The Teenager’s Guide to Building Muscle

Early in your lifting career, it’s essential to create the habits that will let you train for a lifetime.

Being a teenager is tough. Parents forget how stressful the teen years can be, with social pressures, hectic schedules, and ever-increasing standards to live up to. Sometimes, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to just have fun. Add in a desire to add muscle to an otherwise frail frame, and you’ll have a big mountain to climb.

That climb, however, isn’t impossible. I was once a skinny teen that grew up with an introverted disposition, but a desire to better myself. I started trying to build muscle at 14 years old and 128lb on a good day, and at over six feet tall, I was a walking rail. Yes, I was quite a sight.

I want to share a few things I learned along the way how a skinny teen gained quality, drug-free muscle, along with some of the mistakes I would fix today. If you follow them, one day in the very near future, you’ll build a physique you can be proud of through hard work, discipline, and good old-fashioned sweat.

Step 1: Don’t Eat Like an Idiot

It seems like common sense to say that eating habits have a lot to do with your success, but as a teen, I didn’t have a lot of common sense. I simply ate a little, trained a lot, and possessed a ton of patience. 

These days, diets are the first subject of conversation. My problem was that I just didn’t eat enough good food. I ate decently, but not with enough frequency, quality, or quantity. I would often skip breakfast, have a decent-sized lunch, and then a huge dinner. Not the best approach. I then started drinking homemade calorie-laden protein shakes, but looking back, I would have opted for real food instead. Point being, I was lazy, and would rather sip than chew. I eventually found the direct connection between eating correctly and progress in the gym.

A simple rule of thumb is to have three square meals planned for the day, along with two smaller snacks that can bookend your training (pre- and post-training). As a teen, it can get confusing and frustrating to get caught up in the weeds and track every calorie. Just eat quality, nutrient-dense foods such as meats, fish, turkey, eggs, milk, chicken, cheeses, rice, pasta, potatoes, oats, fruits, vegetables, and plenty of water. Try not to think too much into it. Eat a sensible, balanced diet and monitor your weight. If you’re not gaining weight on a monthly basis, up your calories a bit, and if you’re gaining too much fat, cut back a little.

A sample daily menu could look as simple as this. It’s nothing fancy, but it will give you a solid starting point to adjust later:

  • Breakfast: One bowl of oatmeal or healthy whole grain cereal with milk, banana, and a glass of milk.
  • Lunch: One or two turkey sandwiches on wheat bread, piece of fruit or granola bar.
  • Afternoon: One bowl of oatmeal or whole grain cereal, or a sandwich with natural peanut butter, and a glass of milk.
  • Post-workout: Protein shake.
  • Dinner: Chicken, beef, or fish with pasta, rice, or potatoes and green vegetables.

Step 2: Train With Intention

Training can’t take a backseat to your diet. People mistakenly view training as a go-through-the-motions activity, and pay little attention to its power and effectiveness. When I was a teen, I not only thought the exact opposite of that notion, I took it to extremes. I loved training. Two and sometimes three-hour-long sessions were common, six days per week. I was a high-volume trainer, and fell in love with the pump of blood into my muscles. I knew nothing of regulating load, volume, fatigue, or proper recovery. All I knew was that I loved to train.

Of course, nothing teaches us lessons better than experience combined with time. Training volume, loads, frequency, and recovery all need to be considered to get the most from your training. But here’s the caveat: don’t overthink things. Overanalyzing every excruciating detail will only leave you frustrated and never completely comfortable. You’ll always have uneasiness about your training that’ll leave you antsy that there’s something better out there you could be doing. You’ll lack the confidence required to make your current program successful.

Gaining muscle isn’t rocket science. All you need is a logical, sane approach when designing a program. No special bells and whistles required, just basic, multi-joint exercises combined with a progression mindset. As with most things in life, moderation usually prevails, and that goes for your training as well.

There are countless useful programs out there, but heed a few hard and fast rules before pressing start:

  • Choose two or three exercises per body part, with most from the multi-joint category.
  • Perform three to four sets of 6-12 reps each.
  • Use proper form.
  • Rest between one to two minutes between sets.
  • Use a moderate tempo: two seconds up and two seconds on the decent.

