Unsubstantiated bro-science has circulated the fitness community with many fictitious claims — from the idea that we must consume protein within 15 minutes of training or we’ll shrink, to the old adage that, “your body is like a furnace, the more wood you add, the longer the fire burns” that made us believe we needed six meals per day to “keep our metabolism revving.”
Although complete bullshit, these claims aren’t hurting anyone…right?
Eating six meals per day could be potentially helpful, and having protein immediately following a workout won’t hurt. But there are a few lies plaguing the fitness industry that can ruin your ability to put on any muscle whatsoever. I want to shed a bit of light on these myths and, at the same time, share simple and effective methods for building the body you want, faster.
Lie #1: Carbs Make You Fat
The reason “experts” believe this myth is understandable: carbs increase insulin and insulin is a storage hormone that forces our body to store fat; however, the evidence is pretty clear that the insulin response from food intake doesn’t determine the amount of fat you store — total energy balance does.1, 2
What they also fail to mention is that insulin is responsible for driving amino acids into our muscles thus elevating protein synthesis. This is vital for maximizing muscle growth.
Fact is, if you’re looking to put on lean muscle through weight training, you should never avoid carbs. The reasons are twofold: 1) carbs are converted to glucose, our body’s main source of energy and 2) glucose is stored in the muscles as glycogen. Blood glucose and muscle glycogen are the most important elements in the formula for maximizing physical performance3.
Avoiding carbs to minimize fat gain is like not flying for the fear of crashing, but driving on the highway to work every day, texting — you’re worried about the wrong thing! If we go low carb, we’ve got to go high fat. But a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition4 concluded that fats are more efficiently stored as body fat than carbohydrates:
“Excess dietary fat leads to greater fat accumulation than does excess dietary carbohydrate.”
This actually makes perfect sense, especially since there is plenty of evidence that carbs are inefficiently stored as body fat even when overfeeding5. This is due to a highly regulated metabolic pathway known as de novo lipogenesis.
Bottom Line: If you want to get big and strong, eat carbs. Lots of them.
Lie #2: Always Train to Failure
“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sorry Arnie, but I’ve got to disagree with you on this one. What makes a muscle grow is not the last three or four reps, but a pathway known as progressive overload6: adding more volume through increased reps and/or weight, over time.
That said, our main focus in the gym should be performance: increasing our volume (sets x reps x weight lifted) without completely wiping ourselves out. If we’re fatigued, then our performance suffers and the rest of our efforts are in vein.
I’ll give you an example: you walk into the gym and you are aiming to push 315 pounds on the squat for three sets. Here’s what it looks like when you’re training to failure.
- Set 1 – 315 x 8
- Set 2 – 315 x 5
- Set 3 – 315 x 3
You exert a great deal of energy on the first set because you want to “force” growth by training to failure, so the second set suffers. Despite feeling fatigued, you push as hard as you did in the first set to squeeze out the next five reps. By the time you’re on your last set, you’re struggling to hit a lousy three repetitions. Not only did you hinder your performance in the squat, but you’ve made yourself useless for the remainder of the workout.
If we look at squats alone, the total tonnage would have been 5,040 pounds.
Now let’s look at how your squats may have gone, had you ended a couple of reps short of failure, instead.
- Set 1 – 315 x 6
- Set 2 – 315 x 6
- Set 3 – 315 x 5-6
In this example, you’re still primed and potentiated after the first set, thus the second set doesn’t have to suffer. Now, after two pretty intense sets you may not be as potentiated, but certainly not fatigued.
Total Tonnage: 5355-5670 pounds
Although the difference in volume during squats may not have been huge, the real disparity happens as you get further into your workout. If you insist on training to failure, consistently, then you’re just digging a deeper hole with each set you perform.
Bottom Line: The higher the intensity, the further away you should stay from failure. That said, when training with a lighter load (less intensity), training to failure has its benefits7. So for example, if your training routine includes a light-day where you train 15 reps or higher, this might be a good time to train to failure.
Lie #3: Train for Size, Not for Strength
When I hear this, I cringe. It’s like saying you want to drive the six figure Lambo with the engine of an electric car.
Here’s the deal: muscle is a byproduct of strength, and unless you’re getting stronger, you’re not getting bigger, period. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw a jacked dude struggling to bench 135 pounds? Never.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should stay under five reps and max out every few weeks or completely eliminate bicep curls and replace them with more squats and deadlifts. What I am saying, however, is that unless you’re adding more weight or more reps, you’re not going to stimulate further growth.
