A Comprehensive Guide to Getting Bigger
So you want big muscles. Where do we start? We’ll start with some of the ways that muscles grow through strength training and progressive resistance exercise. Then we’ll get into some of the theories related to that and the programs that can help you promote muscle growth and variations compared to that. Now, this is a big topic to tackle, but I’m going to give you some simple ideas to help you along your way and figure out what works best for you and your lifestyle. Things like how to get the proper rest and recovery needed as well as trying to figure out, given your age and gender, what will help those muscles grow bigger.
Why Do Muscles Grow and How Do They Grow
The first place we probably can start is understanding the basic principles of why muscles grow and how they grow, factors that affect those things relate to growth and the fundamental notion of getting stronger through progressive resistance exercise. My experience with it has been varied, and through lots of years of training, I have found that there are things that work well for me and there are lots of experts out there that will tell you all kinds of stuff about how to get bigger and stronger. But the reality is we have to be our own scientist and figure this out. If we understand some of the basic concepts about how to get bigger and stronger, it’s a lot more effective because we’ve become our own human lab.
It is also important to remember that growing bigger doesn’t mean we build bigger in a linear fashion. We don’t just get bigger all of a sudden or in a progressive way. There are spurts and stops and sputters, but if we can keep on our goal and stay focused, we’re more likely to begin to see muscle growth. And again why is muscle growth important? We’ll talk about that as well, and we’ll talk about how over the long term of your life muscle growth is very beneficial for aging and health.
The Theory of Periodization and General Adaptation Syndrome
The overarching theory of how muscles grow is that we must at some point stress our muscles beyond its normal function so that it does something called overreach where we go beyond where we’re normally used to working.
This overreach, whether it is with an increased load or increased volume, meaning some sets and reps, causes the muscle tissue, particularly the soft tissue, of that muscle to tear and break down. That tear and breakdown are called progressive overload. Progressive overload then works in such a way that general adaptation will occur so; you have overreach and then recovery.
The body typically recovers within 48 to 72 hours after a good solid stressful bout of weightlifting. In that 48 to 72-hour time frame, our body builds up resistance to more stress. This is a standard adaptation for soft tissue skeletal muscle. When recovered we enter a state of super-compensation.
It’s important because during the period of super-compensation we now have a new adaptation to stress, our body actually can handle pressure better, meaning it can handle more work and the soft tissue of the muscle will begin to grow.
General adaptation syndrome suggests that if we have an alarming response to the body or something that stresses us out we will then have a phase of repairing regeneration followed by super-compensation. If, however, we do too much overreach often we then get exhaustion. So this is how overall we suspect that the body recovers and this is the classical theory we use.
Breaking the Wimpey Muscle Cycle – Teetering the Balance
When we have muscle breakdown due to progressive overload training, we find that the muscle is in need of increased proteins synthesis. This increase in protein synthesis is caused by muscle breakdown.
Muscles break down, and we have lots of swelling that goes on in the interstitial fluid. This is the area in between the cells, and that swelling causes some pain and damage. It also creates the nitrogens that build up to form the amino acid bonds to become depleted. So we get into what’s called a negative nitrogen balance. This is often seen as metabolic acidosis.
This negative nitrogen balance then has to be compensated for by increased stores of muscle energy, and this expanded store of muscle energy then becomes the impetus for increases in muscular size. Our body responds to meet the demand, and the workout muscle damage with that swelling happens after a few days. Again the repair is significant because if the fix does not occur, then we don’t get positive nitrogen balance. Without this, we can’t grow that muscle.
So it’s essential to have enough amino acid in the form of protein intake to counter the negative nitrogen balance that happens when we break down our muscles due to increased workload either through higher volume or more sets and reps, or higher weight lifted. So we want to teeter that nitrogen balance or the local amino acid pool to the positive.
The Fatigue Fitness Model
Besides the general adaptation syndrome, the fitness-fatigue model helps us understand the way we respond by watching our heart rate respond to our workout and then recover. This fitness-fatigue model suggests that once we handle stress our heart will respond, and the quicker we recover, the sooner we will be able to do the next set.
So, often we will work up to a heart rate of 160 or 170 beats per minute during our sets and reps, and then we recover to a heart rate of about 120 beats per minute. This recovery usually takes one to three minutes depending on our fitness level. Once we recover, we’re ready for the next set. Now, why is this crucial for muscle growth? This is important for muscle growth because if we want to fatigue the soft muscle tissue by using its energy, we must use up the muscle energy stores called muscle glycogen.
And from there we then need to stress it so that we’ve depleted those stores with muscular fatigue and allow them to recover. Therefore, this muscular fatigue will enable you to recognize when to stop. You feel your muscles are getting heavy, burning, and tired. When you feel fresh or at least recovered, you are ready to go. So through the fitness-fatigue model, the heart rate is relatively easy to track with lots of different devices and heart rate monitors, etc. The ability to track heart rate is easily accessible. You know there are lots of ways to do that, but the notion is that if we can watch our heart rate behavior, we then see whether we’re ready for the next set.
