The Top 9 Muscle Building Myths

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The Most Common Muscle Building Myths

The Most Common Muscle Building Myths

Even the most cursory browser search will yield a plethora of bizarre nutrition and training advice. You might figure out how to separate the knowledge from the nonsense if you stick with it long enough, but we can save you a lot of time!
Let's dissect some of the most common "commandments" of muscle-building; you'd be surprised how many are fruitless, misleading, or simply incorrect.

1. You must consume all of the protein.

The first chapter of the bro-science bible would most likely expound on the importance of eating a lot of protein in order to gain a lot of muscle. The logic goes as follows: You want to gain muscle, and muscle is made of protein; therefore, if you want to maximize the amount of muscle your body can synthesize, you must consume as much protein as possible. Right? No, not at all.

This claim is not supported by science. In fact, studies comparing the effects of moderate-protein versus very-high-protein diets on hypertrophy show the opposite:

  • After a certain point, increasing your daily protein intake to extreme levels will not result in more muscle gain.
  • This is not to say that high-protein diets should be avoided; in fact, high-protein diets can provide additional benefits such as satiety (making you feel full) and muscle retention.
  • However, if your goal is to gain muscle, you don't need to consume every gram of whey protein you can find.
So, how much protein should you consume? The ideal range is likely to be between 0.6 and 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.4 and 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight) [3]. For a 150-pound person, this means consuming between 90g and 135g of protein per day; for a 200-pound person, consume between 120g and 180g per day. (Note that this isn't a hard-and-fast number; there's a lot of wiggle room here.) If you're resistance training (which you should be if you want to build muscle), you shouldn't eat protein below this range on a regular basis. However, eating more protein than this recommendation may increase your feeling of fullness (if you need it), and it may satisfy a preference for meat and dairy — but it will not cause you to gain more muscle.

2. Protein Is the Only Macronutrient That Is Important

Protein is essential for muscle growth. To spend that surplus on muscle tissue, your body must have a positive nitrogen balance (i.e., enough protein). However, protein isn't the only factor to consider. If you think that eating a lot of protein will turn you into a Greek statue, you're mistaken. You must also consume an excess of calories in order to achieve this. Just as you can't lose weight unless you eat less, you can't gain weight (muscle is weight) unless you eat more total food. The most important thing your macros will do for you in this situation is put you in a surplus.

Following total calories, the second most important goal is to keep your protein intake consistent (0.6–0.9 grams/pound of bodyweight/day). However, unless you were already eating a lot of carbs and fats and very little protein, simply adding protein is unlikely to result in a significant surplus.

Carbohydrates are great for helping you eat a calorie surplus because they don't fill you up as much (making them easier to consume in a surplus) and provide more of the fast-burning energy you'll need for hard, muscle-building workouts. Carbohydrates also stimulate the anabolic hormone insulin, which aids in the synthesis of muscle tissue by preventing protein breakdown and assisting you in achieving a positive nitrogen balance.

3. You Must Consume All Calories

While the laws of physics require you to eat a surplus of calories in order to gain muscle, there are no rules that require you to gorge yourself on a pizza and a bucket of buffalo wings every day. The popular notion of "bulking" — eating as much as possible to maximize muscle-tissue synthesis — is as scientific as "eat all the protein, bro."
Eating more protein than 0.9g/pound bodyweight does not result in additional muscle gain, and eating ridiculously high calories does not result in increased muscle growth over time. Your body has a maximum capacity for converting protein into muscle, and no amount of calories will make it go faster.
Rest assured, those extra calories will be used — you'll find them lurking around your stomach, hips, and thighs as the softer stuff you probably don't want.

4. Cardio Will Destroy Your Gains

Cardiovascular (or endurance) training clearly interferes with your body's ability to gain muscle and strength. Cardio consumes time and energy that could be spent on more beneficial muscle-building workouts. When you want the opposite (anabolism, synthesis, growth), cardio may increase catabolism (energy breakdown) in the body by stimulating catabolic hormones (like cortisol) [6]. However, the amount of cardio you can tolerate (with minimal or no negative consequences) is less clear and requires more research to be certain.

A hard-gainer struggling to gain mass may benefit more from eliminating cardio (decreasing calories out) rather than eating more (increasing calories in); however, this does not mean that everyone should forego some endurance training. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that concurrent training (endurance and resistance training within the same week) can still result in muscle growth. 

There was an interference effect for strength (meaning they gained less strength than if they had only resistance-trained), but they still gained muscle, albeit in a different pattern (only fast-twitch muscle fibers grew — possibly because the slower-twitch fibers were too fatigued or depleted by the endurance training).

So, yes, you can do some cardio while still gaining muscle. That being said, you'll have to disregard another popular piece of bro-science: that you can do as much cardio as you want as long as it's HIIT. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has been promoted as a treatment for the interfering effect of endurance and resistance training.

Proponents argue that because the intensity and duration of HIIT are similar to resistance training, the stimulus isn't directly antagonistic to the process of gaining muscle, and may even help. While this is true to some extent, HIIT is still an exhausting form of cardio that can detract from the energy your body requires to build muscle, especially if performed before a lifting session. Remember that the focus of a muscle-building period should be resistance training, and that moderation is essential regardless of the type or mode of cardio you choose.

