Muscle growth isn’t a guessing game. Sure, blasting your arms, chest and legs to oblivion once a week, drinking amino acids and slamming down anabolic protein shakes is better than sitting on your derrière, but there is most definitely a right, and wrong way to approach building muscle…
When I first hit the iron at the age of 16, I wanted to be jacked.
To be of such size that people would stop and stare, don’t we all?
I would google search for the latest ‘routine’ that promised to pack on the beef.
The problem was, all of it was garbage, got me limited results and taught me absolutely f*** all.
Once I’d finished the plan, I had nowhere to go.
Nothing to measure against and my physique wasn’t developing they way it should have for all of the effort I was putting in.
It wasn’t until I began researching the physiology of exercise, and gained an understanding of the science behind the mechanisms of hypertrophy that I was able to apply this information to the principles of resistance training.
Then I really started to make some gains…
For most mere mortals (read natural athletes), simply going balls to the wall every session, dosing up on protein and hoping that you’ll get jacked over time won’t work. I’ve tried it, and watch many others spin their wheels using such approach.
You must be intelligent with your training, and apply the principles of strength training (specificity, progression, overload, variability, individuality) to your goals, as opposed to following the latest ‘muscle building method’.
Hence, this article will give you the tools to apply to your training, instead of giving you a method…
But first, let’s look at what happens when we lift…
FACTOR 1 – THE SYSTEMS
When we hit the gym, at a basic level, there are two systems in play:
The Software: Central Nervous System.
The Hardware: Musculoskeletal System.
The software sends signals to the hardware, telling them to do work, contract.
This eloquent process causes our muscles to contract against the bones, moving the body and the external load.
Voila, resistance training.
On a physiological level, when we place external resistance on the musculoskeletal system and force it to contract (shortens) the muscle fiber, it sets off a cascade of events that cause the required muscles to remodel and ultimately grow.
The process looks something like this…
- Intent to move – (software sends signal to hardware)
- Movement of external Load – (hardware receives signal)
- Recovery – (sleep, nutrition, hydration – hardware and software rest)
- Time – The time between your next session. (software and hardware become stronger and more efficient – Supercompensation).
This process is what is called the SRA model – Stimulate, Recover and Adapt.
Knowing this fundamental process provides a foundation for you to work from, and ultimately, is how muscles grow over time.
So, we know that there are two main types of adaptation that we are concerned with when it comes to muscle hypertrophy:
- Software Adaptations : Neuromuscular (improved skill acquisition and motor unit activation, typically the first few weeks and months of training)
- Hardware Adaptations : Morphological (changes to the structure of the muscle, after the first few months of training).
Both adaptations are important for hypertrophy. Learning the skill of a particular lift and its mastery is crucial to build muscle.
Think about the first time you perform a squat, you can’t really feel your quads, as you’re too concerned about not falling own your arse.
Over time, once you’ve mastered a movement, you can increase motor unit recruitment and force production. This means you will be able to lift greater loads and volumes, thus greater potential for hypertrophy.
Breaking it down once more…
When we lift, we learn the skill of moving the weight at a neural level and there is also a change to the structure of the muscle.
Shouldn’t I mix up my workouts to shock the muscles to grow?
Short answer, no.
Skill acquisition is extremely important for hypertrophy, because once you’ve mastered a skill, you’ll be able to lift more loads without having to re-learn a new movement every session. Thus, we don’t need to change exercise routines frequently, as it will limit your ability to master a skill and subsequently decrease muscle contraction and activation.
Now, before we discuss factor 2, it should be common sense that different loads/intensities, volume and training methodologies cause different structural changes. Think about it practically, if you run at a slow pace for 10 minutes, it feels completely different to perform your 1 rep max on the deadlift, right?
Therefore, it seems obvious that there are different means by which our muscles grow, and thanks to the work of Brad Schoenfeld and James Kreiger, we have a lot more information as to the mechanisms of hypertrophy, and what we need to do to make them grow.
FACTOR 2 – THE MECHANISMS OF MUSCLE GROWTH
Knowing what happens at a physiological level when we lift weights is crucial to how we program our training. Muscle growth requires a positive protein balance over time as a response to mechanical loading. Research has shown that there are three primary mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy:
- Mechanical Tension
- Metabolic Stress
- Muscle Damage
Mechanical tension is the force of resistance, which are converted into chemical signals that are transduced to ultimately enhance anabolic (growth) signalling while suppressing catabolic (breakdown) signalling.
This is paramount in terms of hypertrophy, with the other two mechanisms being complimentary.
Metabolic stress is the build up of metabolites (i.e. lactic acid, hydrogen ions, inorganic phosphate) and can influence muscle remodelling to some degree.
Muscle damage is a result of the disruption of a muscles ultrastructure leading to a compensatory response and breakdown of tissue. Eccentric loading and training through a stretched/increased ROM will lead to greater muscle damage, but there is a point of diminishing returns.
Now, knowing that there are three mechanisms influencing our muscle growth, we need to look at factor 3 – the variables within a training program, to apply this knowledge to the way we train.
FACTOR 3- TRAINING VARIABLES.
The research means jack all unless you can apply it practically to your training.
There are three main variables that need to be optimized for hypertrophy:
- Frequency (How frequently we stimulate the hardware and software)
- Volume (How much total work they perform – Reps X Sets X Load)
- Intensity (The weight the move as a percentage of 1RM).
OkLets take a look at how we would apply the research of each mechanism to how frequently we train, how much work we perform and how heavy we lift to maximise hypertrophy.
What is it?
Volume quite simply is Reps X Sets X Load.
It is the amount of work required to be performed by a given muscle group, and the easiest way to measure this is sets per week.