One way of training is called EMOM (every minute on the minute training) which can be effective. The EMOM program prescribes workouts of two or three continuous exercises of eight to ten reps and recovery, but new exercises are paired after each cycle, so you don’t overwork one muscle group. This can last ten to thirty minutes. It takes some forethought, but it is taxing. Also, circuit training, Tabata, or bodyweight training with a working set of 20 to 30 seconds followed by a recovery of 20 to 30 seconds is sufficient. These are all kinds of training techniques that are designed to help with local muscle fatigue so that when you have to increase the enhanced fitness effect that allows our body to do more work in less time or more efficiently in a set. By doing more work, we will enable the muscle to gain muscle glycogen and store more energy.
The idea is, as we become more fit we take less time to recover, and we take more stored muscle energy into our cells, and the muscles swell through repair, storage, and water. We make less time also to get to our target heart rate which is usually, as I said previously, somewhere in the 160s and 170s just depending on your age and your fitness level.
How to Apply These Training Principles
By changing my program in some simple ways, I can help with muscle growth again. Muscle growth is partly determined by the fiber type you’re working. So for instance, if I’m working my calves they are largely type 1 fibers which mean they are designed to go farther and longer and consistently but not as forcefully as other muscles. Other muscles such as our biceps or triceps, which are more fast twitch and generate more force but only for a limited amount of time.
So certain fibers respond better to different types of training stimuli. Type 1 fibers are slow, steady fibers which respond well to fatigue. Whereas our type 2 fibers like biceps and triceps respond to higher loads, faster movements, and fatigue. So again we have to figure out what type of fiber we’re working on that specific muscle. Important to note that our genetics, our sleep, our nutrition, as well as our age all affect whether we will adapt and to what extent.
The other thing that must happen during muscle growth as we are trying to get bigger is we have to have a continued commitment to consistency of the program. You are impatient and want to get bigger, but it happens slowly. So to stay with your program, and your train of thought, as you work out is important. Bodybuilders will talk about the mind-muscle connection and really what that means is maintaining motivation and intensity for the right amount of weight you’re lifting and the total number of sets. It’s going to be uncomfortable. Nutrition and rest are essential during this process. Muscle gains likely occur at about .02 % per workout according to one review by Wernbom, so you’re likely not to see muscle growth gains quickly.
This is critical because we all know that you’ve read a million different books but simple nutrition, simple rest and recovery processes are in place that can help us respond to what we want to achieve with muscle growth.
Programming Variables That Enhance Muscle Growth
So what are the basics of how muscles grow? Well, the first notion of how muscles grow is this idea of mechanical loading. We’ll talk more in-depth about it; mechanical loading refers to this idea of putting stress on the muscle and how that tissue responds. Then greater time under tension helps as well. Local metabolic acidosis, when it occurs, also facilitates this notion of protein synthesis during muscular pump. We see local hypoxia, and we’ll talk all about that and then the total volume of workouts as it increases. You’ll also notice that muscular swelling, cellular swelling, and muscle growth will occur. And again, it’s not just swelling, its functional changes within the muscle, but it results in enhanced muscle growth.
Mechanical Loading of the Muscle
When a muscle is told to lift weights, it gets stressed. For instance, as we begin to move through it’s extended to it’s short contracted form, think of working on a mechanical assembly line. The muscle has a duty cycle of work and relaxation. When working out with limited rest, the muscle gets fatigued and thus will need to grow.
Also, muscle growth can be limited by the inefficient movements of untrained muscles and have co-contractors or stabilizer muscles. If you have ever shaken when lifting, you recognize that not all muscles are pulling in the same direction and you may struggle to find a right path of movement. This is because the muscle and nerves that create the motions work to coordinate.
Sort of “a who’s on first” Abbott and Costello dance until good patterns are formed. A muscle is only as strong as its weakest link and the longer the muscle, the more strength you will need to be stressed entirely throughout a range of motion. So long muscles/lever’s mean long movements and we often need to take these to their full extension and flexion.
We hear a lot in current bodybuilding about partial repetitions, and you see this also in powerlifting. In reality, mechanical loading of the muscle is done best through the complete range of motion because we are often said to grow most at her weakest links. So let’s keep that in mind as well.
When a muscle is mechanically loaded there is a stressor, through tension during lengthening and shortening, at the ends of the muscle itself and the little muscle fibers are very damaged at a minimal level. Once there is a disruption in that muscle, as we said earlier, there is this idea there’s a negative nitrogen balance, a greater need for protein synthesis due to damage and swelling. If we’re going to repair those broken myofibrils or intracellular fluid that seep out into the interstitial (outside the muscle cell), we then need to have some repair. That typically happens to muscular swelling or pro-inflammatory markers followed by, within several hours or few days, anti-inflammatory markers that come in and help support the repair and rebuilding of that muscle cell. There’s also strain and torque on ligaments and tendons. These stresses and strains on the ligaments and tendons also signal the muscle that it must repair and prepare for the new loads that it will experience.
Programs that incorporate 60-80 percent some have even argued that 85% of maximal capacity, are effective at enhancing muscular growth particularly in untrained individuals.
In the beginning, we tend to want to see large muscle movements, and we want to look at a certain number of sets that are reasonably low. Some bodybuilders have suggested as little as eight sets. Others suggest that as many as 15 sets for the beginning bodybuilder for muscle enhancement. The reality is it’s a quality rep that’s more important. Specifically, having proper patterns that are the most important factor for muscle growth when it comes to mechanical loading. Correct form cannot be replaced with extra heavy weight.
