The Most Important Fitness Habits for Building Muscle

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Gandhi

I believe in the power of developing and maintaining positive habits. Every morning, I think about one small change I want to make in my life and implement it. It doesn’t have to be anything grand — and I think that’s a big key. Most people fail to follow through with their resolutions because they set too big a goal.

If you set out to improve yourself by just 1% every day, after 70 days, you will be twice the person you are now.

Consistent small improvements can dramatically improve your life in a short time.

In this article, I will share four habits that will improve your ability to build muscle (and even lose weight).

Habit #1 – Practice good sleep hygiene 

I’ve found that one of the most important factors for building muscle is quality of sleep. If I get a good night’s rest, I recover faster and, furthermore, build muscle faster. The benefits don’t stop there — my mood, energy, and concentration are all greatly improved.

I often wonder why such a critical aspect is so often overlooked. Perhaps, that’s because it cannot be capitalized. In any case, you should take sleep seriously as it’s known to be the most important part of building muscle. You can eat all you want and train for hours, but if you’re not getting quality rest, your muscles will not recover.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, your body produces key muscle-building hormones (including HGH) while you sleep.1 It’s during sleep that the majority of tissue growth and repair occurs! The repair and growth happen during the 3rd stage of NREM sleep. It is during the REM stages that the muscles relax, which reduces tension and alleviates pain.

I could go more in-depth, but I won’t bore you with the microbiology. What you need to know is  quality sleep = quality muscle.

If you are not getting enough hours (or quality) of sleep, you are missing out on potential muscle gain. Even worse, a lack of sleep has been proven to destroy hard-earned muscle. 

A 2018 study examined the effect of sleep on muscle and fat, and what was discovered is shocking.2 The research indicated that after a single night of bad sleep, the body’s capacity for storing fat increases, while muscle mass decreases. 

Another study, conducted in 2011, concluded that “sleep debt decreases the activity of protein synthesis pathways . . . increases degradation pathways, favoring the loss of muscle mass and thus hindering muscle recovery.”3

So, how can sleep be improved?

The first thing is to establish a sleeping schedule. Ideally, this means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Even better is to go to sleep after the sun sets and wake up before it rises.

Doing so aligns your sleep with your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is an innate timing device that cycles between intervals of sleepiness and wakefulness. It’s what makes you feel alert and drowsy at the same times every day.

If you sleep at inconsistent times, your brain will be unsure when it’s time for bed. On the other hand, sleeping at consistent times sends a more potent signal to the brain that it is indeed time to sleep.

The stronger this signal, the more quickly you will fall sleep and the deeper your sleep will be.

If you have trouble sleeping, you may need more cues to strengthen this signal.

For instance, if you brush your teeth and head to bed at 9:00 PM every day, your brain will be fairly sure its time to sleep. But if, say, you meditate for 20 mins, read a book, brush your teeth, then head to bed at 9:00 PM, your brain will have no doubt that you are ready for bed.

Having a routine like this is part of what specialists refer to as good sleep hygiene. Practicing good sleep hygiene helped me overcome severe insomnia. I now sleep longer (and more deeply) than when I was taking pharmaceutical sleep medications!

Unfortunately, for many people, like me, falling asleep is only half the battle. The real challenge is staying asleep.

I’ve listed below all of the tips and tricks that I’ve used over the years to help me fall asleep and stay asleep. Note that while some may seem extreme, they are a necessity for an insomniac to even fall asleep. For those of you without sleep problems, they will help you get deeper sleep, which will have profound positive impacts on your physical and mental health.

Tips for better sleep.

  1. Eliminate light entering your room by using blackout curtains. Even the slightest amount of light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and wake you up. Turn off all sources of light and cover LEDs with electrical tape.
  2. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before you sleep. Smart phones, TVs, and other electronics seriously disrupt your circadian rhythm, suppress the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and make it very difficult to fall asleep.4  A great substitute is reading on a backlit kindle!
  3. Take 1-5 mg of melatonin before going to bed. While melatonin won’t necessarily make you drowsy, it will help you establish a sleep schedule. Once you start falling sleep around the same time every day, discontinue use as it will no longer be beneficial.
  4. This one has been life-changing for me. If you are a light sleeper and wake up to the sound of someone fixing a midnight sandwich, I highly suggest purchasing the LectroFan High Fidelity white noise machine (arguably one of the best investments I have ever made). This machine has been running non-stop in my room for the past two years and shows no sign of wearing down. At night, it helps me sleep well, and during the evening, it helps me focus on my work by blocking out background noise.
  5. Hear me out . . . wear sunglasses before you sleep. I was introduced to this idea by the father of biohacking, Dave Asprey. Check out this video to learn more about his work, and this one to learn more about light hacking. If you are convinced, this is the brand I use (it’s produced by Asprey).
  6. Taking a COLD (not warm) shower before bed will help you fall asleep. I must admit that there are no studies supporting this idea and that this is completely anecdotal. My theory is that the sedating effects of taking a cold shower at night comes from the taxing effort your body goes through to establish equilibrium. Taking a cold shower will drop your internal body temperature, which will prompt your body to use up resources to bring it back to normal. However, cold showers are rejuvenating, so taking one too close to bedtime may make it hard to fall asleep. More on cold showers later.
  7. Lower your thermostat. When you go to sleep, the temperature in your brain goes down, and this drop induces sleep. According to Craig Heller, PhD, professor of biology at Stanford University, “if you are in a cooler [rather than too-warm] room, it is easier for that to happen.” But if the room becomes uncomfortably hot or cold, you are more likely to wake up.” 5

Habit #2 – Push yourself in the weight room

Muscle is built by applying three simple concepts:

  1. Progressively lift heavier weights.
  2. Provide your body with nutrients.
  3. Give your body enough rest.

The first rule is formally known as progressive tension overload and was coined by U.S. Army physician Thomas Delorme in the 1940s (1). I like to call it the golden principle of muscle hypertrophy.

