So You Wanna Get Bigger Muscles?
There are so many theories out there about gaining muscle that it can be very daunting and confusing for both the newbie and even the advanced lifter. Bodybuilding mags have given people the misconception that you need to do 6 or so different exercises for your triceps and biceps alone. The truth is that many of them do work, but the extent to which they work is not always a reflection of the person using them (the big guy).
Common questions in the gym: How much do you bench? I wonder what that guy does to get so big? Should I be doing that exercise? Another thing you often see is a “small” guy trying an exercise someone bigger has just done. This is ok if he can do it with good technique, and with a suitable weight, but is often not the case. Think of this comparison: There is a guy pushing weights that are far too heavy to complete a proper rep, and another guy who is using much, much lighter weights, but executing each rep perfectly. Who looks more ridiculous? I can guarantee you the guy who is huffing and puffing and putting more emphasis into his groan looks like the clown. The point I’m making is you need to find the appropriate weight to be able to complete your designated reps, and not worry about what the guy next to you is able to do.
How does muscle size increase?
The primary adaptation that muscles make to weight training is increasing size (hypertrophy) which happens in two ways: One is that it swells during resistance training, which is that “pumped” feeling we get. This is only short term though. The other way is during post-exercise recovery period, when there is net gain in the synthesis of protein. Protein synthesis decreases during exercise and then increases afterwards during recovery, so we can see why our recovery days are so necessary.
The process of getting bigger muscles involves increasing the synthesis of the contractile proteins, actin and myosin, within the myofibril and the increase in the number of myofibrils within a muscle fibre. The new fibres increase the diameter of the existing layers. Generally, muscle fibres are organised based on the “size” factor. They are recruited in accordance to their threshold and firing rates. With heavy weight training, muscle fibres get larger. In the case of maximum force production, it’s not only the recruitment of the amount of fibres, but also the rate at which the motor units are recruited. High-threshold units are only recruited when all the other fibres below them have already been recruited. Once these high-threshold units have been used once, less activation is needed in the next session. In advanced lifters, the central nervous system can adapt allowing them to recruit larger units first, bypassing all the units below that threshold, and at a faster rate. This has major benefits for force production, as the high-threshold fibre recruitment is initialized much faster.
Let’s remember that gaining muscle without a gain in strength is useless to an athlete. So in order to build size, you should build strength. Your goal in the gym should always be muscle growth through increased strength.
Here are some tips to help you out with your programme:
1. Firstly, let’s look at your training as a series of movements. The basic movements include the squat, deadlift, lunge, push, pull and twist.
From these basic movements, you can create dozens of muscle building exercises that can become part of routines. You will notice that these are multi-joint exercises that include major muscle groups. These will invoke the greatest hormonal response and are also the most useful movements in sports. Your muscles don’t work in isolation during sporting activities, so why train them in that way?
2. Secondly, consider your programme design. I will broadly outline some aspects of a hypertrophy programme and how it can be periodized. Supersetting is a combination of two different workouts, usually a push then a pull that are alternated until all the sets are done. This minimizes the rest period needed as you can work opposing muscles, while the other group rests. An example would be bench-press and seated row. Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) has been found to elicit the greatest gains in strength; this will truly show you the power of “shaking things up”. This works by altering the sets, reps, and rest between daily sessions. You can for example go from heavy to medium, to light on each successive day. An example would be; Monday- 5 sets of 5 reps (90sec rest), Wednesday- 4 sets of 10 reps (60sec rest) & Friday-3 sets of 15 reps (30 sec rest). Then we get the split routines. I’m sure at some point most have tried the upper body/lower body split. This allows for the muscle groups to rest for at least a full day, while another is being worked. An example of this would be upper body on Monday & Friday, lower body Wednesday.
Remember not to believe everything you hear in the gym. By doing the exercises that you see bigger guys doing won’t guarantee you the same gains. Try using a programme that you can chart your progress with as it will keep you motivated and allow you to see your gains. You also need consistent effort. Steer away from too much machine type exercises and use more free- weights or dumbbells. By holding the weights and doing stability exercises, such as lunges, you improve your core and grip strength at the same time. Your body adapts to workout routines, so the longer you do the same thing for, the less benefit comes from it. The longer you have been lifting, the faster your body adapts. Large muscle group exercises result in a greater testosterone production, so don’t waste too much time on targeting the smaller muscle groups by themselves. This should be able to help you with the formulation of your own programmes, or modifications of some that you might have already.
By: Jonathan Hall
Baechle, T. R. and Earle, R. W.(2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Human Kinetics.
Schuler, L. Cosgrove, C. The New Rules of Lifting (2006)