If you want to stress the muscle you have to focus on that idea of mind-muscle connection and focus on really contracting the muscle to the full range of motion. This mind-muscle relationship means that you are imagining the weight lifted and the muscle contracting while lifting this weight. This connects the sensations with the movement and helps the muscle grower to connect with changes in the muscle sensing fatigue and strain. This enhances contractile force and helps with injury prevention.
The other thing is that you need different angles. It’s also known as pennation, or angle of pull. To attack the muscles with different mechanical loads through various angles of loading, we see an adaptation of that muscle through multiple planes of movement. Again, when we talk about planes of motion, these refer to angles of movement.
Several factors relate to how we adapt to those mechanical modes: age and training status all affect the individual, but we know the neural patterns are laid down, and they’re relatively streamlined within two to three weeks as we become more efficient. That’s great for human adaptation; that’s bad for muscle growth. So what we need to do then is stress the muscle at different angles so that we can come to a consensus of stressing the muscle overall and not just from one specific perspective of that tissue where it becomes very efficient and uses less muscle force to the same movement. The key point here is, therefore, if you become too entrenched in one muscle movement pattern your muscles become very efficient and use less muscle force to complete the same amount of weight. Good for us, but bad for our muscle growth.
Time Under Tension
Time under tension refers to the notion that many scientists early on came up with by looking at rodent and avian models where were the muscle was placed under stress, or weight was placed at the end of a muscle, and it was allowed to continue to live, and the muscle would grow in size. Thus, the notion arose that the longer muscle stayed under tension, the more it grew. Now again this was in avian and rodent studies and not always when these muscles attached to the animal.
So, while we know this as a general concept when we look at how the human muscle grows we know that if you have more extended sets, shorter rest periods in between sets, and you have stress metabolically, that there’s acidosis coupled with a hormonal surge that happens immediately after your workout. You add testosterone and growth hormone properties combined with cortisol, which is a breaking down the agent of muscle, and the result is recovery is enhanced.
Some scientists recently suggested that maybe the acute responses of hormones aren’t quite as significant as some of the metabolic acidosis, or intrinsic properties, of the muscle but the jury’s still out on that. We do know for sure that repair happens to the cellular matrix, so there’s remodeling an enlargement when the muscle spends time under tension.
If you were to ask, is it better for me at the beginning to go more weight/fewer reps or more reps/less weight, it’s more reps less weight as long as there’s quality of contraction.
There’s also the notion of what about all these different sets, like, pause sets, or overload sets, or isometrics in between to keep the muscle tension building. You do need some continued muscular tension for there to be a true hypertrophic, or muscle growth, response. That leads us to something else, do muscles grow in size or the number of muscle fibers?
In most human studies it’s been found that muscles grow in size almost singularly more than what we call hyperplasia, growing in number response because in humans cells it takes quite a bit of strain before hyperplasia can happen.
Greater Metabolic Acidosis
Greater metabolic acidosis refers to the notion that when we have short rest periods, and we continue to do work, our muscles swell. Why do they swell? They swell because we’ve damaged the cell membranes, we’ve gotten the plasma that seeps out in the interstitial spaces, and as time moves on, we find more and more swelling and pro-inflammatory hormones which limit the range of motion. It’s a protective mechanism, and then we find the anti-inflammatory response that occurs later.
High volume training cycled with moderate volume training seems to exploit the process meaning, as I become more stressed through these higher volumes of work – more sets and more reps – the process of recovery becomes important. So often multiple sets, three or five sets with higher reps, eight all the way to 20 with short rest periods, seem to be important here as well because remember, we’re trying to deplete local muscle glycogen. If we were trying to deplete our aerobic energy system, we would in most aerobic training; we would want overall systemic ATP energy production. That happens with metabolism in what we call slow twitch fiber type 1 fiber.
Now we’re also trying to grow muscle we want type 1 as well as type 2 fiber to grow in size, but it’s the type 2 fibers or the fast twitch fibers that seem to grow most and show the most exaggerated adaptation. Too much work and we cannot adapt either. When too much metabolic stress or acidosis occurs without recovery, we reach a state of overtraining.
This results in all those negative things like muscle soreness, again muscle soreness isn’t always a bad thing, but if we don’t have enough recovery time we do tend to see this notion of overtraining. You don’t want to get into that state. If you can’t recover, then you can’t train. That becomes a significant variable that we see with muscle growth.
Often people think that if one or two or ten sets are good, then 20 sets are better. If you can’t recover, you can’t grow, and if you can’t grow, what are you doing working out with this idea of increasing muscle mass?
We work toward metabolic acidosis. How do I feel when I start to have metabolic acidosis? I start to feel the burn. This is not a lactic acid burn. That is something completely different. We now know through science that it’s not lactic acid it’s more metabolic acidosis or ATP hydrolysis that seems to happen. Suffice to say this science occurs so that we can have this next idea which is called local hypoxia.
Local hypoxia refers to drops in local pH or local ionic concentrations so that oxygen stimulates metabolic myogenic or muscle building properties. When you get that muscle pump, that’s what we want. You can feel your muscle getting tight and engorged with blood, and it heats up like it’s on fire. Sometimes when you can feel that stretch, it is because we have multiple sets with limited rest.
The muscle becomes constricted, and mechanically the muscle pumps up. This pump deforms the nerves and some of the blood flow so that blood accumulates in that muscle and when blood accumulates and then we’re getting muscle pump or what we call reactive hyperthermia. That reactive hyperthermia is a strong stimulant for muscle growth and hormonal expression particularly growth hormones.
