When it comes to building lean mass, we’ve all heard it: eat a lot, train hard and get enough rest and you’ll grow. But sometimes, it’s not so cut and dry. So when is it okay to verge from the tried and true path and break the rules in the attempt for new gains?
I believe the top 3-okay-to-break-rules for muscle building are
1. Consuming a constant surplus of calories
2. Training like there’s no tomorrow (all the time) and
3. Eating meals every 2-3hrs vs. when it’s convenient
Read on to see why following these rules perfectly all the time can in fact limit gains
Rule 1: Eat like a horse, grow like weed…or not?!
Fact: To gain muscle, you have to be in a caloric surplus which means eating more calories than it takes to maintain your body weight.
My Take: But constantly shoveling down heaps of food well over the necessary amount may not be optimal for lean mass gains and instead could lead to unwanted fat gain.
Why it’s okay to break this Rule: When you go from a constant caloric surplus (which means enough calories to build) to either maintenance (calories to stay the same) or a deficit (calorie amount used to cut down) for a short while, you can trim extra body fat that may have been accumulating during your bulk. This can lead to a leaner body composition as well as reestablish the sensitivity of certain hormones within the body. Then when you resume your mass gain phase, add calories back slowly to improve the health of your metabolism and you will reap the benefits of a the anabolic surge from the caloric surplus and expedite muscle growth.
How to Break this Rule: The best way to do this is to remain in a surplus of 250-500 cals over maintenance for 6-8 weeks followed by a 1-2 week caloric deficit of 250-500 cals below maintenance. You can repeat this process throughout the year or increase the duration of each phase proportionately depending on your goals and physique appearance.
Rule 2: Keep pushing! Harder, harder! Now stop!
Fact: Muscle growth happens when you overload a muscle with a certain stimulus. This is usually done by adding more weight to the bar, but increasing volume is another effective method. As long as you eat ample calories and get enough rest, over training shouldn’t be an issue.
My take: But if your gains seem to slow, it could be due to over-stressing the CNS (central nervous system: your brain and spinal cord) indicating that it’s time to back off the throttle for a bit and give the system a rest.
Why it’s okay to break this Rule: Heavy, powerful and explosive training not only takes a tremendous toll on our body but can severely tap the CNS. Feeling tired and sluggish in the gym and throughout the day are just a few side effects experienced due to a drained CNS. Incorporating a de-load or, although no one wants to hear it, an off-week, allows you to fully recharge your mental powerhouse so you can train at max intensity.
How to Break this Rule: By taking note of your overall performance in the gym, as well as energy in general you can determine if your CNS has been drained and needs a break. In order to de-load: train with about 50-60% of your typical loads and keep volume to a minimum. Ex: if you typically bench 225x10reps do 135×10. 5 exercises for chest, do 3. 4 sets each, lower it to 2-3. For an Off-week: take off completely, get away from the gym and fill the gap with something else such as hiking, napping etc. Also taking supplements that can help your cope with stress and improve CNS recovery such as Ashwagandha, you’ll be surprised how refreshed both your mind and body will be when you return to do battle with the iron.
(*Do note: due to decreased performance and activity during a de-load or off-week, lower your caloric intake to maintenance or a slight deficit to negate any potential fat gain)
Rule 3: Slow your role Bro!
Fact: Keeping an influx of calories throughout the day is optimal for gains, but just how often do you need to eat? Most looking to build muscle mass will say you need to eat every 2-3hrs or else you’ll lose muscle…
My take: Although it’s easier to divvy up your food into multiple meals throughout the day, it’s not necessary.
Why it’s okay to break this Rule: In fact, by eating 4-to-5 instead of eating 6-to-8meals/day you give your digestive system a break which can allow for more efficient nutrient digestion and assimilation. Also if you’re like me, eating slightly larger meals is oftentimes more satisfying. Recent studies have shown that a reduced meal frequency and increased duration between meals has no effect on net mass gains.
How to Break this Rule: So long as you eat enough to gain muscle, eat when it’s convenient for your schedule and not by the clock. The only times I would recommend eating by schedule is the bookend period which is before and after workout time when your body needs nutrients for performance and recovery.
Although there are certain rules for bulking that are important to follow to see gains, not all are set in stone. The body is highly adaptive so if you listen to every “Bro” in the gym or assume every fitness article as fact and never experience or try something for yourself, you could be missing out on some killer gains. So break some rules, listen to your body and bend some bars!