How Building Muscle is like Tanning

I see a lot of mistakes made in the gym that could be avoided if only people understood the basic principles of building muscle.  The process of growing muscles is actually very similar to tanning, and since many people have gotten a tan before, comparing the two can help “make things click” in the mind of a trainee and set them on the right path in the gym.

Point 1: Stress leads to adaptation or damage

When your body is exposed to the right amount of UV rays, it will respond to the stressor by developing a tan.  Too few UV rays and no tan will develop.  Too many UV rays and you will burn instead of tan.  In the gym, the stressor is weight training, and the concept is the same.  You need to train hard enough to stimulate gains, but training too hard will damage your body and break it down rather than build it up.  As 8 time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney used to say, “stimulate, don’t annihilate!”.

Point 2: Beginners should ease in gradually

Most of us have experienced getting roasted in the sun after going out the first day of summer without sunscreen.  Then the burns must heal before you can go out again.  The same thing happens when you haven’t worked out in a long time (or ever) and you jump right into an intense workout program.  You end up damaging your body and setting yourself back.  Enthusiasm for a new program is great, but ease into it gradually for better progress – and less pain!

Point 3: You need both volume and intensity

Sitting outside all day in the winter time in Washington state won’t develop a great tan.  Neither will sitting in the hot sun for a minute or two on a summer day in Miami.  The stressor must contain both sufficient intensity and time (volume) to elicit a response from the body.  In the gym, I see people who do two-hour workouts with very easy weights and others who do super short workouts with very heavy weights – both are a waste of time when it comes to developing muscle.  The weights need to be sufficiently challenging, and you need to do enough reps and sets to elicit a response from the body.

Point 4: Results vary widely from person to person

I’m sure you know some people who tan much more easily than others.  Those with very fair skin tend to burn easily and can’t develop much of a tan at all.  Others can easily develop a deep dark tan, and still others have naturally dark skin to begin with.  Unfortunately, it’s the same when it comes to muscle mass.  While anyone can develop muscle to some degree, some people grow like weeds (“easy gainers”) and others can struggle for years to make minimal progress (“hard gainers”).  All you can do is be smart about your training, put in the work, and play with the hand you’re dealt.

Point 5: Be safe and come prepared

On a trip to the beach, it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen and bring a hat, sunglasses, etc. to avoid getting burned.  The equivalent in the gym is proper rest, hydration, and nutrition to help your body handle the stress of a hard workout.  Be smart and make sure you’ve eaten something at least semi-healthy a couple of hours before your workout, you’ve been drinking plenty of water, and you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep if possible.  If you fail to do those things, consider scaling back the volume or intensity of your workout.

I hope these tips helped.  Good luck!


Leave a Reply

Free 3 day pass

Please enter your information below to access your 3 day pass.