When building muscle is our key training goal, there are a myriad of options that can help us achieve it. This can be done by using various pieces of equipment, body weight loading, and of course, more traditional methods of strength training.
While the development of new muscle tissue can be stimulated through a number of different methods, like most things, some are considerably better than others.
More traditional means of strength training have been used for decades to produce muscle growth in a number of different settings, from old school strongmen to our new age physique competitors – and there is a very good reason as to why it has been used for such a long time – because it works, and it works extremely well.
Now, when I say more traditional methods of strength training, it is important to note that I am ultimately referring to old school barbell and dumbbell based lifts, and not more recent training methodologies such as the P90 or F45 training programs. Although these more recent methods of training can cause some increase in muscle mass (mostly in relatively untrained individuals), their results pale in comparison to strength training – which in my opinion – is the most effective method of packing on lean muscle tissue and making body composition changes – when implemented correctly.
In the following article I will outline why strength training is the best modality for building new muscle tissue, and the practical implications as to how it is best implemented to stimulate new muscle growth.
Strength training induces muscle damage
Now while the term ‘muscle damage’ may not necessarily sounds like a good thing, in this scenario it is integral to stimulate the development and growth of muscle tissue. Exercise induced muscle damage (or EIMD for short) occurs in response to the performance of exercise that the body is somewhat unaccustomed too.
While the severity of EIMD is highly dependent on the type of exercise we are performing (and whether or not we perform it regularly), and the intensity, duration, and total volume of that exercise, it’s a common result of strength training in general – particularly if we push ourselves hard and strive to improve each and every session (in which we gradually increase both the load we are using and the total session volume – in short we implement the principals of ‘progressive overload’).
Now this muscle damage, in terms of muscle growth, is actually quite a good thing. EIMD has shown to enhance the key drivers for muscle growth at a cellular level, suggesting that by damaging the muscle tissue, we can promote the repair and development of that muscle tissue – in which it is built bigger and stronger.
This mechanical damage is key driver for muscle growth.
It is important to note that while EIMD does often induce small amounts of residual pain (known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS), the amount of this pain is not indicative of the muscle growth we are likely to cause. This means that we shouldn’t be chasing pain after a workout, but rather training hard enough to induce some muscle damage – these are two different things, particularly considering the DOMS response typically reduces in trained individuals.
Strength training creates metabolic stress
Heavy strength training not only damages our muscle tissue from a mechanical perspective, but also from a metabolic perspective. When we perform strength training, we are effectively working both anaerobically, and at a high intensity – this in turn creates an environment where to produce enough energy to fuel our activity, we also create by-products (such as lactic acid) at such a rate that they cannot be cleared by the body as fast as they accumulate.
This effectively describes the burning sensation in our muscles that we experience during high repetition exercise, or if we sprint for a long duration.
The key by-products that accumulate within the muscle tissue are lactate and hydrogen. Each of these actually cause a hypoxic state in the muscle tissue, which induces what is known as metabolic stress to that tissue.
This hypoxic state leads to increased muscle fibre recruitment and swelling of our muscle cells – both of which can lead to increased muscle growth. So in more practical terms, this hypoxia is presented physically as the ‘muscle pump’ we receive during a session, and may be an important driver for muscle growth.
Strength training induces important hormonal changes
Now finally, in conjunction with both mechanical damage and metabolic stress, strength training also produces muscle growth by inducing changes in our hormone levels.
Firstly, strength training leads to increases in the secretion of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone plays an important role in promoting the growth and development of muscle tissue, by causing a direct increase in protein synthesis and a subsequent reduction in protein breakdown within the body (effectively creating the optimal environment for muscle growth and repair).
Secondly, heavy strength training also stimulates the increased secretion of Human Growth Hormone. Similar to testosterone, growth hormone supports and promotes muscle growth and increases muscle protein synthesis at a cellular level. As an added bonus, human growth hormone also stimulates the metabolism of fatty acid molecules, suggesting it can increase both muscle growth and fat loss.
These two key hormonal changes can go a long way in the development of new muscle tissue, creating a great environment for muscle growth and the repair of damaged muscle tissue.
So now we have a thorough understanding of how strength training promotes muscle growth, it is time to look at the practical application of how we can implement strength training to maximise muscle growth. This effectively requires us to train in such a way that we maximise each of these responses, causing an optimal environment of the growth of new muscle tissue.
1.Use a variety of rep ranges
While it is quite common to use a loading scheme of 3 sets of 10 reps to promote muscle growth, it may not be the best way to go about it. If we take a bit of a second to think about the above points, it becomes apparent that we can stimulate muscle growth via different mechanisms, through the use of a variety of different rep ranges.
By starting our session with more traditional strength based rep ranges (think 3-5 sets of 1-6 reps) we can elicit the greatest hormone response, while also inducing the largest amount of mechanical stress and damage on the muscle tissue.
We know that each of these are key drivers for muscle growth, and by prioritising them in the early parts of our session we can maximise the amount of mechanical load we can use. This greatly increases the amount of mechanical stress a muscle receives, which in turn, elicits the greatest growth response.
