The Muscle Magnet Lifestyle
Some people prefer to simplify the process, right down to just lifting heavy objects and setting them back down. It’s the calling of the downtrodden, the ones with an axe to grind. They dig deep into their dark place, take whatever stimulants they need to shake off the morning stupor, and unshackle the beast. Done consistently enough, with the right amount of ambitious insecurities to fuel a long run, the lifter attains swole status.
But while it makes for a nice montage, that story sidesteps the huge array of factors that would need to be strung across a day-to-day lifestyle. Turns out, making progress in the gym isn’t so easy. If it really came solely down to training hard, there’d be no chance of standing out. Everyone would be in on it.
Not that this is about becoming a special cat. This is about searching for novelty, for ways of sustaining progress, for keeping the dopamine switch ticking over. The juice of life that’s going to move your transformation from modest to great.
Thankfully there are more players in the picture, waiting to be honed to fit your needs. Diet, sleep, habits, each of them matter just as much as the actual business end of bodybuilding. In some cases, more. And that brings us to the hard fact of muscle building. It’s not about showing grit. It doesn’t come down to the privilege bestowed by the right parents. Genetics may give you the leg up, they may pull you back to a standing start, but real success will still come down to your ability to get your many eggs in line.
I’d have to underline the term ‘real success’, because chances are you’d pick a few of those factors, sidestep the rest, and still come out with a decent physique. It just ends up being a few horizons back from your real genetic potential. And I’m sorry to use a term that’s lost all meaning at this point. Being skinny with a six-pack, or swelling out t-shirts with extra puff, these are easy enough targets to knockdown.
Neither is this about getting as big as possible, but rather carving out the best shape that’s possible. And that requires planning out the optimal lifestyle for muscle building. This is one place I’d diverge a little from the primal template, besides the prospect of having to live in a cave and punch out articles on a typewriter.
When I try to act out an ancestral lifestyle, I fully accept that there weren’t any cavemen walking around pushing 220 pounds at 6% body fat. Unless we’re including the 6’6 freaks. We didn’t push the bodybuilding trade particularly far back then. These days it’s no longer a game of survival, and there are perks to that, such as the availability of steak year-round. We might as well cash in and expand on the ancestral template.
So with that, I’ll lay down the main players that take you down the bodybuilding roadmap. And don’t let the fancy language fool you. When I go on to elaborate, you’ll realise that an optimal muscle magnet lifestyle isn’t that complicated, or taxing, to keep up.
It may seem like a comprehensive list, but I’ve actually left out plenty, because they just don’t matter as much. As the saying goes, many roads lead to Rome. So I’ve trimmed it down to the ones that pack the biggest punch.
1. Progressive Overload
More weight, more reps, more everything.
First up is the feature that drives the whole process, the feature that every gym rat has mastered. Even amongst all these critical players, progressive overload is the one you can’t do without. And it’s all down to the actual mechanic at play in muscle building. Extra mass comes as a consequence of the body being exposed to tension it hasn’t experienced before. In the spirit of survival, it has to get stronger and bigger in order to beat whatever barbell you threw at it, the next time.
But when the next time comes around, you hit it with a bigger lump of metal. In a dream world, the cycle continues until you become too swole for humanity, departing the planet in search of stronger gravitational fields. Reality, on the other hand, finds a way to drag you down to an abrupt halt.
That’s what progressive load is, loading the muscle with more tension than before, upping the difficulty one little notch at a time. The thing is, it works, as long as it manages to keep escalating. Adding an extra plate is an obvious way of doing it, but the body has a habit of getting wise to obvious moves. Eventually, brute force is no longer enough, the weights don’t budge, and you have to find other ways of nudging the needle forward.
Fortunately, we still have a dirty dozen to go.
Get set, get stable, then lift.
With stability, we can move from the confines of numbers and head for measures that appear more arbitrary. In this case, it’s the stiffness produced by surrounding musculature, allowing the target muscle to fire at its full potential. In other words, you’re bracing before you begin the lift.
