Chances are, one of your first ports of call when you decided you want to start building muscle was the latest edition of flex magazine, mens health or any other magazine with some jacked guy on the front cover.
At least that was the case for me when I decided that I no longer wanted to be some skinny-fat guy with less muscle than a twiglet.
Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I wasn’t the biggest of guys.
The problem was that these magazines did more to add to my confusion than educate me:
- One month they would tell me to confuse my muscles by switching up my exercises each week, whereas the next I would read that I should just stick to squats, bench press and deadlifts if I wanted to make gains.
- Similarly, one magazine would tell me to do a shed load of drop sets until it felt as though my muscles were about to burst out my skin, but another would say I should do low reps and lift heavy the whole time.
So yeah, it left me pretty confused and meant I spent much of my early lifting days jumping between methods and spinning my wheels.
If at the time, I had understood the 3 primary drivers of muscle growth, then it all would have made much more sense to me though
And I would have easily been able to distinguish between the good, bad and the outright wrong information I was being told.
So today, I’m going to go over the 3 drivers of muscle growth and how you can apply them correctly to maximize your gains in muscle (1,2).
Along with my series on ‘How To Get Jacked’, this will teach you exactly what you need to do to build muscle.
#1 Mechanical Tension
You don’t need me to tell you this but when you lift weights, you put tension on your muscles.
This tension causes chemical signals in the muscle to stimulate growth, and provided the tension you put your muscles under is of sufficient magnitude and duration, you’ll make gains.
From a practical standpoint, this means you need to lift more volume over time*.
That will come as no surprise if you read my last blog.
(*volume = weight on the bar x total reps)
#2 Metabolic Stress
When you get a pump and feel the burn after a dropset, superset or when you verge on crossing into the ‘tone zone’, that pumped up feeling you get is the result of metabolites (eg: lactic acid) and fluid building up in the muscle.
Amongst other mechanisms, this build-up of metabolites may lead to muscle growth being ramped up to reinforce the muscle cells and protect them from bursting.
Put simply, this means your pre night out pump up session won’t just make you look swole in the short term, but it may actually contribute to your long-term gains too.
#3 Muscle Damage
You know when you neglect your calves for years and then one day decide to hit them hard, only to find yourself hobbling around a couple of days after because every time you take a step it feels like they’re going to rip off from the back of your legs (I’m sure this must have happened to someone else)?
Well, that’s an extreme case of muscle damage, which, as the term suggests, is when you cause damage to your muscle cells (you literally tear parts of the muscle cells, as you can see in the image below).
This damage typically occurs due to exercises that emphasise the eccentric/lowering phase of the lift and when you subject yourself to a training stimulus (eg: exercise) that is either new or that you haven’t done in a long time (eg: me training calves).
So high levels of volume you’re not accustom to and changing up your exercises the whole time will lead to greater levels of damage. When your body repairs the damaged muscle, it may further reinforce the muscle structure and therefore increase growth.
So based on the above, to build muscle you should:
- Lift heavy(ish) and gradually increase volume to put a load of tension on your muscles
- Do a shed load of dropsets and high rep sets to get a sweet pump
- And switch up your exercises the whole time to cause lots of muscle damage
Hang on a sec. Surely that contradicts what I said last time about sticking mostly to the 6-12 rep range and avoiding switching up your exercises the whole time?
Well yeah, it does. So forget about the above bullet points for a sec and let me explain.
Here’s the deal
Whilst the above are the proposed mechanisms that lead to growth, some are more important than others (4).
Think back to the last time you did group work at school, uni or your job.
Chances are you had some members of the group who worked their arses off. These were the A* students who held the group together and put in the leg work to get the job done.
Then you’ve got the guys who took a back seat. Sure, they had the odd input here and there but at the end of the day, the A* students were doing most of the work.
It’s a little like that.
Mechanical tension is doing the leg work and is what you should focus on for the most part. That means you should stick to a rep range that allows you to lift heavy(ish) and that allows you to get the volume in needed to grow efficiently. In other words, the 6-12 rep range like I said last time. Work at progressively lifting heavier weights in this rep range, and you’ll apply the mechanical tension overload required to grow.
Getting a pump and muscle damage are like the group members who had an input but also took a bit of a back seat. They will have an impact on your gains, but won’t make or break the overall outcome provided mechanical tension overload is being applied (besides, if you focus on overloading your exercises in the 6-12 rep range, you’ll get a pump and cause some muscle damage anyway as the mechanisms of growth are interlinked).
In a practical sense, this means it’s worth spending some time at higher rep ranges and having the occasional dropsets or superset to make sure you get a serious pump on. Here’s that figure I showed you last time to give a visual representation of this:
In terms of muscle damage, if your training causes too much damage it will screw up your performance and therefore compromise your ability to apply mechanical tension overload and grow.
This isn’t surprising when you look at the image of the damaged muscle fibre above. In fact, in the same study that those images came from, the damaged muscle’s force generating capacity dropped by 30-40% 2 days after the initial damage inducing exercise (3). That’s a pretty hefty drop in performance.
So you shouldn’t aim to get DOMS and be as sore as possible after every gym session you have; it will screw up your gains. Rather you should allow the rise in volume over time to naturally lead to moderate levels of muscle damage and vary your exercises occasionally (every 6-12 weeks or so) rather than every session or week. Again, this reinforces what I said last time and the recommendations I gave will cause muscle damage, but not crippling amounts after every session that would just end up compromise your progress.
So the take home?
- Make sure your training volume is going up over time and you’re mostly lifting moderate to heavy weights. That means the 6-12 rep range for the most part. This will ensure you’re applying mechanical tension overload, which is the main driver of gains.
- Lifting in the 6-12 rep range will also automatically lead to a pump and the mounting stress of increasing volume over time will cause muscle damage too. So in reality, the mechanisms of growth are interlinked.
- Spend some time at higher rep ranges and think about implement occasional dropsets with isolation exercises to get the ultimate pump.
- Change some of your exercises every 6-12 weeks or so to target different areas of a muscle group. This will cause a little more muscle damage, but don’t take this to the extreme and aim for excessive soreness.
References and reading
(1) Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy.
(2) Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
(3) Paulsen, G., Lauritzen, F., Bayer, M. L., Kalhovde, J. M., Ugelstad, I., Owe, S. G., & Raastad, T. (2009). Subcellular movement and expression of HSP27, αB-crystallin, and HSP70 after two bouts of eccentric exercise in humans.Journal of Applied Physiology, 107(2), 570-582.
(4) Helms, E. (2015). Resistance training for bodybuilding. SBS Academy, Unit 2.6