Once we have gotten through our heavy work, it is time to move into our more traditional loading parameters, where we want to prioritise 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. This has can promote muscle growth through both an increase in metabolic damage, and mechanical muscle damage.
And finally, we want to move into higher rep ranges (think 2-3 sets of 15-30 reps). While using both heavy loading, and more traditional loading, does hit our three keys to muscle growth effectively, it is important to note that they do prioritise the development of type II (or fast twitch) muscle fibres.
But, by also incorporating some higher rep ranges at the end of our session, we can induce further metabolic stress AND place some demand on our type I (slow twitch) muscle fibres, leading to vastly superior muscular development than if we were to focus on our type II muscle fibres alone.
2. Maximise your use of compound movements
When it comes to building muscle, large, compound, multi-joint exercise are king (think squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and split squat variations). These exercise have two key benefits over isolation movements when it comes to building muscle size.
Firstly, as these exercises require movement at two (or at times even more) joints, they require work to be done by multiple muscle groups in a single exercise. Over the course of a given session, this greatly improves the amount of total session volume a single muscle group receives, which is known to drive muscle growth significantly.
This is ultimately due to the fact that an increase in volume leads to increased muscle damage from a mechanical perspective, and an increase in metabolic stress – both of which we know are essential for growth of new muscle tissue.
Secondly, these exercises are those that allow us to use the most absolute load. Using both the chin up and a bicep curl as an example, we can use a lot more load with a chin up than we can with a bicep curl, despite them both targeting the bicep muscle group (and as an added bonus, the chin up also allows us to hit a heap of other muscle groups – which feeds into our first point).
This increased load increases both the mechanical stress placed on the muscle tissue, and the hormonal response we receive from training – both of which contribute to further muscle growth.
Taking this into consideration, it can be easy to see why opting for compound movements over their isolation counterparts can lead to superior muscle growth over time.
3. Train with a relatively high frequency
When people think of the most important training variables, they automatically jump to training intensity and training volume. Intensity ultimately describes the absolute amount of load we are lifting, while volume describes the total amount of work we perform per session.
But there is one more variable that is worth considering, as it can make a HUGE difference in our rate of muscle growth.
Training frequency describes the amount of times we train a given muscle group or movement per week. So if we were using a body part training split, our training frequency is likely to be once per week. If we are using an upper body training split, it is likely to be 2.
You get the picture.
It is pretty well known that muscle tissue only really requires 24-72 hours to recover (which is dependent on the intensity and volume of the session it is recovering from). As such, we should be comfortable training a given muscle group at least two time per week without any real risk of overtraining.
This can greatly increase the amount of weekly volume that given muscle group receives, leading to increased muscle growth over time. By increasing our training frequency we can cause some serious muscle hypertrophy.
So taking the above points into consideration, we can tailor an exercise program towards promoting effective muscle growth. In this example we will use an upper lower training split to allow both a high training volume, and a high training frequency.
Upper Body Day (Monday/Thursday)
|1A||Barbell Bench Press||4X5|
|1B||Weighted Chin Ups||4X5|
|2A||Barbell Overhead Press||4X8|
|2B||High Bench row||4X8|
|3A||Incline DB Press||3X10|
|3B||Lat Pull Down||3X10|
|4A||Seated Shoulder Press||3X12|
|4B||Single Arm DB Row||3X12|
|5A||DB Squeeze press||2X20|
Lower Body (Tuesday/Friday)
|1A||Barbell Back Squat||4X4|
In this example we are have split our training into upper body and lower body days, of which both are trained twice per week. This allows a significant increase in training frequency. Additionally, we prioritise compound movements which causes a HUGE increase in mechanical load, while also increasing weekly session volume – in this we also use a variety of loading parameters to maximise muscle growth through an increase in mechanical stress, metabolic stress, and hormonal changes.
A and B exercises are super set using antagonistic muscle groups to reduce the time of the session, while also increasing the session volume.
There is a very good reason as to why more traditional methods of strength training have been used to build muscle for decades – because it is incredibly effective!
By implementing the tips above we can maximise muscle growth through a variety of mechanisms, effetely ensuring muscular development comes from every avenue possible.
It is important to note that these training sessions won’t be easy – but they will be extremely effective!
Why not check out our other Strength Training Guides:
Schoenfeld, Brad J. “Does exercise-induced muscle damage play a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy?.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26.5 (2012): 1441-1453. Viewed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22344059
Schoenfeld, Brad J. “Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training.” Sports medicine 43.3 (2013): 179-194. Viewed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23338987
Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872. Viewed at: http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/articles/mechanisms_of_muscle_hypertrophy.pdf
Ogborn, Dan, and Brad J. Schoenfeld. “The role of fiber types in muscle hypertrophy: implications for loading strategies.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 36.2 (2014): 20-25. http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/articles/the_role_of_fiber_types_in_muscle_hypertrophy.pdf