Don’t fall prey to marketers claiming to have found a new secret for building muscle.
The science of building muscle will always be the same.
The fundamental process of building muscle is called hypertrophy, an expansion of the skeletal muscle1.
There are two types of muscle hypertrophy:
- Contractile hypertrophy: An actual growth of the muscle fibers.
- Non-contractile (sarcoplasmic) hypertrophy: Muscles increase uptake of non-contractile elements such as collagen and glycogen.
Contractile hypertrophy is an actual elongation of the muscles.
Through non-contractile hypertrophy the muscle gets bigger by increasing its energy stores. There is also evidence that non-contractile hypertrophy contributes to contractile hypertrophy2.
Research indicates that there are three main methods by which strength training can stimulate hypertrophy:
- Mechanical Tension: An essential process for muscle growth which is stimulated by force generation and stretch.
- Muscle Damage: A break down of the muscle tissue which induces hypertrophy through repair.
- Metabolic Stress: A process whereby hypertrophy is triggered by anaerobic training.
Research has shown that there is a certain threshold of mechanical tension that must be overcome in order to elicit hypertrophy. Beyond this threshold metabolic stress plays a role to maximize hypertrophy. Muscle damage has a part to play as muscle fibers respond to it by inflaming and releasing various growth factors3.
Without getting too technical, the aforementioned methods interact to either increase protein synthesis and/or reduce protein breakdown.
With Bodybuilding (training in the 8-12 rep range for muscle endurance) non-contractile hypertrophy is dominant.
With Power Lifting (training in the 2-6 rep range for strength) contractile hypertrophy is dominant.
Traditionally, bodybuilders display greater hypertrophy than power lifters. The higher hypertrophy in bodybuilders is attributed to training methods which lead to an increase of non-contractile elements.
The fundamental principle of hypertrophy with regards to training is called progressive overload.
A gym newbie sees fast results during the early stages because it does not take much to overload his muscles.
His mechanical tension threshold is very low.
Overtime, however, as his body adapts to particular training methods, his progress will begin to slow and may eventually even come to a halt.
Progressive overload entails increasing the stress put upon your body over time.
To ensure continuous muscle growth over the long term you must keep your body guessing by increasing the weights, altering the sets and reps, and varying intensity.
Anaerobic training involves high intensity exercise over short periods of time to induce metabolic stress.
Metabolic stress maximizes hypertrophy beyond the threshold of mechanical tension.
There is dispute over the extent to which anaerobic training actually affects hypertrophy.
Still, many bodybuilders incorporate High Intensity Interval Training* into their workout routines to build muscular endurance and strength over the long term.
*High Intensity Interval Training, aka HIIT, involves short periods of high exertion followed by longer periods of low exertion. An example would be 30 second sprints followed by 2 minute walks over a 15 minute period.
Factors Affecting Hypertrophy
The two major factors that affect hypertrophy are:
Testosterone is the major growth hormone. That’s why men have an easier time building muscle than women.
Testosterone levels are at an all time high during puberty and can work to boost hypertrophy during adolescence without the need of any external stimulus.
After maturity, testosterone levels drop, natural hypertrophy stops, and outside stimulus is needed to carry on the process, i.e. strength training4.
Amino acids are an essential input of hypertrophy.
Getting an adequate amount of amino acids through your diet will make sure your muscles recover properly after exercise.
Examples of foods rich in amino acids include:
Note: Discover 10 foods that naturally boost testosterone levels.
Protein synthesis is the process whereby amino acids are absorbed by the muscle.
Cortisol is a hormone that decreases the rate of protein synthesis.
If you are looking to build muscle, avoid:
- Vegetable and Sunflower Oils
- Refined sugar i.e. cake
- Trans Fats
- Fruit Juice
These foods trigger high cortisol.
A study done on both young and elderly people found that the ingestion of 90g of protein increased protein synthesis by the same amount as the ingestion of 30g of protein.
The study, however, was done without incorporating strength training.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the daily optimal protein intake to be between .45-.80 grams (1.2-1.8g/kg) per pound of bodyweight (1.2-1.8 g per kilo of bodyweight)5.
Mauro De Pasquale, a world powerlifting champion and bodybuilding author, cites recent studies and recommends a minimum of a gram per pound of bodyweight6.
Microtrauma is the technical term for muscle damage.
When you damage and break down your muscles through strength training, your body responds by building them up stronger than before to avoid future damage.
This is where the concept of progressive overload comes in.
If your don’t lift heavier weight over time, your body will not feel the need to grow.
The Down and Low
There is no need to make things complicated when looking to build muscle.
There are three major components that will determine your success:
- Workout Regimen
- Nutrition Program
- Supplementation Program
A workout specifically targeted towards hypertrophy should include compound exercises, high reps, and high frequency.
When first starting with working out I used to do full body routines 3 times a week. The workouts were simple, straight forward, and got me quick results. Download a free pdf template of my exact routine.
If you are experienced and looking to add mass to a lagging body part, check out my best workouts for mass.
Your nutrition program will depend on your goals.
Are you looking to get lean and cut or are you looking to get as big as possible?
To build muscle, you have to get adequate amino acids from your diet.
If you want to get big, getting in extra calories from complex carbohydrates would serve beneficial.
I recently wrote about the Reverse Taper Diet which is designed to help you get lean through a rather unconventional method.
The most important macronutrient in the muscle building process is protein.
I am often unable to get enough protein through my diet alone, and therefore choose to supplement with protein powder.
Gold Standard Whey has been the best selling protein powder on Bodybuilding.com for years now. I like the Vanilla Ice Cream flavour.
Here is a list of mass gaining supplements.
*When cutting down I tend to use a bunch of other supplements as well.
With regards to strength training, progressive overload is the key concept.
Two other things to keep in mind are that:
- Muscles grow outside the gym during rest.
- Muscles grow only if they are properly fed.
In a nutshell:
The science of building muscle involves maximizing hypertrophy.
- “Muscle Physiology – Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy“. University of San Diego, California.
- Young sb Kwon, M. “How do muscles grow?“
- Schoenfeld, Brad. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training“. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
- Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. “Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training“. Sports Medicine (Auckland, NZ)
- Lemon PW. “Effect of exercise on protein requirements“. Journal of Sports Sciences
- Di Pasqaule, Mauro G. “Utilization of Proteins in Energy Metabolism“. In Ira Wolinsky, Judy A. Driskell. Sports Nutrition: Energy metabolism and exercise