If you’re serious about fitness, I’m willing to bet you crush every minute of the time you spend working out. But what’s happening during the rest of your day? If you want to build muscle, the hours you spend outside of the gym have a significant impact on your gains—and need to be taken as seriously as your last set of squats in order to make real results happen.
Unfortunately, I know all too many gym rats who are laser-focused when pumping that iron, but pretty haphazard about their goals throughout the rest of the day. Here’s why that downtime really matters, and the three common habits that undermine your progress.
How Muscle Building Works
First, let’s briefly review why it’s important to consider your workout as separate from the rest of the day when thinking about your goal of building muscle.
In short, exercise works in the following manner: stimulus (workout) -> recovery -> adaptation (gains)
The most important bit is that you can’t skip from stimulus to adaptation. You have to undergo a recovery period in which your body repairs and builds itself (that’s the adaptation piece of the puzzle). Why is that important? Well, the recovery window is much larger than the stimulus window!
Of course, there are a few key factors that are required within that recovery window to support optimal recovery (and thus adaptation). Proper nutrition, a good night’s sleep, and general stress management are all pretty important, and probably the most well-known. But there are some sneakier factors you may not know about.
3 Common Habits That Interfere With Muscle Building
There are a few lifestyle habits that can significantly impact recovery and impair your muscle-building progress over time. These are the three biggest offenders.
1. You Choose Energy Drinks Over Water—Every Time
Articles all over the internet will discuss ad nauseam the importance of eating clean, whole foods and ample protein intake for building muscle. However, one factor is often missing: hydration. Years ago, a classic survey suggested that an insane 75 percent of adults were likely chronically dehydrated. Since then, research has confirmed that it’s more like 25 percent of adults, which may not sound as shocking but is still plenty concerning.
Unfortunately, not only does dehydration make your breath stink, but it also sets up an internal environment within your body that is not well-suited for making gains. In fact, studies have shown that dehydration can lower testosterone levels, increase cortisol, and even impair insulin sensitivity. While testosterone helps speed recovery, lower body fat, and increase muscle, the stress hormone cortisol can do the opposite if chronically elevated. Meanwhile, being sensitive to insulin means you can efficiently shuttle carbs into your muscles and avoid storing unwanted body fat.
Moreover, we see consistent findings showing that dehydration can negatively impact performance, especially in endurance sports.
Do your body some good and focus on taking in water throughout the day. I find it useful and convenient to simply tote a water bottle around and take a sip every 15 minutes or so. Not only will you likely recover better, but your friends and family won’t be gagging from the smell of your breath. A win-win, in my book.
2. You Don’t Eat Enough
A lot of times, we look at nutrition as a means of creating an energy deficit for weight loss or fat loss—and it can be hard to fully shift out of that mentality. But when it comes to making sick gains, you need to focus on eating more food. In fact, rigorous research estimates that it “costs” nearly 500 calories a day to build appreciable muscle. If you’re not consuming at least a 500-calorie surplus, then you’re not providing your body with the necessary equipment for growth.
Think of it this way: Your body is a big construction site. You have a foreman, tons of workers, and materials. The foreman (your brain) details the plan to the workers by directing your body to build muscle. The workers are all of the enzymatic and chemical processes that result in muscle repair, energy storage, and even muscle building. But, these workers can’t do these things without the materials. You can’t build a house without wood or concrete, and you can’t build muscle without calories. Eating plenty of calories ensures that the workers in your body have plenty of materials to use for gains.
That said, many people struggle to take in enough calories to achieve a significant enough surplus. (This is especially true for those with a faster metabolism.) Often, your body will tell you you aren’t hungry—and you’ll continue to consume enough calories to maintain but not gain. To overcome this, you may need to track your calories and macronutrients for best results.
Bottom line: If you’re serious about putting on some muscle, you better get serious at the dinner table, too.
3. You Indulge In Too Many Happy Hours
Here’s where many will put on their best shocked Pikachu face and act like they’ve never heard that booze is bad for them. The reality is painful, people, but alcohol is incredibly detrimental to your gains, especially if you consume a large quantity of it.
At the very least, think of alcohol as a major distraction to your body. Everything is hunky dory, recovery is swimming along, and then all of a sudden alcohol is introduced. In response, many normal processes need to pause so that your body can do its best to get rid of the alcohol in your system. Unfortunately, one of the processes that gets put on hold is protein synthesis, which is the creation of new proteins in your body. Muscle growth requires consistent protein synthesis—and consuming alcohol slams the brakes on that.
I’ve always been an advocate of moderation, and I think that applies to alcohol. Research suggests that a daily drink could contribute to a quarter of a pound of body fat gain per year; however, certain types of alcohol could have a greater impact (regular-calorie beer is the big culprit here).
While I don’t think a drink or two here and there will hurt you, just be mindful that the effects vary from individual to individual. Some people may offset alcohol’s calories by eating less or moving more, but others see an increase in body fat over time due to disrupted fat oxidation, research shows.
To stay lean and optimize muscle gains, drink only in moderation (that means up to one standard drink per day for women and up to two for men), if at all. Going overboard at happy hour or on the weekends can backfire more than you realize.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute, he researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.