To gain muscle, you need to train. To gain muscle, you need to eat. To gain muscle, you need to sleep. We know all three are important, but we mainly only focus on the training aspect when it comes to trying to reach our goals. Whenever someone wants to build a physique, gain weight, lose weight, whatever it may be, the first thing they are usually concerned with is their training program. They are worried about their exercises, their set and rep ranges, their particular split, and whether or not they are training enough. The truth is your training is the last thing you should be worried about getting sorted. If you really want to maximise your gains, your first priorities should be sleeping and eating.
What Happens In The Gym?
We go to the gym to build muscle right? Well, not exactly. When you go to the gym and lift weights, you aren’t actually making anything grow right then and there. In fact, you’re actually breaking your muscles down. All of those repetitions, all of those sets, and all of those exercises you do are really just destroying your muscle. You are tearing down muscle fibres with micro-tears, which as the name suggests, are tiny rips and tears in your muscle tissue.
Why Is This Important?
In order to grow bigger, you need to tear the muscle first. All of these micro-tears have to be repaired by the body, and it is during the repairing process that muscles increase in size. After ripping and tearing your muscles, your body won’t want to just repair them to their normal state though. If it did that, they could just as easily be torn again. So instead, your body, smart as it is, regenerates enough muscle to cover what was broken down, as well as a little bit extra. That little bit extra is the increase in strength or size, which is done in order to make the muscles more prone to tearing, and requiring more exertion (e.g. more weight or volume) to tear them again. But what comes next is more important than actually tearing down your muscles.
What Happens When I Eat?
Once those muscles have been broken down, they need energy to properly recover and rebuild. That energy comes from food. You have probably heard before that if you workout, you need to or are allowed to eat more food. But here is where it gets a bit more complicated – it can’t just be any food, and you can’t just assume that what you are eating is enough.
You MUST know how many calories you are eating, and where those calories are coming from. Proteins are the building blocks for muscles, and without protein, it would be nearly impossible to see any kinds of muscle gains. Proteins are full of amino acids, and the absorption of these amino acids creates protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is the creation of new proteins. You see where I am going?
If protein is the building blocks of muscles, then more protein = more muscles built. To get more protein, you need to maximise protein synthesis, which occurs from eating protein! It all goes in quite a nice circle really. If you want to build more muscle on top of your repaired muscle, protein is going to be your go-to food source. As soon as possible after a workout, get some protein in to start the recovery and rebuilding process.
Carbs of course are used for energy, and you need energy as well to re-fuel those muscles, so carbs should be second on your hit list after a workout. Without that energy, they would either struggle to recover to their previous state, or they wouldn’t recover at all. Lastly you have fats, which can be another energy source but also work as a way of controlling cholesterol levels, creating vital hormonal release, and ensuring cells grow and function properly.
Now that we have covered the basics, let’s get down to what it all means. MORE FOOD! Too many people abide by the traditional diet of approximately 2000 calories a day, the recommended daily intake for the average person. But gym goers are not average people. The more work you do, the more food you need to grow. But so many people also say ‘I eat SOOO much food, but I still can’t grow, how come?’ The first thing that person needs to answer is ‘What is your meal plan and what are your daily macronutrients?
If you eat some chicken, drink some milk and have a protein shake every now and then, you will be getting protein. But how much? This is crucial. You can use approximations, such as knowing you ate about 200g (6oz) of chicken, even if it was a bit more or a bit less, but you still need to know just how much protein you had. Don’t go thinking 200g of chicken = 200g of protein. It is going to take a lot of food, and a bit of time working out how much protein, carbs and fat you get each day, but the sooner you do it, the quicker you can really push forward in making some progress in the gym and towards your goals.
Why Is This Important?
The energy you get from food is vital. Not enough and you won’t grow. Too much and you will store fat. Just the right amount, and you will build muscle with minimal fat gain – it works for whatever your goals are. Not only that, but the kind of food you eat comes with various types of vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients. To absorb your macros, you need to be getting the proper amount of micros too. Without the absorption of your macros, your muscles won’t be able to re-build bigger and stronger. Notice how it all links together?
What Happens When I Sleep?
Of course, we can't forget about sleep either. Who would have thought that lying in bed, doing nothing, is actually the best time for making gains as opposed to in the gym? It's true. Without rest, we can't recover. If we can't recover, we can't rebuild muscle. In order to rebuild muscle, we need to rest.
You need approximately 7-9 hours’ sleep in order to maximise growth during that time. Less than that means you may not be giving the muscles enough time to recover completely. Believe it or not, more sleep isn't necessarily better for you either, with side effects involving a higher chance of obesity.
Food also comes into play while you are sleeping. Obviously the amount of food you have eaten during the day will relate to how much energy you have to use during sleep for rebuilding muscle. You might want to think in particular about having something to eat before bed, like some slow digesting caesin protein to avoid muscle breakdown.
Why Is This Important?
Just being awake, believe it or not, takes up some of our vital energy. When sleeping, we don't use as much energy. Basically, while you sleep you conserve much-needed energy, which goes mostly to repairing your muscles. Also, as we sleep, we release testosterone and Growth Hormone, an anabolic hormone which is important for growth. If we aren't sleeping enough, the production of those reduces, and in turn our muscle growth won't be maximised.
When we rest, we aren't just recovering physically though, but mentally as well. The brain needs its rest just like muscles, and you need your brain functioning properly to be able to hit the gym as hard as possible. If you aren't mentally rested, you might not just have a lack of focus in the gym, but messages to your muscles might be slower than usual as well.
So what does this all mean? It means stop worrying about your gym routine so much, and start thinking about your meal plan and sleeping patterns. Training is nothing without a solid meal plan, and nothing without giving your muscles enough time to fully rest and recover. Training is important, but eating and sleeping are what will really lead to building muscle. Train hard, eat well, sleep lots, and repeat – if you want to grow, that is the formula to follow.
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