Unfortunately, when it comes to building muscle, there are no shortcuts to success. Muscle hypertrophy, or more simply put, the growth and increase in the size of muscle cells can only be achieved with a proper resistance training programme, but results I’m afraid are not instant. In fact, research suggests that meaningful changes in muscle size may take as long as weeks, if not months to occur, so stay patient.
There are, however, a number of ways in which you can give yourself the best chance of adding bulk as quickly and efficiently as your body will allow. No big secrets, no magic wands and no bullshit. Building the physique of your dreams is about hard work and KNOWLEDGE! And that my friends, is what this article is all about. Giving you the information you need to be successful.
How You Train?
The proper manipulation of variables within your training is key to maximising your body’s ability to build muscle. The most important factors you need to consider when planning and executing your resistance based sessions are: intensity, volume, frequency, exercise selection, rest intervals, muscular failure and the speed at which you complete your reps.
Training intensity pertains to the resistance at which you are capable of performing an exercise for a certain number of repetitions. Generally this is expressed as a percentage of your one rep maximum. The number of reps you perform has a significant bearing on your neuromuscular system and will therefore affect your hypertrophic response in differing ways.
Most research indicates that somewhere between 6 and 12 reps produces the optimum hypertrophic response. This moderate rep range produces more lactate and glucose, the build up of which, has been demonstrated to have a significant impact on anabolic processes. Testosterone and human growth hormone, both of which help stimulate muscle growth, are also elevated more acutely through a moderate rep range.
When it comes to the load that you lift within this rep range, it largely depends on the individual. Most experts believe that you need to be lifting in excess of 65% of your 1RM in any given exercise in order to place the muscle in question under enough stress to promote the desired adaptation. However, there is research to suggest that as long as resistance training is conducted to failure, then load may not be a significant contributing factor to muscle hypertrophy.
My advice? Stick to a load which you come at least close to failure in by the end of your set. A great way of ensuring this happens safely is using a spotter to help you through the last few reps.
Training volume refers to the product of your total work in any one training session. Essentially the total number of sets and reps you complete. High volume, multiple set programmes are definitely more productive in relation to building muscle.
Multiple sets induce greater levels of both testosterone and HGH, which may not significantly increase prior to the 4th set of any given exercise. You should also consider working the same muscle groups multiple times within individual sessions. Whole body workouts are a great way of improving overall health and fitness in a single session but they are not necessarily the best way of stimulating muscle growth. So if building muscle fast is your goal, stay away from them for now.
Focusing on one muscle group during a session will allow you to maintain total weekly training volume with fewer sets per training session and greater recovery between sessions. It will also increase the metabolic stress on your muscles by prolonging the training stimulus within a particular muscle group which can serve to accelerate muscle hypertrophy.
What does this mean practically? Say you are embarking on an upper body hypertrophy training programme for instance. Rather than completing 2 push exercises and 2 pull exercises which puts stress on both the chest and back muscles in one session, just focus your session on either chest or back and complete 4 exercises, thus doubling the volume of your session within the same time frame.
Example: Chest session
Dumbbell Bench Press
Weighted Push Ups
Training frequency simply refers to the number of training sessions or muscle group sessions you complete during a week and can have a significant impact on the adaptive processes which are behind muscle hypertrophy.
There is a lot of debate as to how often you should train a particular muscle group for optimum growth. The key? Subjecting your muscles to enough stress whilst allowing time for rest and recovery, which is a key element of increasing bulk.
Realistically, the frequency of your training sessions depends largely on the volume and intensity of them. If both of these factors are high, then you can afford to complete fewer sessions in a week (aim to hit the same muscle group every 5-7 days). If training intensity and volume are less, however, then you may need to focus on the same muscle groups every 3 days. Training frequency is largely your choice therefore. Don’t have time for multiple sessions in a week? Then make sure the sessions you do complete are high intensity and high volume. Prefer to spread your workload out over more time. Reduce the volume of each session and increase the frequency at which you complete them. It’s completely up to you!
Variety is the spice of life! Your muscles quickly become used to the same movements performed over and over again, and a muscle which is comfortable performing an action is unlikely to be under enough stress to promote hypertrophy.
Consequently it is of vital importance to make sure you keep your muscles guessing by introducing new exercises into your training programme at regular intervals. There is evidence to support the inclusion of both multi joint and single joint exercises in a hypertrophy specific routine. Multi Joint exercises such as squats use large amounts of muscle mass, producing more significant increases in both testosterone and HGH than their single joint counterparts.
