Whoever you are, whether you know it or not, there’s a roughly 95% chance that you’re going to the gym to chase gains in muscle. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose weight or gain weight, because building muscle is the foundational component for both of these goals, and helps make both of them sustainable.
For someone trying to lose weight, muscle burns more calories at rest, and is responsible for creating definition and tone. For gaining weight, muscle will help you look bigger, and after all, it is denser than fat, and thus, building muscle will contribute to your weight gain in more substantial ways.
By this same token, it is entirely possible to gain or maintain muscle and get smaller. Counterintuitive as it may seem, you CAN in fact build muscle and still lose inches off your waist, one of the hallmarks of weight loss. This is one reason why I prefer that people not get married to the scale, and instead put more faith in body composition analysis, but I digress. Weighing is quick and easy, but should be done with this understanding in mind.
So the question then, is this: how do we build muscle? Some of the more scientific folks out there know that this is just a simpler way of asking, what is the best way to maximize muscular hypertrophy? “Hypertrophy” might bring up visions of muscle-bound bodybuilders for a lot of people, but it isn’t always this extreme.
Remember, 95% of people are in the gym in pursuit of a lean body. This involves building muscle and losing fat, so in essence, everyone is chasing hypertrophy. We’ve been chasing these goals ever since becoming fit became a thing, and no matter what anyone says, either in infomercial or in-person, there is no shortcut.
In order to maximize muscular hypertrophy, you have to put in the work.
That being said, there are smart ways to work, and not so smart ways to work. Sorry, but doing bicep curls for 3 sets of 10 with 2-pound dumbbells won’t build muscle, let alone “tone” your arms.
In a scientific review by muscle physiologist, Brad Schoenfeld, he outlines 3 factors that induce muscle growth: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. Simply put, an exercise must be heavy enough, hard enough to create some soreness, and challenging enough to elicit that classic burning sensation in your muscles, respectively. Any combination of these factors could work, but I’m willing to bet that those bicep curls from earlier elicit none of these. The flexibility of these combinations is why, for example, both Olympic weightlifters, who work primarily with heavy loads and low rep ranges, and bodybuilders, who use relatively lower loads and higher rep ranges, are rather muscular, representing an ideal that many people strive towards.
Being in the gym is all about disrupting homeostasis and forcing adaptations. There must be a stimulus for any change to occur, and muscular hypertrophy is no exception. You can’t expect that doing the same exact workout will work forever, nor should you expect that you can go hard every session without burning out and requiring more rest and recovery, the length of which could set you back. 6 variables that elicit hypertrophy were discussed in Schoenfeld’s article: intensity, volume, exercise selection, rest interval, muscular failure, and repetition speed. And of course, he leaves us with some practical recommendations for maximizing hypertrophy:
Intensity and Volume – Moderate, multiple sets with 6-12 reps per set, above 65% 1RM.
Exercise Selection – Multiplanar, multi-angled, and varied, using both compound and single-joint exercises (to focus on those guns, or course) in a split training routine.
Rest Intervals – 60-90 seconds between sets.
Muscular Failure – Some sets could and should be carried out to the point where you can’t lift the weight anymore, but not all of them. The goal here is to minimize the risk of overtraining, or burning out.
Repetition Speed – Concentric reps should be performed fast to moderate (1-3 seconds) and eccentric reps slightly slower (2-4 seconds). In essence, you should lift the weight as fast as you can, and control it all the way down.
Of course, all 6 of these should be manipulated throughout your training. So really, the possibilities are endless. But the principles, tried and tested as they may have been, have not changed much.
The best way to build muscle is by building strength. A trainee with more strength—in other words, someone stronger on the compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, and bench press—has much greater potential for hypertrophy than someone who is weaker. The stronger trainee can lift a weight for more reps and for more weight. Simply put, he or she can do more work, and this is what muscles respond to.
From a programming standpoint, compound lifts should be the foundation of your training in the gym. Vary your sets, reps, intensity, etc, based on the guidelines above. You want to stick with something long enough to see progress, but not long enough that progress stalls and no more adaptations occur. For most, 4-6 weeks on a programming block is good before major changes should be made in your training, but the goal is always the same: building muscle. Keep disrupting homeostasis and forcing adaptation, use these guidelines to maximize your hypertrophy, but most importantly, make sure you’re putting in the work.
Shoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010; 24(10): 2857-72.
By Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.