Your Muscle Building Checklist
There is a lot of information out there on how to lose fat and build muscle. A simple google search on ‘how to gain muscle’ will bring up over 300 million hits on the topic. Google how to ‘tone up’, and you will get another million or so hits, with many being dieting teas or other money-wasting potions. So, this article is here to give you the cliff notes you need to know to make the most out of your training and hit those body composition goals.
We shall start with a big question- how is muscle built?
Let’s get one thing straight first up. You cannot ‘convert’ fat to muscle. Muscle tissue and fat tissue are two completely different substances. It would be like saying that you can make an apple into a banana. You can certainly lose fat and build muscle, but there is NO conversion from one to the other.
Muscle is built from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. We have 3 different types of muscle: smooth muscle which is used to involuntarily contract and relax to create movement in the body- think digestive system and bladder. We don’t need to think about these working, they just do. Then there is cardiac muscle, which is a strong thick muscle of the heart (Cardi = heart) that is used to pump blood around our body- again, we don’t need to think about this working. And finally, we have the skeletal muscle- they stuff we are all thinking about when we hit the gym. They hold our body together and allow us to move, and we have to think and give them directions for them to move. When we want to move, our brain sends a message to the motor neuron units in the muscle cells and orchestrates the movement to occur, by recruiting the specific muscle fibre required to execute the movement. Improved strength comes from having more muscle AND from being better able to recruit these muscles to move. Which is why you see smaller people lifting heavier weights than larger, less well-trained people-they are using their muscles more effectively as a result of repeated practice.
Speaking of repeated practice, this is the cornerstone of building muscle, which in turn in pivotal to getting that ‘tone’ all the women’s fitness magazines are on about. For our body to cue upgrades to the muscle (i.e. To get bigger/stronger muscles) it needs a stimulus that is strong enough to make us want to change. If you are doing the same weight as you were pushing 4 weeks ago, chances are you are not going to experience significant changes to muscle, unless you are pushing the same weight for longer/more reps. In short, we can create the desired muscle building stimulus by going heavier each week or by lifting lighter weight but completing more reps. Either way, you need to be maxing out on effort each time to create the right amount of fatigue that will tell your body it needs to upgrade the equipment (. ***A quick side note- this doesn’t mean you need to hit new maxes every week. You will read on and find out how crucial adequate rest is for muscle growth too).
So once we have trained, the next step is to provide more building blocks and energy to make these changes. As discussed in earlier blogs, adequate-protein intake, of about 1.6-2g per kilo of body weight, spread out in 3-5 meals across the day will allow muscle growth to happen efficiently, and will also assist with fat loss. This is because protein makes our body burn hotter (a phenomenon called the Thermic Effect of Food/TEF) and keeps us feeling fuller, leading to a slight bump in metabolic rate, and less inclination to snack.
A calorie deficit for weight loss
Becoming ‘toned’ and building muscle is, in short, the same thing. And if we want to show off our newly laid muscle fibre, we need to work at lowering body fat percentage. So, with the aim is not just lose weight, but lose fat, to expose the muscle definition. And to do this, we are going to need to create a small energy deficit. You can lose weight fast, by making large cuts to daily calories, however, this inevitably ends in an afternoon spent in front of the pantry wondering what you can demolish next. A smaller, less dramatic calorie cut can lead to gradual weight loss and more sustainable results. If you have more weight to lose, you can generally make more significant cuts to calories, and still maintain lean muscle mass well, however, if you are already generally lean, the deficit needs to be more moderate.
A calorie surplus for muscle gain
But what happens if you are already lean-ish and you want to increase muscle mass and strength? If you are trying to gain muscle, we need a slight calorie surplus. This is not an excuse to hit the Maccas drive-through mind you. The name of the game is aiming to put on as little fat mass as possible while maintaining the increased calorie intake required to build muscle. Play your cards right, and you want to have to work too hard after the ‘mass gain’ phase to drop the fat that came along also. If you are trying to put on muscle and are already carrying a bit of extra weight, this surplus doesn’t need to be a big one- or even at all, as the stored energy in fat cells can be burnt to supply extra energy. However, if you are leaner, you might need to look at about an extra 300-500 calories per day to ramp up that lean mass.
The importance of rest and recovery
So I mentioned before that we want to max out our sessions to create a stimulus for change, then backtracked a bit saying that we don’t need to do completely cray every session to see results. So which one is it? Well, this is when we need to look at what we are doing outside of gym hours as being just as important to the process as the training bit. The name of the game is recovery.
It is easy to train, and train and train if you so desire. It is fun when you first start seeing results, to push the envelope and see just how much change you can get! When you are first hitting the gym, because you have never exposed your body to the controlled stress of training, it is going to be working hard to upgrade your equipment to keep up with your minds drive to get fit. This usually goes pretty well for the first 6 to 12 months. Still, after this time, many people move from easily hitting two sessions a day, without any rest days to dragging their sore butt out of bed and only hitting sessions with ¾ of the intensity they know they are capable of. So what has happened?
Well, our bodies main priority if to keep us alive. So while you have been training like a mad person, basking in the compliments you are getting about how awesome you look, internally, your body has been running 24-hour shifts to try and repair the damage created in the last session. And replenish your energy stores so you can do it again in 8 hours (in the case of the double session). Now, this can be fine, if you don’t have a job, can sleep during the day, have access to massage/physio, your nutrition on point and you have zero stress in your life. But, judging from the 100’s of client I have worked with who are impressively juggling many balls at any one time, the stress-free life scenario is experienced by very few. Cue planned recovery.
Recovery is not a synonym for lazy. Recovery is just that- the chance for your body to catch up, make the necessary repairs, refuel and regroup so that you can hit the next session with all your might. When we allow our body to fall behind on these repairs, we not only open ourselves up to injury and illness due to lowered immune function but we more often than not, lose the desire to train, which defeats the purpose!
It is almost a right of passage when we take on a new training regimen to burn out, and I’ll be honest and say it does help to experience the feeling to figure out where you limits lie and to learn how to listen to your body. However, if you are working with a good coach, you can avoid the burn out by following the program and avoiding the temptation to throw in some extra sessions in the hope of hitting your goal sooner. Injury and illness have a great way of keeping you in bed and away from your goals- crazy stuff.
Take it step-by-step and listen to your body
Not only does overtraining, under- recovering/eating keep you spinning on your heels, it can also put a halt on weight loss. It does this in a few ways.
Firstly, when we haven’t recalibrated our diet to meet the needs of a new training schedule, chances are we are going to be under-eating, which is usually corrected by overeating….on everything! And then there is the mentality of ‘treating’ ourselves for doing a big session in the gym, which is generally with food that costs more calories than you burnt in the session- hello big breakfast after the Saturday morning session.
And then there is the stress that comes along with large volumes of training. I’ll be clear here and say that a bit of stress is good for us- positive pressure, that is possible to recover from. However chronic high levels of stress whether it be from training or life in general, shift our body into chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode with corresponding shifts in the hormones that regulate metabolism, decreased sleep quality and lowered mood. This can very quickly show up as a sluggish metabolism, stalled weight loss, and, as explained before, lowered motivation to do the training you once loved!
So, whether you have just started training, or consider yourself a seasoned athlete, it always pays to stop and reassess where you are at, and where you might be able to make changes. Some changes might give you an extra 10% results, or they might just be smaller tweaks. The point is by better understanding the process of muscle building, toning, bulking, massing or whatever you want to call it, the soon you will be introducing people to the ‘guns show’.