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The BIGGEST Myth On Building Muscle

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It an era of people trying to be different to get attention, we may seem different in how we approach fitness and health, but we aren’t doing so to get attention. Not only is there a lot of fake science out there in the fitness industry that runs opposite of what research actually tells us, there are also just a lot of bad opinions that run contrary to those with great depth of knowledge and experience (no we aren’t talking about ourselves).

I’ll be honest, it can be frustrating when you try to provide someone evidence of study after study on what we know is a better way of accomplishing a goal (like building muscle), but the other side is arguing over the fact someone has millions of followers so they can’t be wrong. What if the worlds collide a bit though? Can we maybe make better sense of smarter training methods and that popular opinion (opinion being the key word) can be wrong?

A great and recent example comes from someone I have known for many years, Bret Contreras. I haven’t always agreed with Bret and that is fine, you don’t have to always agree with someone. However, I have to admit, I can admire the fact Bret shows a rare quality in today’s world, the ability to be humble enough to admit he is wrong when the evidence shows otherwise.

If you don’t know Bret, he is known as the “glute guy” and all the barbell hip thrusting you see people do is largely from him. Recently Bret made a pretty significant post in regards to a recent research study he did (he is working on publishing the study now) where he wanted to show that the barbell hip thrust through greater EMG Activity (muscle activity) of the glutes was more effective for building the glutes than a back squat (because it would have less EMG Activity of the glutes).

To be honest, the idea that higher EMG measurements would result in great muscle growth isn’t just a Bret idea. Just about EVERYONE (including myself) would assume that if you had higher muscle actions in a specific muscle that would lead to building muscle more so. However, that was NOT what Bret actually found!

building muscle

For just about anyone in any type of lifting this type of evidence should make your eye balls pop out! This has been such a long standing assumption in building muscle and strength, few ever questioned it. Almost JUST as fascinating is the fact that even when people “felt” their glutes more on hip thrusts it didn’t equaling building muscle more so in the glutes.

I have to be honest, that was almost one of my favorite results of this study because I have often been skeptical about how effective “feeling” it is to actual results. That is because I think people can have a false sense of what is really working and there are many issues with the idea of basing the effectiveness of an exercise just off what you feel.

Why doesn’t more muscle activity guarantee us to building muscle more effectively? Honestly, we don’t really know. Bret proposes there is a different signaling mechanisms of and to the muscles, but we really don’t know. However, what we DO know from this study is that these results are also consistent with concepts we know about functional training. Such as what Dr. Stuart McGill points out below or what renowned physical therapist, Gary Gray, has been saying for almost decades!

building muscle

The above gives us some perspective on some of the issues that may come about in relying just on measures like EMG on building muscle. I actually respect the fact that Bret admitted that the results of his own study ran contrary to his own beliefs and what he thought was going to be the results. I do disagree with some of his take home points though.

His perspective was just to do both squats and hip thrusts, not choosing one or the other (although he admits his hope was to show hip thrusts were superior) which isn’t an insane thought. However, this is where I differ with Bret. The idea of “just do everything” offers us several problems, even when the goal is primarily building muscle or losing fat.

We have a limited amount of energy to give to our training. Even if we can get through “doing everything” that doesn’t mean we actually benefit from doing so. Research has actually shown that (as you can see below), but also we know that we benefit MORE from the recovery of our training than just training as long as we can (which impedes both our recovery and our efforts in building muscle or losing fat).


A bad theme in the fitness industry is that “everything is good”. Well, it depends how we define “good”. If I pay you $1,000 an hour or if I pay you $10 an hour for the same job that you may like, they are both “good” at paying you for a job. However, in reality, if you saw yourself getting paid $10 an hour for the same job your buddy is getting paid $1000 for, you would probably be pretty upset. However, if I told you that you are both receiving money, why are you getting mad, you would probably think I am crazy.

My point is that just because we get some result from doing something, doesn’t make it nearly as effective as something that can give us multiple benefits at once. Even if you wanted to do a “leg day” in building muscle more (we could debate if that is the best way) look at all the things we would want to consider…

-Which one’s hit more muscles at one time?

-Which one’s can help me build qualities like stability, mobility, strength, and power all at once?

-Which one’s can not only help me build muscle, but increase real world strength and injury resilience?

and more!

If I started making a list of exercises that fit the above, I’m thinking I could hit minimally 50 lower body exercises that would become a priority (imagine if we talked about how different tools, body positions, planes of motions, loading positions build progressions) and honestly, I don’t see how trying to squeeze (excuse the pun) something like a barbell hip thrust would make my list. Just as an example, do you think that you would get so much out of doing a barbell hip thrust after you did the following in a “leg day” workout?

-MAX Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

building muscle

-Single Arm Sprinter Kettlebell Swings

-Shoulder Lateral Step-up

-Double Kettlebell Single Leg Deadlift

Does it feel like we would NEED to do a barbell hip thrust here? We get stability, strength, mobility, power, and conditioning all at once. We hit TONS of muscles all at once rather than a few, build movement competency in many different ways. Don’t forget, these seem like just 4 movements, but there are two sides to each, how long till the quality of work that you give the body starts to fade due to fatigue? Not long!

My point is that research and seeing people that don’t do much if any isolated work (mainly high level athletes) are able to build muscle, are very lean, and are super strong, is it just about fitting in an exercise because you think you should or because it is actually effective?

The lessons we should take away from such research like Bret shared is…

-We probably should use just exercises that work a lot of muscles at once.

-Train the body from a variety of body positions, loading positions, speeds of movement, and planes of motion.

-If you give an honest effort to the exercises about 4-6 exercises will give you the best results for your time and allow you to effectively recover.

Try some of the workout ideas below and see that building muscle doesn’t mean trying to isolate everyone one of the over 600 muscles in your body!

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