4 Simplified Tips for Building Muscle
Today I wanted to address an often over complicated topic in the sports and fitness world, and shed some light on a few simple tips that anyone can utilize to increase their hypertrophy goals.
This topic could paralyze you with specific details, so for now let’s just hammer out a few things that will get you a lot of bang for your buck.
Unless you have specific reasons to keep your weight down, or are an athlete in a weight class sport such as wrestling, combat sports or Olympic weightlifting, the desire to build quality muscle is a highly sought after goal.
You do not have to be a football lineman or a prop in rugby in order to need or want more muscle on your frame. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, so even just the strength increases alone, are a driving factor for many. Throw in the aesthetic side of things, which I will not get into, and you get a topic that many people can benefit from having simplified for them.
Below are 4 basic tips for you to consider when your primary goal is to add some lean muscle mass to your frame. These tips will address factors involved in improving the stimulus received from your training.
First off, there are 3 primary factors that are widely accepted within the scientific community, which can drive hypertrophy to some degree. Leaving genetic potential, nutrition, sleep quality and supplementation out of the picture for the time being, we will quickly point out these 3 factors that one can control, and you will see how they come into play in the tips to follow.
Creating a stimulus appropriate enough to produce muscle hypertrophy, requires one or all of these 3 factors to be accomplished:
- An appropriate level of mechanical tension,
- An appropriate accumulation of metabolic stress or metabolites (the “pump”)
- An appropriate degree of muscle damage
There are many articles from smart people explaining the above factors, so for this article I will get right to my points. In a future post, I will cover the above 3 stimulus points and give my personal take on them and explain how I like to achieve them in the programming for myself and my clients.
#1. Growing Muscle Requires An Adequate Amount of Volume
Total training volume can be simply viewed as (sets x reps x load). Now, before this seems like unnecessary math, please do NOT paralyze yourself with trying to figure out some crazy equation here. Let’s make it really simple.
In order to achieve the 3 factors listed above, we need to make sure we apply enough stress, over enough time with enough metabolite build up, in order to allow hypertrophy to be stimulated to some degree.
Increasing volume can be easily done a few ways:
- Perform drop sets with lighter loads after heavier sets on a main lift
- Use rest-pause sets to accumulate more total volume by taking short intermittent breaks in a set. This is super simple and allows just enough rest to allow you to complete more total reps, leading to more total tissue stress and thus more metabolic build up
- Add more sets of your larger exercises at the end of a training session
I could exhaust this list, literally with dozens and maybe hundreds of options. The point here is that you need to either add more reps, use other rep methods to extend the set time or include extra sets.
In the end, the total volume needs to go up to satisfy the factors listed above and ensure that we recruit, stress and damage as many motor units as possible in order to stimulate hypertrophy processes.
#2. Take Your Sets to Positive Failure
In order to force your large, high threshold motor units to be recruited, you need to first fatigue your lower and intermediate threshold fibers. Simply put, take your set to the point just before your technique starts to fail. This style of work sets is always best done below 85% of your max, and some recent research shows that it should also be above 30-40% in order to be heavy enough to produce appropriate tension.
Again utilizing more reps, using drop sets, back off sets with a lighter load than work sets or using rest-pause style sets is a quick way to get more volume, take the set to failure and force those larger motor units to be recruited, fatigued and stimulated.
These longer duration sets, with a good starting total rep number being in the 8-20 range as a general rule of thumb, also provides ample time to allow metabolites to build up, stimulating another of the 3 factors needed for optimal hypertrophy signalling.
#3. Make Sure to Use Heavy Enough Loads
This point was briefly touched on above, but if there is one factor that is non-debatable, it is that you absolutely need to use a load heavy enough to force maximal motor unit recruitment.
This is the clear case for why compound exercises such as squats, presses and deadlifts are always recommended. They allow the heaviest loads to be used, thus placing the biggest mechanical stress on the muscle fibers and in turn recruiting both the largest number of and sized motor units.
While the exercises just listed elicit huge motor unit recruitment, I will add only one word of caution as a 13 year coach and 22 year lifter in this field…
*If you are not FULLY proficient at performing a compound lift such as a front squat or bench press (or any lift for that matter), do not try to use that particular lift for heavy loads taken to volitional failure simply to try and get more hypertrophy. There are better ways!
Choose lifts that you can load safely, use a heavy-moderate load, contract the muscle and use a full range of motion under control to allow appropriate time under tension and tissue damage.
Other exercises that recruit a significant number of motor units and are also great to increase loads on while you improve on the big lifts for later heavier use, include:
- DB presses, 1 arm press variations, weighted or unweighted push ups
- Pull ups, chin ups, DB rowing, other rowing variations (with caution on bent row variations)
- Spine sparring squat variations such as goblet squats, belt squats
- Glute ham raises, RDL’s and virtually all single leg variations that have an element of stability
These exercises allow you to take sets to failure, utilize the rep methods listed above, and do so without significant risk to passive tissue structures (joint capsules, ligaments, spinal discs, etc…)
In the end, go as heavy as you possibly can on all exercises, strength should ALWAYS be a goal. However, if hypertrophy is a current goal, you should back the weight off compared to absolute heavy or max effort strength work (call it what you want).
This may mean staying below 75-85%, depending on your experience. These ranges are still very sufficient to recruit the larger primary motor units, so your strength will be just fine or even improve as you focus on building some muscle for a portion of your training sessions or total training block.
#4. Control the speed of Your Reps
This was touched on above, but it is an easy one to grasp. Fast reps do not allow sufficient time for muscle fibers to be mechanically stressed. This style of lifting, will rob you of the mechanical tension needed to induce hypertrophy, especially if you rush the eccentric portion of the lift, which is proven to create the most muscle damage. There are other benefits that occur from fast reps, but that is not the purpose of this article!
If you remember, muscle damage is also one of the 3 factors needed for hypertrophy to be stimulated. Slowing down each rep for 2-4 seconds is an easy to adjust, sure fire way to get more from every rep.
Finally, slowing down the eccentric portion of each lift also extends the set time, which now satisfies the 3rd component due to more metabolite build up in the muscle. So, when it comes to hypertrophy as a primary goal, slowing down your rep speed comes with a LOT of bang, and requires virtually no change to your program aside from perhaps a slight drop in weight due to the extra stress the tissues will be under at those given rep speeds!
Give these easy to implement tips a try. This list is not exhaustive, and I may even write a follow up tomorrow with 3-4 more that came to mind at the end of writing this. For now though, apply these, and I think you’ll be happy with the results you feel and hopefully see in the months to come!
Now go get jacked!