Gaining muscle seems simple. Eat more calories than you burn. Sleep 6-8 hours so your body can recover. Lift weights.
But without those three pillars, there is a lot of variability, especially when it comes to lifting weights.
Do you need heavy weights or light weights? How many reps are best? Yep, many questions remain and the truth is, building muscle is triggered by specific physiological mechanisms.
As a former 103 pound skinny runt I know the ups and downs and endless cycle of information overload around workouts. Luckily, having added 80+ pounds over the years and helped hundreds of guys transform their lives, I can simplify the process for you.
The Three Pillars Of Muscle Building Workouts
The confusion of beginner lifters lies in an elementary understanding of the fundamentals. The truth is, fitness is made unnecessarily complicated by schwarmy marketers who often reinvent the wheel with “one weird trick” to sell my workouts. Trust me–I fell for the “next great workout” too.
Muscle growth comes from specific stimuli. You must overload your muscles with more stress over time to grow, a process called progressive overload. But within progressive overload, there are different combinations of sets, reps, training loads, and rest periods that dictate the progress you’ll make.
According to leading muscle building researcher in his review, “The Mechanisms of Muscular Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training,” Brad Schoenfeld highlights the three most important elements of muscle building workouts:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscular damage
The three together exert the greatest stimuli for muscle growth. Now let’s discuss what each means for training in the real world.
Translation: lifting heavy weight. When you lift a heavy weight through a full range of motion you trigger multiple muscle building processes. The time you spend under tension creates mechanical tension in the muscles; ergo, the more significant the time, the more significant the mechanical tension. But, tension alone won’t signal maximum muscle growth. Tension, in addition to a full range of motion, induces a substantial muscle building response. In other words, maximal muscular development comes from a foundation of strength.
Unfortunately, this highlights the biggest problem most guys face when it comes to building muscle: they never train to build strength first. Strength is the foundation to make every fancy bodybuilding method more effective. Getting stronger helps improve muscle fiber recruitment, meaning you’ll recruit more muscle fibers on each subsequent lift. Plus, the stronger you are, the heavier weight you can lift for more reps, which creates a bigger training response. We’ll dig into this more, but for now, understand this:
Greater strength begets greater mechanical tension across all exercises. It sounds kind of circular, but the basic gist of it is that you should lift heavy at a relatively slow tempo through a full range of motion to promote muscle growth.
Translation: The Pump.
If you’re like some bros, you’ll hit a set of curls and/or push-ups before “t-shirt time” on the weekends. Why? The pump you get from hitting a target muscle with incomplete recovery drives blood into your muscles, making them appear bigger. Luckily, this isn’t for naught. The sleeve-splitting pump we’re referring too is called metabolic stress.
When you work out hard to achieve a pump, you build up lactate, hydrogen ions, creatinine, and other metabolites, but you also prevent blood from escaping. This metabolic stress in the muscle signals adaptation.
It’s not uncommon to hobble out of bed the day or struggle to peel your ass off the toilet Luckily, soreness isn’t for naught; that damage to muscle tissue creates a temporary inflammatory response and releases the necessary signals for muscle growth.
Still, there’s an important caveat. While some muscular damage is needed to build muscle, getting as sore as possible shouldn’t be your goal.
If you can hardly move after your workouts, excessive damage can prevent you from training as hard or as often as you otherwise would.
In order to achieve the most muscular damage, focus on exercises that your body is not accustomed to, intentionally slowing down eccentric phases, and using full range of motion on multi-joint movements.
Triple Threat Muscle Building
To optimize your muscle building workouts, you need all three components listed above. If your short on time, a workout like the Minimalist Muscle Blitz combines all three components to help you build muscle in 45 minutes or less. But if you’d rather do it yourself, here how:
Here’s a step-by-step plan to outline your next workout.
Start off each workout with heavy compound exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps to create enough mechanical tension.
Afterward, the majority of training volume will be from 2-3 exercises with moderate loading at 6-12 reps per set. These exercises will create both mechanical tension, metabolic stress (the pump) and depending on your recent workouts, some muscular damage.
Here’s a Sample Triple-Threat Muscle Building Workout
- Back Squat 4×6, rest 120 seconds
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge 4×8/leg, rest 90 seconds
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat 1×25, rest 30 seconds
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 3×12, rest 60 seconds
5a. Leg Extension 4×12, rest 15 seconds
5b. Leg Curl 4×12, rest 15 seconds
5c. Calf Raises 4×12, rest 15 seconds
Without progression, there is no progress. In other words, write down your workouts and aim to increase the weights from week to week and month to month. This workout combines the three pillars of muscle growth.
You begin with high-tension exercises designed to build strength and muscle in the beginning. As the workout progresses, rest periods decrease and the number of reps increases, increasing the amount of metabolic stress and likelihood of muscular damage.
Ready, Set, Grow
By now, you should have it drilled into your head that maximum muscular development requires sufficient mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscular damage. You don’t need a fancy new workout every few weeks nor the latest the method. The truth is, success comes from the ruthless execution of the basics. Stick with multi-joint exercises, such as presses, rows, squats, and deadlifts to build the most mass.
At the same time, sprinkle in isolation exercises to build stability and improve weak points. Keep rest periods between 1-2 minutes—slightly more for heavy sets and slightly less for moderate and high-rep sets.
Training with these concepts in mind will get you on your way to looking great naked without living in the gym. And should you want to build muscle in 45 minutes or less, no sweat–we have you covered. Grab your copy of the Minimalist Muscle Blitz today.
Follow Eric and get tons of awesome fitness advice on his Instagram at Bach Performance.
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