I wanted to make a new version of the guide I wrote last year about muscle growth, because looking back on it, I think there are too many things I want to add to merely make a load of updates to the article.
In addition, I think I really needed to improve on the quality of the guide. Not that it was necessarily bad, but I want you guys to have the best information at your disposal to grow your muscles, and hopefully this article provides it.
There won’t be any specific workouts here for you to adopt, because my desire with this article is to equip you with the basic knowledge you need to make your own workouts, which I believe is a far more powerful idea.
The truth is, achieving muscle growth doesn’t need to be too difficult or complex, and in this article I’m giving you the exact same advice here that I would give to a personal training client whose main goal was muscle growth.
“More nutrients, more time under tension”
If I were to simplify the necessary requirements for muscle growth, I’d pick that phrase. Stripping muscle growth down to the raw, unabashed core, and extracting those two things: more food and more time under tension.
Eating more nutrients, i.e. a number of calories in excess of your base metabolic rate (the minimum calories needed to maintain your body weight) will make you weigh more. Your body needs excess nutrients in order to grow.
Making your muscle tissue break down sufficiently enough, through some form of difficult resistance exercise, will (and I’ll elaborate more on this in a second) help make your body repair it in such a way that it’ll overcompensate and you’ll have more muscle tissue than before.
The combination of the above two creates a situation where you can effectively build more muscle tissue over time. I’m oversimplifying, but the point is just to break muscle growth down into the barest, simplest ideas possible.
Muscle protein synthesis
Protein synthesis occurs when biological cells create more proteins. In muscle tissue, we want additional contractile proteins to be assimilated into the existing myofibrils, which are the basic units of a muscle, formed in a rod-like shape.
We of course need protein in the diet and a nitrogen surplus for protein synthesis to happen, otherwise our muscles wouldn’t grow at all. Specifically, we need a diet rich in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) that our body cannot produce on its own. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
In fact, the level of leucine in a protein source in the diet is a critical factor in determining how good the protein source is at stimulating an anabolic response, meaning more muscle protein synthesis (source).
The source I cited above is a PhD thesis by Layne Norton, and one of the astonishing results to come out of the study was that you could take a high quality protein source rich in leucine like whey, and compare it to a relatively low quality source like wheat, and supplement the latter with an equivalent amount of leucine, and get equivalent levels of muscle protein synthesis!
Leucine is just that important, and for effective muscle protein synthesis, and therefore muscle hypertrophy, you should aim for sources of protein high in leucine, for example whey and casein. It appears that Parmesan cheese tops out with 15%, followed by most meats which fall into the range of 9% to just over 10%.
Effective muscle breakdown
Now that we’ve stocked up on Parmesan cheese, what can we do in our workouts to get the maximum amount of muscle growth?
For new trainees, stimulating muscle breakdown can be achieved with the most basic of workout. Three sets of bench presses followed by a few sets of dips and tricep extensions might work for a newcomer to lifting, but it’s not going to cut it for a more advanced trainee who wants ongoing muscle hypertrophy.
You see, the body protects itself against muscle breakdown, or microtrauma, by making it progressively harder to do so as time goes on and you lift weights a lot. The body doesn’t want to be torn apart and broken down, surprisingly!
So it’s critical, if we want to achieve ongoing muscle gains, to ensure that as we progress, each workout is sufficiently hard to cause muscle breakdown. The occurrence of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a good sign that this has happened. It’s literally the case that no pain equals no muscle gain.
The best way to make your workouts sufficiently difficult is to alter the volume parameter – do more sets and reps. This means really tiring out a muscle, so that more oxygen and nutrients are pumped into the muscle cells, increasing the muscle cell volume.
So this means doing about four working sets per exercise, and doing over 12 reps per set, really using weight that pushes you to your limit in each set. I don’t really recommend training to failure too often, because this will overload your nervous system way too much to get really tangible benefits out of a workout.
