Have you ever visited a gym and seen the people benching pounds and pounds of weights, straining with each step until their muscles were so pumped up they looked like balloons? Have you ever seen someone finish a workout and gulp down ounces of a muscle-building supplement drink? Has it ever made you want to start putting on muscle?
It might not have, but despite the hyper-masculinity and Schwarzenegger-esque bodies found in the weight lifting world, working out to build muscle is one of the smartest things one can do to develop a healthy body and lifestyle.
But why build muscle if the goal isn’t to look big and bulky? Having more than just the base level of muscle mass helps the body perform tasks easier. And having more muscle will help make the body stronger and more practical.
The idea is to develop muscle strength, not muscle mass. Though it might be a goal for some, looking like the Incredible Hulk is too extreme and unnecessary for a healthy life. So how, then, does one develop strength if not trying to “get swole?”
Weight lifting is the answer, but not in the way most people might expect.
There is a common adage that “low reps, high weights” equals muscle gain, and “high reps, low weights” results in toning existing muscle. Both might be wrong.
If a few repetitions — around four to six of a heavy weight — are done so the body does not collapse on the last extension, muscle is pushed to new limits and strengthened as a result.
The idea of training to failure — that is, pushing the body to the point of near injury — is not only foolish but it also defeats the purpose of muscle building. If the goal is to increase the resources the body has to move, how does injuring it help? Muscle hypertrophy works by stimulating the cells, not by physically damaging them.
Don’t think this will work?
From personal experience, starting as a 140-pound weakling, it can be done.
What exercises to do are up to the exerciser; everyone has different physical goals. One workout that worked for me was boxing with some dumbbells. It is a bit violent, yes, but effective.
One suggestion for the gym crowd, since the idea is again to get stronger and leaner, is to embrace circuit training — a workout strategy based on keeping the body constantly moving and active, burning fat as the exercises continue.
One circuit involves doing an upper body exercise, followed by a core-focused exercise like sit-ups or crunches and then a lower body one, all without stopping in between.
Compound exercises, such as squatting with a barbell and then lifting it up overhead, work multiple muscle groups at once, which is better for the overall body than isolated exercises.
But with circuit training, because of the continuous motion, a very similar effect is given with more overall muscle engagement.
What about nutrition? It might seem easy and smart to down a pre-made, chemical-laden drink designed to fuel muscle growth.
But these kinds of supplements are just that: chemical-laden. Stick to natural foods high in protein and nutrients to fuel the body. Lean poultry, legumes (lentils are particularly good) and lots of leafy greens (such as spinach, which is a nutrient-dense vegetable) are perfect.
The body needs higher protein levels to fuel muscle growth, so stick to ones low in fat.
Want a muscle-building snack?
Cottage cheese and peanut butter is a cheap, surprisingly tasty meal that is packed with protein and low in negative effects.
If you must use supplements, go for ones that focus on nutrition, not getting “pumped up” or anything of that nature. A good rule of thumb: The less ingredients in something, the better.
The right exercises, with the right diet, can result in a sturdier frame and a stronger body. Building muscle is not hard and it does not mean diving head first into nonstop iron pumping and supplement drinking. Muscle building is only intimidating if you let it be.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Way of the Body” runs Tuesdays.