In this beginner guide to muscle-building, you will learn everything you need to know about muscle-building – the science behind it and actionable tips in applying them. Understanding them is 10x more effective than blindly following workout routines, as you will then be able to adapt anything to best suit your body.
Muscle building is a simple function of three variables – training, diet and recovery.
Now, let’s take a deep dive into each section.
Muscle Building 101: Training, Diet and Recovery
Part 1: “Training” – The Science behind Muscle Growth
Muscle growth is achieved by causing micro tears to your muscles, which are then repaired and enlarged to protect your body from future stress. This process is also called hypertrophy and two types of hypertrophy exist: sarcomere hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
a) Sarcomere hypertrophy
A muscle fiber consists of both myofibrils and sarcomeres. When you start lifting weights and introducing tears to your muscle fibers, this activates satellite cells outside your muscle fibers to fuse with them. This increases the size of myofibrils, thus allowing your muscle fibers to synthesize more protein and create more contractile protein. This is what gives you strength.
b) Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy on the other hand doesn’t create more contractile protein. Rather, it increases the non-contractile part of your muscles such as glycogen and mitochondria. This provides more energy for the contractile part of your muscle.
Now you must be thinking, sarcomere hypertrophy sounds like what power-lifters do to increase strength, while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy sounds like what weight lifters do to increase size.
Yes and no.
Yes, for those seeking a pure increase in strength, focusing on sarcomere hypertrophy, or fewer reps (1-5) and heavier weights is the way to go. For those seeking a moderate increase in strength with moderate increase in size, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, or moderate sets (8-12) with moderate/heavy weights is the way to go. As for a very high amount of reps (>15), they are only useful for building muscular endurance.
However, it must be noted that you cannot hope to achieve just one form of hypertrophy without the other. It’s biologically impossible. Both sets of hypertrophy occur when you work out, though the extent of which would be different dependent on your rep and weight range.
1.2 The Principles of Muscle Building
Now that you understand the theory behind muscle growth, there are three principles I would like to share from my experience to help you maximize muscular hypertrophy.
a) Progressive Overload
No progressive overload, no growth, as simple as that. This is the most important principle underlying any workout you embark on. This is because only by placing ever-increasing demand on our body can it grow and adapt. There are a few ways to progressive overload, such as
- Adding more weight
- Doing more reps/sets
- Decreasing your rest period
- Making the exercise more difficult
b) Proper Form and Technique
No matter how hard you work out or how religiously you turn up at the gym, you will get nowhere without the proper form and technique. Also, you need to understand which parts and how you are hitting your muscles with the various exercises. I find that it helps with mind-muscle connection (I can really feel my muscles), though I do not know if there’s any scientific basis behind this.
Well, it could be more of a placebo effect but it works for me.
Anyway, proper form and technique will not only maximize your muscle gains, it will also cut your chances of injury. Trust me, injuries suck, a minor one can set you back 2-3 weeks and weeks of gains that you made would be lost.
c) Time under Tension
This is another favorite of my mine to expound on. Time under tension pretty much means how long you put your muscles under tension. An easy way to spot gym noobs is how fast they do their sets. They rush through their sets and do not maximize their muscle gains. This is because they do not hit all the muscle fibers which can only be hit in certain phases (concentric, eccentric, isometric).
Different tempo/speed can be engaged, though a good rule of thumb is to keep time under tension to at least 30-45 seconds. In other words, do at a controlled and steady speed, unless you have other athletic goals.
Although I recommend keeping a longer time under tension, it is crucial to keep your workouts short and intense (around 45 minutes). This is because anabolic hormones (those that help in muscle-building) peak around the 27 minute mark. When the levels of these hormones start dropping, levels of catabolic hormones (muscle destroying) hormones begin to rise.
A short and intense workout also exhausts you and overloads your central nervous system. This is useful in spurring the release of more anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormones.
On the next page, we discuss “1.3 Workout Principles”