If you’re really pushing hard, and the last rep really takes a lot of squeeze and effort, then finish the set. In the case of muscle failure, less can often be more. Only do a rep if you’re sure you can make it. I’ve personally made great strength gains (and some nice muscle gains along with it) by only doing reps I’m sure I can complete.
If you take the time to watch their videos on YouTube, you often see professional bodybuilders do a plethora of different exercises in the gym for a certain body part. This is no accident – they’re trying to do a lot of volume. Because their muscles are already well-trained, they really need to push the boundaries extra hard in each workout to get more muscle hypertrophy.
So, you’ll often see people like that really doing what might be construed as ‘overtraining’, i.e. going for broke in each workout. You see Mike Rashid in that video doing lots of press-ups towards the end of the workout. Total muscular fatigue was his goal there – beating the crap out of the muscles will encourage them to grow more.
Drop sets and other cool techniques
An effective technique to fit into your workouts is the drop set. This involves lifting a heavy weight for up to five reps, then taking some weight off, and immediately continuing with the lift till you can’t do any more reps. You can take that further and do a double drop set by taking more weight off and continuing again.
This technique is a staple in the arsenals of professional bodybuilders because it works very well for muscle building. The reason drop sets work so well is two-fold:
Firstly, you get a lot of time under tension from doing so many reps, and secondly you get a mix of lifting heavy and light, using the maximum number of muscle fibers. Both of these stimuli cause a response in the body conducive to muscle hypertrophy.
Other cool techniques share similarities with the drop set, in that they either use the constant time-under-tension factor, or a mix of heavy and lighter weights.
For example, adding resistance bands into your lifting workouts from time to time can help too. Because they’re elastic and quite hard to extend, they can potentially add in a constant time-under-tension factor that will really help to cause muscle breakdown.
You can either attach these to a barbell or a machine to add extra resistance to a movement, or use the resistance bands on their own as an exercise. Here’s an example with the bench press:
A second technique you can incorporate into your workouts is the cluster set. These involve taking quite a heavier weight, less than your absolute maximum, and lifting it for individual reps with a bit of a break in between each rep, but less so than a full rest between sets.
For example, take 80% of your max and lift it as many times as possible in one minute. Or even 90%. You might need to take a breath and a pause after each rep – that’s fine and normal.
Here’s an example where a guy uses box squats over a slightly longer period of time:
Cluster sets tend to stimulate the bulkier fast-twitch fibers a little more than normal, and the volume parameter for muscle hypertrophy still applies for these fibers. They do, however, tax the nervous system a little more than usual, so I don’t recommend doing them on consecutive days.
A result of fast-twitch fibers working is lactic acid, so you might feel very stiff after doing cluster sets. Buy a foam roller as soon as you can and use it after your workouts to keep your soft tissue in top condition.
You do want to tax the nervous system, because this will make you stronger, but you need to measure appropriately the amount of CNS-intensive work you do. Never do CNS-intensive work on consecutive days. The CNS can take between 48 hours and 10 days to fully recover depending on the load.
‘Overtraining’ helps to build muscle
Muscle cells, unlike other cells in the body, can have multiple nuclei, and muscle fibers are surrounded by satellite cells. The satellite cells respond when muscle tissue gets damaged (e.g. when you do sick set of overhead presses) and help with muscle growth.
Training with very high frequency and high volume, putting your muscles under lots of stress, for a period of time, will encourage the formation of more nuclei in your muscle cells. This will help with further muscle growth in the future.
The tactic you can then use is to do ‘overtraining’ for several weeks, then back off and train less frequently for a week. Then after you return to training, you’ll find much faster muscle gains in the period afterwards.
It sounds strange, but it’s also backed up by scientific research. Jonathan Migan explains this phenomenon in this video on his YouTube channel:
In addition, strength trainer Charles Poliquin has written a lot about how this can also help for strength gains, including this piece on ‘super accumulation training’. The approach that he talks about in that article involves going balls-out for two weeks near to the point of extreme fatigue, and then pulling back for five days.
