How does a muscle grow?

I have been a trainer and lover of fitness for many years. The process of muscle gain has always been fascinating to me. The ability to change your external appearance, improve self-esteem and increase one's quality of life by way of working out has always captured my attention. It is essential to have a baseline understanding of what we are trying to achieve and how we are to go about achieving it. As soon as we understand the why, when and how behind the process, it dramatically increases the chance of success. Sure, eating more and lifting heavy will allow for some initial muscle gains at first, however, you'll quickly reach a plateau, and all progress will stall. In some cases, progress may even trend negatively!  

There are many elements involved when it comes to adding muscle:

  1. Training 
  2. Supplementation 
  3. Nutrition 
  4. Lifestyle 
  5. Genetics

We are going to touch on all of these to give you a basic understanding of each one. The more you understand each process, the greater your chances are of results. Although you don’t need to attain a scientific-level of understanding in each functional area, it is critical that you understand the supporting framework to these concepts. 

Muscle HypertrophyTraining – For Muscle Growth 

Before we hit on sets, reps and split routines for muscle build, let’s look at how a muscle actually grows. Once we understand how this happens, you will understand the different stimuli we need to use to achieve optimal results.  

There are 3 mechanisms of hypertrophy (growth): 

  1. Mechanical tension
  2. Metabolic stress
  3. Muscle damage

Mechanical Tension 

In short, mechanical tension is the lifting of heavyweights (powerlifting). It involves lifting relatively large weight in a compound motion performed over many repetitions using perfect form, and correct tempo or speed throughout the exercise.  

The optimal number of repetitions will vary from person-to-person, and lift-to-lift. The stronger and more advanced you become in your workout routine, the more capable you will become to perform these lifts correctly and with increased resistance (weight). The main issue faced by beginning weightlifters is that they start far too heavy, resulting in massive compensation from other body parts. Form is quickly sacrificed and with it, the entire emphasis of the original movement. This is why heavier repetition ranges should be the keep of only the more advanced lifters. They are capable of performing perfect lifts while keeping erfect form and applying only the intended muscle(s) to perform the exercise. 

The key here is to produce the most significant amount of muscle force throughout a full range of motion (also known as "ROM"). If the weights are too heavy, this isn’t possible. Which means identifcation of the sweetspot is essential, a blend of challenging yourself while retaining your exercise form. You want a weight that is heavy enough to create tension, but not too heavy that you are unable to keep full ROM.  

We can also increase mechanical tension by introducing strategic pausing. This is a very effective way to add tension while keeping the weight in a safe zone. Each movement will have a different place to implement this pause. As a basic rule of thumb, the pause is placed at the single point of highest tension through a lift. For example, during a standard flat-bench chest press, your strategic point of pause would be just at the bottom of the movement as the bar sits above the chest. Similarly, during a deadlift, the pause would follow just after the act of lift-off when the bar and weights are no longer touching the ground.

Ranges for Mechanical Tension

  • Sets 3-8 
  • Reps 3-8 Advanced 5-12 Intermediate/Beginners
  • Tempo 2/0/1/0, 2/0/1/3, 2/3/1/0

Metabolic Stress 

This is where we chase the pump of an exercise. Metabolic stress is caused as the blood gets pumped into the muscles from the arteries after each repetition is performed. It is essential that in order to pump and keep the blood in the muscles, the repetitions are performed in a constant cycle, meaning no rest between reps. The perfect way to perform these repetitions is to not lock out at the top or the bottom of the movement, in order to keep maximum tension on the muscle. The steady contractions will stop the blood from leaving the muscles, causing the pump. The continuous pumping of the blood into the muscle causes cell swelling.  

When a muscle is pumped full of blood, the cell will swell to its maximum capacity. If you can take that pump and force in extra blood, you will also stretch the cells each time, forcing that cell to grow and adapt. This is why massive emphasis is placed on the final repetitions of a set. If you don’t go past failure and force blood into the already full cell, you won’t force growth and the cell (muscle size) will remain the same.  

The key to pumping a muscle is to keep constant tension on the muscle being used. If you allow a rest between repetitions, you are allowing blood to escape. As that blood escapes, you reduce the amount of total blood in the muscle. It is the contraction and tension of the muscle that holds on to the blood and as soon as tension is released, the blood will escape. As well as focusing on constant tension, we can also work with a method known as TUT – time under tension. We can play around with the speeds in which we perform the positive and negative of each movement to increase the intensity of the set.  

  • Sets 3-4
  • Reps 12-20 (to momentary muscular failure)
  • Tempo 1/0/1/0 or 2/3/1/0 
  • Rest Less than 1 minute 

    Muscle Damage (Negatives) 

    We can usually tell how damaged a muscle is by how painful that body part is. It’s solicited by slow negatives, extended range of motion and high tension in stretched positions of the muscle. When a muscle is forced to work past its abilities, we cause damage to that muscle. Forced repetitions and heavy negatives are a great way to overload the muscle causing damage. You have to be selective and careful with what exercises you use for this way of training. Compound movements work very well for negative repetitions. Too much muscle damage can be crippling and can cause so much damage, that it becomes massively counterproductive to training. If you are working on a training split where you’re hitting a muscle only once per week, then going to town on that muscle part works well. However, if you plan on training that body part more than twice per week, you simply won’t recover in time and results will be massively hampered. Adjust your intensity and amount of damage done to the muscle accordingly.

    Muscle Damage Routine 
    • Sets 2-5 Depending on training frequency of that muscle

    • Reps 8-12

    • Tempo 4/0/1/0

    • Rest 1-2 minutes 

    Conclusion 

    The main difference between these three forms of training is about how the exercise is administered rather than focusing on which exercise to employ during your workout. By adjusting muscle speed, paused muscle contractions, exercise lockouts, and advanced repetitions and sets, you can reuse the same exercises but achieve entirely different results. Always remember: the range of motion (or "ROM") is more important to the effectiveness of your workout than the total weight being lifted. Put your ego aside and lift less today so you can be stronger tomorrow!

    Exercise Variation Sets Reps Tempo*
    Squat
    Mechanical Tension Barbell Front Squat 3-8 3-8 2/0/1/0
    Metabolic Stress Paused Barbell Front Squat 
    Reverse direction just short of lock out
    3-4 8-12+ 2/3/1/0
    Muscle Damage Deep Barbell Front Squat 2-5 8-12 4/0/1/0

    Deadlift
    Mechanical Tension Dead stop barbell deadlift 3-8 3-8 2/0/1/2
    Metabolic Stress Touch & go barbell deadlift
    Reverse direction just short of lock out
    3-4 12-20+ 1/0/1/0
    Muscle Damage Dumbbell Stiff legged Deadlift 2-5 8-12 4/0/1/0
    *negative/transition 1/positive/transition 2


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