5. You Must Perform 8–12 Reps

Sets of 8–12 reps will help you build muscle, but they aren't the only way. In fact, the notion that any particular number of reps is optimal for hypertrophy has been shattered in recent years.
Let's debunk the 8–12 rep-range mythology...
First and foremost, remember that volume is king. Volume, which is typically expressed as weight times sets times reps, is the most accurate predictor of hypertrophy. If the total volume of training increases over time, muscle mass will most likely increase as well, because muscle building is the body's adaptation to handle increased workloads.

And, while 8 reps, 10 reps, or 12 reps will suffice, the supremacy of total volume means that no method of achieving it is better or worse than another. So, with 6 reps or 15 reps, you can still get enough volume to build muscle.
Understanding this basic fact is critical. Some people prefer light weights and high reps (such as sets of 15, 20, or even 30 — those nutcases), while others prefer heavy weights and low reps (such as 4–6) — both of which are within the reasonable range for muscle growth. If you believe that lifting in these zones will reduce your gains, you are missing out on what could be your favorite training style.

Sets of 8–12 reps may be a good compromise for many people, straddling the line between heavy strength training and the lung- and muscle-burning adventure of higher reps. However, it should not be regarded as exceptional, and there are drawbacks. A limited number of reps leaves little room for variation or progression over time. Also, staying in the middle limits the value you can get from using the ranges on either side: reps less than 8 will increase strength very efficiently, and will help you add volume (by increasing weights) over time; reps greater than 12 will increase your work capacity, allowing you to do more work (read: volume) in the gym and recover faster between sets and reps.

6. Never Work Out a Sore Muscle

There are two major reasons why this is not the case:
  • Exercise is a fantastic — perhaps the best — way to get rid of lingering soreness.
  • A sore muscle isn't much different from a fully recovered muscle, within reason.

If the pain is severe, you will notice decreased performance and force production from sore areas of the body, but you can still do light work in the gym to improve recovery and continue your journey down the muscle-brick road.

Remember that avoiding training a sore muscle reduces either the intensity of your workouts (so you don't get sore) or the frequency of your workouts (such as a once-a-week muscle-group split or even skipping sessions because you're still sore). Both options are unnecessary and counterproductive to what you're doing: to build muscle, you must train hard and consistently accumulate training volume over time.

7. Thou Shalt Prepare to Fail

Taking every set to failure (where you can't do any more reps) isn't necessary for muscle building. In fact, you do not have to put any of your training to the test. Many studies have validated that training to failure works as a training style [8], but so does leaving reps "in the tank" at the end of a set, which is likely a better long-term approach.

Here are some reasons why you should limit or avoid it: If you train to failure, your workouts will be more exhausting, require more rest between sets (or use much less weight), and leave you with no wiggle room for a planned progression in the coming weeks or months. For example, if you can only do 10 reps, you can't be sure you'll be able to increase to 11 or 12 reps the following week. Beginners may be able to, but intermediate and advanced trainees will quickly become stuck and see their gym returns diminish. If you did 7–8 reps instead, you know you can do 8–9 next week and 9–10 the week after that.

You gave yourself more time to get stronger while remaining equally productive.
Furthermore, you've avoided the additional issues that training to failure entails, such as the need for a competent spotter for safety, pounding pre-workout to avoid burnout, and the aches, pains, and injuries that are more likely when you push exercises to their limits.

8. Your workouts must be at least an hour long.

We've all seen that hulking hunk: He goes to the gym six days a week, and it seems like he's always there, no matter what time you go. Perhaps you approach him and ask how long he trains, and he responds with a proud smile, "4 hours." He has to train for that long, he says, because he needs to get so jacked. It's the only option.
Fortunately, he is incorrect. Many research studies have produced significant hypertrophy with bare-bones, short-and-simple workouts that could not last more than a half-hour. Is that a viable long-term solution? No, and it is true that the longer you seek to gain muscle, the longer your training sessions may need to be.

However, the pursuit of higher training volumes (per session) must be balanced against the suggested drawbacks of gruelingly long training sessions: burnout, decreased effort and motivation, and possibly even a suppressed immune system. If someone is constantly taking longer than 90–120 minutes to train, they are most likely compensating for poor programming and exercise selection by wasting a lot of time in the gym. This is the "smoke 'em out" muscle-growth strategy, and it is neither optimal nor necessary.

9. You Must Confound Thy Muscles

We've all heard the speech, most likely in an Austrian accent, in which we are instructed to train with a wide variety of exercises, both within and between sessions, in order to "shock" our muscles into growing. The argument goes like this: Your body will seek comfort, normalcy, and homeostasis; as long as you can continue training in ways your body does not expect, it will be forced to adapt maximally because each time is a new stimulus.

But let's be clear: your nervous system is the only part of your body that can "expect" something to happen (the thing reading this article). Your muscles adapt to stimuli, and while presenting your muscles with new stimuli every time you train will make your workouts more difficult, it will not make them more effective.
The appeal to authority ("Well, Arnold did it!") is ineffective because the claims in this case aren't supported by any good science. Furthermore, there are examples of other successful bodybuilders who follow the opposite philosophy (like Ronnie Coleman, who famously did the same back routine for years). Finally, you shouldn't be concerned with their training philosophies because they were taking "supplements" that you (probably) aren't!

Consistency is a powerful tool that should never be underestimated. Yes, variation is an important aspect of program design, but consistency and adherence are even more crucial. If you believe that a variety of exercises will be enjoyable and manageable, then go for it. However, if you only have an hour in the gym three times a week, focusing on a more meat-and-potatoes plan of a few core movements and accessories will get you far.

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