The way we produce new muscle tissue is quite simple: we introduce a stress and our body adapts to that stress by building muscle in order to handle it again, later.
This can be done two ways:
- Increase weight without sacrificing reps
- Increase reps without sacrificing weight
You mentioned earlier that the main pathway by which we build muscle is increased volume (sets x reps x weight lifted), doesn’t that mean we could just add more sets?
Sure, this can be done, but studies show that it’s only possible to a certain degree8 before we experience diminishing returns. Not only is this strategy not efficient past a certain threshold, but it’s impractical.
Bottom Line: You don’t have to train like a powerlifter, but you should always walk into the gym with one goal in mind: do better than you did last time. If you’re a caveman like me, bring a pen and pad into the gym with you to record your lifts. If you’re a bit more sophisticated, use an app. Regardless of how you do it, track your progress!
Lie #4: You Need All The Protein
Protein is by far the most critical macronutrient for building muscle, no doubt. But like most things, more isn’t always better. In fact, too much protein can potentially inhibit your ability to grow.
No, not because it’ll ruin your kidneys or because you’re pissing it out anyway – that’s total bullshit.
More so due to the impact it has on your appetite.
Here’s the deal: if we want to build muscle, we’ve got to ensure we’re getting enough carbs, fats, and protein to support growth. For some of us, however, eating enough becomes a huge struggle because our energy needs exceed our appetite.
And protein has been shown to reduce appetite dramatcially9 due to its extremely slow absorption10. And if you’re already struggling to eat enough, this could magnify the burden.
Truth be told, the supplement companies and fitness magazines aren’t dumb enough to believe you actually need as much protein as they suggest. But because whey protein is one of their lower margin products, they have to deal in volume. And the only way to sell you more protein, is by telling you that you need absurd amounts if you want to look like their cover models.
Bottom Line: Studies suggest that 0.6-0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight is enough11 to maximize muscle growth; however, they also note that “more protein should be consumed during periods of high frequency/intensity training.” That said, I would recommend aiming to get about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, to be on the safe side. Anything more than that is useless.
Lie #5: Mondays Are Chest Day
If Monday and only Monday is chest day, your shit is broken.
This isn’t to say that you can’t make decent gains while training each muscle-group once per week, but if you want to maximize muscle and strength, low frequency training just isn’t going to cut it.
So whenever you hear someone crying about how sore their quads are from “leg day,” just know that it’s not because they went HAM in the gym; it’s because they’re training their legs too infrequently.
“But my trainer told me that if I train my chest twice per week, I’ll overtrain.”
A study that was published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research12 compared training one day per week using a split body workout to three days per week using a full-body approach. Researchers found that subjects who trained a single muscle-group more frequently throughout the week, despite no changes in total volume, experienced significantly more muscle growth than the low frequency group.
Another more recent meta-analysis13 concluded that “When comparing studies that investigated training muscle groups between 1 to 3 days per week on a volume-equated basis, the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week.”
This, in my opinion, is due to two main factors:
1. Repeated Bout Effect: the adaptation whereby a single bout of eccentric exercise protects against muscle damage from subsequent eccentric bouts.
Although this effect does still require an adequate rest period between bouts, training more frequently will increase your ability to recover and adapt.14
More efficient recovery and adaptation makes for extended progression without a plateau, strength increases, and more overall muscle growth.
And the more frequent training bouts bring us to our next point…
2. Muscle Protein Synthesis: the driving force behind adaptive responses to exercise and represents a widely adopted proxy for gauging chronic efficacy of acute interventions, (i.e. exercise/nutrition).
MPS is essential to the body’s ongoing growth and repair of muscle tissue. If we can synthesize more protein than we breakdown, we end up with more muscle than we started with.
Studies like one published in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology15 suggest that MPS is more than doubled at about 24 hours following an intense training bout. It then begins to drop back to baseline about 12 hours later.
So let’s look at an individual who trains his chest every Monday. He elevates MPS, by Wednesday it’s back to baseline, and it’s not elevated again for another 5 days.
Now let’s look the individual who’s training his chest twice per week – say Monday and Thursday. He elevates MPS, by Wednesday it’s back to baseline, and the next day it’s elevated again. It’s pretty clear to see that this individual is spending more time building and repairing muscle tissue than the guy on the low frequency split routine.
