Muscle. Some people walk into a gym, throw a few weights around, and muscles will appear. For others, putting on muscle is a bit of a challenge. No matter what they do, they find their bodies don’t respond.
If this is you, it could be due to a variety of things:
• You may be what is called a “low-responder,” which is someone who has a difficult time building muscle due to genetic make-up and fiber type. Low responders are more common than you might think. Roughly 25 percent of the population don’t experience significant muscle growth from traditional strength training programs.
• You may have plateaued in your training and need to use a different method of overload to elicit further muscle growth.
• You may not be training correctly for your muscle fiber type. People vary greatly in their allotment of slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers and will experience greater improvements if they train according to the fiber-type make-up.
For example, if you’re naturally fast and can jump high, you should favor explosive, heavier load training to target the fast-twitch fibers. If you’ve never been very powerful, favor volume training with moderate loads.
• You may be making critical training errors such as doing steady-state cardio on a regular basis.
• You may not be working hard enough or simply have poor technique.
This article will review the mechanisms of hypertrophy (the technical term for building muscle) and highlight both basic and advanced techniques for achieving muscle-building magic.
The Basic Muscle-Building Program: Favor Volume & Quality
When you start lifting weights, the first results you will see are increased strength and coordination. Significant increases in muscle mass tend to take longer than six weeks to appear.
The basic muscle-building program should follow a periodized pattern, which means that the sets, reps, and loads you use will change every three to six weeks. This program should include the following variables:
• It will apply mechanical tension for a longer period than if you were training for strength. This means your sets will take longer to complete and you will lift a higher volume, thereby being “under tension” longer than when you train to get strong.
• It will also produce muscle damage and metabolic stress because both are correlated with muscle development. Metabolic stress is best achieved with a higher volume and shorter rest periods, ranging between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.
Muscle damage is maximized with eccentric-enhanced training. Typically, this is achieved with a longer tempo for the eccentric motion than for the concentric phase. A common hypertrophy-style tempo is 4 seconds eccentric and 1 to 2 seconds concentric.
• In practical terms, mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress are best produced with the following “hypertrophy-style” protocol: A moderate rep range (8 to 12 reps) with moderate loads (65 to 85 percent of the 1RM). It will also include select intensification phases that favor heavier loads and lower reps.
• Training to failure is also indicated because lifting to the point where you can’t go anymore produces muscle damage and a large protein synthesis response, which will lead to greater muscle development.
• When training to failure, novice trainees should focus on achieving “technical failure” in which they lift to the point where they can no longer lift the weight with proper technique. Novices should avoid cheating and always focus on training quality.
Details of the Top Five Muscle-Building Principles: intensity, volume, exercise selection, tempo, and rest intervals.
• Volume is the be-all, end-all of muscle building and it should be your primary focus. The basic hypertrophy intensity range is 65 to 85 percent of the 1RM, with limited higher intensity phases. For example, train 70 percent of your workouts in the 65 to 85 percent of the 1RM range and 30 percent of your workouts trained at a higher intensity.
This will produce significant metabolic stress, which correlates with hypertrophy. This type of training calls on the anaerobic glycolytic energy system and produces significant buildup of metabolites such as lactate and cytokines that lead to enhanced protein synthesis and muscle development.
• Shorter rest intervals in the 30 second to 2 minute range are indicated because they produce metabolic stress, while still allowing for a moderately high intensity to be achieved.
• Favor a longer time under tension because this will train both slow- and fast-twitch fibers for maximal muscle gains. Studies suggest that although fast-twitch fibers grow larger and are more responsive to hypertrophy, slow-twitch fibers make up the majority of whole muscles and can maximize muscle size.
The exception is athletes. If you’re an athlete who is trying to gain size while maximizing performance, your main goal should be to grow and train the fast-twitch, powerful fibers.
• Favor moderate tempos (2 to 4 seconds eccentric and 1 to 3 seconds concentric) to produce the greatest metabolic stress and muscle damage. In certain cases fast tempo training can produce hypertrophy, such as when you are training with a dynamometer that provides a consistent resistive force that is not gravity dependent like dumbbells.
