Where muscle meets mind.
Sitting at my classroom desk during grad school was an exercise in a big paradigm shift. On one hand I had my own beliefs and practices about building muscle, especially on my skinny frame. On the other, being in a Master’s program in Kinesiology was eye opening enough to challenge said personal beliefs.
I couldn’t argue with science and other research-backed discoveries. Even today, old techniques are being both challenged and proven correct. But as with most things in life, experience has its place in the big picture.
Now after a few (ahem) decades post grad school, I’ve come to a few of my own conclusions on what has worked and what hasn’t regarding building muscle and improving health. Here are 10 things to ponder.
1. How muscle is really built
Since I first touched a barbell, the consensus was that in order to build muscle one needed to lift heavy. Big weights equaled big muscles. So, I proceeded to lift as much weight as I could in the low rep range of six to eight. I even took things a step further and adopted the “Heavy Duty” mantra of forced reps, negatives, and other high intensity techniques.
The reality is lifting heavy didn’t build as much muscle as I could have if I had stepped back and looked at other factors. Training to failure, recruiting as many muscle fibers and possible, and fatiguing those fibers were the triggers for growth. The end goal of more muscle, as I learned, can be achieved with moderate to lighter loads (think 10 to 15 reps) as long as I push toward muscular failure. And not to mention, save my joints.
2. The importance of cardio
Cardiovascular training was the last thing on my mind. I was solely focused on building muscle and cardio, I thought, would only take away both my time and energy for that goal. Of course later in my twenties I would adopt cardio to trim off body fat for bodybuilding competitions, but that’s another story.
We mostly relate cardio training with fat loss, but there are things much more important that cardio can affect. In particular heart and circulatory health isn’t sexy but it is important. In some ways more important than lifting heavy things. I learned that cardio is essential for transporting oxygen to muscle including exercising the most important muscle you possess: your heart.
3. The simple things lead to a healthy life
Becoming healthier isn’t some secret or extreme practice. I once thought super low body fat numbers, bigger, stronger muscles, and a superior aerobic capacity were the ultimate goals for optimal fitness and health. I couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality of better health is much more holistic and not nearly as intense.
When you take a broader view, better health is more about small daily habits that add up over time and also avoiding certain vices. Things like adequate sleep, proper hydration, eating more fiber, keeping dietary fat at bay, and regulating stress levels go a long way for healthy longevity and quality of life. Other things such as avoiding smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, limiting fried foods, and getting some moderate exercise most days of the week are the true markers of a healthy life.
“Better health is more about small daily habits that add up over time and also avoiding certain vices.”
4. The importance of carbs for fat loss
The viewpoint on carbs has swung like a pendulum for years. Carbs are good. Carbs are bad. When I was competing carbs were thought of as detrimental to your ability to get leaner. I had fellow competitors who took in zero carbs. Did they get shredded? Yes, but I look back and wonder if they would have been better off taking in a few carbs and retaining more muscle.
My competitive days are over but I still want to keep a lean physique. For overall health carbs are a good thing, especially fiber, and the complex variety. They provide plentiful B vitamins, said fiber, and other micronutrients vital for good health. Plus, they provide energy if your goal is to lose body fat. Why deplete lean muscle of fuel while dieting? An intake of the right types and amounts of carbs will make your day-to-day life easier when trying to lose a little body fat.
5. The over-reliance of calories for muscle gain
I remember obsessing over every meal in my college days. I grew up a skinny kid and couldn’t eat enough to gain a pound. Once I started weight training I took things to the extreme and stressed over missing even a single meal. My thought process was that if I didn’t keep calories at an all time high every waking hour it would eat away all my muscle tissue and shrivel up.
Boy, has my mind shifted. Not only was I overestimating consuming a huge number of calories, I was underestimating my ability to use protein and carbs to efficiently build muscle. Also, all those extra calories eventually added up and I gained some unwanted weight. The bottom line is don’t think you need to eat every meal every two or three hours and missing just one will tank your progress. Look at your consumption of macronutrients on a weekly basis versus daily. Did you get in enough protein, carbs, and healthy fats during the week?
6. Cardio isn’t that effective for fat loss
Have you ever performed cardio on a treadmill or elliptical and feel like you’re on a, well, treadmill to nowhere? No matter how hard we try, more cardio often does not equal less body fat. The first thing cardio uses for fuel will be mostly stored glycogen, which we all have plenty of. Yes, cardio burns calories (not many), but of those calories that are considered fat is very low.
So, why do we do cardio in the first place? As I stated earlier, cardio is better used for heart and circulatory health. It’s also good for keeping your metabolism in check. To lean up, it’s best to add in some cardio, yes, but don’t obsess over performing marathon-like sessions. Train with weights, reduce calories slightly, and add in some cardio. Keep it simple.
“Look at your consumption of macronutrients on a weekly basis versus daily.”
7. Health is a long game
One of any college student’s disadvantages to gaining muscle and getting lean is the lack of patience. It goes without saying people these days want things done yesterday. I was no different. I would measure my arms, chest, and legs almost on a weekly basis. I wanted to see the results immediately. If I was putting in the time and effort in the gym I wanted instant reward. Sure, I knew things took time but I knew that somehow I could speed up the process.
Health is a long game, but sometimes our expectations get the best of us and we try to “hack” the system. It’s best to lay a solid foundation of healthy habits to build on. Without an initial foundation you’ll have a hard time building anything beyond carelessly adopting the latest trend only to find yourself hopping around in the fitness vortex. Think long term and practice plenty of patience. Give it time.
8. Environment is the best motivator
There’s an old saying that you become the five people you hang around the most. In other words, the people you are around the most have the most influence on things like character, motivation, and attitude. When I was a teen I was lucky to be around some older lifters who taught me about gym etiquette, authentic hard work, and how to train properly.
This is a bit contradictory, but no formal education will translate such principles like friends, workout partners, or even observation. Seeing, speaking, and interacting with your local gym goers will do more for your motivation than any book or classroom lesson.
9. Function is just as important as form
Here’s a tricky one. We seem to like to put these two terms together as if they mean the same thing: form and function. But I beg to differ. All throughout college most references to weight training was that of strength. Normally the classes consisted of exercise testing, strength programming, and athletic goal setting. They focused more or less on the function of exercise.
Function is the actual movement itself. It’s what the exercise is trying to accomplish. For example, squatting a weight from point A to point B and all the details it involves such as balance, coordination, and stability. Form on the other hand involves how the movement looks to the bystander. Are your knees aligned, are your elbows tucked, or is your spine straight? Combining these two things will make every workout better. Yes, perform textbook form, but also understand the function of each exercise you do.
10. The body is way more capable than we think
I once thought any extracurricular activity outside of my gym workouts would drastically rob me of my hard-earned muscle. Anything even remotely active would tank my progress. So I steered away from anything too intense. I needed to kick butt in the gym and then rest as much as possible in order to grow.
The bottom line is that the body is remarkably resilient and adaptive. It can climb mountains, run marathons, swim channels, and thrive. Now you shouldn’t do anything too extreme if your goal is to build muscle but a little extra activity outside of your serious training program won’t do any damage. Don’t deny yourself anything that will benefit your social life or from developing other skills other than bench pressing. Pick up games of basketball, running a 5K, or utilizing swimming for cardio will only benefit you in the long run.
Those are my 10 lessons I learned while earning my masters degree in kinesiology. I’m sure there are a few I’m missing here so I’d like to hear from you.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years about health and fitness?