Here’s where you get to see where brute force leaves the rails. Opt to pull a deadlift with raw power, and the bar might move, but the target muscle can easily get babysitted by surrounding forces. The lower back gets wrecked, the hamstrings remain matchsticks. Without stability in the deadlift, the hamstrings are inhibited, for their own good. It’s a defence mechanism that prevents a weak muscle from being torn apart. Stability equates to strength, which can then lead to muscle.
If we could just find a way of making stability sexy, rather than falling for one heartbreak after another, we’d be going places. As it is, we have to settle for including plenty of unilateral exercises, and making use of both free weights and machines.
Free weights can actually improve your stabilisers, while machines take over that role for you, giving you full reign to simply concentrate on contracting and stretching the muscle. Both of their uses, while being reliant on one over there will see you come up short. And then there’s the small matter of bands, which further test your stabilisers at the end range of motion. Make use of each of them to ensure you jump from strength to strength.
What flexibility claims to be
Mobility runs along similar lines to stability, in the sense that both combine to form perfect technique. At least, there’s potential for perfection. Mobility means taking the muscle through its full active range, and that in turn needs stability to be in place. Without it, end ranges of motion will be inhibited, or just dangerous to navigate. If muscles are tight, it’s going to be a stumbling block for strength gains. Tight muscles are inhibited, much like unstable joints.
It might be best to quickly point out the difference between mobility and flexibility, as they can get muddled together. The former takes you through the fullest extent of the safe range of the muscle, while the latter is just the amount of stretch you can place on your joints. Gains in flexibility aren’t much of an asset if you can’t move the muscle with control through that extra range.
As for how to actually go about improving mobility, there is some debate now on whether traditional stretching has any merit whatsoever. But you might as well throw it in during training sessions while recovering between sets. And since it is proven to spark the GABA receptors, for reasons we’ll be shortly getting into, stretching is worth using as a way to de-escalate your nerves before bed time.
4. Mind-Muscle Connection
Mastering the force
What might sound like a dance with metaphysics is actually a very real and tangible bit of neurochemistry. The more you learn to activate and isolate your biceps at will, the stronger the connections become between brain and biceps. That equals more force output, but also prevents surrounding musculature from taking control of the movement.
The mind-muscle connection does improve considerably by repetition alone. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. As such, simply getting the practice in will do plenty. But the real gains are made by applying tight conscious control. To the point where your field of perception narrows down to the movement alone. The rest of the world falls out of view. That’s what focus is.
Fine-tuning focus takes more than simply shelving away your troubles and getting down to business during the workout hour. This is a resource that’s getting depleted across the day, chewed up by the modern lifestyle doing what it does best. Bombarding the senses. So to perfect focus, you may well have to tune down the distractions. And social media is an easy one to scapegoat, it nevertheless does need to be pointed out. If you’re looking to trim the herd, that’s one of your first point of calls. Create some distance between your internal senses and the external stimuli, preserving focus like the precious commodity it is.
There’s more to intensity than adding plates
Part of what makes training click, is simply landing on some novelty, then teasing it out over a few sessions. This might sound oddly like muscle confusion, a relic of the 70s era bro science, but this isn’t about pressing the shuffle button before each workout.
Ultimately it’s tension that amounts to growth, and there are a lot of ways to spike that tension. Extra plates, more reps, more sets, slower reps, different exercises, that’s where variety comes in. If progressive overload is the driver, variety is the way of staying ahead of the curve. The body is extremely adept at adapting to meet new challenges, that’s part of what boosted us to the top of the food chain. Too much predictability, and everything tends to grind to a halt. When one lever isn’t working, move on to the next one.
Beyond that, there’s the fresh factor that can break up a stagnating routine. We’re not robots, and much of our neurochemistry circles around the quest for novelty.
In short, you should never be afraid to switch it up. Some people find safety in the routine, others want to upset the monotony, and there’s plenty of time to find the sweet spot.
6. Aerobic Endurance
Pushing your workouts to maximal intensities
This is going to get a little flirty with science, so bear with me. We all know what the aerobic zone is, but many of us don’t really understand its significance, and how it can apply to a trade like bodybuilding.
Optimal muscle building involves a ton of volume, long spells of lifting split up by relatively short rest periods. This means the dominant system will invariably be the aerobic zone, where exercise is sustained mostly by oxygen. Beyond the aerobic zone, you have the anaerobic zone, with the two states being buffered by the anaerobic threshold. That’s where the magic is.