Something like five sets of eight reps of bicep curls with 30 seconds of rest in between them is one example of a routine that could induce muscle hypoxia. Larger muscle groups may take more sets so, for instance, if I’m working legs, eight sets maybe or nine sets may be required.
Depending on your training status, if you’re new to training you can probably get away with 5 to 6 sets of your legs but as you become more experienced you want to increase the volume or total sets lifted. That is part of training status and being your own best scientist.
Volume of Work
So the volume of work as a growth factor can be done on one day or across multiple sessions on the same day, and the muscle pump is your goal. So, the volume of work is critical. Recovery is based on your level of training in the sense that on non-consecutive days going to fatigue is great. Should we go to failure then is this constant notion we talk.
In the beginning, we’re just going to have muscle fatigue. How do you know when a muscle is fatigued? Your muscle starts to feel heavy; you start to notice heavy breathing, and it’s hard to regulate your heart rate. As time goes on and you can handle higher volumes, you’ll notice your heart rate recovers better.
Much like that fitness-fatigue model we suggested earlier, one example of increasing volume of work to enhance growth factors is known as the German volume training method which is often something like ten sets of 10 repetitions with 90 seconds rest. This is not recommended for young novice or inexperienced lifters, but this is a common sort of practice among bodybuilders who will look at how to increase muscle size and get their whole purpose or point of exercising is to increase muscular size and muscle growth.
If you’re starting out how fast should you expect your muscles to grow? Well, they don’t grow quickly, but you can think of it as a bank: every time you put in a good work out it’s like putting some small change in the bank. Over time it accumulates, and it’s very akin to what you’ll see if you ever go to Toronto. Toronto has over two million tulip blooms, and they were planted one at a time just like these muscle growth properties, we plan one muscle cell at a time. Over time, if you’re consistent and you can maintain your effort, you will find muscle growth to be a beautiful thing.
And again it takes work. Muscle growth is not linear; sometimes you grow fast sometimes not much. Early on in your training, you can expect to grow fairly rapidly, but later as you become more advanced, it takes more dedicated work. You have to be a more dedicated scientist of your own body to figure out what are the magic ingredients and secrets for your body to unlock some of those growth potentials.
Gender and Muscle Growth
We know that muscle is muscle but a muscle bathed in testosterone and estrogen respond differently. Muscles have receptors for growth known as anabolic receptors. Anabolic receptors are greatly enhanced with testosterone as a lock and key system of muscle protein synthesis.
Growth can come with higher intensities, we suspect for, women often because those higher concentrations lead to higher growth hormone factors. Whereas with men, with muscles bathed in testosterone, moderate to slightly elevated levels of intensity or weight will help those muscles respond. Imagine too that because of the hormones environments that vary significantly per month with women and not so much with men, there is this idea that maintaining energy balance is different between the two sexes.
Women also seem to be more in tune with pain. In some of our studies in our labs, we’ve determined that women sense pain sooner but tolerate greater pain longer than men. In fact, one only needs to look at the notion of childbirth to know that to be true. We know that men cannot tolerate the same pain that women do.
That’s not to say we should put women in more pain; it’s just this notion that women experience pain more consistently and more often than men and therefore, because of that, they develop better mechanisms mentally, at least, to handle it, we suspect physiologically as well.
We also know that hypertrophy training seems to be better tolerated by women. This idea of metabolic stress appears to favor some of the environments that are related to estrogen. Testosterone is more of a quick response. How often men train becomes an issue related to training status, recovery status, and nutrition status. With women, we tend to find that hormones fluctuate significantly within the month, so the timing of heavy training is vital for women, and the type of the work is necessary and related to their cycle.
Age and Muscle Growth
Early in life, working out makes muscles more efficient so, patterns of movement are driven by the nerves. As we work out, we develop sound patterns, and we become more efficient with our movements. However, as we become more efficient, we end up using less muscle mass to do the same amount of work. So it’s the good and bad of becoming more experienced with weight training. The good is that you become more efficient; the bad is that you use less muscle mass, so the idea is over time you have to vary the kinds of exercises and frequency.
During optimal growth patterns in development, we tend to see that adolescence and youth have neural development and then later, as they reach mid-teens, late teen years, muscular growth seems to occur. That’s related to the efficiency of growth hormone during age and training related issues and that as we become older, we find that muscle will respond to hypertrophy, still growing through the mid-20s and even sometimes in the early 30s.
We see that the satellite cells and the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cells, the things that then begin to ramp up our growth factors. Then the ability for fiber to recover, or whether we are type 1 or type 2 fiber muscle that we’re working out and those muscles will change in their ability to improve based on your age because we have different kinds of collagens and antigens that help us relate to repair.
Early in training muscle mass can accumulate rapidly, but it slows as training progresses. It’s likely that as we grow older mainly after ages 40 and 50, muscle collagen is slower to recover and it becomes less springy or muscles become less able to store the series elastic components of strength to create a forceful contraction. However, if muscles are maintained properly, we can still see progressive strength increases or muscle size increases only not at the magnitude that we once would have seen in the in our 20s or 30s and but perhaps even in the early 40s.
