Building muscle, on face value, is actually quite simple, create a stimulus for muscle to grow through weight training and provide enough of the right nutrients and energy to support muscle building processes. However simple this may seem, many people actually fail to get results for one of two main reasons; they either try to over-complicate the process or they don’t actually understand the fundamental principles to begin with so keep ‘spinning their wheels’, never progressing and never understanding why!
Every health and fitness guru seems to have some key training ‘method’ for muscle growth. Regardless of how they package it there is only one underpinning principle to follow, and how you create and adjust a training program to keep consistently getting results depends fundamentally on how you manipulate this principle to your advantage… this principle is progressive overload1.
Progressive overload relates to the need to keep progressing our training volume to consistently force our muscles to adapt and grow. The more we train, the more adapted we become so we have to find ways to increase our volume enough to force consistent muscle building adaptations. Many people confuse progressive overload for progressively getting stronger, but the load on the bar is only one variable we can manipulate to create a higher training volume week on week.
Training volume for a given exercise is the load multiplied by the number of reps and sets. This means we can also increase the volume we perform on a specific exercise by increasing the number of sets, how many times we do an exercise per week (increased frequency), adding in extra exercises so that each body part gets more total volume and even using things like drop sets, super sets, rest pause and giant sets to really build volume quickly.
Even if you can’t get stronger and increase reps at a certain weight, then you can lower the weight and do more reps and, although this may seem counter intuitive, you are still building volume! For example if you can bench press 100kg for 10 reps, this is a volume of 1000kg for each set you perform and three sets would equate to 3000kg of volume. If we were to then lower the load to 80kg and do 15 reps this is 80 x 15 =1200kg of volume per set, and three sets would be 3600kg of volume… 600kg more!
Within this manipulation of volume though there are a few rules we should follow. Firstly, that the load is a suitable stimulus to create muscle growth. In reality this can be anywhere in the 6-30 (and possibly higher) rep range but for most people they will be able to train most consistently with reduced risk of injury and ensuring adequate load if targeting between 8-20 repetitions. Secondly, it’s wise to train to near failure in each working set in order to accumulate the right metabolic response to promote muscle growth… this will happen naturally even if you are a ‘lazy’ trainer, if you keep progressing volume it will eventually become harder. Finally, that although volume is king we want to make sure that we can recover adequately in order to keep making sure we progress, so small increases in volume each week are going to be better in the long run than much larger ones.
Once we max out our session volume then we can think about how often we train a body part to ensure we can maximise weekly volume. For example, if you do 14 sets of chest once per week, you could split this into training chest twice per week with 7 sets on each day… the advantage of this is that you should be able to recover between sessions, but because you are splitting your session then your second chest session will be of greater ‘quality’ as you will be performing in a less fatigued state than if this was in the second half of a single session… thus being stronger, and performing more reps and increasing overall weekly volume as a result1.
Recovery and Overreaching
All this increase in volume will inevitably mean two things. Firstly, that in order to progress, your recovery is going to need to eventually be on point including enough rest and the right nutrients, and secondly at some point when pushing volume you will ‘overreach’. Overreaching usually coincides with a reduction of performance in the gym both in terms of strength and ability to increase volume and in all progressive programs this will occur at some point. This is typically around the 8 week mark in experienced trainers and is due to an inability to recover in short times frames and the large stress placed on the central nervous system and other important regulators of performance and muscle growth.
At this point we want to take a de-load, either resting for a few days or seriously backing off our volume and training far from fatigue. This should allow the body chance to recover, adapt and grow. Ignore this important phase at your peril, sometimes time out the gym will do more for your muscle growth, and longevity, than time in it!
From a nutritional perspective we want to be consuming around 2g per kg of bodyweight of protein2 per day evenly spilt over 4-6 meals and enough calories to support muscle growth in a mix of carbohydrates to fuel training and fats for the important roles it plays in the body, such as cellular signalling and the production of hormones. Protein should ideally come in the form of quality complete protein sources such as meat, eggs, dairy, whey protein, and for those who need extra support in terms of recovery then an Essential Amino Acid formula combined with Vitargo® or Cyclic Dextrin is an effective way intra-workout to boost our intake of essential muscle building nutrients to support recovery.
It is important to remember that it is the total amount of protein and calories in the diet that will be the biggest determining factor in muscle growth, with supplements there to help support our nutrition and ‘fill in the gaps’. Supplements like Creatine can help support performance in the gym, so are a great addition for people looking to maximise muscle growth. For those who struggle to eat enough food to grow, then ‘mass gainers’ are an effective way to provide extra quality protein and essential nutrients to support muscle recovery and growth.
Large increases in training volume can also put a big stress on the immune system3, so for those who maybe struggle to eat enough fruit and veg, then supplementation with a multivitamin or Vitamin C may be of benefit. Other supplements that would most likely benefit those looking to build muscle include Omega-3/Fish Oils and Vitamin D, as many people are deficient and they both play important roles in many physiological functions from cellular signalling, controlling inflammation and the production of muscle building hormones to name but a few!
In summary, muscle building is a process that requires a consistent, but sensible, progression of the stress we place on our body to force adaptations that lead to muscle growth. In order for this to be successful we also need to provide enough of the right quality nutrients to support these processes. For those who maybe lack, or require extra nutrients in the diet, then supplementation to meet these needs can be used to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we may struggle to get from whole foods in terms of protein, overall calorie intake and lacking important essential micronutrients that support both muscle growth and general health.
1.) Schoenfeld et al., (2016) Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Sports Medicine 46:1689–1697
2.) Morton et al., (2015) Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Frontiers in Physiology 6:245
3.) Bishop et al. (1999) Nutritional Aspects of Immunosuppression in Athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine 28(3):151-176.