How to Effectively Build Muscle Mass, Part II


This week is the second part of a look into how to effectively build muscle mass. Part I can be found here.

This week the emphasis is how to train effectively for gains in lean muscle mass. After looking last week at how slow gains in muscle mass can be, it is important, therefore, to try and optimise any training program to be as effective as possible at building muscle. 

In order for a muscle to grow, there are 3 main mechanisms:

  • Mechanical Tension: The amount of mechanical force produced by the muscle. The more load (weight) you lift, the more tension created. Therefore ensure you select exercises within your program that allow you to lift the most loads.
  • Metabolic Stress: Refers to the build up of metabolites and the increased acidity of the blood. These metabolites build up as the muscle fills with blood and is starved of oxygen.
  • Muscle Damage: Lifting weights causes localised damage to the muscle tissue and is experienced as delayed-onset of muscle soreness (DOMs). Our muscle cells try and adapt to the perceived threat by reinforcing their structure, much like we saw with metabolic stress. 
Lifting weights can cause localised muscle damage which we feel as soreness in the proceeding days.

Lifting weights can cause localised muscle damage which we feel as soreness in the proceeding days.

So as you can see from the above, any effective training program will have enough intensity to ensure enough weight is lifted for mechanical tension, whilst at the same time contain some exercises that induce sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (cell swelling) as well as enough variability that there is some muscle damage. So how to achieve this?

1) Ensure Your Program Contains compound lifts that allow the use of high loads: It is far easier to go heavy on a squat than it is on a leg extension. This is largely to due to the fact that a squat uses multiple joints compared to the leg extension, which is purely an isolation movement (single-joint). Using compound lifts will ensure a large amount of mechanical tension will be induced which is highly important for muscle growth.

2) Ensure Your Program Contains Enough Volume: Volume can be classified as load x reps x sets. The answer to the question "how much is enough volume" is not one that can be answered easily, as it is dependant on a few variables. However, Helms et al (2015) have done a very good job of summarising how much volume is necessary. 
Generally speaking, when studies have matched intensity and frequency, both strength and hypertrophy have a linear relationship with volume (i.e. as volume increases, so does strength and muscle hypertrophy). However, this is only true to a point and past that point gains in both strength and hypertrophy start to plateau and can even decline. So you can definitely have too much volume. When it comes to volume, Helms et al (2015) make the following suggestion: -

“Do enough to progress, not as much as possible. Increase when plateaued if you are recovering well.” 

For concrete figures, Helms et al (2015) recommend 40-70 reps/muscle group/session.

3) Ensure You progressively Overload Your Muscles: To build muscle we must force the body to adapt. Generally speaking the body is always seeking homeostasis. Building slabs of muscle requires a huge amount of energy. Without progressively overloading the body over time, the body will have no reason to adapt and grow. Most commonly we can force the body to adapt with greater loads or with a greater number of reps.

Keeping a training log/diary is absolutely crucial in order to understand if any progress is being made

Keeping a training log/diary is absolutely crucial in order to understand if any progress is being made

4) Keep a training log and track progress: How do you know if you are getting stronger if you cannot recall how much weight you had on the bar last week? Tracking your progress is essential to understanding whether or not you are making any progress. This lack of direction is often one of the things I see most often in gyms and it frustrates me so much! So many people with legitimate goals to improve their physique, but absolutely no direction and no way of knowing if any progress is being made. How do you know if you are making progress?

  • You are getting stronger - you can lift progressively more weight with correct form.
  • You are able to do more reps with the same weight (i.e. you can no do 12 reps 55kg on the Bench Press. 3 weeks ago you could only achieve 8 reps).
  • Less effort is required to lift the same weight - this is slightly more subjective, but can be useful if you use an RPE (rating of perceived exertion) scale when training. For example, in Week 1 of your training program, squatting with 100kg for 6 reps may have felt like a 9/10 RPE. By week 4 this may only feel like a 7.

In summary, in order to effectively build muscle tissue we must provide the body with an adequate stimulus through training, whilst also ensuring we are providing the body with enough energy (calories) and nutrients (protein) to build muscle tissue. We also need to ensure that we are recovering well between bouts of training (sleep) and that stress is managed so that it doesn't interfere with the process. Building muscle is a difficult and time-consuming process, and the rate of progress will start to decline the longer we have trained for and the closer we are to our genetic ceiling. When training, ensure you: -

1) Select exercises that allow you to create high amounts of tension on your muscles.
2) Select exercises and/or rep schemes that allow for metabolic stress and muscle damage.
3) Ensure your program contains enough volume (but not so much that you cannot recover adequately).
4) Track your progress and ensure that over time you are providing a greater stimulus on your muscles.