The other thing is that satellite cells which help repair the damage to cells, and coordinate repair becomes less efficient as we age. As time wears on, we see the activity of the satellite cell being less efficient and even at a much smaller level we then also see something called chromosomal telomeres that become less long as we age. The length of a telomere helps protect our basic DNA of our muscle.
Lifestyle changes like jobs, changes in responsibility and family, and movement patterns and nutrition, all of which become altered as we get older, also affects muscle growth. Often, job responsibilities lead to higher stress and that higher stress can compromise a very healthy lifestyle. The choices that we make along the way as we get older impact our muscles’ ability to grow when we see chronic stressors from multiple tasks.
As we become older and responsible for more things, or more people, the immune system also seems to be enhanced to some degree and begins to decline somewhat after the sixth decade of life. This is related to muscle growth because as the immune system is compromised so too is our ability to repair and maintain muscle mass.
Another factor that is affected is our fast twitch muscle fiber. These are the kinds of muscle fibers that would catch us before we fall or rapid movements generated for sprinting and getting out of harm’s way. As we age, these facets of the muscle become less active and tend to atrophy. Interestingly though, in research done on 70 and 80-year-olds, we find that power can be recovered to some degree. It’s often the quality of the muscle and not just the quantity of the muscle that can be repaired. The quantity of muscle, however, does seem to be genetically related and is also related to the volume of work done during your workouts, so that is an important piece to remember.
However slow twitch fiber, the fibers that are related to longer sets/longer reps, do seem to maintain their protein synthesis rates, unlike the fast twitch muscle fibers. It is a “use it or lose it“ sort of proposition in that if we continue to train we tend to see protein synthesis rates maintained which is great for metabolism. We want to maintain a high metabolism throughout aging and part of the way that we do that is maintaining higher sets and reps.
Overreach and Recovery Lead to Muscle Growth
But the other thing that happens is we’ll need more recovery. To recap: overreach recovery leading to growth recovery from a workout is related to many things, genetics, training status, nutrition, total exercise volume and then, our ability to handle and manage mental stress. When we overreach, it teeters your body to fatigue into a negative nitrogen balance or lots of protein breakdown. As we rest, we restore our body’s ability to regenerate and come back from the stressors in training. This is critical because our body seeks to maintain what we call homeostasis or balance. And if our body maintains positive energy balance we grow. If it cannot keep up with positive energy balance, then we cannot grow so muscle growth is mostly related to our ability to stress and recover.
Then the super-compensation is achieved when we can handle more reps or weight, and from a muscle growth standpoint it means, your muscles begin to hold more muscle glycogen, they contain more cellular water, and they’re swelling, and we often call this increases in lean muscle mass.
What Are the Best Sets, Reps, and Rest Intervals For Me to Grow Big Well?
As we approach this question, let’s examine at least two popular forms of training from some very impressive athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters. To gain muscular hypertrophy, or growing in muscle size, bodybuilders often will employ rep schemes of 3 or more sets of 8, all the way up to 15, sometimes 20 repetitions, with short work to rest ratios.
So, stressing the muscle, giving it time to recover just a bit, and then stressing it again, seems to be a very facilitative way of helping muscle grow. Powerlifters, who are seeking strength, tend to work off multiple sets with much fewer reps and a higher intensity of weight. So higher intensity being 85 percent of their maximum capacity with a 1:3 to 1:5 work to rest ratio, meaning if a set takes 60 seconds I may need three minutes or five minutes to recover.
So the work is one minute, and the rest is three to five minutes. This is important because this determines how metabolically demanding your work. I can’t stress this point enough because early on you’ll see people lifting weights in the gym and they’ll hit a good set, and then they’ll rest, and they’ll rest, and they’ll rest. They’ll drink some water, more rest, and the problem is it doesn’t initiate metabolic acidosis enough, or even local hypoxia. We talked earlier about that reactive hyperthermia response.
Best Sets, Reps, and Rest Intervals For Beginners
If beginning lifters want to get the muscle to grow, muscles must be stressed to fatigue, and some would say failure, but most of the research is suggesting that fatigue is the important starting point. How do you know if you’re fatigued? If you are doing sets and reps, we know you begin to fatigue when you start to feel heavy limbs or your form begins to get worse slowly. For instance, in a squat if I notice I’m coming up on my toes, or if I notice I’m leaning to one side, or not going down far enough in a deep position.
These factors as we begin to do our sets and reps are neural, we neurally fatigue first before we muscularly fatigue, particularly with what we call fast twitch muscle fiber. So when you start to program muscle fatigue, it’s important to know that if you didn’t have muscle fatigue, you wouldn’t have anything to rebound. Progressive fatigue over two to three weeks is a good starting point for one specific workout. Therefore, if you want to try a system of workouts give it two to three weeks and that should tell you whether or not you’re ready to adapt.
However, after those two to three weeks, you may want to switch up the exercises or the sets and reps so that you get continued stress. For very young beginners, if you’re younger than pubertal stage or Tanner Stage 5 development, we tend to see that even one or two sets are enough. Once you hit Tanner Stage 5, effectively puberty, we do see the need for multiple sets and reps with both light loads and moderate loads important for increasing muscle strength and size and eventually muscular hypertrophy.
For beginning muscle growth usually, two to three day split routines seem to work best, either four or six days a week. A potential idea is two days on/one day off or two days on/two days off. This seems to be where many novices begin. As you increase your capacity to recover from this kind of workout, you can train either more frequently or with more extended training sessions.
