Back in the day, the only easily available form of information on training for the general population was bodybuilding magazines. There was a massive chasm between sport training and what went on in most gyms.
Back then gyms were only for two things, and which thing the gym specialized in determined what kind of place it was. You had the “health center” that was primarily for weight loss. It had ferns, little chrome dumbbells, and smelled almost clean. The alternative was a dingy place filled with huge guys that smelled like a bag of unwashed socks. This facility had dumbbells up to at least 150lbs (although the best gyms all had two hundred pounders) and at least two squat racks.
Why What You Learned in the Gym Is Wrong
The weird thing was that often both of these gyms weren’t great sources of information on how to gain or lose weight. Much of what we think we know about hypertrophy is based off what bodybuilders have always done. The problem is that no one does a study on how lifting tempo affects muscle gains and then has the nerve to ask the massive guys participating in the study how many grams of testosterone they’re taking per week.
The same can be said of dieting. While bodybuilders do know how to get super lean, they also do it with the help of large servings of drugs and unhealthy, last minute water depletion. (Hell, they even use that trick on Biggest Loser).
Let’s break down these two popular subjects and try to get a straightforward approach, like that used by Hollywood stars and their trainers to get results.
The Myth of Hypertrophy Training
Training for muscle size is possibly the most convoluted training method there is. Because we’re influenced by bro culture and the hype of muscle magazines, we often lose sight of one important piece of the puzzle: If you give a guy who is predisposed to muscle gain a truckload of drugs, he will likely gain muscle regardless of the training plan.
When it comes to hypertrophy training, there are all kinds of claims from time-under-tension to one-set-to-failure (or the reverse, with methods like German volume training). And despite being different, each one claims to focus on the “one thing” that is key to muscle growth. But having watched many very big guys train, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anyone truly big count the speed of their reps. Nor do most even seem to use a full range of motion.
So what to do?
Calorie Surplus Is Key
The number one thing that drives muscle building is a calorie surplus. No talk of hypertrophy is worthy of mention without a corresponding talk of hardcore eating. During the filming of Superman, Henry Cavill (pictured center) went on a 5,000 calorie a day diet (with 3,000 per day coming from whole food sources, not supplements). Try eating that much food for even a day, let alone the months required for him to go from normal to looking like the Man of Steel. (For more information on the exact process followed please go to Gym Jones and support their work.)
Once you’re eating the massive amount of food required, and then making sure to get adequate rest post-training (because you don’t grow in the gym, only out of it), it will matter little what exact plan you are following. You simply need to hit it hard, lift some heavy stuff up off the ground in a variety of ways, and work the muscles with both reps and weight. Use big lifts and put it together in a way that keeps you enjoying the process, as that is what will ultimately see you successful in growing or not, with little bearing on how fast you lift the load or the exact number of reps you use.
The Myth of Diet
For those of us in the fitness industry it may seem like there is a huge revolution going on. On the one hand, we have what we know works – get decent quantities of protein, some healthy fats, and moderate carbohydrates based on activity levels. Avoid using processed foods as much as possible.
On the other hand, we have clear evidence that the rest of society doesn’t know this. When 60% of the world is overweight or obese it is pretty clear that people who know how to eat are in a minority.
So what gives?
Between people being told to eliminate carbs, back-load carbs, or eat high- or low-GI carbs, they got confused and just went and ate a Big Mac instead. Science, as with bodybuilding, doesn’t really offer much because most of what they’re forced to research is based on the shaky foundations of the food pyramid. That, in turn, is based on the erroneous assumption that fat loss is about what is referred to as the laws of thermodynamics, or put more simply, calories in versus calories out.
What this basically says is that if you eat less, then you’ll lose weight. Brilliant.
Why Calorie Counting and Intermittent Fasting Don’t Work
There are two problems with this old concept of diet, though. Firstly, when you exercise your body undergoes several changes, one of which happens to be a correspondingly higher metabolism. As your metabolism increases, so does your appetite as your body strives to actually retain the same amount of fat as you have right now. With exercise comes appetite.
The other side of this coin – starving yourself – does the exact opposite thing. If you reduce your energy intake long term, then you will slow down your metabolism, which will actually make it easier to gain fat again if you go back to regular eating in the future.
One of the diet trends over the last few years has been intermittent fasting (IF). For me, IF is what lazy people do to try to control their weight. I’m just not a fan of it. Why? For the simple reason that for 50% of the population IF may actually harm their health. While I know a small percentage of women respond well to IF, the vast majority I know have suffered from a lot of problems that took considerable time to fix, and were only fixed by going back to a more normal eating plan.
Diet is really so simple that I am always at a loss as to how people can get it wrong. That’s one of the reasons I love Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition so much. He takes all this mess and puts it into easy to use rules. While he has Ten Habits, the first five are most important:
- Eat every two to three hours.
- Consume protein with every meal (women 20g, men 30g).
- Eat vegetables and/or fruit with every meal (for best fat loss results minimize the fruit and eat more vegetables).
- Eat “other” carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes only after you’ve earned it.
- Drink zero calorie beverages (meaning no fruit juice or soda, and no dairy or sugar in your coffee or tea). i.e. drink water or black tea or coffee.
To maximize fat loss you need to maximize activity as well as keep your metabolism ticking along nicely. The thyroid responds poorly to both excess and inadequate blood sugar levels, and your brain actually needs some sugar to keep you thinking clearly all day.
Beyond the Myth of Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding has a lot to answer for as we are swept away by what we see on magazine covers and fail to understand for the most part that what you see was a condition that was only sustainable for a few hours at best. A friend of mine who was a finalist in the Men’s Health cover model competition went two days without eating or drinking to maintain his shape for his shoot – and then went and ate a pizza moments after he was finished. That binge and purge cycle is seen in addicts and doesn’t exactly seem like the healthiest way to live.
What most people don’t want to hear is that gaining muscle or being lean are constant works. While you can change to a great degree how lean you are for a photo shoot, you can’t stay that way. However, professional physique models are always only a couple of weeks away from picture ready – and when they do have pictures taken, they’ll literally have hundreds done to use for the next six months until they peak again. You can see what Hugh Jackman has to say about how he views staying close to Wolverine-shape all the time here.
If you want to be big or lean, then you need to work at it constantly. If the goal is size, then you need to eat big and lift heavy every day. The day you go hungry for five or six minutes is wasted as far as muscle building is concerned. Likewise, if your quest is to be Brad-Pitt-in-Fight-Club-lean year round, then you need to make sure that you eat clean all the time and treat it like a job – just like the stars do.
Photos 1 & 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.