I love exercise science as much as the next guy or gal, but it can get a bit complicated. For instance, building muscle becomes the science of muscle hypertrophy. What is hypertrophy anyway?
Hypertrophy: the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in the size of its cells.
Going by that definition, we can conclude that muscle hypertrophy occurs when muscle cells increase in size. Easy enough, right? But how do we get those little buggers to grow?
Below you’ll find seven points on building muscle and some of the science behind it. As always, I’ve done my best to simplify as much as possible. Let’s
The Three Factors of Muscle Growth
There are three main factors for stimulating muscle growth. They are, in no particular order:
- Mechanical Tension (the intensity or weight you are lifting)
- Muscle Damage (breaking down your muscles during training to rebuild muscle fibers stronger for next time)
- Metabolic Stress (buildup of metabolic waste due to anaerobic training AKA the “burn”).
All three play separate roles and are independent of one another, for the most part. Meaning, if you aren’t sore after a training session or didn’t get a pump during that training session, that doesn’t mean you aren’t building muscle. The exception to this would be mechanical tension, which influences both muscle damage and metabolic stress.
There’s a lot of debate in the scientific community over these principles and which is the most critical to hypertrophy. In my opinion, the most important of the three is mechanical tension or the weight lifted and total training volume. This is because progressive overload (increasing training intensity and volume over time) is hard to debate as the key to muscle and strength development. Quite simply, if you lift more weight for more reps than you did three to six months prior, you have greater potential to build muscle.
Without this progressive overload of tension, your strength would eventually plateau. When this occurs, creating muscle damage beyond what your body has grown accustomed to becomes extremely difficult. Additionally, getting stronger allows you to create higher metabolic demand than before, intensifying the effects of metabolic waste on hypertrophy pathways.
At the end of the day, it’s fair to say that total volume is king. If you increase your total training volume through more sets, more weight, more reps at the same weight, etc., you will get stronger and build more muscle.
Exercise, strength training, and movement are skills. And like any other skill, they need to be learned and practiced. To reap the benefits of an exercise, you must allow your body to master the movement pattern and become efficient at recruiting muscle fibers. When learning a new exercise, most strength development occurs via neural adaptation. Although muscle growth is occurring in the early stages, it is minimal compared to the period post-nervous system mastery.
Learning new exercises all the time is inefficient, and you should really aim to master several compound lifts for each movement pattern. By movement patterns, I’m talking about:
- Horizontal Press – barbell bench press, push up, dumbbell bench press
- Horizontal Pull – barbell row, dumbbell row, inverted row
- Vertical Press – barbell overhead press, dumbbell shoulder press, circus press
- Vertical Pull – pull up, lat pulldown
- Squat – front squat, back squat, goblet squat
- Hinge – deadlift, kettlebell swing, hip thrust
- Carry – farmers walks, yoke carry
Now, I’m a big believer in having fun with your training. After all, if you don’t enjoy it you’ll never stick with it. My advice is to add variety to your training through accessory exercises and isolation movements. Recruiting muscle fibers in the bicep curl, for most, takes significantly less time to learn than learning to recruit the lats or core during a deadlift. And as you can see from the list above, you can create a ton of variety in your compound movements.
Variety can make training more enjoyable, but I will mention that improving your skills at the compound movements like pulling, pressing, and squatting will inevitably lead to less total time spent in the gym and greater results. Use accessory exercises and variety like supplements – add them to an already solid base.
The Best Rep Ranges for Muscle and Strength Gain
How high or low should you go with repetitions? Here’s a good rule of thumb.
- 8-12 – primarily for muscle hypertrophy (building) – allows the weight to be moderate enough to minimize injury while stimulating new muscle growth. This should be your sweet spot.
- 15+ – primarily muscular endurance – though some accessory exercises like bicep curls or glute bridges may require higher rep schemes to properly stimulate hypertrophy
- 4-8 – a blend between strength/power training and muscle hypertrophy – as you become more advanced it is ok to lower rep schemes and experiment with heavier weights.
- <4 – primarily strength/power development – a majority of the adaptation in this range will be nervous system related and less muscle hypertrophy.