Bottom Line: Follow a higher frequency training split that targets each major muscle group at least twice per week. More importantly, though, find a workout that you are excited about. Regardless of what science might suggest, there is no factor more important than adherence.
Lie #6: Eat Clean
What exactly does it mean to eat clean? Ask 10 different “experts” and get 10 different answers.
Truth is, there is no such thing as a “clean” or “dirty” food. The same way you’ll never drop dead from eating one burger, you won’t wake up fit from chugging a greens shake.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big believer in following a predominantly whole food, minimally processed diet. But I am also a huge advocate of flexibility. The notion that you have to “eat clean” to build muscle is not only subjective, but extremely misleading. This type of advice is what leaves people dazed and confused about why they’re not growing or getting stronger.
The fact of the matter is, it’s not just about what you eat, but how much of it16. Unless you’re in a positive energy balance and consuming enough protein, fats, and carbs, you won’t grow.
Have you ever tried getting 1000kcal from broccoli and chicken breasts? It’s just not practical.
Bottom Line: If you want to grow, you’ve got to ensure you’re in a caloric surplus, consuming more calories than you’re expending. Following a diet that provides sufficient protein, dietary fat, and carbohydrates is critical if your goal is to build muscle. I don’t care how “clean” you’re eating — if you’re not eating enough, you’re not going to grow.
Lie #7: High Reps for Definition
I’m not sure where the hell this came from, but the idea that high reps shape or “tone” the muscle is complete dog shit.
A muscle can do three things: grow larger, get smaller, or remain the same size. The shape it takes is completely up to your genetic makeup. Another problem with this claim is that, like clean eating, it’s very subjective. What exactly are “high” reps? Is it 12-15? 15-20? 50?
Either way, training in any of those rep ranges requires that we reduce intensity. There’s no way in hell you’re pushing 80% of your one-rep max for 20 reps.
In fact, one study17 concluded that you would have to perform three times the volume when using a lighter load to get the same results you would from a moderate weight.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology18 compared a low, moderate, and a high rep group. To no surprise of my own, the low and moderate rep groups produced significantly more hypertrophy than the high rep group. Not because you can’t build muscle with a lighter load, but because intensity matters — and if you want to build muscle as fast as possible, you’ve got to lift heavy.
Bottom Line: Lift heavy shit. If you want to get a better gauge as to “how heavy,” start using percentages.
- Hallerstein MK. De novo lipogenesis in humans: metabolic and regulatory aspects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1999;53 Suppl 1:S53-65.
- Foster GD, Wyatt HR, Hill JO, McGuckin BG, Brill C, Mohammed BS, Szapary PO, Rader DJ, Edman JS, Klein S. A randomized trial of a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity. N Engl J Med. 2003;22;348(21):2082-90.
- Ivy JL. Role of carbohydrate in physical activity. Clin Sports Med. 1999;18(3):469-84.
- Horton TJ, Drougas H, Brachey A, Reed GW, Peters JC, Hill JO.Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;62(1):19-29.
- McDevitt RM1, Bott SJ, Harding M, Coward WA, Bluck LJ, Prentice AM.De novo lipogenesis during controlled overfeeding with sucrose or glucose in lean and obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;74(6):737-46.
- Goldberg AL, Etlinger JD, Goldspink DF, Jablecki C. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975l;7(3):185-98.
- P J Atherton. K Smith. Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. J Physiol. 2012; 590(Pt 5): 1049–1057.
- Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9.
- David S Weigle. Patricia A Breen. Colleen C Matthys. Holly S Callahan. Kaatje E Meeuws. Verna R Burden. Jonathan Q Purnell. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1): 41-48.
- Bilsborough S, Mann N. A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(2):129-52.
- Phillips SM1, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(7):1821-9
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Apr 21.
- McHugh MP. Recent advances in the understanding of the repeated bout effect: the protective effect against muscle damage from a single bout of eccentric exercise. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2003;13(2):88-97.
- MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 1995;20(4):480-6.
- Hand GA, Shook RP, Paluch AE, Baruth M, Crowley EP, Jaggers JR, Prasad VK, Hurley TG, Hebert JR, O’Connor DP, Archer E, Burgess S, Blair SN. The energy balance study: the design and baseline results for a longitudinal study of energy balance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2013;84(3):275-86.
- Schoenfeld BJ et. al. Effects of Low Versus High Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Apr 3.
- Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, Toma K, Hagerman FC, Murray TF, Ragg KE, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Staron RS. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60.