The Best Tip You Need to Gain Muscle

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“If I only knew what I know now”… many times have we said this to ourselves? When it comes to the game of “gain muscle”, I’ve probably repeated those words to myself a lot. If you’re like me, you’ve probably tried some dumb things to build mass. Trained arms four days a week? Yep. Thought fast food was an easy source of calories to get big? Yep, been there too. The only thing that got huge was my waistline.

Here’s a great tip though that will save you a lot of hassle down the road: building muscle is all about creating tension. By tension, I’m referring to that burning sensation you feel in the muscle when controlling a weight. Notice I said controlling the weight and not “that burning sensation when you lift weights like you’re starting a lawn mower.”

There is a difference between lifting weights and building muscle. If you’re major concern is simply lifting X amount of weight for Y amount of reps, then you should take up powerlifting. I can recall squatting close to 300 pounds for moderate reps and seeing no growth whatsoever on my legs. Dropping the weight and prescribing tempo to my workouts helped fix that. Sure, the ego took a bruise for a minute, but I quickly got over that. New muscle appeared and the scale staring creeping up.

And that tempo is what it’s all about. When you can keep tension on the muscle – never letting it relax during a set – you fill the muscle up with blood. A bunch of garbage ; such as waste products and acid, also takes up space in your muscles. This creates something after the workout called protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is the process of the body repairing muscle and thus rebuilding your body into a bigger and stronger one. When researchers kept a muscle under a specific amount of tension, protein synthesis was significantly elevated after the training session (1). Just lifting the weight won’t necessarily trigger the body to build muscle.

A major part of working with my personal training clients is to slow down and feel the muscle. When clients begin to learn how to lift, their initial reaction is to just get this semi-painful sensation over with ASAP. Once they get hit by the lifting bug, then the goal seems to be more about just adding more and more weight on the bar. Big mistake if you want to change your body. Simply trying to lift the weight means momentum takes over, and that muscle loses tension. It’s also a good way to mess up your joints.

For some, this is a tough pill to swallow. But remember, we’re talking about building muscle here and not necessarily just lifting weight. My recommendation would be to combine a strength program – like 5 x 5- with some tension work where you use a tempo and never let the muscle relax during the set. Interestingly, the weight you lift may come down but your scale weight will go up.


1. Burd, N.A, Andrews, R.J., et al. “Muscle Time Under Tension During Resistance Exercise Stimulates Differential Muscle Protein Sub-Fractional Synthetic Responses in Men.” (2012) The Journal of Applied Physiology 590(pt2). 351-362

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