Building a body you can be proud of is one of the most fundamental – not to mention effective – ways to build self-confidence.
Unfortunately, it’s also hard as shit.
Alright fine, that’s not entirely true – but if you’re just starting down the path toward strength and muscle-building, you can certainly be forgiven for feeling that way.
That’s why I’m not surprised when I check my Twitter feed, inbox or various fitness forums and see beginners asking the same questions I had.
To help guys who are just starting out avoid some of the (many!) mistakes I made, I thought I’d tackle a few of the most common questions here.
Note that a lot of the questions below deal with building muscle and strength, and to a lesser extent burning fat, which tend to be guys’ most commonly shared goals.
Of course, I hold no degrees in kinesiology, biology or exercise physiology, and I’m not an expert in any of those fields.
But I do have a a post-graduate degree in journalism (meaning I’m also not an expert at career planning) and I did spend three years as the Managing Editor of a fitness magazine, so when it comes to gathering sound fitness advice, I know where to look.
To compile answers to these questions I’ve drawn from sources that are well founded and science-based (at least as far as I can tell) and combined their information with my own experience to provide you with practical, if at times anecdotal advice.
If you’d prefer to not take my word for it and go straight to the horse’s mouth (I mean really, journalism? In the 21st century? How can you trust someone who makes choices like that?), I’ve included sources for my answers throughout.
OK, (ass-covering) preamble over. Let’s start making you fitter!
What’s better for building muscle: full-body training or targeting specific muscle groups?
This is one of the first questions we’re confronted with because before you can choose a workout plan, you have to know what kind of plan to choose.
But as with other training-related inquiries, answers to this one vary.
Citing a meta-study, which shows training a muscle group two-to-three times per week to be the best way for beginners to optimize hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), the moderators of the r/Fitness sub-reddit argue that for beginners, full-body is the way to go as you build your strength up.
This makes sense. When you do a full-body workout thrice weekly, you’re working every muscle group three times per week. If you target muscle groups (i.e. arms on Monday, legs on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday, etc.) you’ll only work each group once per week.
(Plus, show me a man who claims it’s not fun to say “thrice weekly” and I’ll show you a dirty, rotten liar.)
If you’re not a beginner, it really just comes down to a personal choice. To help you decide, Marc Perry of Built Lean has laid out the pros and cons of each approach.
Meanwhile, over at T Nation, Joel Marion rejects the dichotomy entirely, pointing out that once you’re past the beginner stage, you can use both approaches intermittently.
“Honestly, how this has become a hot topic of discussion, I really don’t know,” he writes. “Both approaches have benefit!”
How much do I need to eat if I want to add muscle mass?
If you’re as skinny as I was when I first started, a lot!
Muscle isn’t made in the gym; it’s made in the kitchen.
In order to add muscle mass to your frame, you’re going to need to take in way more calories than you’re currently consuming.
To give you a few reference points, when Henry Cavill was first packing on pounds to play Superman, he consumed 5,00 calories per day. (It’s also worth noting that he cut that in half during shooting to keep himself looking lean.)
And for someone taller, it takes even more. When the 6’3″ Hugh Jackman was getting into Wolverine shape, he was taking in a whopping 6,000 calories a day!
These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the point: getting big means eating big.
Of course, you’re not just trying to get big. No one needs help to look like Andy Dwyer; the question is, how do you look like Star Lord?
Pour on the Protein
Strength athletes need to consume about 0.7 or 0.8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight.
To put that into perspective, say you weigh 140 pounds, which was about how much my scrawny ass weighed in my late teens when I started training. To determine how much protein you need each day, you’d multiply your weight by 0.7, which gives you 98.
That means that if you’re looking to add muscle, you need 98 grams of protein each day. One of the best and most effective ways to increase your protein intake is to invest in a good quality whey isolate protein powder.
Most protein powders offer 30 grams of protein per serving. So if you’re only taking one protein shake a day, you need to get those other 68 grams of protein from your diet.
How quickly can I expect to see results?
Without knowing where you’re starting from, what your goals are and (most importantly) how committed you are to changing your body, no one on the internet can tell you exactly how long it will take.
So the only answer I can give you with any level of certainty is: “longer than you probably want.” After all, is there anyone who starts a workout plan and doesn’t want to see instant results?
Steve Kamb, founder of Nerd Fitness puts it best:
Unfortunately, unlike in superhero movies, there’s no super serum we can take to turn us from Steve Rogers into Captain America in a matter of minutes – or even in a matter of months! No matter your desired level of superhero status, it’s gonna take hard work! And a crazy amount of patience and dedication.
But the good news is that your body is capable of some incredible things, so while it may not happen quite as instantly as you’d hope, you can still make great gains (at least in certain areas) in a relatively short amount of time.
