13 Muscle Building Principles That Actually Work


Have you ever wondered why you don’t seem to me making progress as fast as you’d like, if you’re even moving the needle at all?

Have you ever wondered why the people around you seem to be progressing at a quicker rate, even though they don’t seem to do anything “special?”

Are you sick of staring forlornly into the mirror, wondering when it’s all going to change?


This often comes with the territory when you spend more time getting distracted by, and subscribing to shiny, bright training tactics as opposed to dull and blunt principles.

To be clear, there’s a strong difference between the two.

Think of training tactics as things such as training methods labelled with fancy names (FST-7, GVT, German Body Comp, Cluster Training, and the list goes on). You could also throw in things like occlusion training, different body part splits, and even some intensity techniques.

And then you have training principles.

Which are best characterized by training consistently, paying attention to your rest times, aiming to improve each session (whether it’s a few more pounds, or a few more reps), and ultimately, accepting that building muscle takes time, and will come through putting in the reps.

Tactics are exciting, often come with bold promises, and can be quite distracting. Principles are the polar opposite. They’re boring, call for hard work, and require a ton of patience to reap any reward.

The thing is…

It’s through imbibing yourself with these training principles that you’ll finally start to push the needle forward.

Which probably isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s oh-so-true.

Over my years of iron indoctrination, I’ve spent my fair share of time being blinded by shiny, appealing tactics that ultimately did very little in terms of progress.

However, once I started to hone in on the lessons and principles that benefited my goals (even if it was over the long haul), that’s when the needle began to move.

Below are my top 13 muscle building lessons and principles that will have you building muscle for a long, long time.

Be warned…

There are no quick fixes or rapid solutions below.


So let’s go.

#1. Stimulate, don’t annihilate.

When I up and moved to Toronto to dive headfirst into the fitness industry, I had the fortune of being surrounded by some truly brilliant training minds. “Stimulate, don’t annihilate” is one such training paradigm I learned in Toronto, and has stuck with me ever since.

Building muscle (and burning fat) is much more about working with your body and coaxing it along as opposed to throwing the kitchen sink at it every time you set foot in the gym (which you won’t be able to keep up for very long).

#2. You can only train as hard as you can recover.

Piggybacking off of the point above, you must pay attention to your recovery.

If your recovery is lacking, you simply won’t be able to train as hard as you want day in and day out.

Sleep, hydration (more below), stress management, digestion, and the list goes on. They all play into your recovery, and are equally as important as your training sessions themselves (if not more so).

#3. Drink water.

This bears repeating because many are chronically dehydrated.

Your goal should be somewhere in the range of 3-5 liters per day (depending on climate, bodyweight, training, etc). Or you can be an adult and make a conscious, proactive effort to be and remain hydrated throughout the day. 4-8 ounces of water every hour (again, the amount is individual and contextual) is a great target to aim for.

For a fail-proof method of staying on top of your hydration, you should pay attention to and monitor your urine colour throughout the day. If it’s pale and clear, you’re well hydrated. If it’s dark and yellow, you’ve got some water to drink.

Ensuring proper hydration will serve to lubricate your joints and help prevent them from “grinding” up on one another during your session and day-to-day.

From a muscular standpoint, water is crucial in muscular contraction. If you’re dehydrated, your muscles won’t have any electrolytes to put to use and will cramp. If you’ve ever had a calf cramp you know the pain I’m talking about.

Additionally, your muscles are controlled by nerves. If you lack adequate water and electrolyte balance, your muscular strength and control will also be inhibited. Finally, water also transports nutrients into your muscles and helps to carry waste out of your body.

Hydration is both simple, and a zero-sum game. Either you are or you aren’t.

Make sure that you are.

Now go drink 12 ounces of water. I bet you need it.

#4. More food doesn’t necessarily mean more gains.

There will come in a point in any “bulking” cycle where you start to accrue more fat than is necessary. It’s often around this point where insulin sensitivity plummets, you struggle to get a strong pump, and you begin to look rather soft and round as opposed to dense and hard.

In many cases this calls for a mini-diet to reestablish insulin sensitivity, shed some of that excess fat, and give your body a break from the inundation of calories.

Everyone will have a different tipping point for when this occurs, which means that monitoring your progress becomes crucial. Lest you not notice what’s going on, and end up doing more harm than good.

#5. Food is incredibly anabolic.

There’s an argument for food being more anabolic than steroids. Seriously.

Food quite literally drives muscle growth (and fat loss), with minimal health ramifications.

Food fuels you.

Food aids your recovery process.

And food tastes damn delicious.

If you neglect to pay attention your nutrition, you will sell yourself short, and throw a lot of progress out the window. Before you look to a magical training tactic or wonder supplement to drive your progress, look first to what you’re putting in your mouth (heh).

