Seeing all the bro-muscle magazines and men’s health magazines on the shelf would lead you to believe that getting strong, or at least stronger, and building muscles is complicated. That couldn’t be further from the truth, it just takes a little time, a little understanding of how your body works and a few pieces of equipment.
Most of us are lifting to look better, maybe to lose weight and just feel better about ourselves. To do this, one could start out with basic bodyweight exercises. Mark Sisson at MarksDailyApple has a free fitness e-book program you can sign up for that’s pretty good start. But if you want to really put on muscles, the only three requirements are using heavy-ish weights, doing it consistently and recovering properly. Most people do one or more of these things wrong and stuggle. Let’s break those down briefly:
- Heavy-ish weights – Basically, no reason to lift weights that you can rep out more than 10-12 reps if you want to gain size, mass or strength. You may increase muscular endurance and knock out 50 pushups eventually, but you won’t be getting bigger mass or more strength. Probably 90% of my repetitions are in the 5-10 range.
- Doing it consistently – Like anything, you need to do your primary movements with heavy-ish weights at least once a week, but not more than three. Week in and week out, stretching that rubber band. Don’t be the New Year’s resolution person who stops after a month. Make it a pattern to fit it in your life. It doesn’t need to be a huge time commitment, just get in and get out, punching the clock. You’ll see changes over time.
- Recover Properly – Recovery is going to be different for everyone, but the basics will always apply – eat (protein), sleep, stress management and not hitting it again too soon. Aim for about 1 g per pound of body mass on most days if you’re lifting 4-5 days a week. Get good sleep, in a dark room. As much as you can really, but shoot for 8 hours. I know, easier said than done. Manage stress properly. If you are tired and stressed, you are going to take much longer to recover. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, which is important in our life, but is that anti-testosterone and competes for the same resources – as cortisol goes up, testosterone goes down. You can dig yourself into a hole if you aren’t careful on your recovery. This article on Shredded Nation is a good intro and sets the table for a good approach to dealing with this.
I’m more in maintenance mode right now, but am still finding myself getting stronger and more balanced physique. My numbers are still slowly going up, I’m staying healthy and injury free. Most days of actual lifting (usually about 4-5 days per week) I’m usually only doing one primary exercise. In and out in less than 30 minutes usually. Bench, squat, overhead press, maybe some deadlifts some weeks if I’m feeling fresh, or bent over rows. Then bodyweight stuff like pullups or pushups. That’s really it.
In maintenance mode I’m not going crazy with Metcons (metabolic conditioning, stuff like Crossfit does), only do minimal mobilization and not very frequent (1x/week) olympic style lifting (clean and jerks and snatches). In total, I’m probably spending 3 hours total in the gym a week, adding in a few odds and ends to keep things fresh. Kettlebell swings, farmer walks with kettlebells, longer rucks with a weighted vest, sprinting.
This will give you good core, back and shoulder workout just walking/rucking around your neighborhood (remember, embrace being the weird dude). You can use it for walking lunges or squats (feel the leg burn), pushups, weighted ring rows or similar (should find something at the local park) and pullups. I just got a 45# version for my birthday and it is much heavier than it sounds, though you can remove weight to start at an appropriate load. You can get fairly strong just with something like this and it takes up next to zero space.
Next, again, if I was dollar and space limited, I would purchase some standard plates and dumbbells that you can add or remove weight. I did a quick Craigslist search in nearby random city and found these for $50 total ($0.50/lb) for two 50 lb dumbbells with plates to add/remove.
Now you’ve opened up dumbbell shoulder presses, bench presses (find a cheap or free bench or do the ugly-stepchild of the bench press, the floor press), curls, farmer carries, racked squats (dumbbells held up by shoulders, add that weighted vest to make it 160# squats) and so on. Now you won’t really get into the heavy stuff without barbells but for most a dumbbell set like this will serve them for awhile.
Don’t let the cost of entry into a full-on home gym or gym membership obligations and intimidations prevent you from getting strong and making improvements. Eat well, sleep well and spend your money wisely (much great stuff on Craigslist) and most of all, actually do the work. You will get strong, look better and turn some heads. Just remember, while you need to eat a fair amount to grow muscles, visible abs are made in the kitchen. Dial in your diet (at least cut out the crap foods) to look good at the beach. Dial in your workouts to gain strength. You can do both, but takes a good balance. Good luck as we move into beach season.