• Favor multi-joint lifts with training splits to maximize recovery and allow for the greatest training frequency. Besides genetics, the true indicator of muscle development is your ability to recover rapidly so you can hit it hard again in the gym.
Intermediate and advanced trainees should include select single-joint training because fast- and slow-twitch motor units are scattered throughout individual muscles. Therefore, it’s necessary to do isolation training of certain muscles for maximal growth.
For example, in the biceps, the lateral portion of the long head is recruited during elbow flexion. The medial aspect of the long head is recruited during supination. The centrally located motor units of the biceps are recruited during flexion and supination. Finally, the short head is more active in the later part of the biceps curl (when the weight is near the top), whereas the long head is more active in the early phase.
How Much Muscle Can You Expect To Gain As a Novice? In A Year? Over A Lifetime?
The average untrained individual training with a hypertrophy-style program can expect to gain about 3 to 5 kg of muscle in 12 weeks.
For example, in a 12-week periodized hypertrophy program that progressively increased in training intensity, untrained active young men did a split protocol (pressing, pulling, or leg exercises) five days a week. The last set of each exercise was trained to failure.
Results showed that they gained an average of 3 kg of muscle mass by the end of the study. However, muscle gains varied greatly, ranging from no increase in muscle to gaining 7.6 kg of muscle, demonstrating the huge variety in training response. It’s possible that the low-responders in this group require a longer period for muscle development to occur, or they may get better results from a different type of program.
Longer term muscle growth will vary widely based on nutrition, training quality, genetics, adherence, and ability to recover. Maximal gains in the first year of training can range any where from 2.5 kg to about 15 kg.
Lifetime gains for the natural trainee can range as high as 15 to 25 kg, with race and genetics being primary factors.
At Least Three Factors Influence Muscle Building & They Aren’t All “Anabolic” Hormones
Used to be that hormones were thought to be one of the most important elements of muscle building. Producing a big testosterone and overall anabolic hormone response were the main focus of training programs for hypertrophy.
Today, we know that although testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 may play a role on muscle building, they aren’t the force driving growth. Instead, three factors have been identified as the primary cause of muscle development:
1) Mechanical Tension
Muscle has two basic functions: to contract to cause movement and to provide stability for body posture. When muscle contracts it produces tension. When large amounts of tension are repeatedly produced in order to lift heavy weights, the muscle experiences stress.
This stress accumulates to produce tissue growth via genetic pathways and the activation of satellite cells. Genetic pathways are “turned on,” leading to increased protein synthesis and decreased protein breakdown. These pathways include obscure names such as mTor, MAPK, and the calcium-dependent pathway.
In addition, when muscle damage occurs, satellite cells in muscle fibers multiply and donate the daughter cells to help regenerate damaged tissue. The ability to activate satellite cells is thought to be a primary indicator of overall muscle growth.
2) Muscle Damage
The local muscle damage caused by training results in inflammation, leading to the production of growth factors that stimulate protein synthesis and muscle building.
A contributing factor to muscle damage and the growth response is cell swelling or the “muscle pump.” It works like this: When you train a high volume or by manipulating tempo, the muscle cells swell with liquid. The swelling is perceived as a threat to the integrity of the cell and protein synthesis is enhanced in order to protect the cell.
Studies show that training programs that rely heavily on the glycolytic energy system, with the resultant lactic acid buildup, maximize cell swelling. Fast-twitch fibers are particularly sensitive to the increase in hydration that occurs with swelling, which can contribute to greater overall muscle growth.
3) Metabolic Stress
The metabolic stress from a buildup of lactate and hydrogen ions due to anaerobic energy production triggers the release of something called cytokines, which correlate with hypertrophy. Metabolic stress also causes the release of testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, which may play a role in protein synthesis.
Cytokines are proteins that are released by the muscle. They include IL-6, IL-5, and fibroblast growth factors, and they appear to activate satellite cells.
For instance, following a 16-week hypertrophy-style training program, levels of the cytokine IL-6 were found to be significantly correlated with muscle mass gains in young men. Free testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 didn’t correlate with hypertrophy.
