It Takes Time to Build Muscle
Aspiring to build muscle tissue is one of the most frequent goals amongst our new clients. Some want to build significant amounts of muscle in the long-term (fantastic for health and longevity), whilst others wish to add modest amounts to specific muscle groups simply to create a more aesthetic look.
Understanding how to produce dramatic physical change is our job. Whilst losing large amounts of body fat can be achieved relatively quickly (with the right methodology), building muscle tissue takes time. Of course, some are lucky enough to have chosen the right parents and are born hard-wired to gain muscle tissue more easily than others. For most of us, building muscle is a long-game and one that requires consistent adherence to several (often misunderstood) principles. This article will explore several fundamental principles of building muscle tissue, beyond the first few months of your new workout regime.
Maximise Muscular Tension
When exercising to build muscle, the goal of each set and every repetition should be to generate tension. The weight you lift, how you position your body and the speed with which you perform each phase of the exercise should all be optimised to focus tension on your target muscle group.
Inter-muscular tension created through exercise causes microscopic levels of damage and acute inflammation. Though it sounds counterintuitive to purposefully create damage, your body’s response is to repair and rebuild your tissue larger and better able to perform in the future. This evolutionary response has existed to help navigate our environment and ensure our survival. In the gym, we can manipulate this adaptive response and create tension in specific tissues to improve your performance. It’s incredible, when you think about it.
To consistently catalyse the growth of new muscle tissue means finding novel and more significant ways to produce tension. For example; let’s pretend that you enjoy squatting (I did say “pretend”) and want to build muscle in your gluteals. A simple way to create greater tension is to use heavier loads when you squat. By increasing the load, your brain uses more motor neurons to activate a greater number of muscle fibres, increasing tension within the musculature of the gluteals.
However, in response to the increased weight, what if you now compromise your technique as you squat? Whilst you are moving more load, you may now be relying more on leverage and momentum to complete each repetition. By changing your technique you have inadvertently lost tension in the target muscle group and therefore reduced your potential to develop more tissue.
Within a set, tension is king. The weights we use (and how we use them) are simply tools to generate tension. Of course, a goal of resistance training is to use progressively more resistance, but only use as much resistance as you can use whilst ensuring optimal technique.
Manage Workout Volume
When building bigger muscles, the volume of work you perform bares significant responsibility. Similar to an endurance cyclist, runner or swimmer clocking-up progressively more miles to develop their lung capacity, using a greater number of sets and weight is key to building muscle tissue. After all, you can’t beat hard work.
Your workout volume (sets x reps x weight = volume) should be one of the most gradual variables you develop over time but ultimately has one of the biggest influences on your results. The greater volume you are able to perform each week, month and year, the more new tissue you can build. When designing training programmes for athletes, volume is increased progressively over years. The same consideration must be paid when designing workout programmes for mere mortals, like you and I. Push your workout volume too hard, too fast and your muscles will be unable to recover and grow.
However, a limiting factor for many is simply the time they have available to workout. Whilst exercising for 2 or 3-hours each week and achieving a certain workout volume may allow you to build a few kilos of muscle tissue. Building 10-kilos of muscle may require 4 or 5-hours of training each week (hypothetically speaking) and a far greater workout volume.
Understanding Workout Frequency
Research shows that there is an optimal frequency at which to stimulate a muscle. Your specific training frequency depends on several factors; the size of the target muscle(s), your target muscle’s fibre type, your training-age and the volume of work you perform during each workout. As with workout volume, practicality is often a huge consideration.
At Embody, our clients tend to be very busy in both their professional and personal lives. Most have demanding jobs and young families. The number of workout you are able to fit-in each week is typically of greater relevance than how often you should workout.
If you are able to dedicate the time to workout with optimal frequency, we can look at best principles. As a rule of thumb, most large muscle groups (quadriceps, pectoralis major etc) develop optimally when stimulated every 48-72 hours. This means, on average, working each major muscle group 2-3 times each week. Smaller muscle groups can be trained with greater frequency. Generally speaking, the higher your training-age and the stronger you are, the more recovery time you require between workouts.
Imposing consistently greater demands over-time is the most fundamental principle in building muscle tissue and improving performance. Your body is a complexed biological machine, capable of immense physical adaptation to the demands that you impose. However, growing muscle tissue is (metabolically) costly. There must be a clear need for your body to make such adaptations consistently.
Your body will only develop new tissue when workout demands are significant and periodically increased. One of the common ways to measure and plan progressive overload is by using the amount of weight you lift (your workout volume) across a given programme, month or year. Assuming that all other variables are controlled (exercise selection, technique etc) you must consistently expose your muscles to greater challenges that require further adaptation.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
– Henry Ford
One of the most common mistakes we find is people becoming comfortable and returning to a workout programme that they used previously with success. Or, using a weight and repetition range for a particular exercise that they enjoy or find familiar. You must resist the temptation to find comfort in your workouts and methodically seek new challenges. Whilst the principles of building muscle remain the same, your training frequency, the weight you lift, your workout volume and level of tension you generate must evolve. Progressive overload is as essential to long-term development as any other single factor.
Build Muscle Consistently
This article only scratches the surface of the various factors to consider if training to build muscle tissue. Exercise selection, specific workout formatting and nutrition all have major roles to play. The topics highlighted above are the factors that make a significant different between building only a little muscle tissue, at the start of your new exercise regime, and continually building muscle tissue in the long-term. If your goal is to make significant aesthetic change, you must be committed to building long-term health practices.
Use these principles to guide your workouts and progress. When deciding which workout programme to employ next, consider what effect the programme will have on your workout volume. Do the primary exercises in your programme maximise tension on the muscles you wish to develop? Or, does this programme challenge your target muscles more than the last? Does the programme allow for progressive overload?
Hungry for more?
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