New research suggests that more often shorter durations are better. As many as six to nine sessions per week that only last 20 minutes in duration, meaning an hour to an hour and a half, seems to be the optimal amount of time in a gym. Some researchers have suggested that after 45 minutes of consistent resistance exercise testosterone may peak and begin to wane. If we’re doing moderate to light intensity work, or moderate to light loads, then we might not see that peak until a little bit later in the workout.
Something like a chest/shoulders/tris workout, a back/biceps workout, a legs workout, or a push and a pull day (meaning you would do a push press or a squat followed by the next day of lat pulldowns and a deadlift) could work. Or alternating upper and lower body workouts are just a few of the ways that we see programs for beginners help to impact muscle growth.
Once the beginning lifters have gone through their first several months of neural and hormonal changes relating to resistance exercise, movement patterns become optimized, and so hormone in protein synthesis factors are now left to enhance muscle growth, not just mechanical strain.
The More Experienced Builder
We seem to see a need for local muscle hypoxia or that idea of a muscular pump, and it’s at this point that sets to failure become more important. Once you’ve been in your program three months, possibly six months, we then see a need for moving to more optimal or more challenging kinds of workouts, or sets, like sets to failure, drop sets, sets where you’re working in eccentrically enhanced modes. Beginning with the load above 60 to 80 percent, for the more experienced lifter, it seems to also help with breaking what we call hypertrophied plateaus or when your muscle size appears to top out.
Loads greater than 85 percent of your maximal effort and sets to failure become more stimulating and enhance what we called growth hormone response because there are greater muscle damage and something called insulin-like growth factor or IGF 1. Some of our research has shown that even after an acute bout of exercise, or something that happens over very short periods of time, you do see an increase in growth hormone and testosterone but interestingly enough you also see an increase in something called cortisol which is a catabolic hormone.
For the more experienced lifter to grow more, you must change the stimulus. If we look back at the basics of bodybuilding, of course, we have to go back to some of the early work of Reg Park and Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have given us a six-day split, something like chest/back/legs/forearms/calves/abs then biceps/triceps/shoulders/calves/forearms. You’ll tend to see these splits in such a way that calves and abs and forearms are done every day, but 5 to 6 sets of 6 to 10 reps of most exercises is what Arnold was very effective in using early on.
Now again, we don’t recommend this for every muscle grower because we have to remember that there were certain chemical enhancements that Arnold was privy to that most of our beginning lifters and even some of our intermediate or more advanced lifters may not subscribe to optimal nutrition.
Optimal nutrition, even with the most experienced bodybuilder, is individual and so making sure you get your proteins and carbohydrates, or as critical as any supplement you may take.
Push and pull days are important, so things like a squat, military press, leg press or dumbbell flies are important on a push day. Like deadlifts, wide pull-ups, rows, Romanian deadlifts and single arm dumbbell rows, are all good exercises on pull days. Isometric holds are somewhere in the middle. As we said previously, we work on that notion of time under tension, mechanical load and reactive hyperemia responses as a way to grow muscles.
There are more advanced ideas: eccentric overload training has been something espoused by Ellington Darden, who was a bodybuilder around the time of Arnold and believes very much that eccentric overload, or the active muscle lengthening during muscle contractions, is a big promoter of muscle growth and stimulation. There’s some research to suggest that if you have trained for a while, at least six months to a year, eccentric overloading may be helpful.
If you’re new to it, too much eccentric overloading can create an acute breakdown of too many sarcomeres within the muscle fiber. We have to watch out for the ugly part of rhabdomyolysis which is muscle breakdown.
Forced reps are another thing that advanced growers may include and forced reps simply going to failure, then a few extra. This is a common practice used by the most advanced lifters.
Partial reps, which we see from our friends who do powerlifting, are things like heavy walkouts where you walk out with a heavy weight on your shoulders and let your body adjust to it and then rack it. We also see walkouts, lockouts and rack pulls,
Strongman style training like farmer’s walks, tire flipping, endurance deadlifting is also very important for the advanced lifter to increase stimulation. I might add that variations of the Olympic lifts have been used for the more advanced muscle grower to go for fast versus slow reps, would it activate different fiber types like type 1 versus type 2 fibers. I think we can see clearly that that is part of what will happen.
Protein storage, or what we call accretion, is enhanced when available protein is high. Early on some of the studies suggest it’s 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for beginners or even higher for well-trained individuals. What does that equate to as a simple rule of thumb: take your weight and put a zero on it and that’s about how many grams of protein you need.
Nutritional variations protein storage accretion is enhanced when available protein is high. So we see that protein synthesis is critical for the muscle grower. Recommendations here include higher protein the more highly trained you are. It has to be coupled with carbohydrate. Simply protein without carbohydrate will not enhance protein synthesis so; there has to be some reckoning of protein and carbohydrate.
However what kind of carbohydrate is important and a calorie isn’t just a calorie. Many people say calories in/calories out, but that’s not necessarily true when we look at the bioavailability and the bioenergetics of how much energy it takes to burn a quality protein or more fiber-rich carbohydrate.
Protein is the best compliment to carbohydrate and fats particularly when fats are present in things like the avocados, seeds, and nuts. These are all things that are very important for a balanced diet. What about fried food? Is that something balance, of course not, but if we’re using our heads many of us who are looking to grow muscle often read nutritional publications that suggest that a calorie can be a calorie, all proteins are good, and supplements enhance everything.
