You go to the gym and hit up 8-12 reps, 4 sets per exercise because the workout you downloaded or app you are using told you that’s what you need to do, or worse, because you read it in a magazine. Do you ever stop and think, why? Will it actually build muscle? Does it work for everyone? Are we all the same?
When anyone starts training, they look through magazines for workouts, thinking that if they do Phil Heath’s arm workout, they will get arms like Phil Heath. Sadly, many disappointing weeks go by and their arms would be lucky to look like Phil’s forearms, let alone his biceps and triceps!
So the logical step is to start asking questions…questions like, how do we actually grow muscle?
When you start to research, there are many different techniques that claim to grow muscle — strip sets, drop sets, rest pause, high volume, heavy duty — but that’s not what you should be looking for. You want to know the biological origins of muscle growth — because if you know how muscle grows from a scientific point, then you can find methods that actually get results. It’s like working backwards through a math equation. You know what your end result is — muscle — all you need is to figure out the equation that can get you there.
If A + B = Muscle, then what the hell are A + B?
After thinking logically about it, you will soon find that A must = Stimulus, and B must = Recovery
Stimulus + Recovery = Muscle
But a bit of research and you will quickly found that there is a third factor as well, C = Hormones
Stimulus + Recovery + Hormones = Muscle
That formula is a great start, but to truly gain some useful knowledge, you must work backwards even further, and figure out what each of those variables really means.
There are 3 mechanisms that stimulate muscle growth:
- Muscle Tension
Have you ever heard people say, it’s not how much you lift, it’s how you lift it — or — your muscle doesn’t know how much weight is on the bar. Well, there is actually some science to support those statements. It turns out that your muscle grows in response to tension, which is a direct result of how much force is being exerted on that particular muscle. It doesn’t necessarily matter how much weight you use, as long as the tension applied to a specific muscle is large enough. So moving weight from A to B is not the solution, and the mind muscle connection may acutally be much more relevant to growth than the weight you add to the bar.
Aside from the tension that comes as a result of placing a load on a muscle, the stretching and contraction that occur during a full range of motion rep, also contribute to muscle tension. In fact, the very act of stretching and contracting a muscle may be able to trigger muscle growth. Isometric contractions have been shown to trigger some of the cellular responses involved is muscle hypertrophy, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that stretching a muscle may induce growth as well. A group of scientist proved this by taking a piece of living muscle tissue and stretching it to extreme lengths, and showed that the stretching actually caused some of the greatest muscle growth they had ever seen from any type of stimulus.
One thing that is closely related to this topic is the principle of time under tension. See, it is not enough to subject a muscle to tension for a brief amount of time. In order to truly stimulate growth, you must maintain a high level of tension for a prolonged period of time. Time under tension will increase the amount of stress, damage, and swelling that a muscle experiences, hence why it is paramount to the growth process.
- Muscle Damage
If you have ever experience soreness, then you have likely experienced the effects of muscle damage. On a microscopic level, muscles are made of fiber that move past each other in a ratcheting motion. It is this movement that is what we experience as muscle contraction. When we lift weights our muscle attempt to move in this ratcheting motion, but often give way to the load. This causes damage to the fibers that make up our muscles, and it is this damage that is a major trigger for growth.
When damage occurs within a muscle, the muscle reacts by triggering a myriad of cellular responses whose purpose is to repair the muscle. The important point to understand si that the body does not simply repair the muscle and return it to its original shape, the amazing thing is that your body builds the muscle bigger and stronger than before, in an attempt to prevent this damage from every occurring again. This phenomenon, mediated by a host of chemical messengers and special type of stem cells called a satellite cells, is one of the most well known and intensely studied factors involved in muscle hypertrophy.
- Metabolic Stress
Metabolic stress is perhaps the most intriguing element associated with muscular development. An emergent property of the types of exercise that rely on anaerobic glycolysis for ATP production, metabolic stress is marked by a resulting buildup of metabolites such as hydrogen ions and lactate, which trigger muscle hypertrophy.
In fact, metabolic stress is such a potent simulator of muscle growth, that a study published in the Sports Medical Journal in 2013 by Schoenfeld Brad, revealed that metabolic stress induced by the application of a pressure cuff, could help attenuate muscle wasting in patients confined to bed rest, even without engaging in any form of exercise. So by essentially squeezing a muscle and preventing metabolic by products from being washed out by blood flow, the scientist incurred enough of a stimulus to prevent a muscle from shrinking in bedridden patients.
This phenomenon is so powerful, that an entire training methodology has been shaped around it — called blood flow restriction training. By cutting off the majority of blood flow to a certain area of the body and using significantly less than normal to perform a specific exercise, one can trigger considerable muscle growth due to the generation of a substantial amount of metabolic stress.
- Cell Swelling
Cell swelling is the scientific synonym for “the pump”. The feeling that Arnold hailed as the holy grail of exercise, is actually one of the factors that causes muscle to grow. Current theories attribute the anabolic effect to a self-preservation mechanism, whereby the pressure exerted by cell swelling causes the cell to perceive the change as a threat to its integrity. This prompts a cell to respond by growing. The choice is either grow, or die. Evidence shows that cell swelling simultaneously stimulates protein buildup (synthesis) and decreases protein breakdown (proteolysis).
Recovery involves everything you do when you are not in the gym. Managing your stress, getting enough sleep, and carefully monitoring your diet, all play a huge part in the results you ultimately attain. The hour you spend in the gym is only a small part of the work it takes to build an appreciable amount of muscle. Remember that there are three parts to the equation, and the gym is only one of them.
Aside from getting enough protein in your diet, there are a myriad of other factors that play a part in the recovery process — none of which are more or less important than the other. Your body is a complex system composed of many parts and processes. If you want want optimize any one of them, you must ensure the health of all of them. You cannot focus solely on something as simple as macros or supplements, there is much more you need to do to get your body running like a well oiled machine. Until you can do that, your hopes of impressive gains, will be nothing but fantasies. Here is a brief list to get you thinking about what it takes to optimize recovery:
- Macronutrient intake
- Nutrient Timing
- Micronutrient Intake
- Immune Health
There is no doubt that within minutes of deciding that you want to improve your physique, you hear about hormones — and with good reason. Hormones play a huge role of the myriad of biological processes involved in muscle hypertrophy. From superstars like testosterone and growth hormone to lesser known members like MGF, and IGF-1, hormones play a huge role in your progress.
It is important to note that when we refer to hormones, we are not referring to anabolic steroids. Every human being has hormones, and every human being can optimize those hormones naturally — by training eating, and supplementing right.
Hormones like testosterone and growth hormone can be increased by manipulating nutrition and taking certain supplements variables, while things like myokines and paracrine growth factors can be triggered by manipulating certain training variables.
All of your hormones play a role in the machine that is your body. Not a single one is more important that another, and if your goal is to grow, you better be sure to optimize every single one of them.
The Power Of The Equation
With that information, I was well on my way to becoming a true muscle master. Research was my friend as it will be yours. With the power of this equation in my hands, I was no longer bound to the dogma of magazines, gym rats, and bros. I had the power to truly assess everything I did, and ensure that it was going to make me grow. I hope that it will do the same for you. Remember, Stimulus + Recovery + hormones = Muscle.