The start point of your muscle-building journey can be a daunting one. So many questions, with so many different answers by every self-proclaimed fitness guru.
As with any worthwhile discipline, strength training and building muscle depend on accumulating knowledge and executing over time. While your fountain of knowledge will continue to expand, having your fundamentals down from the get-go will put you in the driver seat for achieving your goals.
You see, most advanced lifters share the same regret.
They wish that they hadn’t wasted their first couple of years spinning their wheels on the wrong things, or stuff that didn’t even matter. Losing a year or two of physique and strength progress is a big deal. Many gains can be made in that period. Luckily, you’re going to skip the pseudo-expert woo-woo and make gains straight off the bat.
Here are nine questions to ask and educate yourself on before you embark on this long, but rewarding journey for strength and aesthetics.
1. What are my goals?
Do you set off in your car and decide your destination half way? No?
Then why do so many hit the gym without a specific plan?
Not you-you know better.
You don’t need to hear the typical advice of setting a smart goal. Different methods of setting goals work for the individual.
If you’re visual, get yourself a vision board and map out your journey in images. What you want to look like, how you’ll get there and what motivates you (be honest about this one). There are no wrong answers and your goal is your own.
For the more analytical personality types out there, use your phone’s calendar. Set short, medium and long-term targets. Strength, bodyweight and body part measurements are all specific targets you can track. Set yourself reminders throughout the week to reflect and ensure you’re edging closer to your goal.
If things plateau for more than 2-3 weeks, it may be time to make tweaks to your program.
2. What can be achieved with my genetics and who do I look to for inspiration?
One of, if not the most important thing before walking into the house of iron for the first time is understanding what’s possible.
That cover model on the cover of the fitness magazine with shoulders as wide as a kite, perfectly structured abs and a tiny hip structure sure is inspiring.
However, if you don’t share that same bone structure, idolizing them will eventually demotivate you. Everybody has their own, unique bone structure, muscle shapes, and genetics. Embrace that. You will bring your own unique package to the game.
You can still use athletes for inspiration, but pick one with similar bone structure, muscle shape, and lifestyle as yours. This way you have a realistic expectation from the get-go and enjoy the all-important journey.
What fun would it be if you took a helicopter to the top of Everest?
The journey and achievement is everything.
3. How much time do I have to dedicate to this?
Great news. Whether you have two days a week to dedicate to this, or seven, you can build muscle and strength.
Decide realistically how many days you can fully commit to this, and go for it. Overestimating how much time you can spend at the gym is a recipe for burnout and disaster. If you end up dreading the gym, it’s tough to get that love back.
Write down your life commitments and plan where the gym fits in.
You may have to get better at time management, but that’s a skill for life.
How often you can exercise will determine which program is best for you for optimal progress.
4. Which muscle-building program will work best for me?
A meta-analysis of all the evidence by Schoenfeld et al found that for optimal muscle growth, your best bet is to train each muscle group at least twice a week. You’ll gain more, faster by adopting this frequency.
Here are the best programs for you to hit that frequency, depending on how many times you can hit the gym:
2 x per week: Full Body workout
3-4 x per week: Upper Body/Lower Body split
5-6 x per week: Push/Pull/Legs
5. What is my relationship with food and which style of eating meets my needs best?
Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of food – calories, macros, and micros (vitamins and minerals) – life doesn’t need to be complicated.
Choose a method of eating that you like the sound of or create your own that fits your unique lifestyle. You might be noticing a theme here. Making your goal fit your lifestyle is a more effective and fun way to achieve your goal.
First things first, use a calorie calculator to figure out approximately how many calories to consume for you to build muscle.
For example, the average male’s calorie requirement for weight maintenance is 2500. In this case, start with a modest 2700 calories to build muscle. Eat 0.75-1 gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight, 0.3g of fat per pound of your bodyweight and fill the remaining calories with carbs.
If you prefer higher fats, feel free to double them and decrease carbs. Simple, yet effective. Don’t believe the sleazy dudes on late-night fitness infomercials making it more complicated than it needs to be.
6. How much cardio do I do, and of what type?
You’re probably bored of this answer by now, but it really does depend. There are pros and cons to doing cardio. If you have a metabolism that’s as fast as a racehorse, then adding a ton of cardio to burn even more calories isn’t going to help you build more muscle.
Similarly, for those who pile on the body fat with their gains, they may appreciate the extra calorie burn from cardio. Keeping that waistline in check isn’t just for aesthetic purposes, your health and fitness should matter too. That’s the name of the industry after all.
A minimum of 10 minutes steady-state cardio before your workout is recommended, which can also serve as your warmup. For the time-constrained, HIIT cardio gets the job done faster with more intensity.
It’s wise to hit this after your weight-training session as it could negatively affect your performance.
7. What supplements will help me reach my goal?
Quality supplements will help take your progress to the next level, but there’s a caveat. Your nutrition and training must be catered to without any glitches. They’re called supplements – meaning, “in addition to.” That said, here is an evidence-based supplement stack to start off the beginner:
Creatine Monohydrate: one of the most studied, safe and effective supplements in the fitness industry. Creatine recycles ATP, which is the source of energy for muscle cells. Keeping ATP topped up with creatine will give you the power for a few extra reps at the end of a grueling set.
Dose: 5g a day
Product: COR-Performance Creatine
Whey Protein: a highly bioavailable and fast-acting protein powder with a complete amino acid profile. Use whey post-workout to kick-start muscle protein synthesis to maximize new gains. Whey is a convenient source of quality protein at any time of the day.
Dose: 1-2 scoops
Product: COR-Performance Whey Powder
Pre-Workout: we all have those days that feel like a grind before you’ve even hit the gym. Pre-workouts are often a cocktail of ingredients designed to perk you back up, ready to smash the gym. Generally, caffeine-based which has been proven to enhance gym performance.
Dose: 1 scoop
Product: C4 Original
8. What principles should my training program follow?
Frequency: each body part should be trained 2 x per week.
Sets: another meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al confirmed that using 10+ sets per body, per week builds twice as much muscle as 5-9 sets per week. You can split those 10 sets over your two sessions
Rest periods: between sets: 30-90 seconds for smaller muscle groups, 2-5 minutes for larger muscle groups. The science shows that resting enough to perform a quality set is most important for gains.
9. How do I balance my life with building muscle? It seems all-consuming!
Ah, now this is all down to you, young grasshopper. Understand that this isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t going to be fast. Some sacrifices will need to be made, but your dream physique is absolutely achievable with smart planning and self-awareness.
Do you hate certain foods in your diet? Drop them and find an alternative.
Hate the training program you use? Dump it and find another that fits the criteria in this guide. The choices are endless.
Not a morning person? Smash a session at night when you feel like you can take over the world. Life is too short to hate what you’re doing.
Research shows that you’re much likelier to adhere to your plan if you have a bit of playtime scheduled alongside your hard work. You can make every aspect of your goal for your lifestyle.
After that, it’s about prioritizing and working your ass off to execute your plan.