Use common sense and remember that your body is the true reckoner of what will work and what may not work. Please be aware of what is going on with your body as you train and eat. Some of the data suggest that 70 to 80 percent of the way you look is related to your nutrition. When we say the way you look, we mean how big you grow and how lean you stay. Is this accurate? Perhaps it is overstated, but the point is important; so your nutrition is important.
The overall best source of protein that we can think of is eggs because they include fats in the way of cholesterol and a tremendously high source of protein. This has been known for a long time so what do you do if you are someone who has an egg allergy or you’re someone who needs to grow muscle and can’t have this. Are there supplements that can work? Certainly, there are, but again, from what we know and what you can eat, eggs seem to be the single best source of protein. Cooking thoroughly is essential to avoid salmonella or other kinds of issues related to eggs. They should be cooked or almost thoroughly cooked so that the protein within them has a carbon structure that you can break down.
The jury is still out on this notion of what about all the studies on chocolate milk. Should I be drinking chocolate milk pre-workout during workout post-workout? Some of Brad Schoenfeld’s reviews have suggested that the timing of nutrition is somewhat important, but the overall protein intake along with carbs and fats are the most important. We do see though that some of the studies have suggested that during or immediately after our workouts are the best times for a small protein/carbohydrate supplement to reduce protein breakdown and enhance protein synthesis.
Other parts of it are what about a shake before you go to bed. This is not an uncommon practice for those experienced muscle growers, and this is often important because as we grow, we know that we need to keep that nitrogen balance positive.
Rest and Recovery
Sleeping is the single best form of recovery for a strenuous workout particularly when we’re able to hit deep sleep when the REM cycles kick in. We seem to see one Hertz wave of relaxation bathe the brain and allow the brain to recover. It’s during that time that we see growth hormone release for recovery, and we see all kinds of positive things that go on and the stress hormones can be reduced from our constant vigilance of the day’s stressors.
Also during recovery, it’s when the disruption of pain that we have if we have overdone it, or mental stress, circumvent our ability to recover well. We need to find a way to best recover, and it appears that sleep is our greatest ally.
Too much disruption leads to overload and constant overtraining. This is when overtraining, or lack of recovery is most seen when we lose REM sleep. How do we get to be in positive recovery? One of the best techniques is having a constant and consistent routine without using any sleep aids and making sure you’re well hydrated, and you’re sleeping in a cool atmosphere.
Few weightlifters overtrain. More often they under recover and this is an important distinction. True overtraining has some very significant physiological cues like elevated resting heart rate, lack of heart rate recovery after a workout, profuse sweating after a workout within 30 minutes to an hour even after all the work has subsided. Under recovering affects muscle growth and muscle growth is also stunted when too frequent or too intense training occurs.
Often our young lifters will see if a little is good, much more is better. So, they go in and train for two and a half hours, or they’ll look in the mirror and flex when they’re not in the gym, and they’ll work on those muscle hardening techniques that we can see. However, intense or too much training will stunt muscle growth.
Another issue is mood changes. These can be an indicator of overtraining and tend to be unreliable. Unfortunately some of the studies we did even after sleep deprivation with Olympic lifters we found that while mood changes occur with sleep deprivation, it doesn’t always coincide with performance changes relative to the muscle grower.
What that says is that even if you’re in a bad mood, sorry guys you still have to train. If my mood stays disrupted and it begins to affect my working life, my relationships, that’s when I may be a more overtraining state. Common peeves or hassles do not affect my ability to grow but responsive to it would. Again elevated heart rate, mental confusion are better tools to look at as a collective to tell us whether or not we are truly overtrained. Pure muscle growers avoid overtraining as much as possible because overtraining can be the enemy of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Another thing that happens as we begin to train is a delayed onset of muscle soreness or exercise-induced muscle damage. Exercise-induced muscle damage is often related to active muscle lengthening or negative work or eccentric work. This is when your muscle fibers are stretched to their limit, and they begin to break and tear down during this time.
We have muscle swelling, or sarcomeres swelling is what it’s often referred to, and it is followed by a tenderness or soreness in muscles and activation of the nerves around those muscles. We have inflammation and increased cellular swelling. The latest thinking is that electrical stimulation and protein ingestion will help you in recovery when you have had delayed onset muscle soreness or exercise-induced muscle damage.
What about massage? Massage helps move fluid away from the interstitial spaces as part of swelling, but it can also prolong damage. A well-timed massage is very important and probably not immediately after a workout. More often as the muscle has had time to swell and the pro-inflammatory markers have time to work their way out, by then the anti-inflammatory markers are there, and it could be an okay time for your massage.
We also see a new trend that ice may not be as effective as previously thought but research is still trying to get a grasp on whether or not this is the most effective means of reducing delayed onset muscle soreness. Right now the common thinking is that heat after delayed onset muscle soreness has occurred may be the most effective way of stunting that process.
- First, you’ve got to pay attention to the frequency of training. In the beginning, two or three days a week may be enough. And again one of the bodybuilders that I have looked up to is the guy by the name of John Meadows who suggests that you want to train as little as possible so that you get the effect you want. What’s interesting about that is we often think that the more we train, the more effect we get.