The higher you can push the anaerobic threshold, the better you can sustain intense lifts without having to pull back on volume. Because if you have to stretch into the anaerobic state, your session is going to turn into a three hour stretch of powerlifting.
Aerobic work is also typically going to be easier to recover from, as you’re not frying your CNS with each set, then eventually leaving the gym in a near comatose state. Even better, you’re likely going to have a terrible anaerobic threshold as it is. Giving plenty of space for improvement. So raising that threshold should net you more precious gains by enabling more intense workouts, and more frequent ones at that.
The classic way to go about improving the threshold would be to hop on a treadmill and bust your lungs without going overboard. But it wouldn’t be fair to tie this up as ‘just do more cardio.’ It can certainly help out. It just won’t address the root cause.
This issue also taps into the fact that many of us suffer for dysfunctional breathing, which further erodes our ability to fuel the body off the back of oxygen. The modern diet certainly hasn’t helped out by shovelling in soft mushy foods. Without getting stuff worth chewing, jawlines regress, and the airways get obstructed.
That in turn leads to mouth breathing to compensate for the air shortage, which makes things a whole lot worse. The mouth isn’t designed for taking in oxygen, and we’re the only creature on the planet that consistently tries to do so. By hauling in air with big gulps, the lungs are being fed with way more oxygen than it needs.
With carbon dioxide being shuttled in great quantities in the other direction, the lungs also end up with too little C02. Since we need it to funnel oxygen from the lungs and into the rest of the body, that’s a problem. So the net result is inefficient oxygen uptake, magnified by a reduced tolerance for carbon dioxide. Aerobic endurance takes a beating. If you push too hard, you just end up gassed.
But our luck is in, because there’s a suitable breathing replacement that’s in close proximity to the mouth. And unlike the mouth, the nose is quite literally designed for breathing. Raising the anaerobic threshold requires a simple enough strategy, the problem that often crops up is the difficulty in consciously doing it across every waking moment, then making sure you don’t just revert back to drooling at night. So in that sense, it’s not going to be easy. But if you can learn to shut your mouth, use the nose, and learn to take in shallow breaths, your performance is going to be striding on a steep incline.
The building blocks
The truth is, even with training lined up perfectly, it’s no guarantee for results. For proof of that, you only have to look at the lifting styles of the guys who made it to the top of the tree. Guys like Dorian Yates, Jay Cutler, Ronnie Coleman, there wasn’t really a set formula that determined success. Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman were polar opposites for training intensity, and yet they both ruled the roost during their respective primes. How you lift, what you lift, it doesn’t seem to matter as much as what you do in the remaining hours of the day.
And really, it makes perfect sense. By my maths, 23 beats out 1.
Now we can bring this into the nutritional realm, and it’s not worth understating the importance. Because what are bodybuilders if not unlicensed dieticians?
In the context of muscle, there’s one decisive macro that you can’t afford to skip. Throwing weights around produces the muscle tears that kickstart the adaptation, while the actual building takes place once the dust settles.
Protein might produce calories, but it’s not so much an energy source, as it is a building block. One of its major roles is contributing to the yin and yang of Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) and Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB). We’d generally want MPS to outstrip MPB, assuming we don’t want to waste away. So the goal here is to keep replenishing the amino acid pool with high-quality protein. A safe dose would be around 1 gram per lb of body weight, and there might be benefits in going higher. There certainly don’t seem to be the downsides your nan warned you about.
This has to count as a mark against a vegan diet, because it’s flat out impossible to meet the protein quota without resorting to protein powders. Which, like the case of phytoestrogens in soy, can then bring their own problems.
It’s worth touching on the issue of meal frequency, as there was a ton of hype a few years ago on protein absorption. Based on a few studies, 30 grams was marked out as the maximal amount of protein the body could glean from a meal. Meaning the rest just explodes out of your skin as pixie dust.
While it’s an extreme stance, it’s probably best not to load all your protein up in one whopping meal. There’s better evidence pointing to 60-80 grams being a rough threshold, in which case you could split it over 3 meals. What I’d caution against, is adding so many meals that you push too close to bedtime. Food can’t come at the cost of quality sleep. The latter is just as important in the muscle-building process.