Single joint exercises, however, are much more useful in targeting underdeveloped muscles, and have been proven to elicit different neuromuscular responses which can heighten overall muscle development.
What does this mean practically? Firstly you should try not to pick muscle group specific movements which look overly similar to one another in any given session. I.e. if your session focuses on the back, don’t pick four row type exercises which all involve very similar movements and very similar muscles. Instead, do something like this: Seated cable row, Pull ups, Dumbbell reverse fly’s and Dumbbell upright rows.
Click here for top tips on how to build your own hypertrophy based gym session
This is the time taken between each set of work during your session. Short rest intervals (30 seconds or less) are more likely to generate significant metabolic stress which may in turn heighten the anabolic processes which aid in muscle hypertrophy. However, such short rest periods will not allow sufficient time for you to regain muscular strength before completing the next set of work. This will significantly impair your ability to perform the remaining sets in your routine and most likely counteract any of the benefits associated with increased metabolic stress.
Long rest intervals (3 minutes or more) may be equally ineffective when it comes to promoting optimum muscle growth. Whilst they will certainly allow the muscle to recover fully between sets allowing you to complete each set with maximal force, th build up of metabolites will not be sufficient to really promote hypertrophy.
Consequently, the most effective length of rest interval seems to be somewhere between 60 and 90 seconds, providing an ideal compromise between recovery and metabolic stress. Yay!
This is the point at which your muscles can no longer produce the force necessary to lift a specific load. Although still widely debated by experts in the field, it is commonly thought that training to the point of muscular failure is necessary to maximise hypertrophy. Continuing to train a muscle under anaerobic conditions, which is essentially what occurs when you are close to reaching the point of failure, increases the build up of metabolites and induces a greater hormonal response. All of which helps your body build muscle.
However, there is also evidence to suggest that regularly completing lifts to failure can increase the potential of overtraining, not to mention the psychological stress it can place on you.
My advice? By all means complete some of your working sets to failure. In my experience, the best way of achieving this sustainably is with finishers. That’s sets of exercises placed at the end of your session which you designate to complete to failure.
Most people I see in the gym very much concentrate on the concentric phase on any given exercise they complete. For those unaware of the terminology, that’s when the muscle is contracting whilst it shortens and makes up the most obvious working part of most gym exercises. Whether that be elbow flexion during bicep curls, the upward push phase of squats or the pull phase of a chin up.
There is evidence to suggest, however, that the eccentric phase (when the muscle is lengthening at the same time as it contracts) is more integral to triggering hypertrophy. This is largely attributed to a greater muscular tension under load. So the next time you do squats, bicep curls or chin ups, be sure to slow down the eccentric phase of each exercise.
That means really TAKING YOUR TIME lowering to the bottom of your squat range; straightening your arms during your bicep curls; and dropping to a long arm hanging position during your pull ups. The easiest way of ensuring that you are spending long enough during this eccentric phase is by counting. Around 3 seconds is about right for most resistance exercises.
If you’re looking to gain muscle quickly then you need to forget about high intensity cardio sessions. You need all of the calories you are consuming to be put to use helping fuel the growth and repair of the muscles you want to increase in size. Expend too many calories fueling hours on the bike or treadmill and you will start to affect your bodies ability to synthesise protein massively.
Light cardio can be a useful way of ensuring that the weight you do gain is actually muscle and not fat. It is, however, notoriously difficult to generate increases in lean muscle mass straight off the bat.
You’re better stopping the cardio all together to start with whilst you focus on gaining mass. Something which need a serious calorie surplus in order to achieve. Once you have reached the weight and size that you are happy with, you can increase the cardio and reduce the calorie intake in order to strip away any excess fat you may have accumulated during bulking.
Outside of how you actually train, the exercises you choose, the sets and reps you complete, and the frequency at which you complete sessions, the most important factor in building muscle effectively is how you recover.
1.How You Fuel?
What and when should you be eating in order to maximise your body’s ability to build muscle?
I guess the best place to start is probably with the most studied and debated area of exercise nutrition: protein. How much to consume and when to consume it. Most research suggests that approximately 20g of protein is the most effective dose to ingest in one go. The body can’t absorb much more than this in one hit and any excess is simply excreted as waste.
Somewhere around 0.3g per KG of body weight per meal should be sufficient to help augment muscle hypertrophy.