Researchers suggest that free testosterone (T), which is how T is normally measured, doesn’t reflect the intramuscular concentration of T where it is more active and bound to a receptor protein. This hypothesis comes from the observation that androgen receptor protein content, which is related to the degree of bound T, accounted for 46 percent of the variance in muscle growth in the study.
The average increase in muscle fiber cross-sectional area was 20 percent, but it ranged from a decrease of 7 percent to an increase of 80 percent. The degree of bound testosterone may be one reason for this huge variation in hypertrophy response.
The Best Advanced Hypertrophy Techniques For Maximal Muscle Growth: Heavy Negatives, Forced Reps & Drop Sets
You can get a lot of muscle growth out of modifying tempo, volume, and intensity. Yet, training the exact same lifts for months on end leads to diminished returns because the muscles get conditioned to the movement by what is known as the “repeated-bout effect.”
For athletes, the repeated-bout effect is a useful way to decrease muscle damage and soreness while building strength, but it’s not good if your goal is body composition.
If you’ve got a lot of training years under your belt, advanced hypertrophy techniques can allow you to achieve continued growth. These techniques are generally suggested for those with more than three solid years of training behind them.
Training heavy eccentrics is an excellent method of achieving functional hypertrophy. It’s also a superior training strategy for both power development and hypertrophy that can be functionally transferred onto a playing field. To do this, identify your concentric 1RM—remember you are much stronger eccentrically than concentrically so you are going to train heavy eccentrics with an above-maximal weight.
Start with a weight that is 20 percent greater than your concentric 1RM and build up to 50 percent greater than the 1RM. Use a slower eccentric tempo of 3 to 4 seconds. This will produce greater motor unit fatigue and the preferential recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Heavy eccentrics allow you to target previously inactive motor units, giving you more muscle growth via the following mechanisms:
• They cause the greatest degree of muscle damage, leading to a more rapid stimulation of protein synthesis.
• They activate satellite cells for the greatest growth.
• They produce greater increases in insulin-like growth factor-1, which is thought to enhance muscle growth by acting through the mTOR gene signaling pathway.
Forced or assisted reps also enhance muscle growth by recruiting more motor units and leading to greater metabolic stress. Try performing forced reps with a load that is heavier than normal for the given number of repetitions rather than doing extra reps.
For example, for a program that includes 4 sets of 12 each of the leg press, leg extension, and squat, identify the maximal load you can perform for 12 reps. Then increase that load and perform 12 reps, getting assistance when necessary. This has been shown to maximize motor unit adaptation, metabolic stress, and lactic acid buildup.
Include drop sets in your protocol to produce muscle failure and maximize hypertrophy via a large quantity of motor unit fatigue. A style of drop sets that is especially effective is a high-intensity set followed immediately by the same exercise at a low-intensity with 50 percent of the 1RM.
Such a protocol yields significant metabolic stress and muscle damage for a larger increase in muscle cross sectional area than a strength protocol alone.
A Muscle-Building Protocol for Athletes: Cluster Sets
If you’re an athlete with significant training experience who wants to put on muscle while maintaining speed and power, cluster sets can produce superior performance results.
A recent study found that a cluster training model in which trainees performed fewer reps per set but more total sets with short rest periods produced superior hypertrophy, strength, and power outcomes than a traditional hypertrophy workout.
Participants had significant training experience and many of them were military officers. The traditional hypertrophy protocol used 4 sets of 10 reps with 120 seconds rest. The cluster training protocol used 8 sets of 5 reps with 60 seconds rest.
Results showed the following:
1) The cluster group had significantly greater performance gains in the bench press, vertical jump, and back squat than the traditional group.
2) The cluster group had similar increases in lean mass and greater gains in myosin heavy chain type II fiber composition, which is associated with speed and power.
Researchers suggest that this style of training could be used to better prepare athletes for future training cycles focused strictly on power or strength development.
Final Thoughts: Whether you’re a blessed high-responder who just has to pick up a weight to pack on muscle or a less fortunate low-responder, applying these methods will give you better-muscle building magic in the gym.
Know that the harder and smarter the training, the less likely there are to be “low-responders."