Lifting Tempo for Muscle Gain
I’m not much of a stickler on super specific tempos, as long as you’re under control. You do the majority of muscle damage (essential for building muscle) on the eccentric portion of a lift, or the lowering of a weight. For this reason, a slow and controlled lowering of a weight should be your focus on each exercise. If it helps, count to two in your head during each eccentric phase.
Your concentric phase or the actual “lifting” portion should be as explosive as possible on each rep.
Here are a few examples of the concentric and eccentric on a lift:
- Eccentric – squatting down
- Concentric – standing back up
- Eccentric – lowering the weight to the floor
- Concentric – exploding off the floor and locking out a deadlift
- Bicep Curl
- Eccentric – lowering the weight to your side
- Concentric – curling the weight up
Rest Periods for Muscle Gain, Strength, or Fat Loss
Depending on where you’re at in terms of cardiovascular fitness, this could range anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes on exercises like squats. In general, your bigger compound movements like squats, presses, and pulls should require between 30-90 seconds rest between sets if you’re working in the 8-12 rep range. As long as you’re not on your phone for 5 minutes between sets you should be fine – catch your breath, shake ‘em out, and get back to work.
Note: If you are training for strength or power, you need to give 100% on every set and rep. Rest as long as you need and be sure you’re good to go for each set. Hypertrophy training isn’t about moving maximal loads.
On accessory exercises like curls, lateral raises, hamstring curls, etc. you may only need 30-60 seconds between sets. Accessory exercises provide an opportunity to create additional metabolic stress, which if you remember from earlier is a good thing.
Shorter rest periods as a whole are more effective at burning fat, getting stronger hormonal responses after training (better recovery), and improving cardiovascular health. So like I said, get off your phone.
More on Progressive Overload
It’s not as complicated as it may sound. Progressive overload can be as simple as increasing the weight lifted from your previous session or even increasing the repetitions performed with the same weight. Total volume is a very important factor to progressive strength training.
A goblet squat performed with a 50lb dumbbell for 3 sets of 10 reps (30 total reps) = 1500 lbs total lifted for that exercise.
A goblet squat performed with a 50lb dumbbell for 2 sets of 15 reps (30 total reps) = 1500 lbs total lifted for that exercise.
A goblet squat performed with a 100lb dumbbell for 1 sets of 15 reps (15 total reps) = 1500 lbs total lifted for that exercise.
As you can see, the weight, sets, and reps changed in each example but the total volume remained the same. What I really want you to take note of is the difference between total working time. The first example used 3 sets of 10, which likely included rest periods in between and probably took somewhere between 4-5 minutes to complete the exercise. Example 3 had a single set that likely took 30-60 seconds from start to finish. You can see over the course of an entire workout if total volume is your goal, where you can save some serious time by progressing to a heavier weight. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather work out for 30 minutes than 60 minutes.
Cardio for Muscle Gain?
Make your cardio fun, try to avoid going to the gym to just walk on a treadmill – you can do that outdoors with your dogs or family. Get involved with activities and stay off the couch and away from the TV and you should be just fine. Strength training is plenty as long as you’re staying active I promise.
Should you find yourself wanting more of a challenge, look at things like supersets, density circuits, and interval training.
Where two exercises are performed back to back with no rest between sets. Example: 20 push ups followed by 20 bodyweight squats, rest for 30 seconds and repeat. I also like super setting accessory exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, or something along those lines. It saves time and gets your heart rate up.
Pick a group of 4 exercises and set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Perform 5 reps of each exercise circuit style and complete as many rounds as possible in the time limit a la CrossFit (no Olympic lifts here). Example: 5 goblet squats, 5 pull ups, 5 stiff leg deadlifts, 5 barbell curls = 1 round. This becomes a bit of a challenge with yourself in the next workout to complete more rounds than last time.
Similar to how I laid out cardio above. Pick a working time (30-60 seconds usually works) and a rest time of around ½ of your working time. If you worked for 60 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, repeat. You could apply this to any exercise to get a great cardio workout at the end of a session. Things like jump ropes, battle ropes, sleds and prowlers, and other fun equipment can make training even more enjoyable.