Squat 3×5 @ 85 (1275)
Leg Press 2×6 @ 150 (1800)
Squat 3×10 @ 65 (1950)
Leg Press 3×15 @ 100 (4500)
TOTAL WEEKLY VOLUME
- 87 Reps
- 10 sets
- (Tonnage): 9525
When it comes to hypertrophy, there is a dose response relationship, meaning that more volume leads to greater muscle growth, but only to a certain point. The more weight you can lift and recover from, the bigger your muscles will become (within your genetic potential).
Volume is great, but too much and you will over train and thus your total volume will suffer due to the fatigue of not being recovered.
How Much Volume Should You Do?
The amount of volume you should perform is dependent on a number of factors:
- Training age
- Stress Levels
- Trained v Untrained
Beginners typically cannot handle much volume, and as your training age increases, you will require larger volumes of work to force adaptation, baring in mind the point of diminishing returns.
A recent meta analysis by Brad and his team compared Weekly Training Volume and 14/15 studies found that more sets are beneficial for hypertrophy, and 10 sets per muscle group being the sweet spot.
The key is to start with a base with which you can recover from, and work on increasing slowly from there.
NOTE: Volume, like all variables needs to be periodised.
The Bottom Line: ~10 sets per week for each muscle group, aiming for anywhere between 80-150 reps, depending on both the intensity you lift at, AND your ability to recover!
What Is It?
Quite simply, intensity refers to how heavy you are lifting relative to your one rep max. Not necessarily how hard you are working. It is important to note that volume and frequency are interdependent, which means that when one goes up, the other must remain the same or go down to avoid overtraining.
Easiest application is to a ‘repetition range’:
- Heavy Loading 1-5RM (87-100% 1rm)
- Moderate loading 6-12 RM (65-85% 1rm)
- Low Loading: 15+ rm (less than 60% RM)
At What Intensities Should I Lift?
From the research, we know that muscular adaptations and growth is greater in high loads >60%.
We also know that mechanical stress is the greatest mechanism for muscle growth, it therefore makes sence to lift at loads that require a greater amount of force to be produced.
Research has shown is that maximal muscle growth is predicated on recruiting as many motor units the software can recruit within the hardware, the target muscles, which is achieved by lifting with heavy loads that require a high output of force.
However, lifting too heavy will sacrifice overall volume, thus finding the balance between high and low loads is key to maximising growth.
Not to mention, we must not discount the contributions to hypertrophy metabolic stress can contribute. Therefore, this gives credence to lifting at moderate-light loads, and thus incorporating them is important.
The Bottom Line: Anywhere between 65-85% of 1RM, ensuring that you incorporate a variety of intensities to maximise total training volume. However, it is imperative to ensure that you have sufficient mechanical stress, as this is the primary mechanism of muscle growth.
What Is It?
Frequency structures and organizes your training. It is the number of exercise sessions performed in a given period of time, and generally looks at a weekly basis.
It is important to note that the more volume your muscles endure, the less frequently you can train that muscle as its recovery will take longer.
The rate of adaptation both neutrally and morphologically gives us information as to how frequently we can stimulate a muscle to ensure that Muscle Protein Synthesis is positive.
Each system takes a different amount of time to recover, depending upon intensity and volume:
- Neurological System: 5-10 days
- Musculoskeletal System: 2-3 days.
The software will take much longer to recover than the hardware when training intensities are high. When loads and volumes are high (think 1RM), the CNS needs to send signals at a rapid rate to the hardware, which fatigues this system rapidly and consequently impacts how frequently you can train.
How Frequently Should I Train?
Research has also shown that higher frequency training is superior to low frequency training for hypertrophy. Thinking back to our recovery models, after a muscle is trained, it is almost back to baseline after 2-3 days, meaning that it can be trained again. If you wait any longer than 3-4 days, your muscles are fully recovered, and you are back to square one.
Taking into consideration the fact that if you want to master a skill, and improve the neural adaptations of lifting, then waiting more than 3 days just doesn’t make much sense!
The Bottom Line: To maximize adaptations to training and to learn the skill of lifting, aim to hit each muscle group 2-3 x per week.
To maximize muscle mass:
- Volume: High, approximately ~10 sets per muscle group, per week. Increasing volume over time.
- Intensity: Moderate intensity, incorporating heavy work as well as light loads for reps of 3-20.
- Frequency: Train each muscle group at least twice a week.
Is that all I need to build muscle?
No, the most fundamental factor of resistance training, overload…
FACTOR 4 – PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD:
But what if I just use a high volume and smash my muscles up every session to hit all three mechanisms, won’t I continue to grow?
Unfortunately not, there is a physiological principle called the ‘repeated bout effect’, which states that over time the body adapts and becomes more efficient at recovering, thus we need to overload and damage the muscles further.
To get jacked continually, and to ensure your efforts are conducive to your goals, it is important to progressively, and incrementally overload and manipulate your training variables.
The variables you can amend are:
- Workout Density
- Range Of Motion
- And so forth.
However, as it pertains to muscle development, slowly adding volume to your training is your priority, and the intricacies of long-term programming are far outside the scope of this article, but it is important to understand that in order to continually improve, you must continually overload the muscles.
There you have it. Y
ou now know the four factors of muscle hypertrophy, and how the apply to your training program. Remember, any plan is better than no plan, and the key is to start with a foundation and adjust it according to your own individual progress and tolerance to that plan.
There is no one size fits all program, and following the ‘methods’ and ‘systems’ of your favourite online guru will only get you so far.
By understanding the principles behind strength training and how they apply to you is what will yield the best long-term results.
“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a life time”
I have now given you the principles you need to know to program and progress your own training to maximize muscle growth.
If you have questions, queries, quandaries or qualms, shoot me a line – [email protected]