff.
7. Get your protein from real food
Everybody knows that protein is a critical component of muscle. People who regularly lift weights or otherwise put a lot of stress on their muscles need more protein than sedentary folks. I recognize that it’s very convenient for these individuals to derive some of the protein they need to build muscle from supplements, as opposed to from real food. Not only that, but protein supplements tend to be cheap when compared with protein-rich whole foods, at least when the protein content is the measure of interest.
That said, I also recognize that it’s a lot healthier to consume real foods than to use protein supplements. In the past, I’ve talked at length about the problems with whey protein consumption, which adversely affects IGF-1 production, skin health, and gut microbiota composition, among other things. More recently, I also put up an article in which I talked about the problems with casein – the second major type of protein that’s widely utilized by fitness enthusiasts.
It’s important to recognize that there’s nothing magical about protein supplements. A number of studies have shown that protein supplementation favorably affects strength and hypertrophy related adaptations to exercise. There’s a big issue inherent to this body of research though, which is that a high percentage of the studies were designed in such a way that the participants who were instructed to use a protein supplement ended up taking in more total protein than the participants who didn’t supplement. This severely limits the amount of useful information that can be drawn from the trials.
8. Fix your exercise form
The vast majority of gym goers don’t perform fundamental strength exercises such as the squat and deadlift with good form. Many round their backs and fall onto their toes as they lift, some let their knees cave in, and yet others perform half squats and/or bounce the bar off the floor in the deadlift.
This is concerning for a number of reasons. Not only won’t a lifter who doesn’t move well get optimal results from his training, but he’ll put himself at risk of various injuries and musculoskeletal issues. Over time, he may also develop bad posture and find it difficult to keep progressing in exercises that are technically challenging.
If you’re not confident that you’re currently performing the exercises you’re doing with good form, then you may want to consider asking an experienced coach if he/she can help you nail down your form.
9. Regulate your carbohydrate intake in accordance with your activity level
Most contemporary humans take in more carbohydrates than what they need. What’s important to recognize though is that the nutritional requirements of athletes differ markedly from those of sedentary folks. Athletes can typically “get away with” consuming a lot more carbohydrates than inactive couch potatoes.
That said, many gym goers undoubtedly take in excessive amounts of carbohydrate. Instead of constantly stuffing your body full of carbs just to make absolutely sure that your gas tank is all filled up every time you go for a workout, you should consider regulating your carbohydrate intake on the basis of changes in your activity level. If you’re doing a lot of high-intensity exercise one day and your body craves starch, then by all means, get some sweet potatoes, yams, or rice into it; however, don’t carb up just to carb up.
I know some people are of the belief that low-carbohydrate diets are capable of supporting bodybuilding endeavors. To some extent, that may be true; however, in general, I don’t think it’s wise for people who perform a lot of high-intensity training to severely limit their carbohydrate intake.
10. Don’t “bulk” or force-feed yourself
Just train and eat when you’re hungry. Don’t force yourself to eat if you’re not in the mood for food. As I see it, there’s no good reason to go through so-called bulking phases in which you eat excessive amounts of food and then proceed to head into a cutting-phase throughout which you try to get rid of all the fat you gained during the bulking phase. I find it concerning that it’s fairly normal for fitness enthusiasts to consciously go through such a cycle, seeing as the stereotypical bodybuilding bulk is very hard on the body.
If you take in excessive amounts of fat, protein, carbohydrate, and calories, you’ll not only gain fat, but you’ll also strain your gastrointestinal system and inhibit optimal functioning of your brain, among other things. This is particularly true if you take in a lot of highly processed foods. This, in turn, will undermine your athletic performance and workout results.
11. Try not to become obsessed with fitness and gaining muscle
I know how easy it is to become obsessed with fitness. It’s certainly healthy to exercise; however, it’s arguably not healthy to be obsessed with the whole fitness thing. If you try to micromanage everything you do both in and outside of the gym in an attempt to maximize your workout results and progress, you not only run the risk of becoming so obsessed with fitness that you end up overtraining, but your stress levels may go through the roof and you’ll likely miss out on many non-fitness related, enjoyable parts of life.
Unless you’re planning to compete in the CrossFit games or Mr. Olympia, there’s no reason to take the whole fitness thing to the extreme. You won’t set yourself back weeks if you stay out late one night or skip a workout. As long as there’s some consistency to what you’re doing, then you’re likely all good.
12. Listen to your body
I know this has been said a million times, but it bears repeating nonetheless. One of the major mistakes I made back in the day when I was heavy into bodybuilding was that I didn’t truly listen to my body. Instead of taking a step back when I felt that my body felt tired, my performance was lackluster, and my progression stalled – or even receded, I often pushed myself harder, thinking that the problem was that I didn’t do enough. I sometimes got too stringent with respects to the diet and exercise regimens I’d adopted, not allowing much leeway to adjust in response to how my body was feeling. That was a mistake. It’s certainly good to have some type of plan to keep one from steering of course; however, one shouldn’t let that plan completely override the signals that one receives from one’s body.