#6. You must take care of your joints.

By this point, I’ve written about the importance of joint health ad naseum.

Check out 5 Keys For Health, Jacked Joints.

#7. Do your best to minimize injuries, and train around them instead of through them.

Injuries are a royal pain in the ass. While they’re certainly not a guaranteed occurrence, they also tend to come with the territory.

That said, if you abide by many of the principles on this list, you will drastically reduce your injury risk and frequency.

Often what happens when someone picks up an injury is either A) they throw in the towel all together and stop training or B) blindly train through it until there’s no choice but to throw in the towel.

There’s a better way.

You can still train legs if you’ve got some tendonitis in your shoulders.

You can still train arms if you pulled your hamstring.

You can still train chest if you’re elbows are a little crank (elbow sleeves, water, and joint support).

Do you get the picture?

Horrific injuries and surgery aside, you’re often able to work around whatever it may be that ails you.

#8. If there’s a particular body part or exercise you hate, do all of the reps.

I kinda, sort of hate that I’m including this. Largely because it’s a reminder to myself to a do a little more of the things I hate.

What you hate doing most, often represents a weak or lagging body part that needs love and attention. So, if there’s a movement you have a particularly strong hate on for, make it the focal point of your next training phase.

Hammer away at improving it for 4-6 weeks. I can all but guarantee that not only will you see some much-desired progress, but you won’t hate it quite so much when all is said and done. Not to mention you’ll have done your body the favour of fortifying one it’s weak points.

#9. Strength is a skill.

Strength can be defined as moving a weight with efficiency.

Meaning, much of building strength is a result of becoming technically more sound in key lifts, practicing over and over and over, as well as highflying your weak points within the lift, then working on them.

This is the meat of what powerlifting is.

Learning to find the most efficient way to move heavier and heavier loads.

Which is why after a week away from the gym you might notice that your strength isn’t where it used to be. Then after a few sessions you’re right back where you started (if not further ahead). Like with any skill, the development of said skill takes time and practice.

#10. Keep it pretty, meatheads.

Ask a lot of meatheads (mostly guys) what their goal is, and they’ll come back with some variation of “I want to get as big as possible.”

Which is great, but many times this quest seems to come at the cost of building a balanced, symmetrical physique. Some people may love the mass monster look, but I think it’s a disgrace to the roots of bodybuilding.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for chasing size (and have been doing so for the past 6 months), but I refuse to let it be at the cost of a symmetrical, balanced physique.

Size in the right places is often what’s more appropriate than simply chasing as much size as possible.

Double back day. 7 shots of espresso. Found the good lighting. #todaywasagoodday #teamelitefts #thethickening

A post shared by Alexander Mullan (@alexmullan13) on

#11. There are many different ways to do the same exercise.

Every human being on the planet has unique physical anthropology and biomechanics. Which means that performing an exercise optimally varies from person to person.

For example, many are taught to do rope pressdowns standing up tall, keeping your elbows tight, and pulling the handles apart as you press.

Enter, me. I take a few steps back, angle my torso slightly forward, and press slightly away from my body as I press. I do this not because I’m trying to revolutionize rope press downs, but because I get more out of the movement when I execute them like so.

Along the same lines as trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, don’t be afraid to toy with and tweak exercises to find a way that allows them to truly work for you.

#12. Your rep quality outweighs rep quantity.

Quality over quantity is a principle that I believe should apply across almost all areas of life, and in the gym is no different.

And there’s little more offensive in the gym than junk volume. Your reps should be clean, crisp, controlled, and for the most part, flirting with failure.

Granted, there are times where it’s okay to get a little sloppy for a few extra reps, push yourself beyond failure, and get a little ambitious with the weight on the bar. But, if said tactics make up the bulk of your training sessions, you’re going to be leaving a lot of progress on the table.

Slow your roll, and place your focus on learning the principle of executing high quality reps. Your joints will be happier, your recovery will improve, and you’ll make progress.

#13. Patience. You’re going to need all of the patience.

Patience is an enteral battle, even for the most even-keeled.

Truthfully, I don’t have much more to add here.

Building muscle, burning fat, and chipping away at your physique is definitive of playing the long game. The sooner you understand that, the more you’ll enjoy yourself in the gym, and the more you’ll appreciate every scrap of progress.

And so it is.

PS. 4 out of 5 lifters will let their rationalization hamster run wild. Convincing themselves they’re making progress…yet you build no muscle, and burn no fat. The 5th lifter joined the MASSthetics Clan and put the information within the (free) Hypertrophy Handbook to good use. He no longer has to rationalize his progress. He simply is. Click here to become the 5th lifter, and let me know where to send the prestigious Hypertrophy Handbook.