Step 3: Tame the Ego

As a young and upcoming lifter, you will have to learn to control your own ego. You walk into any gym and see bigger, stronger bodies all around; seasoned lifters who seem lightyears ahead of where you are currently. I was no different. It’s an instinctual impulse to want to find our place in a group, and I wanted to be a part of the bigger and stronger club. But looking back, I remember my training partners suggesting I lighten up my loads and work on form. In hindsight, their advice saved me from a lot of problems.

From the start, you must focus on form, function and trying your best to feel movements, rather than just lift objects from point A to point B. You will still get results, but you’ll also get better function, less muscle pulls and pain, and better long-term gains.

Leave your ego at the door. If your goal is to gain muscle, increase strength, and create a body to be proud of, you will have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, but not at the expense of risking injury, shortchanging your form, and limiting your range of motion. Just enter the gym, focus on what you have to do, and leave all that show-off B.S. to the other guys.

Step 4: Supplement Sparingly

Supplements can be wonderful additions to any physical endeavor, but too much emphasis can start to slow your progress and eventually leave you with an empty wallet. When I was growing up in the lifting game, supplements weren’t yet quite the industry they have grown into today. They were still new, mysterious, and something my friends never emphasized. We never “drank the Kool-Aid,” and instead relied on hard, dedicated training, and eventually consistent nutrition.

If you do find yourself wrapped up in the world of supplements, there’s a few things to consider to make it worth your while.

  • Do your research: If a supplement company promises outlandish, hard-to-believe results, then it’s probably too good to be true. There are only a few clinically-proven supplements on the market worth the cost, so proceed with caution.
  • Eat right first: Before considering any supplement, make sure your eating plan is sound. It’s no good to load up on a ton of supplements coupled with a subpar diet. Get your real, solid food plan in place first, stay consistent for a significant amount of time, and then look into supplementation only when you feel the need to do so.
  • One at a time: Avoid the trap of taking a laundry list of supplements from the outset. Take a logical approach, and experiment with only one at a time. Why? If you scarf down a number of different powders, pills, and potions at once, how will you know which worked and which are worthless? Try one supplement for a month or so, evaluate its effect on you, and then either strike it from your list or continue its use.

Step 5: Recover as Hard as You Train

One of the more common mistakes I see many teenage lifters make is the lack of consistency in how they sleep and recover. As with diet, one or two days of adequate rest per week just won’t cut it. Proper rest and recovery should be viewed as a daily, weekly, and monthly practice, not something that can be made up on the weekends. Shoot for 7-9 hours of quality rest per night. To help make sure that happens, shut down your electronic devices an hour or two before bed. Recovery is really the hidden secret to progress.

This shouldn’t be a green light for you to be lazy. Even on rest days, it will benefit you to stay active in extracurricular activity or other recreational endeavors. Sitting on the couch binge-watching your favorite shows isn’t exactly optimal for the purposes of growing muscle.

Step 6: Get Nerdy

I have always considered myself a student of the iron game. I’m at the point in my life now that I am able to pass on my knowledge to others, but I know and appreciate the fact that I will always be learning and will never know it all. Always seek knowledge, especially when that little voice chimes in about something someone said that doesn’t seem right or might not be true at all. The world of training and nutrition is ever-changing, and you will only benefit from keeping up with it.

One word of caution: beware of information overload. Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis; the act of researching so much that you become frozen with too much information and never act on anything. Even though you should always be reading, listening, and digging, you should also establish a basic set of principles to follow. Lift progressively with mostly compound movements, eat a balanced, nutritious diet, and get plenty of rest.

Step 7: Keep It Fun

If the process is no longer fun, find something else to do. You shouldn’t feel like going to the gym is a job. Yes, there will be days where you feel like you’re dragging yourself through those doors and need a shot of adrenaline just to warm up, but if those days outnumber the great days, then you need to look at your rest and recovery habits, adjust your volume and intensity, or re-evaluate your motivation. It’s not worth the time, effort and dedication if you dread the process. Don’t be a prisoner to the gym.

Don’t quit, either. There’s always a way to adjust your training in such a way to meet both what you need to do and what you enjoy doing.

Your teen years should be fun, educational and enlightening. Try not to overthink this whole gaining strength and muscle thing. Adopt a few sound principles of quality training and good nutrition, consistently work hard, and have a blast doing it. The power is in your hands; do it the right way, and you’ll develop habits to last a lifetime.

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