Muscle Building Down to a Science: Part 1
Building muscle is a science. It may sound easy, but there are a number of factors that must be considered if you want to be successful. The right combination of training, nutrition and supplementation will get you where you want to go. But where to start?
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place! This article will break down how to fine-tune your training, eating and supplementation for maximum gains!
The strongest guy isn’t always the biggest.
Interestingly enough, it’s said that the strongest guy in the gym isn’t always the biggest. The fact that strength isn’t necessarily indicative of mass is a simple fact; but it poses a big problem and an even bigger question. If lifting incredibly heavy will not necessarily maximize your gains, what will?
There are several varieties of resistance training programs that may develop different aspects of physical performance. One may train differently for power output than muscular endurance, strength or size for example. But if your goal is to build muscle, then …
Let’s break it down to a science!
Weight Training for Muscular Hypertrophy Muscle Growth
To build muscle, the focus must be placed on maximizing muscular hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is characterized by increases in the cross-sectional area (CSA) or thickness of individual muscle fibers (1). There are three primary muscle fiber types, each with their own physiological role and biochemical properties. They are broken down into slow (type I) and fast (type II) twitch fibers with fast twitch further broken down into two subgroups (IIB and IIA) (1).
Weightlifters typically show enhanced CSA of type IIA fibers compared to non-lifters and endurance trained individuals (2). This is because fast twitch fibers function in a way that compliments the stimulus provided by heavy weight lifting (i.e. anaerobic metabolism). These fibers are capable of quickly generating tension fueled by carbohydrates instead of relying on the availability of oxygen (1). This is in contrast to type I fibers which are inherently resistant to fatigue and utilize aerobic metabolism with a slow contraction time (1).
It appears that the CSA of type II muscle fibers is more relevant to bodybuilders than that of type I fibers. This is demonstrated by a lack of hypertrophy in type I fibers following a resistance training protocol designed for local muscular endurance (3).
Although there are many modes of resistance exercise that hold the potential for increased muscle CSA (4), a training regime focused on hypertrophy is the key to greater gains.
If you’re hitting up the gym every once in a while to grab a dumbbell that you figure you can rep 10 times; then once that’s over you move on to the next exercise which may be a completely different muscle group, stop it. You’re not doing yourself any favors and you’re going to be wasting a lot of time and energy with little to no return.
Everyone is familiar with what it feels like to plateau. As we train, our muscles adapt and grow to handle the volume of training. Over time, changes in the methods of training must occur in order for our muscles to continue to adapt. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to challenge ourselves in order to continue progressing. This is where progressive overload comes in. Progressive overload is the increased demand placed on working muscles throughout the duration of training (5). This approach elicits significant increases in both strength and muscle size by systematically increasing training volume over time (6).
As mentioned, strength training may elicit great increases in strength without necessarily enhancing muscle hypertrophy (7). This is explained by neuronal adaptation, the result of a more collective and synchronized effort of innervated muscle tissue (motor units) to generate maximal force (1). Studies have shown that neuronal adaptation may be responsible for the initial increase in strength followed soon thereafter by contributions from adaptations in muscle hypertrophy (8).
Lifting heavy in a progressive training regime will elicit strength increases; but, how can one be sure that they are maximizing muscle mass considering the potential for confounding neuronal adaptation. In this respect, it is important to design a program that is specific to hypertrophy using scientifically backed training methods to ensure optimal gains.
Training volume is key to increasing hypertrophy.
The importance of eccentric exercise cannot be understated to enhance muscular hypertrophy (9). Remarkably, eccentric exercise increases muscle satellite cell content in type II muscle fibers (10, 11). These are muscle stem cells that presumably contribute to muscle protein synthesis (12) and this increase has been significantly correlated with increased muscle size following progressive resistance training (11). As such, repetition velocity placing emphasis on the eccentric phase of the lift has displayed optimal increased in muscle growth (13). For instance, a slow eccentric phase 1:4 (concentric : eccentric) has been shown to elicit significant increases in muscle hypertrophy. This is in comparison to a 1:1 (concentric : eccentric) repetition velocity that did not show the same improvement over 12 weeks in men with at least 1 year of training experience (13).
Training volume is key to increasing hypertrophy (14). Therefore, it is important to assess the optimal number of sets, reps and training frequency for each muscle group. Needless to say, multiple sets are better than single sets; particularly, 2-3 sets are better than 1 and 4-6 may be better than 2-3 (15). Rep ranges either moderate (8-12) or high (20-35) each result in significant hypertrophy in previously resistance trained men (16, 17). These moderate-high rep ranges may be better than lower, strength-associated repetitions (2-4 reps) for maximum hypertrophy (4). In untrained men, however, a variety of rep ranges seems to elicit substantial hypertrophy (18).
Increased frequency of training is another factor correlated with increased muscle hypertrophy. However, due to the risk of overtraining, it is suggested that major muscle groups be worked twice per week to effectively enhance muscular hypertrophy (19).
Lastly, longer inter-set rest periods of approximately 3 minutes has been shown to elicit greater increases in hypertrophy compared to shorter, 1 minute, rest intervals in resistance trained men when the number of reps and sets are equated (20). However, these author’s agree that considering the work of another group which suggests 2 minute rest periods are just as effective for muscle hypertrophy (21); a rest period of at least 2 minutes would be optimal, particularly when training time is an issue.
Keep in mind that resistance training is the stimulus necessary for optimal muscle growth. The rate of muscle protein synthesis more than doubles over 24 hours and this continues until even later post-exercise (22). Training specifically for muscle hypertrophy takes full advantage of this relatively short-lived effect. Therefore, it is important to work as effective and as smart as possible to get the most out of your efforts!