It states that in order for muscle to grow, it must adapt to a tension (or load) that it has not previously experienced. Tons of studies have backed up the idea that load is the most important variable in muscle growth. 6, 7

So, forget everything you’ve been told. Forget about the drop sets, burn-out sets, and all the rest. While that stuff looks fancy, it’s not backed by any science.

As long as you follow this golden rule, you will make progress.

But the progress you make can sometimes be overlooked if you are not keeping track of what you do in the gym, which brings us to the next habit.

Habit  #3 – Track your progress

One of the most effective things you can do is keep track of your progress, which provides a visual representation of your fitness development. A fitness journal keeps you accountable and gives you confidence.

Progress in strength development and weight loss happens slowly and may not be evident without documentation. You may feel unmotivated by thinking you have been bench-pressing the same weight for two weeks.

But with a fitness journal, you may discover that you actually did 7 reps last week and was able to push to 8 reps this week. You can then set a goal to hit 9 reps next week or increase the weight by 5 pounds.

These small victories give you the motivation to continue grinding, but having many different workouts makes it is impossible to keep track of everything you do without a good workout tracker.

When you wake up with zero motivation to hit the gym, flip open your fitness journal, look at the great progress you’ve made, and feel your body fill up with energy and motivation. The best way to motivate yourself is to provide your subconscious with solid, tangible proof that what you are doing is paying off. Studies have shown that keeping track of your progress helps you stay on course and achieve goals faster!

The best fitness tracker I have used is the NewMeFitness Journal. It is simply the best way to track your progress. The NewMeFitness Journal is written by experts and designed for bodybuilding and cross-fit.

It comes with a sturdy binding, thick pages, and a nice laminated protected cover. This is not a flimsy journal and will withstand whatever you throw it. The quality is excellent, but what I enjoy most is the format.

Habit #4 – Practice Cold Shower Therapy 

This habit has the potential to change your life. Seriously. It’s had an astounding impact on me.

Fear, procrastination, laziness, etc., are negative mental states that hinder our life development. Like all behaviors, they are controlled by neural pathways in the brain. The neurons in these pathways are connected by dendrites. You can think of them as little antennas that transmit signals between neurons.

As the frequency of a behavior increases, so does the number of dendrites. This strengthens the connection between brain cells. With enough repetition, these behaviors become automatic.

The fascinating thing about the brain is its malleability. Just as pathways can be strengthened by repetition, they can become weakened by avoidance. Many people have trouble dropping a bad habit because they think they will crave it with the same intensity forever.

But this is not true. With each avoidance of the habit, the pathways controlling them weaken. Each time you say “no” to smoking a cigarette, it gets easier and easier to quit. Each time you force yourself to concentrate on your work, your ability to concentrate grows.

This is where cold showers come in.

Cold showers strengthen the pathways that boost your productivity.

Take a cold shower as soon as you wake up. Jump in, close your eyes, and turn the temperature to the coldest setting. Try this for 30 days.

The first time will absolutely suck. You will stare at the shower head, dreading what happens next. If you’re brave, you will face it for a few seconds.

The next day, you might be able to run the cold water for 10 seconds, but you’ll hate it and quickly turn the warm water on.

The third day, you will face the cold with a lot more resolve.

The big change happens when you welcome the experience. You make sure that the water touches all parts of your body. You are no longer afraid. Your body starts doing something amazing — it adapts. You know how difficult it will be, but you welcome it because you know it will make you better. You start to realize that fear is nothing but an expression of weakness.

Finally, this resolve transfers to all aspects of your life. You no longer think twice about waking up at 6:00 AM to hit the gym. The smell of food you know you shouldn’t eat doesn’t faze you. You immediately start on that assignment you’ve been procrastinating about. You become a different person.

And that’s not all . . .

Cold showers can you help loose weight and build muscle. 

Cold showers reduce muscle soreness after a workout due to its regenerative properties.It increases circulation, which drives nutrients and oxygen to all parts of your body.

When exposed to cold water, brown fat cells generate heat, which helps you lose weight.9


Resources

1 – Quality sleep after lifting weights could be the secret to building stronger muscles, faster.
2 – Acute sleep loss results in tissue-specific alterations in genome-wide DNA methylation state and metabolic…
3 – Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis.
4 – Why Electronics May Stimulate You Before Bed 
5 – Can’t Sleep? Adjust the Temperature
6 – “Progressive Overload.” Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts, by William J. Kraemer, Human Kinetics, 2007, pg 33-36
7  – The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training
8 – Cold Showers vs. Hot Showers: Which One Is Better?
9 – There’s more evidence that exposing yourself to cold temperatures could trigger weight loss

Adam
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