But I like John Meadow’s ideas. We want to train enough to get an effect but not so much that we ruin our effect. Quality reps, proper form, and proper movement patterns promote progressive growth. This idea that if you have an excellent mind-muscle connection, or thinking about actually contracting that soft tissue muscle as you’re going, will promote muscle growth is a fundamental idea.
Volume or total sets and reps, short rest periods, amount of time and increasing the amount of time the muscle has to do work and moderate loads are critical when you start your workouts. So, progressively increasing the total volume that you do will be helpful. If you stick to the lower end of your sets and reps ranges at first so that you can adapt, you’ll find that progression is fairly quick in coming.
- Sleep and proper nutrition improve muscle growth period. Making sure that quality sleep is there even if it is a 20-minute nap during the day. Depending on the kind of job you do, or if you have children or young children, or you have multiple jobs and different work schedules, finding quality rest can be a problem. Having a routine and having a pattern to your bedtime will help you get that high quality sleep because your body, like anything else if it has behavioral training will begin to adapt. Stick with your system. Don’t just stick with it for three weeks and then give it up. Keep plugging at it. Keep working. Consistency is key here. If you’re not consistent, it will be tough to watch muscles grow because they don’t grow like plants.
Muscles don’t grow all of a sudden with a little water and a little sunshine, and now, you’ve got muscles. It takes time. It takes effort and what I like to call sweat equity. If you can build that sweat equity with your muscles, you find some significant gains.
- Make sure that if you see signs of increased heart rate, lack of sleep, prolonged soreness, and stress, these are signs you back off the gas. You need to change your routine and have a greater recovery. That’s very important because we don’t want those muscles to be doing all this work at the expense of the rest of your health.
- Finally, the special considerations: frequency of training needs to be based on current training status. If you’re not experienced, you don’t want to train a whole lot of days every week. Particularly if you’re young and you’re just developing neural patterns, a few days a week is enough.
- If you’re post-teen and you’ve already matured, and you’re in your 20s, you may need to train three to four times a week, and that would be good given that you can recover as you get more intense. Multiple times or multiple training sessions a day is not unheard of.
This is a dedicated lifestyle if you want to truly grow muscle. It takes behaviors that help muscles grow stretching the muscles through the whole workout getting a good muscular pump as part of it. Shortening your work to rest ratios is important. We’re working on that.
- Women can grow muscle but need to consider the unique hormone fluctuations that impact immune response to muscle growth. For instance, if you’re in the middle of your cycle you may grow muscle more quickly. At certain times during your cycle, you may increase water retention. You have to be careful that your ego is not caught up in the scale of what you do, rather the muscle function and staying focused on the notion that if I build it my muscles will grow. Women’s muscles will grow just as men’s muscles do. The difference is the hormone environments that bathe their muscles. In fact, there is some evidence to say that as women get older, the quality of their muscle is preserved better with estrogen than men’s muscles with testosterone.
As we age, we need more rest in between workouts, and you need to be careful on large muscle group movements as you get older because the joints, the tendons, and the ligaments may need more time to warm up and to recover. We have to be aware of that with muscle growth.
- And finally, muscle growth can occur at any age even in the seventh or eighth decade of life, we can still see muscle growth and again the collagen fibers may be somewhat limited because of the elasticity components and the cellular satellite migration that occurs as we have muscle damage but muscle growth can occur at any age as long as a hormone environment.
1. Chennaoui M, Arnal PJ, Sauvet F, Léger D. ‘Sleep, and exercise: a reciprocal issue?” Sleep medicine reviews. 2015 Apr 30;20:59-72.
2. Hollander DB, Kraemer RR, Kilpatrick MW, Ramadan ZG. “Maximal eccentric and concentric strength discrepancies between young men and women for dynamic resistance exercise.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2007 Feb 1;21(1):34.
3. Hollander D, Meyers MC, LeUnes A. “Psychological factors associated with overtraining: Implications for youth sport coaches.” Journal ofSport Behavior. 1995 Mar 1;18(1):3.
4. Howatson G, Van Someren KA. “The prevention and treatment of exercise-induced muscle damage.” Sports Medicine. 2008 Jun 1;38(6):483-503.
5. Reeves GV, Kraemer RR, Hollander DB, Clavier J, Thomas C, Francois M, Castracane VD. “Comparison of hormone responses following light resistance exercise with partial vascular occlusion and moderately difficult resistance exercise without occlusion.” Journal of Applied Physiology. 2006 Dec 1;101(6):1616-22.
6. Schoenfeld BJ. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010 Oct 1;24(10):2857-72.
7. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. “Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sports Medicine. 2016 Nov 1;46(11):1689-97.
8. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. “Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015 Oct 1;29(10):2954-63.
9. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G. “Influence of resistance training frequency on muscular adaptations in well-trained men.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015 Jul 1;29(7):1821-9.
10. Silva VP, Oliveira NA, Silveira H, Mello RG, Deslandes AC. “Heart rate variability indexes as a marker of chronic adaptation in athletes: a systematic review.“ Annals of Noninvasive Electrocardiology. 2015 Mar 1;20(2):108-18.
11. Tavares LD, de Souza EO, Ugrinowitsch C, Laurentino GC, Roschel H, Aihara AY, Cardoso FN, Tricoli V. “Effects of different strength training frequencies during reduced training period on strength and muscle cross-sectional area.” European Journal of Sport Science. 2017 Mar 8:1-8.