I personally tried out Poliquin’s ‘super accumulation training’ approach, and it was alright. In hindsight I should have used lighter weights than I did, and used a foam roller, as I built up a silly amount of neuromuscular fatigue.
I definitely think that if you use weights that you can do for eight to 12 reps on that kind of program, you’ll make some sick gains. One thing I can tell you is that in the five day rest period after the two weeks, your body is so used to having to regenerate every day that it goes into overdrive.
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Muscle insulin sensitivity
So we’ve covered workout parameters for muscle hypertrophy, and now we’ve come back full circle to diet and nutrition. Insulin sensitivity is one of the most powerful concepts there is for muscle growth, and it’s vital to understand it. I went into great detail on this in my other post on getting leaner.
The way that our body gets nutrients from our diet into our cells is by using insulin. When we eat carbohydrates in particular, the body secretes a lot of insulin into the blood stream, which signals individual cells to open up and absorb amino acids and other nutrients.
Obviously, we need our muscle cells in particular to be very good at absorbing amino acids from our diet if our goal is muscle hypertrophy, or at least muscle maintenance. This is good nutrient partitioning, and is exactly what you want.
Sadly, this is not always the case, and it’s usually down to a faulty diet. Eating a lot of carbohydrates all day every day pretty much makes your body say “Pfft, carbs? Big deal. We see you all the time,” and lazily the muscle cells don’t respond and uptake amino acids as much as we want them to. Instead, a lot of the nutrients get partitioned to fat, which is definitely something we don’t want.
However, if over a period of time, say 16 hours, you don’t eat an awful lot of carbs at all, and then you do a workout, your insulin sensitivity goes through the roof. Eating lots of carbs, protein, and fat in this state ensures much more effective nutrient partitioning towards muscle cells rather than to adipose tissue (bodyfat). Lowered blood glucose over time does the trick here.
In particular, we can achieve this good level of insulin sensitivity through intermittent fasting (my personal method of choice), or eating low glycemic index carbohydrates before workouts. Glycemic index (GI) is the degree to which a food stimulates a higher bloodsugar response from the body.
While eating high GI foods all the time is going to make it hard for you to stay lean, you want them in the post-workout phase (30 minutes to an hour approximately) when your muscle cells are at their most insulin sensitive, because they can then use the large amount of nutrients to grow bigger.
Certain supplements like cyanidin 3-glucomiside directly make your muscle tissue more insulin sensitive and encourage fatty acid oxidation. They can be expensive to supplement but there are alternative ways that are much cheaper if you’re clever about it. Again, check out my post on getting leaner (linked to multiple times in this post) for more details.
To be perfectly honest with you though, if you’re not fussed about building up purely lean muscle, and just want to put on slabs of mass, then go nuts with the food. 6,000 calories a day, you name it. GOMAD is very effective for putting on weight quickly, as are most methods that involve eating a lot of food.
The main downside with that approach though, is that it’s not really healthy to do long-term, nor is it sustainable as a ‘diet program’. You’d be better off investing the time and effort into a diet program that allows you to make good muscle gains without putting on too much fat.
- Forget about copying an exact set / rep scheme from a magazine. Instead focus on 12+ repetitions and multiple sets
- Work to your heart’s content, and as a rule, always push to the last rep of each set
- Eat as many calories as 20 times your body weight in pounds, with a balance of macronutrients including leucine-rich protein sources
- Stick with the basics as much as possible, but drop sets can be very useful. Cluster sets are also useful occasionally to mix things up
- You need carbs to build muscle. But eat 90% of your carbohydrates during or after your workouts to maintain good insulin sensitivity
And that’s a wrap!
Hopefully this serves as a basic toolkit for you to begin to properly understand muscle hypertrophy, and most importantly I hope that more than a few of you use it to full effect!
So in a few months’ time when your friends ask you how you got so jacked, you tell them “dude, Hypertrophy”