The Modern Myths of Muscle Building

Despite mountains of scientific evidence and all common sense, some gym legends refuse to go away.

It’s no wonder that we must continue to search for the latest and greatest methods to build muscle, lose fat, and increase performance. Falsehoods have riddled the fitness industry for decades, despite the lack of evidence to back them up. Only recently has “bro-science” been recognized as the enemy of real progress, and begun to be regarded with appropriate levels of ridicule, disgust, and rolling of the eyes.

But many myths persist when it comes to simply building lean muscle. Many of them have been passed down from lifter to lifter for decades, and have endured scientific proof to the contrary, as well as common sense. Let’s take a look at a few of these today, break them down, and see what’s really going on. 

Isolation Lifts Are the Devil

One of the more common misconceptions that has recently resurfaced is the belief that you must train only with compound, multi-joint lifts, and avoid anything with the word isolation in it. And why not? Compound lifts use the most muscle during a lift, and stimulate an entire section of the body at once. Some lifts can even stimulate the entire body, and spur significant hormonal response to help you progress.

But the truth is that isolation lifts can be of great use in shoring up weaknesses, or pre-exhausting a trouble area for size or strength purposes. Isolation exercises such as barbell curls, lying triceps extensions, or calf raises are entirely appropriate if those are the areas that are holding back your progress. You can also isolate different areas of the body to shore up strength imbalances, as in unilateral exercises like split squats, single-arm push ups and one-arm presses. So either way you look at it, isolation work has a place in your training.

Lift Big to Get Big

Go heavy or go home, right? Heavy lifting is back in vogue thanks to the popularity of powerlifting and weightlifting. However, a lot of people (especially newbies) seem to be confused, thinking that you must lift big to get big. Yes, a stronger muscle will eventually become a larger muscle, but that’s only part of how it works.

Training for strength isn’t always the same thing as training for size. Optimal training is that which will get you to your goal the most efficient and effective way possible. Training for strength has more to do with lifting certain percentages of your personal records to teach your body to move more weight. On the other hand, training for size, also known as hypertrophy, has more to do with muscular fatigue, moderate loads, and relatively short rest periods.

If increased muscle size is your goal, shoot for reps in the 8- 12 range, and 45 to 60 second rest periods between sets. You can also adopt an agonist/antagonist superset style to save time and increase intensity. For example, after a set of bench presses, immediately move on to a set of wide-grip pull-ups. Keep alternating between the two until all sets are complete.

Eat All of the Food

Another belief among the bros is that you have to eat your butt off. This mentality reached its height back in the 1990s, when bodybuilding took a turn for the worse the big, bloated look was all the rage. We were told to eat everything we could hold down, not to do anything physical outside of the gym, and get as much sleep as we could manage. This resulted in a bunch of big, puffy gym-goers who hadn’t seen their abs in years, if ever.

Eating everything in sight will allow you to put on weight, but at the expense of both your physique and your health. What good is it to train your butt off, but not look the part? The bottom line is that you can realistically only add muscle a little bit at a time, which means that you should eat only slightly more than your base caloric expenditure to gain lean muscle tissue. Any excess intake will be stored as fat. And you don’t get a pass on food quality, either. Make sure anything taken in over your maintenance level is good, clean food.

High Reps to Get Lean

Somehow, people still seem to think that performing high reps is the best way to burn fat. It’s as if they think that higher reps will burn “cuts” into the muscle by burning more fat. So they do a zillion reps on every exercise, and avoid going heavy at all costs. After all, that heavy stuff should be left for bulking up and getting stronger.

The fact is that your dietary habits dictate a major part of how challenging it will be for you to get lean. Stripping away body fat requires several factors, all of which need to work together. First, you must achieve a calorie deficit in order to actually lose weight. Next, be sure you are resistance training to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Muscles are like calorie-burning factories. Finally, adding in a cardiovascular component is a good idea to keep your metabolic furnace churning. All three things have a hand in stripping away fat. As far as reps go, the best practice is to stay in the moderate (8-12) rep range in an attempt to keep as much muscle as possible while dieting.

If It Isn’t Protein, Who Cares?

Protein is king, there’s no doubt about it. It’s necessary to build muscle, recover from hard exertion, and for countless other physiological processes. But the focus on this macronutrient (at the expense of all others) has become insane. The marketing around protein is almost bizarre, with everything from cereal to beer (yes, beer) fortified with it. It’s no wonder we all walk around in a zombie-like stupor, constantly trying to figure out how to get more and more.

Relax, people. Get enough protein (about one gram per pound of bodyweight), and then make sure that you are balanced in other areas as well. Make sure you are also eating complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates, heart-healthy fats, and taking in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and plenty of water. Mega-dosing protein won’t get you to the finish line any faster if you aren’t firing on all cylinders.

You Can’t Have Carbs

The no-carb phenomenon has been alive and well for some time now. With many “gurus” touting the health benefits and fat-loss results of a low-to-no carb philosophy, a lot of money has been made, and a niche has been born. Once a technique for those who needed to lose a significant amount of weight prior to surgery, low-to-no carb protocols have now become mainstream in the realm of fitness.

Whether your goal is to increase performance or to pack on muscle, you need carbs and plenty of them. This also goes for those who want to burn body fat and get lean. Carbs aren’t the enemy; a sedentary life, high sugar diets, over-dieting, overeating, and training with the wrong program are. Just as you only need a little more than metabolic maintenance to gain muscle, the same holds true for losing fat—just in reverse. Eat anywhere from 300 to 500 calories under maintenance. Keep a close eye on your bodyweight, mood, and overall performance in order to make adjustments.

Bury Yourself

Training hard is noble, it’s infectious, and it feeds your need to feel like you’ve made physical progress toward your goals. You feel that giving every single rep and set your absolute best, day after day, is necessary to climb the proverbial mountain to success. Particularly for those in the hypertrophy business, you may use a plethora of intensity techniques such as strip sets, forced reps, rest/pause, and a host of others. Getting to the point of momentary muscular failure on every set is always on your to-do list.

The inherent problem here is the near certainty of burn out. Taking every single set to absolute muscle exhaustion isn’t the wisest move. Contrary what many may think, the body isn’t a machine. It can’t perform the same or better every time. Going to failure on the last two or three sets of an exercise is more than sufficient, and make sure to program times to back off your training. During these deloads, stop your sets just a rep or two shy of failure, or lighten your loads on all exercises and use it as an opportunity to shore up your form and technique.

Does your training actually match your goals?

You Are Not a Bodybuilder (So Don’t Train Like One)

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