Steve’s post outlines some excellent basic starting points for anyone looking to burn fat, build muscle or do both.
Along the way, keep in mind that while working to change your body isn’t easy, it can be fun. If you need help getting or staying motivated, Bryan Krahn of Bodybuilding.com put together an excellent article designed to keep you focused on your goal and help you drown out the noise that might otherwise distract you.
Should I do any cardio if my goal is to build muscle? Or will that just hinder my efforts?
The moderators at r/Fitness sum it up perfectly when they write “If general health and fitness is your main goal, then including both forms of exercise is a good move. If maximizing muscle gain at the expense of all else is your primary concern, then endurance work should be minimized or eliminated entirely.”
Cardio may not be beneficial for building muscle, but it’s easily one of the best ways to keep yourself, you know, alive – so you neglect it at your peril. To help balance your strength- and muscle-building goals with cardio, check out this excellent article from Complete Human Performance (also linked to from r/Fitness).
How many sets/reps should I be doing if I want to build muscle?
After hours of research, I can now definitively answer this question by saying:
There is no mothaf@¢&ing answer. Arrrrggggghhh!
(The “arrrrrggggghhh” is how you can tell it’s definitive.)
Ask 10 different people, even 10 different credentialed people who know what they’re talking about, and you’ll get 10 different answers.
For instance, Men’s Fitness writes, “In the final analysis, substantial evidence argues that training in a moderate-rep (8-12) range is the best way to build muscle mass.”
Not so fast, says Bodybuilding.com. After polling their audience, they gave multiple answers in the same article:
“This means that I do 2 hypertrophy workouts (8-12 reps, 6 sets) for every 1 strength workout (4-6 reps, 3 sets),” writes one user, which Bodybuilding.com declared the number-one answer.
“From what I have written in terms of both science and my personal experience, the best rep range to work in is between 5-10 reps,” writes another user, who, somehow, Bodybuilding.com says is tied with the previous guy for best answerer.
If you’re trying to figure out how to best spend the hour you’ve set aside for the gym, it can all be a little maddening.
Form vs. Function
Fortunately, David de las Morenas of How to Beast has an answer that at least helps explain why there really is no answer:
“If your goal is to get as strong as possible, then low reps is clearly best, because it allows you to lift heavier weights… If your goal is to build endurance, then high reps is clearly best, because it allows you to lift for an extended period of time… But if your goal is to build muscle, there’s no obvious answer, because this is an aesthetic goal (NOT a functional goal).” (emphasis mine)
David points to an analysis by Greg Nuckols of Strengtheory.com, which I also found linked to on r/Fitness, that concludes that different rep ranges result in very little difference in muscle growth.
In the end, the lack of a definitive answer here is actually good news for the beginner muscle-builder: it’s one less thing to worry about as you work to transform your body.
You can focus more on eating properly and getting to the gym, and (slightly) less on what you do once you’re actually there.
Which ab exercises are best for developing a six pack?
All of them. All of the exercises.
Alright fine, there’s a little more to it than that, but before you worry too much about exactly which exercises to do, it’s important to remember that crunches alone won’t get you the results you want.
“Achieving 6-pack abs is a multifaceted effort that requires consistency in clean eating, cardiovascular training, and of course a well devised weight training regimen that includes some effective stomach shredding, fat torching exercises,” writes Chad Shaw on Bodybuilding.com.
Getting a six pack has as much to do with fat burning as it does with muscle development, and this, I think, is what frustrates a lot of guys. When you’re building muscle, you can target certain muscle groups and see faster results in some areas than in others.
Fat-burning, however, doesn’t work like that. You can’t spot cut, meaning that any cardio or fat-burning workouts you do to remove some of the extra layers around your stomach will also lean you out across the rest of your body.
While this might mean that you don’t see your belly fat melting away as quickly as you’d like, remember that it also means your fat-burning efforts are positively affecting your whole body. (Not to mention your health, as the Mayo Clinic points out.)
When it comes to ab workouts, we see the same theme that you’ve probably noticed in the questions above: the workouts themselves are not the most important thing.
The most important thing is making sure to utilize the other factors that contribute to a well defined six-pack – in this case fat-burning, and as always, diet.
So don’t worry too much about which of the below ab programs are “the best.” Just choose the one that seems best for you.
Thrillist: The best (and worst) exercises if you want a six-pack
Muscle and Fitness: 3-Day Ab Workout for a Shredded Six Pack
Mens’ Fitness: The 6 best exercises for six-pack abs
Bodybuilding.com: 6 Exercises You Need to Build Your 6-Pack!
Do you have any fitness questions that I haven’t answered here? Let me know!
I’ll do my best to find you an answer.
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