8. Bioavailable Nutrition
It’s not about how much you eat
The time for the calorie equation has come and gone. It’s a good guess, but it so often falls short. You can’t condense the nutritional angle of muscle building down to hitting your protein count and eating more calories than you burn. The formula works in a crucible over a bunsen burner.
The problem is, humans aren’t test tubes. When calories land on the slippy slide that is the digestive tract, they still have to be absorbed and assimilated. That’s where a few big distinctions have to be made between plant and meat nutrition, concerning undeniable differences across bioavailability and inflammation.
- Plants have relatively low quantities of micronutrients
- Which have a terrible rate of absorption because they have to be converted first
- Contain unstable fats
- Meagre amounts of protein
- Carbs that play host to a range of toxins that clash with your digestive system
- Which cause inflammation to rise, impeding recovery
- Some of those toxins block the absorption of other nutrients
Net result, reliance on plant sources for your calories will be a sure-fire way of getting nutrient deficiencies, and you’ll have to eat excessive amounts of calories to make up for the ones falling through the netting. The inflammatory effects, when given the legs, can transform into chronic inflammation, which guarantees you’ll never be in an optimal state for muscle building. All the while, there’s the meat option.
- Dense source of micronutrients
- That are highly bioavailable due to being a similar makeup to human cells
- The fats are stable
- More protein than you’d ever need
- No toxins
- Nothing to stop incoming calories becoming your calories
Meat-based nutrition is pretty much the opposite picture to plants. Red meat for instance has every micronutrient, and macro for that matter, that you’d possibly need. That allows the body to shift into a state where hormone levels are optimised, recovery is maxed out, and muscle building can go from strength to strength.
The differences in inflammation can’t be understated. As I’ve said, muscle is built during rest, and a state of chronic inflammation ensures the body is never truly able to shift into rest. Hormones like our precious testosterone aren’t allowed to fully replenish. There will be an outsized propensity to store excess calories as fat. Results can be reduced by several magnitudes. Inflammation might be the thing that tears your muscle fibers and kickstarts the strength process, but it can’t be allowed to outstay its welcome.
9. Energy Availability
A different interpretation of calorie surplus
While the calorie formula is a little outdated, it’s nevertheless true that the optimal environment for acquiring mass is going to require an abundance of calories. If you’re ending days frequently with energy debt, the body’s not going to divert critical resources to putting an inch on your biceps. You could gain muscle while losing weight as a beginner, but it’s going to be modest at best.
So in that sense, you’ll need a calorie surplus. The problem, as mentioned in the last point, is that the formula ends up being highly susceptible to error. Carbs in particular get lost in the process, meaning you could be loading up on 4000 calories with no shifts in the scale. The best strategy is generally to take a rough guess based on your activity levels, then match it with your scale weight. As long as there’s an upward trend over a matter of weeks, you’re set.
Calorie counting is only really needed to establish the baseline at the beginning. Once you’ve figured that out, trying to micromanage your diet to that extent can be soul sapping, and bodybuilding takes you on the long haul. Pick your fights.
The thing with energy availability, is that you don’t need a great deal. If it works at 250 extra calories, great, that’s more or less the sweet spot. But trying to push for a 1000 calorie surplus is typically going to result in a ton of fat gain.
Which can quickly push you off the rails. The more that piles on, the more insulin resistant your muscles become, and progress can stall altogether. The metabolism has to remain functional. This is why I generally recommend lean bulking. Gains end up being predominantly muscle, some fat gain, but not enough to sink the abs completely.
So in brief, you should be in a surplus, just not a giant one. Calorie counting should probably be shelved once you’ve figured out how much is in a one pound brisket.
10. Power Carbs
Using carbs as workout fuel
I’ll say outright that I’m pretty biased against carbs, having run the gauntlet of low carb diets for the best part of four years. Fasting, paleo-style, keto, CKD, TKD, carnivore, modified carnivore, it’s been the whole set. My principles regarding carbs have remained the same. They are useful for explosive energy, and as a way to lower stress hormones.
