Building muscle – at least for most drug-free lifters is long, hard battle. However, too many people make it harder than it has to be by following sub-optimal muscle building protocols. Are you one of them? If you are investing your valuable time and effort into building muscle, are you getting the best possible return on your investment? The truth is you can speed up the process and amplify your gains – if you know what you are doing. If you want to know the best ways to build more muscle – keep reading!
The Science of Building Muscle
When it comes to training, some people love the science. They will not do anything that does not have a peer-reviewed research study to support it. Others could care less about science, data and lab coats. Instead, they opt for real world, in the trenches experience. Who is right? Potentially both.
In the world of training, science is not at the cutting edge. It is not coming up with groundbreaking new ways to get better results in the gym. Instead, the real discoveries start in the gym. They start with lifters trying things and learning what works and what does not work from their successes and failures. When they find things that they think work, they write about it or tell others. This seems to make sense - after all, success leaves clues – right?
The problem with stopping here is that just because someone has had success does not mean that it is for the reasons they think. Is that extra-large-muscled guy the product of intelligent training practices or was he just genetically blessed and pharmaceutically enhanced? Did he succeed because of or despite his new training method? How do you know? That is where the guys in lab coats can help us.
The role if science in the field of training is for validation. We need exercise scientists who take a critical look at these training claims. Then, they figure out how to create controlled experiments to validate or refute these claims. If they do a good job (and yes, they are human – they do make mistakes and yes, some studies lack real-world applicability), we get the validation to know that a particular training protocol actually works.
In October 2017, the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Strength and Conditioning Journal Published a research review entitled Muscle Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review on Training Principles for Increasing Muscle Mass. In this article, Louis Howe, Paul Read, and Mark Waldron did an excellent job of reviewing many of the top research studies on muscle hypertrophy. Here is a quick summary of the research findings reviewed in their article.
30 Ways Scientifically Supported Ways to Build More Muscle
- Multiple sets trump single sets (sorry Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer)
- High volume training drives muscle growth
- 5 sets of an exercise per training session is superior to 1 or 3 sets for arm development
- >10 set per week per body part results in more muscle gained than <5 sets per week
- At some point, more is not better when it comes to volume. A study comparing 5 sets of 10 to 10 sets of 10 found no real difference in hypertrophy.
- While high volume is great, if you are exceeding your recovery ability, you won’t build muscle
- Building muscle requires both heavy enough loads for mechanical tension, yet light enough loads for metabolic stress
- 70-85% of your 1RM (1 rep max) is a good loading range
- Weights above 85% of your max fail to build as much muscle because the metabolic stress is reduced
- Loads above 65% of your 1RM work your high threshold motor units (the fast twitch muscle fibers that have the greatest potential for size gains)
- Some research has found lighter loads (<60%1RM, even 30% 1RM) to still be effective for building muscle
- A variety of loads is probably best to maximally stimulate hypertrophy
- Hypertrophy training with heavier loads yields better strength gains than building muscle with lighter loads (something to consider for athletes and those wanting to build functional hypertrophy or size AND strength)
- While many bodybuilders train a muscle once per week, Training a muscle group 2-3 times per week yields better muscle gains. Greater than 3x per week may also be helpful in trained individuals.
- Training session volume and training frequency are inversely related (i.e. think weekly training volume – if you are training a muscle more frequently, you don’t have to do as many sets for that muscle group in each workout to still reach an optimal weekly training volume)
- 48-72 hours is often needed for protein synthesis to return to normal (i.e. recover and build muscle)
- Some studies have found that training to failure is superior (My note: a key thing to consider is if they used volume-matched studies – i.e. both groups did the same volume – the non-failure group got to have a little rest so they didn’t hit failure. However, by holding back a little and not going to failure, you can do more total volume and this may be more important for building muscle)
- Other research shows you don’t need to go to failure to achieve full muscle activation
- Training to failure all the time can cause overtraining – it is best to vary training to or stopping short of failure in your training (My note: also consider the exercise. Training to true failure on exercises like squats and deadlifts is unsafe and unnecessary. Training to failure is more suited to smaller, isolation exercises such as wrist curls and calf raises).
- Muscles such as your chest and traps have different parts with different functions. As a result, training with a variety of exercises allows you to effective overload these different parts.
- Joint position (e.g. wrist, hip and shoulder angle) impacts muscle recruitment and thus the muscles overloaded in a given exercise
- A variety of exercises used within a given training program leads to better size and strength gains
- The body prefers to use fast twitch fibers (remember these are the ones with the greatest potential for growth) for eccentric (lowering/lengthening) muscular contractions
- Eccentric training (with the heavier loads that eccentric training allows) seems to be better for building muscle than concentric (lifting/shortening) if you can recover (my note: and not get hurt)
- Eccentric-only training is slightly better (though not statically significant) to concentric-only training for building muscle.
- Put the most important muscles first in your training program
- Trying to pre-fatigue a muscle with a single joint exercise and then moving to a multi-joint exercise reduces the recruitment of the muscle in the multi-joint exercise (e.g. chest flies before bench press)
- Some people prescribe slow reps for muscle size. However, research shows no difference in muscle growth comparing faster or slower reps. (My note: if you want functional hypertrophy faster reps is a better way to go than practicing being slow).
- While short rest times are great for metabolic stress, they result in reduced volume load (total amount of weight and reps you can lift)
- Longer rest times (e.g. 2-3 minutes) seem to be better than shorter rests when training for size.
There you go. Now, get to the gym and then eat some food. As always, I welcome your comments and questions below – but no spam, please.