The Essentials of Muscle Building, in Order (Part 1)

Image provided by Vectorportal

Some things are more important than others.

Just as there is a Hierarchy of Importance for Fat Loss, there are some aspects of building muscle that account for a very large percentage of the total results and other aspects that account for hardly any of the results at all.

Many myths get started this way.

Some guy will start a new weightlifting program with aspects X, Y, and Z, for example. To make this a little bit more concrete, X can stand for total daily protein, Y can be the amount of sets taken to failure, and Z can be how many meals he eats per day. Really, the variables can be anything, but those are some good choices for this particular example.

Now let’s say that this person begins his new exercise program will all the the variables listed above and probably many others. After a few months, he gains 10 lbs of new muscle with minimal fat gain and really likes the results. Thus, it is likely that he will recommend his program to others can tell them that it is very effective.

We run into a problem, though, when trying to decipher which aspects of the program actually leg to his success.

For example, variable X could have accounted for 50% of the results, variable Y could have accounted for 45% of the results, and variable Z could have accounted for only 5% of the results. Even worse, sometimes a variable, say W, could actually account for a negative value! That is, that aspect of the diet actually slowed progress and lessened the results that could have been better without it or if it was tweaked a little.

While I am obviously simplifying here, I think you get the idea. When someone incorporates more than one variable in at a time, it is impossible to determine which variable actually accounted for the success and to what extent.

By lumping together variables, people associate their success with all of the variables, even if some were not effective. Thus, fitness myths get started.

This is somewhat along the same lines as the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule. I have discussed this principle before, but essentially it states that in many different areas in life, 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes.

Some examples:

  • In health care in the United States, 20% of patients have been found to use 80% of health care resources.
  • Several criminology studies have found 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals.
  • In the financial services industry, this concept is known as profit risk, where 20% or fewer of a company’s customers are generating positive income, while 80% or more are costing the company money.
  • 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your profits come from 20% of the time you spend
  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your products
  • 80% of your sales are made by 20% of your sales staff


In weightlifting, we would say:

80% of your growth or improvement come from 20% of the variables in your lifting program.

While these numbers (80% and 20%) are merely just guesses based on precedents from other fields, it gets the point across: you will do much better to focus your effort on what REALLY MATTERS and don’t spend all of your time trying to optimize every little variable. I have seem many people place so much importance on things that do not make much of a difference, but then when they get to the gym, they stop way short of failure because they just don’t push themselves (for example).

Now that we’ve gotten that covered, let’s talk about what does actually matter if you are trying to build muscle:

Hierarchy of Importance for Muscle Building

Since I will be going into a lot of detail for each section, I have decided to break this article up into a series. I am not completely sure how long it will be, but it will be as long as it needs to be in order to get the points across. Also, I will be presenting the concepts in order of importance (though some are are of about equal importance as the previous one). If you are just starting out lifting, focus a lot on the first few concepts (seriously). If you are more advanced, then tweaking some of the later principles would be worth your while.

1. Progressive Overload with High Mechanical Load

The reason I put this first is that it is a habit that must be instilled if you ever want to grow beyond “newbie gains”. If you have never lifted before, then almost any type of lifting program you go on will “work” for you in the short-term. However, if you want to keep progressing, then you need to keep adding more weight to the bar over time so that your muscles always have something new to adapt to, which is called progressive overload, which I have already discussed in some detail here. If your muscles can already handle the weight you are giving it, then there will not be much of a stimulus for them to grow.

This is not to say that you should always try to beat your previous record on the short-term. You can, and that is exactly what programs like DC Training tries to do, but usually training like that is reserved for the more advanced lifters. If you are advanced, DC Training is a good program if you like going all-out and testing the limits of your recovery.

Besides trying to beat your previous record every time, you could just set the weight lower to start off with so that you can increase the weight the next session. This would ensure that you are progressing during each workout, until the next  cycle. This is that the default template of HST (Hypertrophy-Specific Training) does. HST can be manipulated to individual preferences, but the most popular implementation of the program is to perform 2 weeks of 15, 10, 5, and negative reps per set, follow by a “deconditioning phase”. During these two weeks, you lift a total of 6 times (full-body) and increase the weight by at least 5 lbs each session (by starting off with sub-maximal weights).

While I do believe that this default version of HST is excellent for beginners, I am hesitant to have advanced lifters perform so many sessions with such sub-maximal weights. It is a great way to implement progressive overload for beginners and intermediate lifters, but I would modify it slightly for advanced lifters (but that is for a future article). It is important to note here that the “sub-maximal” weights used for many of the sessions “work” due to the strategic deconditioning phase. Without this phase in your program, I would NOT use sub-maximal weights.

Just to be complete, since I mentioned DC Training (low frequency training) and HST (high-frequency training), I should also mention Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine (medium frequency training). While a beginner would be better off starting with a program like HST or a strength-training program (due to the higher frequency), an intermediate or advanced lifter would do well on Lyle’s program. Don’t let the name fool you: just because it says “generic” does not mean that you will experience average results. Lyle knows his stuff, and this program has all of the hypertrophy principles built into it (just like DC Training and HST and any good lifting program for that matter).

I wanted to mention these three programs because they each offer something a bit different from each other and vary in terms of intensity and frequency, with the generic bulking routine being right in the middle. Lyle did a great job covering these and other programs here, so if you want to know more about what each has to offer I suggest you read what Lyle wrote.

No matter which routine you choose to use, the main point is that you need to have some sort of progressive overload with heavy weights over time. You need to keep increasing the poundage on the bar as time goes on. Perhaps not from session to session, but in general, the weight must go up.

A word of caution: do not try to increase the weight before you can actually handle it though. All this will do is make you perform the sets with poor form, normally leading to less tension on the muscle because you are using moment to help you get the weight up. Yes, strive to increase the weight as much as you can, but keep your proper form. If you are at a sticking point in which you just can’t seem to make any further progress, then read this.

Way too often you see people going to the gym very often but not really achieving anything. They might think that they are lifting correctly, but a year later their weights have hardly gone up. If you keep using the weights that your body can already handle, then you will just be maintaining. Progressively overload your muscles with weight and reps that it has never handled before. This does not mean that you can’t lower the weight and do more reps, but if you do, put on more weight than the last time you did that rep-range (HST is a good example of this).


This is going to be the end of part 1 of this series. Progressive overload is so important that I want this principle to have a whole post dedicated to it. We will continue with the subsequent principles in the upcoming articles. Part 2 here.