But there’s a curve to this, and when they’re allowed to dominate the diet, it ends up being quite the opposite. You’re sluggish, and the sugar is constantly spiking the glutamate pathway, which is basically your brain’s gas pedal. Push on that throughout the day, and you get depleted and stressed in equal measure. In the meantime, carbs are often loaded with toxins, and the processed versions come mixed with seed oils. Sugar, contrary to the food pyramid we carry around, isn’t the body’s preferred fuel source. That’s the role of fats. Which, incidentally, stimulate GABA, the relaxing neurotransmitter that opposes glutamate.
Sugar isn’t designed as a consistent supply of energy. Load up on it, and you get a bunch of crashes that put you at risk of excessive fat gain. When you put all that together, a diet high in carbs makes you stressed, fat, tired, bloated, and depressed. It’s anything but optimal for muscle building. You’re taking this on for the long haul here, so you can’t exactly get your head down and grind it out.
With that being said, a zero carb diet makes muscle building harder than it needs to be. High-fat, high-protein foods are extremely satiating. There can be a drop-off in explosive power. Cortisol can get too high and become a sleep deterrent. There is a wasting effect on these diets that prevents extra calories from being absorbed.
The solution could be to stay mostly low carbs, while adding fast-digesting carbs before, during, and after your workouts. Or low carb for the morning and afternoon hours, with carbs coming in the evenings. The thing is, you just don’t need a ton of carbs to ensure the optimal quota. 100-200 grams will be more than enough, and anything more tends to invite inflammation. That’s why I style them as power carbs. They come in, add some power, replenish the glycogen, calm you down, then leave.
11. Sleep Quality
Nailing the recovery
Every single biological process in the body is affected by sleep, for good, but more often for worse. As far as building muscle goes, it’s critical. Sleep provides the body with the perfect setting for diverting its resources towards recovery. In short, this is where the magic happens. Without sufficient shuteye, each workout makes you a little weaker. Strength is always capped. And worst, your brain adjusts to your crippled state as the new status quo. Meaning you’re struggling, but you don’t notice you’re struggling.
Simply making sure you’re in bed by 9 certainly helps. Keeping a steady routine is actually the best move you can make. But you still have to be able to slip into states of deep sleep. That’s what I mean by quality. You could fall asleep on time with a heart rate over 80, then wake up with a bad case of brain fog.
So the goal is to make sure the body winds down in time. You don’t want to be jacked up on cortisol late at night. There’s no use trying to power through workout after workout on sheer willpower. All you’re doing is further ramping up stress and ensuring the next night’s going to be a washout. You’re swimming upriver against the current, fighting twice as hard, for half the results.
I’ve written a much more extensive post on building the optimal sleep routine, which you can check out at your leisure here.
12. Parasympathetic Dominance
Getting the upper hand over stress
The nervous system shifts back and forth between two dominant states. Sympathetic, often known as fight or flight, is the one that gears you up for action. It could be running from a tiger in the bushes, or lifting a heavy bit of iron. Then there’s the parasympathetic state, also called rest and digest. Despite the fact that your deadlift bests come when you’re jacked into the sympathetic system, it’s parasympathetic where you want to be spending the biggest chunk of your time.
Unless you’re putting in marathon shifts in the gym, there’s going to be 23 hours in the day without a barbell in your hands. That’s where the body is recovering between bouts, repairing damaged tissue, topping back up on stress hormones, and balancing neurotransmitters. Staying sympathetic only hurts you on that end.
You can think about it like changing hats. When you walk into the gym in the morning, you might want to put on your animal hat. Then when you’re leaving the double doors, you can chill out, breath slow, and swap to your business one. You call on sympathetic when it’s needed, then move into parasympathetic once the job is done.
This might sound routine, but it’s anything but, because the triggers of a modern lifestyle are tailor-made to keep us in fight or flight. A long time ago, we had to watch out for the tiger in the bushes, we had to be tensed up and ready for a game of survival. The brain hasn’t evolved past that. Emails, phone calls, news headlines, office drama, there’s a tiger around every corner. The modern lifestyle has more than enough stimuli to keep you in a stressed state all across the day.