Generally, most people will choose to consume this protein immediately after their resistance based session and that is as good a time as any to do so. Resistance exercise has been proven to prime the muscle to be responsive to protein intake. There is, however, little evidence to suggest that dosing protein immediately before or even during your session is any less effective.
Consequently, the matter of timing is largely up to you. I like to spread my intake out across a session, normally drinking some of my shake halfway through and leaving the rest until the end.
When it comes to where you get this protein from, the options are varied. If you can get it from naturally occuring foods in enough quantities then great. If not, protein supplementation is a great method of ensuring you’re getting the optimal amounts of quality protein at the right times. Most studies suggest that whey protein is most effective in aiding muscle hypertrophy, particularly in the immediate aftermath of resistance sessions, because it is digested more rapidly than other sources of protein.
There may, however, still be room in your diet for protein sources, which take longer to be digested, such as casein. Studies have, for instance, suggested that this could be beneficial in sustaining protein synthesis over longer periods of time, such as during sleep.
Carbohydrates And Fat
It is not, however, all about protein. One of the most common mistakes people make when they are trying to build muscle is consuming too little carbohydrates and fats. In order to increase muscle mass your muscles must have energy. In order to have energy they must be filled with glycogen, and glycogen comes from CARBOHYDRATES.
In order to maintain these stores of glycogen within your muscles you must consume more carbohydrates than your body uses during your sessions. When you’re trying to gain mass, most research suggests 2-3 grams of carbohydrates per lb of body weight. Generally, provided your carbohydrate intake doesn’t significantly exceed your energy demands you won’t need to worry about gaining fat from carbohydrates.
Fat, believe it or not, is also a key nutrient in muscle building, and is particularly helpful with recovery. Essential fatty acids like omega 3 and 6 help to repair damage to tissues and joints and can be found in foods like fish, flaxseed and walnut oil and soy.
Keeping well hydrated is not just important for your general health. It can also be vital to physical performance and indeed muscle growth.
Even low levels of dehydration can lead to reductions in muscular strength and endurance. In fact, research in the Biochemistry Journal suggests that decreased levels of water results in cell shrinking, causing muscle protein breakdown. Maintaining adequate hydration levels will help to reduce protein breakdown and improve protein synthesis, which is key to building muscle. Moreover, gaining muscle requires good digestion and absorption of macronutrients which is vastly improved when you are properly hydrated.
Sleeping has a profound impact on recovery and is a factor which is often overlooked when considering the best approach to muscle hypertrophy. Research suggests that the body is able to: restore organs, bones, and tissue; replenish immune cells; and circulate human growth hormone. In fact 60% to 70% of daily human growth hormone secretion occurs during the early stages of sleep, which is typically when the deepest sleep cycles occur. Poor quality sleep can, therefore, negatively impact human growth hormone levels.
Whilst sleeping for 8-10 hours per night means your body is without food for an extended period of time, which is counterproductive when it comes to muscle growth, there are ways of negating this. Eating just prior to sleeping, for instance, can help to reverse this process and increase protein synthesis.
There are several ways in which you can improve the quality of your sleep, including:
- Increasing your body temperature by having a hot bath or shower immediately before bed should help you drift off.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine at night.
- Keep your room reasonably cool as humidity may cause disrupted sleep.
- Make evenings relaxed.
- Do not watch television or use your smartphone in the hour before you are trying to sleep.
Your Key Takeaways
- Focus as much on completing work to fatigue as on the perfect number of reps. Somewhere between 6 and 12 is ideal but the exact number will depend on you. When you get to the end of each set you need to be really struggling to squeeze out those last reps.
- Focus on one muscle group per session. 4-6 exercises which put adequate stress on that area of the body.
- Train the same muscle group every 3 to 5 days.
- Vary the exercises you complete regularly and make sure you hit both single joint and multi joint movements.
- Use finishers at the end of your workouts as designated periods to work to complete failure.
- Focus as much if not more on the eccentric phase of each of your chosen movements.
- Keep to moderate rest intervals- somewhere between 60-90 seconds.
- Yes protein is a key ingredient in fueling your body to build muscle. But whatever you do, don’t neglect carbohydrates or fatty acids.
- Stay hydrated before, during and after training sessions.
- 8-10 hours of good quality sleep if you can.
The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training, Brad J Schoenfeld..
(Fink, J., Kikuchi, N., Yoshida, S. et al. SpringerPlus (2016) 5: 698. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40064-016-2333-z)
Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy Robert W. Morton, Chris McGlory and Stuart M. Phillips * Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada