Building muscle. It’s the holy grail of male training. It’s also extremely beneficial for women, especially if they want to be strong, lose body fat or just look smoking hot (so yeah, all of you).

Whilst this is not an exhaustive review on the topic, it is a good rule book to play by.

It includes many of the fundamentals that I’ve used in helping rank beginners gain up to 10kg of muscle in a short time (12 weeks), pro fighters build more robust physiques and a world class figure athlete, Sam Grachan, in his pursuit of international success.                                                                            

“Coaching is 50% Science, 50% Art”

This is something that one of my early mentors, once told me.

It rings true for me every day. Sometimes I’ll prescribe a certain approach based on studies and evidence, whilst at other times, I’ll program on a ‘hunch’.

To get things started in this article, I’m going to talk about the science.

Mechanical Tension Versus Metabolic Stress

At the heart of this header is the old ‘what reps are best for muscle gain’ question. Truth is, muscle can be gained training at 1-6 reps, 7-12 reps, 13-20 reps or even more. What matters more, is getting in enough work for there to be stimulus for adaptation (more on this in volume).

Lower reps with heavier weights will stimulate muscle growth via Mechanical Tension (particularly when you use slow eccentrics). The heavier loads will create micro trauma, that then elicit a whole heap of pathways, associated with Muscle Hypertrophy (just take a look at most serious powerlifters).

The only problem is that we can only do so much really heavy training each week. The fatigue this puts on the Central Nervous System (CNS) is very depleting and hard to recover from (it can take anywhere from 2-10 days to recover).

Trying to build muscle only doing sets of 1-6 would be a bit like training for a 5k race only doing repeats of 100m sprints. You COULD do it but the cost would be high.

On the other hand, Metabolic Stress will fatigue and deplete the peripheral muscles involved in the action and can be done without anywhere near as much fatigue on the CNS. This allows us to do a far greater volume of work per week, which is very important.

The amount of sets you do to failure will have a large bearing on how much muscle you put on.

You can do FAR more sets to failure when working in a 7-15 rep range than what you can at lower reps with heavier weights.

The trick to long-term progress is in doing many, many sets to failure in this range, whilst simultaneously increasing the loads you can do it at.

A quality range of machines is good here too. Barbells and free weights should be your bread and butter, however, beyond a certain point of fatigue it’s best to finish the muscle group with machines.

Hitting the Muscle From All Angles

For optimal development of a muscle, we must innervate as many muscle fibers as possible. This means using a number of different weights, lifting speeds (known as tempo) and exercises.

Take the Triceps for example.

Whilst any Triceps exercise will hit all three heads of the muscle (due to the common tendon insertion point), different exercises will emphasis different heads of the Triceps.

Elbows close to the body (rope push down)

Lateral head of the Triceps

Elbows at 90 degrees to the body – Skull Crushers

Medial head of the Triceps

Elbows running perpendicular to the body (overhead Triceps extension) – Long head of the Triceps

This principal applies to other muscles too. Just think about Decline, Flat and Incline Bench variations.

Laying, kneeling and straight leg hamstring variations.

Using a mix of exercises for muscle groups will not only lead to better development but will also avoid overuse injuries and give you a better all-round strength profile.

This is where machines, specialty bars, and creative program are of significant importance.

Frequency

Once a muscle has been trained (stress), it undergoes a cycle of recovery and eventually comes back stronger (adaptation).

For optimal and speedy development, we want to be hitting that muscle again as soon as it has recovered (but preferably not before, in most situations). When we get the frequency of training and all other elements right, you’ll see a continual increase in your baseline as shown in the image above.

Bigger muscle groups often require a little longer to recover, with smaller muscle groups being faster to recover.

Either way, we should be aiming to hit a muscle group at least twice per week for success. When there is a key focus or a lagging area, I’ll often aim for even 3-5 sessions if need be.

Example, the program below is a 2-3 week program for somebody who’s trying to add mass to the Biceps. We appeal to the principle of frequency by hitting the Biceps every second day and three times for the week. You would only do it for a short period of time, as any longer may well lead to overuse injuries of the elbow joint.

5 Day Full Body, Arms Focus

Monday

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 70d Seated DB Press 4 10
A2 DB Preacher Curl 4 10 120 s
B1 BB Military Press 4 12
B2 BB Preacher Curl 4 12 120 s
C1 Seated Rope Face Pull 3 12 90 s

Tuesday

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Squat 5 10
A2 Laying Hamstring Curl 5 10 120 s
B1 Belt Squat 3 12 120s
B2 Travelling Lunge 3 20 steps 120 s

Wednesday

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Neutral Grip Pull Up 4 10
A2 Dip 4 10 120 s
B1 Standing DB Zottman Curl 3 10
B2 Decline DB Tricep Extension 3 10
B3 Standing Ezy Bar Curl 3 10 180 s

Thursday

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Romanian Deadlift 5 10
A2 GHR 5 10 120 s
C1 Reverse Hyper 3 20 120 s
C2 Leg Extension 3 20 120 s

Friday

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Bench Press 4 10
A2 Lat Pull Down 4 10 120 s
B1 Incline Bench, Db Curl 3 10
B2 Rope Tricep Push Down 3 10
B2 Fat Ezy Bar Reverse Curl 3 10 180 s

Volume 

Volume can be calculated per session, or over the week. The formula for this is:

Sets X Reps X Weight = Volume.

Whilst you don’t need to be going all lab-coat scientific, it is good to objectify just how much work you need to be doing.  As a general rule, beginners will need to do less than advanced trainees. Below is a basic guideline to follow (although this can vary depending on other factors).

Beginner – 15 – 20 sets per workout, 3-5 workouts per week

Intermediate – 20 – 30 sets per workout, 4-6 workouts per week

Advanced – 20 – 40 sets per workout, 4-10 workouts per week

Progression/Overload

For there to be progress there must be progression. Doing the same workout week in, week out will get you nowhere fast.

In fact, a common story you hear from the gym bro’s is the old “I like this program because it got me mad results when I first started it”. Thing is they often started it and never changed it (making the statement 5 years after the fact).

A single workout in a program will work for 3-4 exposures only.

What this means?

After doing a program (with a certain amount of workouts, repeated weekly) for 3-4 weeks, it’ll do very little for you.

There needs to be ongoing disruption of the organism for it to NEED to grow.

Some of my favorite progression strategies

Rep addition method – Do the same exercise and sets, but add a rep each week until you can’t add anymore.

Example – Week 1, do 5 x 8 at 60% of of your 1 rep maximum. Add one rep per set per week until you no longer can.

5% Rule – Start week 1 doing 4×12@55%, each week add 5% to the load and drop the reps by 1.

10% Rule – Start with the same sets/reps as above, but increase the load by 10% and drop 2 reps.

Or you can very simply add 5kg for lower body movements and 2.5kg for upper body movements. Do it until you can’t do the prescribed reps at the increase reps, then use one of the strategies above.

Now for the ‘hunch’

All this science stuff is great. It gives us a compass for templating effective training.

Just as important though is the feel of training.

Knowing how to sense when you’ve had enough, or maybe not enough.

Pushing to that point of absolute muscle fatigue and exhaustion, especially if you’re an experienced trainee.

The one thing that often separates an experienced trainee, who can get themselves next level results, versus somebody who seems to ‘spin the wheels’ and go nowhere is the ability to push.

To ask themselves after each set, “could I have done more?”

To constantly search the ‘feeling’ of an effective training and effective training sessions, not just stick to certain numbers that may have been prescribed.

This is also something a Personal Trainer or Strength Coach will do well. They’ll have a good plan on paper (the science), but will be happy to depart from the plan somewhat if the see the need to do so.

It’s this departure that will sometimes be needed to create the overload.

The volume

The mechanical tension and the metabolic stress. For somedays you’ll be on fire and capable of far more than what the program prescribes. This is even more so if you’re always doing percentage based training.

Whilst a beginner will likely respond well to just about anything in the early days, intermediate and advanced trainees will need to be worked hard.

If you fit into this category, be sure to work with a coach, training partner or get a plan that keeps you accountable to doing this.

We all know that when we work out on our own we often don’t work as hard as we could, this is where having the right support structures in place are critical.

Just as important as pushing hard is knowing when not to.

I’m a big fan of de-loads every 4-6 weeks. This is a week where we can still aim to put extra weight on the bar and lift heavy, but we cut approximately 40% of the total volume.

This is particularly important for avoiding burn out and ensuring that you continue to progress.

Other stuff

Food – Being in a healthy calorie surplus is a must. 10-20% above your total daily energy expenditure is a good target.

Sleep – If you’re not getting the gains you want and your sleep is less than 8 hours per night, it’s no coincidence.

Supplements – Whey protein is helpful in hitting your 2-3g of protein per day. Creatine Monohydrate is also great for improving cell volume and recovery time between sets.

Hydration – Aim to drink enough high quality, filtered water to sustain metabolic function associated with recovering from weight training. Body weight in KG’s X .033 is a good way to calculate just how much water you’ll need (in Liters).

Summary

Putting on muscle is about more than chance. Whilst good genetics are certainly helpful, by following the principles above you’ll give yourself the best chance of making serious progress. It’s a long process that you’ll need to commit to for the long haul. If ever you’re unsure, seek out and work with a coach that has a track record of delivering results.

Dan Lowry

About the Author

Daniel Lowry

Daniel is a Strength & Conditioning expert and the Co-Founder of the gym concept GTT. He has been in the industry for 13 years, training a broad range of people from Army Special Forces to general populations. He has also worked with professional athletes, specifically in mixed Martial Arts. Daniel has worked with and learnt from the best of the best in the industry, names like Mark Buckley, Charles Poliquin, Dan Baker Phd, Gavin Heward and many more. Daniel considers himself a product of the great mentors he has learnt from.

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