If you've spent much time at all in the gym, you might be confused. There's the buff hulk who grunts like a wild animal while pumping free-weight poundages you only dream of. He's the one who tells you to pile on the weight until your bones practically break.
There's the zero-bodyweight tight-muscled marvel who could model for a physiology class. He suggests you eat only egg whites and protein shakes, and he'll be happy to sell you supplements and some Amway products. There's the treadmill hero who could run to the moon and back without breaking a sweat. He advises heavy cardio and few weights. Other ideas abound: carrot juice, illegal steroids, free weights only, negative lifting, ankle weights, electronic ab belts...
Getting in shape, staying in shape, having energy and strength, and getting a good body are all pretty simple. It boils down to knowing and following a few basic rules.
If you want to lift the fog and get seriously fit, here are five strategies for success:
Create a specific goal
Too many people have only a general idea of what they want to achieve, but think they're being specific. A goal such as 'getting in shape' or 'looking good' isn't a specific goal. You can look good with cosmetic surgery. Some people think 'in shape' means being less than 20 pounds overweight.
First, choose what not to choose. If you have a weight-loss goal, it's better to select a waist size as a goal, rather than weight. Since muscle weighs more than fat, you might not have to get to your desired weight to look really good and wear slim clothes.
If you want to mass out and have a goal oriented toward building bulk, be realistic without wimping out. Keep in mind that your genetics count. You might not be able to bulk out your biceps or thighs to a certain numeric measurement without steroids, and you certainly don't want to go that route.
So what to do? Set a specific numeric goal, such as 15-inch biceps, but if you are satisfied with what you achieve, it looks great, and you haven't quite reached the numeric goal, consider your goal reached.
If you set a dimensional goal to be so many inches here and there on various body parts, keep it in proportion to what you have now as much as possible. You aren't, for instance, going to widen your chest beyond what your skeleton can hold. Adding two more inches to your thighs is easier than adding two inches to your biceps. Your thighs are already much bigger at the start.
Know what's what.
While it might seem simple, a major task in exercising and lifting to achieve specific goals is to be educated on what you can really do. Remember earlier when it was suggested not to follow all the random advice that floats around the gym? That's because too many people think they're experts.
The mythology going around can keep you off track. There are still too many people who hammer away at spot reducing, pop pills to burn fat, or who follow other erroneous advice.
Here's a quick list of facts:
Major muscle groups, the chest, back, and thighs, typically should be worked before smaller muscle groups, the biceps, triceps, shoulders and calves. For most men, the abs can be fixed into the routine intermittently or just about anywhere.
Some body parts are truly separate and some are not. Where there is no 'upper and lower': hamstrings, quadriceps, biceps. Where there are, indeed, separate body parts: deltoids (front, rear, middle), thighs (inner, outer).
A few body parts are trained separately, even though they are not really separated muscle groups. These are the chest (which can be trained to focus on the upper, middle and lower zones) and the trapezius (same three zones).
The abs are actually one muscle, but because they require so much attention and focus to achieve what we want, we must do a variety of exercises and again, pretend we're hitting different parts, such as the upper and lower area.
Choose form over weight. It might feel profound to stack the bar and grunt your head off in true he-man fashion, but this is only going to give you a bad back if your form isn't right.
I'm amazed at the number of guys who still think the more weight you use, the quicker you'll build muscle. Improved form with less weight wins, hands down, every time.
There are ways to self-check your own form, though it helps to get a knowledgeable friend to watch your form:
Your back should be in correct alignment - not too rigid, bent in an unnatural way, or curved too much.
You have a slight bend in your knees and elbows. It is easier to lock these joints during lifting but it cheats your muscle-building potential.
During a particular lift, you are feeling it primarily in the muscles you are trying to build. As an example, if you're doing dumbbell curls to build your biceps, and feel it in your back, your form is wrong.
You are not in pain during the lift. Sure, you might be working a muscle group hard, but actual pain is a bad sign.
Eat it and be it.
Shame on you if you still think you can down Big Macs and supersize everything just because you are working out regularly at the gym. If you eat a lot of fat, you're going to have fat on your body.
Conversely, some men go the opposite route and try to live on excess protein, chowing down on egg whites, protein shakes and gulping supplements.
Personally, I couldn't live on egg whites and plain chicken breasts. I like real-world food. But I can have small portions of higher-fat foods that I enjoy, while centering my diet on an appropriate amount of protein, fruits and vegetables, and carbs.
The two things that bother me the most about many athlete diets are eating a heavy-protein diet, which in the long run is a waste, and the battle over no carbs or heavy carbs.
Obviously, if you eat bagels, bread, Rice Krispie treats, and other carb-heavy foods all day, you might be getting too much and something like the Atkins diet, eating a bunch of meat and almost no carbs, is too fattening. Where's the mystery? It's not hard to strike a good balance. If you find it all confusing, just follow the Food Pyramid.
To know how much protein you should be taking in, figure 0.9 grams per pound of body weight as the absolute maximum. Thus a 170-pound man should take in no more than 153 grams of protein a day. And if you're at that level, you'd better be working out at least at an intermediate level three or four times a week. Read a few food labels to see how much protein you're getting.
Build muscle in bed.
There's probably one particular muscle you like to enlarge in bed, but we're talking about sleep and rest, guys. This is the number one overlooked step in building muscle.
Sleep and rest are when your body builds muscle. This isn't just a belief, it is proven. That's why so many well-built guys have a 'chest and back day' at the gym, then have a 'legs day' and then have a 'shoulders and abs' day. It takes at least 48 hours for a muscle to fully recover from lifting. During that time, the muscle fibers repair themselves from the lifting - which actually makes them bigger - and receive protein filaments from the body. Not taking enough rest will prevent your muscles from growing.
Sleep deprivation is no help, either. Everyone needs around eight hours of sleep each night. I know it's a busy world and we all have a lot to do. But living optimally, feeling great and having the best possible body means getting enough sleep every night. I wish everyone's New Year's resolution would be to try to get eight hours of sleep a night every night, no matter what is going on in their lives.