13. Dopamine Driven
Dopamine is the molecule of more, the one that keeps you in the chase. Dopamine doesn’t care about reaching goals, it thrives in the hard yards you spend between one and the next. It makes it easier to suffer, because you don’t interpret it as suffering, you see it as progress. In other words, it’s tailor-made for bodybuilding, a trade where there’s no definable finish line.
Bodybuilding is about getting the work done week in, week out, for barely perceptible gains. It requires a constant application of delayed gratification. You’ll need a ridiculous amount of motivation and discipline to stick by the habits over the long run, where transformations are allowed to move from average to spectacular. You need dopamine.
It’s a point where many fall short. With each year, we get better at craving, and worse at tolerating discomfort. People who struggle to complete mundane tasks, who don’t feel absorbed in their work, who quit when things get uncomfortable, are often dopamine deficient. And much of that comes down to the overexposure to stimuli that’s part and parcel of a modern lifestyle.
Dopamine responds to novelty, and we have plenty of that. Each time you flick across to a new image on Instagram, you get a hit of dopamine. Netflix, facebook, playstation, dopamine. It’s the playground of instant gratification, a constant drain on the brain’s dopamine levels. Often, there’s barely any left to fuel the grind.
14. Pharmaceutical Support
Break glass in case of emergy
It wouldn’t be fair to pretend that bodybuilding is a trade that depends on grit and grit alone. Having extra ammunition certainly helps. The vast majority of supplements, and certainly the legal kind, make absolutely no difference. You’re better off skipping them, and your wallet will thank you for it. But then there’s the matter of steroids, and to a lesser extent, SARMs.
These supplements will boost your hormones, fire up the anabolic mechanisms, potentially giving you a supersized advantage. Potentially. They still don’t make up for a diet that’s littered with processed junk, and they certainly won’t overtake a training regime sapped of energy.
At the end of the day, anyone who competes in the physique industry is likely going to be using pharmaceuticals to some extent. The dose can change, they may only jump on every now and then, but the fact remains that this is a competitive industry. When people have to fight for a spot in the limelight, it can be hard to justify ignoring an obvious advantage. So there’s that. We can’t pretend that this doesn’t play a significant role. This in itself isn’t a problem, there’s no fix, it’s just a matter of stating a fact.
Why This Isn’t Complicated
Having gone through each of the players with some detail, I may have made it out to be a monumental mountain to climb. But you have to size this up as a hobby that’s essentially built to last over decades. It’s dopamine-driven, and that takes out any possible finish line. Which is a giant plus, because humans aren’t designed to finish races. Buzz Aldrin, as he wrote in his book ‘The Long Journey Home From The Moon’, suffered intense depression in the aftermath of walking on the moon.
Aldrin wasn’t a special case, he’s just one example of many high achievers getting lost after a podium finish. A hobby like bodybuilding isn’t just about looking great and jacking up on self-confidence. It’s about fulfilment, a creative mission that consistently yields results. From the mental health perspective, it’s pivotal.
There’s a tremendous scope for practice here, for ingraining habits that compliment other aspects of your lifestyle. Optimising your lifestyle for muscle building may start out with a rather steep learning curve. But eventually, inevitably, much of this becomes part of the autopilot. Things transform from conscious decisions to subconscious background noise. You end up walking the fitness maze with your eyes closed.
These factors blend seamlessly with each other, meaning you don’t have to tackle them one by one. The whole nutritional set could be achieved simply by following a diet that closely matches the one practised by our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. That in turn could solve many of the issues of the mindset, by providing the nutrition to fuel the right balance of neurotransmitters like dopamine. By following an ancestrally-consistent diet, you might be tempted to take on other features of an ancestral lifestyle, creating some separation between the mind and technology.
The right amount of dopamine, makes following other habits so much easier. The lust for instant gratification is likely the biggest stumbling block when carving out a fitness transformation. Learning a game of patience and persistence can completely transform the perceived difficulty of the tasks in front of you.
In short, I may have split this guide into 14 different factors, but many of them are inextricably linked together. By priming a platform for optimal shape gain, you’ll have a lifestyle set up perfectly to take on other endeavours. With the potential for radical transformations, wellbeing that can stretch over decades, and a consistent source for novelty, it might be worth taking the time to line up your eggs. And when wracked in doubt, just start. The results will carry you from there.