The first rule of building more muscle?
Choose your parents wisely. After all, genetics are an undeniable factor in how easy it will be for some people to pack on size.
But if you’re not willing to place all your hopes on winning the gene pool (it’s not my approach, or recommended), there’s good news: Your body can pack on muscle. Quite a bit, actually, and there’s plenty you can do to maximize how much you can build your body. That is, if you’re willing to accept a few undeniable factors about the laws of growth.
Rule #1: Muscle-building is a science. Your best bet is to follow the basic principles of hypertrophy (more on this in a moment) to increase your likelihood of seeing results.
Rule #2: Every body is different. Two people can be on the exact same program and experience different results. Some can get jacked on bodyweight movements, other have long, lean defined muscles after some TLC from the dumbbells. This is an important reminder for copy-cat behaviors. You can choose to follow the practices of the biggest guy or fittest female in the gym, but what works for them might not be the best for your body or could very well violate rule number one. Which leads to…
Rule #3: Knowledge is everything. Science is an ongoing process, and new studies are guaranteed to do one thing — provide us with new questions to ask. Use rules one and two to help build the best program for you body, but remember we’re always learning and improving our understanding of what works best.
Now that we’re on the same page and have exhausted any potential excuses, here’s what we know can turn you into a muscle-building machine, even if mom and dad never flexed a moment in their life.
Muscle Building Mistakes: You’re Asking the Wrong Questions
The process of adding muscle to your body is known as hypertrophy. For years people tried to separate hypertrophy into two different types: myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic. In the simplest sense, myofibrillar refers to increasing the size of your muscle fibers, whereas sarcoplasmic refers to an increase in the volume of fluid in your muscles. The latter is oftentimes known as “the pump” as it refers to the fluid in and around your muscles, which consists of water, minerals, and carbohydrates (glycogen).
But if you believe the work of Stuart Philips, Ph.D, one of the most esteemed researchers in muscle building, you really don’t need to worry about differentiating between types of muscle growth. That’s because the factors that lead to building bigger biceps or more defined legs are intertwined. In other words, when your fibers grow, so do your muscles. Research has found that the size of your muscles (myofibrillar growth) won’t stay stagnant with an increase in sarcoplasm.
So instead of trying to figure out how to “hack” more size on your body or figure out what type of fiber to attack, it’s better to take a comprehensive approach to the primary factors that appear to lead to more mass.
The 3 Laws of Building Muscle
According to the exercise physiologist Brad Schoenfeld, there are three primary mechanisms of muscle growth: Muscle tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. Oftentimes all of these factors are correlated with the amount of weight you lift. But you only need to compare powerlifters and bodybuilders to know that’s not the case. Powerlifters are typically much stronger and can lift more weight, but it’s bodybuilders who look significantly more muscular, despite being weaker. That example is one very important reason why you might want to shift your focus to how you’re lifting weights.
Learning how to create muscle tension appears to drive all three factors, and it’s probably the area most people struggle to understand and execute in the gym. That is, if you’re just lifting a weight and trying to push for a certain number (let’s say bench pressing 225 pounds for one rep), this isn’t necessarily the best way to build muscle. When you try to move a weight using any means possible, your form might fault, ligaments and joints can take on a greater load, and while you might get the job done, your muscles aren’t necessarily carrying as much of the load as you want for growth.
So how should you look at it differently? Instead of thinking of pushing or pulling a weight, try to focus on a full range of motion that creates constant tension on the working muscle. Your job is to make sure that while performing reps your muscles do not take a break. It’s a constant process of stretching the muscle (the eccentric) and squeezing the muscle (the concentric).
While it’s not a hard rule, constant tension usually means stopping your lifts just short of lockout on the concentric portion (think of flexing your bicep), and then a little short of the “bottom” of the lift to maximize the stretch (when lowering the dumbbell or barbell to the point that you feel a stretch in your bicep, but not to where you lock out your elbow.). In other words, it tends to be about 90 percent of range of motion on both ends, which ensures non-stop tension and an environment for building muscle.
When you understand tension, it makes it easier to apply the other mechanisms of muscle growth. Metabolic stress tends to be that “feeling” you get when your muscles become exhausted. Call it the pump or a burn, this process (which includes a lack of oxygen going to your muscles and metabolic byproducts like lactate building up along with blood), doesn’t just remind you that you’re training hard, it also plays a role in hypertrophy. This is where the importance of the pump occurs. Metabolic stress triggers a process that ultimately results in your muscle cells being “turned on” for growth, potentially increases in cellular swelling and more water being pulled into the muscle cell.
As for muscular damage, this happens in many ways. In the simplest sense, just lifting weights will cause damage (the good kind) that forces muscle to repair itself and grow back bigger and denser. But after you’ve been weightlifting for a while, you’ll need to repeatedly find ways to challenge your muscles if you want them to keep growing. The way to continue creating that damage is either by:
- Lifting heavier weights.
- Doing something new and different (such as training a muscle from a different angle).
- Focusing on the eccentric portion of the lift.
- Stretching your muscles while they’re being activated.
Muscle damage won’t just continue on its own — lifters will have to become stronger by employing a variety of techniques, such as changing tempo (how fast you move the weight) or just subbing in new exercises.
But most importantly, all three aspects of muscle growth are interrelated. Muscle tension with heavier weights can cause fiber damage that allows for swelling and metabolic stress to occur. Muscle tension with lighter weights and more time under tension triggers metabolic stress, during which blood can’t escape your muscles quick enough, and helps promote growth. And then tension with moderate weight for more reps or different exercises ignites both metabolic reactions and damage. In other words, if you want to grow you need to look at the big picture and use several tactics and not just hope that showing up in the gym will translate to bigger biceps.
Creating the Ultimate Muscle Building Program
Remember rule number two, that everyone builds muscle differently? Well, this is where personalization comes into play. Some people might see incredible process with only lifting heavy weights, whereas others might see it with moderate weight for more reps. But if you want to really focus in on building muscle — and not just becoming stronger or being able to train harder — then variety is your best friend.
The key is to focus on low (1-5), medium (6-12) and high (15+) rep ranges to ensure that you’re triggering all of the processes of muscle growth. Because some exercises are best for gaining strength, while others are ideal for tension, or creating the pump, you’ll want to include diversity in your training plans. This doesn’t mean altering up your workouts every day, but it does mean going through cycles where you rotate your reps and the movements you perform.
Exercises for strength will include the “big lifts” like squats, deadlifts, presses and rows. Variations of these lifts from different angles (such as an incline press) or in ways that create different stressors (like doing sumo deadlifts or Bulgarians split squats) will challenge your muscles in new ways that force growth. Even “isolation” exercises, such as curls, shoulder raises, leg curls and cable exercises, will help create more tension at lighter weights that will allow for the pump and growth. Rest periods should be cycled, too, with longer recovery periods to help you lift greater loads, and shorter rest periods to fire up the metabolic damage.
The final layer? Slowly do more. Volume (sets x rep x weight) is an important part of gaining muscle. But most people just try to do more, more, more. If this were a diet and you just ate a lot more immediately, you wouldn’t gain muscle, you’d become fat. While more volume won’t make you fat, it can slow or stunt your progress. Instead, the goal is to add a little volume week over week. The result: Constant progress, changes you can see, and avoiding the dreaded plateau.
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