As a personal trainer, I am overwhelmed with questions, but a certain two keep coming up time and time again. Yes, you’ve guessed it: Number one is ‘How do I lose fat?’ A close 2nd is ‘How do I gain more muscle?’ After all, the majority of us would like a little bit of both.
This article will outline some of the variables you will need to manipulate to put on any appreciable amount of muscle. It will address nutrition, training variables and psychological issues that will affect your progress. This is not comprehensive by any means – but provides the simple concepts that are crucial for muscle growth.
Need for muscle
First off, you need to make your body want to keep its existing muscle mass, and need to add extra muscle mass. Getting your body to do this is difficult as stated in Are you prepared to work intensely enough?. This means:
1) Using weights that are heavy enough to maximise Strength
2) Using weights that are moderate-to-heavy to maximise Hypertrophy (size)
3) Managing total volume to ensure optimal recovery (Not overtraining)
4) Training frequently enough so that de-training (understimulation if muscle) does not occur
You need to remember that your body will not grow unless it thinks it can and that it has to.
Progress is key, in that as you get stronger, you should be aiming to increase the weight as soon as you hit your target with proper form (technique).
It is imperative that you emphasise increasing the weight as opposed to upping repititions (Reps) or cutting your rest periods. Weight determines intensity. The higher the % you can lift of your 1-rep max (The weight you can lift only once) in that exercise is the intensity you are working at.
For example, If you can lift 100kg for 1 rep in the bench press and tomorrow you do a set of 1 rep at 100kg; Intensity = 100%. If you can lift 100kg for 1 rep and tomorrow you do a set of 10 with 70kg; Intensity = 74.4% (providing this was 10-rep max).
The number of different programs that can be created goes beyond the scope of this article, but the main point is that intensity needs to be kept high. Intensity will maximise the likelihood of your body retaining it’s muscle mass and furthermore, will try to adapt to get stronger. This is because maximal lifting improves your neural strength; It is the nervous system that is getting trained. Imagine your body as muscles, with chains pulling the muscles to do what you want to do. The thicker and more chains you have, the more force you will be able to produce, and the stronger you will be!
With maximal lifting you ‘train the chains’
This means utilising reps between 1 and 5 (85-100%) and having any number of sets per muscle group depending on the split of the overall program. Again, the number of options are endless, but an example could be on a chest and back day using 8 x 3 (8 sets of 3) for 2 compond movements (Movements using more that 1 joint) For example, bench press 8 x 3 and barbell row 8 x 3. Rest periods should be no less than 5 minutes to ensure proper recovery and maximise the chance you will get the most out of your next set. Those wishing to cut their workout time or maximise recovery even further can alternate exercises.
1a) Bench press
1b) BB row
1) Perform 1a
3) Perform 1b
You can cut the workout time so if you were resting 5 mins between straight sets, you could rest 2:30 and alternate. This would give 5 mins rest til the same movement was done again. If you alternate, and still rest 5 mins between all sets, you will get Approx 10 mins rest between the same exercise, which would mean you are more likely to hit your target and increase the weight the next session.
I can hear all the guys shouting now ” We dont care about training the chains! We want to get to the muscles!” The reason behind maximal lifting is that the use of very heavy weights will mean you can lift more weight when you train the muscles!
Training the muscles
To work the muscles, exercises should be using reps between 6 and 12. This enables more blood flow to get to the muscles without compromising the intensity of the set. IE if you used a weight you can lift 30 times, this is likely to make your body rely more on the cardiovascular system (less on the muscles), and will reduce the likelihood of your body adapting to keep muscle. Does 50% intensity (or even less) sound like hard work?
The focus here is B don’t confuse intensity with intenseness. Intenseness prolongs fatigue in the muscles – which can be useful to break plateaus but shouldn’t be relied upon. (Bodypump is a good example of this, although it focuses more on the cardiovascular component which is why participants get good results at first).
You may have heard of drop-sets, pyramid sets, 21’s and a whole list of other techniques – these are methods that should be used to break plateaus – not used as staples of a program unless you’re quite advanced (e.g more than 3-5 years of regular lifting). The more experienced you are, the more you can use them, and the more effective they’ll be. If you’re a male, Can you 1-rep max at least 1.2 x your Bodyweight in the Bench press? Can you 1-rep max at least 1.5 x your Bodyweight in the parallel Squat? Can you 1-rep max at least 1.8 x your Bodyweight in the Deadlift? If not, I’d recommend getting your relative strength up to these starting levels as a general guideline. (Typically, the heavier you are the harder it is to attain these numbers, as will having a high bodyfat %).
Don’t know your 1-rep max? Use the table above to estimate your 1 rep max (Tip: try to manage 3 or 4 reps at your heaviest weight and use this value, the higher reps you do the less accurate the estimate will be – and try to have a friend or instructor with you for safety).
Volume can be defined as “the amount of work done by a muscle group or whole body in a fixed unit of time (usually a week). Volume is useful, as it works well when done properly. Say for example, on a low-rep strength training day you were doing sets of 3 and you do 3 sets. This amount of volume would be insignificant unless this was done very frequently, (eg 4-5 times a week). Depending on the split of the program, if you are training strength you are likely to require less variety in a session and more volume, and with sets of 3 – around 8-12 sets. This would total 24-36 reps which is a good target at this intensity. Similarly, If you were doing 8-rep sets you could perform 3-6 sets (24-48 reps). However, bear in mind that these are lower intensity sets than say sets of 3. It depends on the overall structure of the program as and when to use different intensities.
Typical hypertrophy like 3 sets of 10 (total = 30 reps) are everywhere at gyms, they are a good start but are fairly low intensity when trying to train for size and strength and can be done quite frequently. The bigger problem is that trainees don’t try to progress, and some people even think that sitting on a tricep kickback machine will melt their batwings – simply because it’s called ‘a machine!’
Frequency is simply how many times a muscle group or the whole body is worked in a given amount of time (usually a week). High frequency stimulates the muscle regularly and can often causes hypertrophy. However, constant high frequency can cause overtraining – especially when doing excessive amounts of low-rep training with little rest.
There is an infinite amount of programs you could do, as the following variables can be manipulated:
Volume (number of sets)
Exercise Type (Compound vs. Isolation)
Number of Exercises (1,2,3,etc per bodypart)
Types of movement (What plane the movement is in)
Variable rest/rep schemes
Advanced technique additions
Bi-lateral / Uni-lateral exercises
Any number of split programs (What days what exercises are done)
This also doesn’t include other factors such as cardio types and nutrition etc. so there are a lot of options!
Full body programs are where all muscle groups are worked within one session. They usually have between 1-5 sets, but this can vary depending on the movements trained and the goal of the session (eg strength or hypertrophy). A split program is where body parts are broken up into groups to be worked on in separate sessions. Below are some the advantages of both types of program.
Full body advantages
1.Full body exercise is ideal for beginners, as it gives a regular conditioning effect.
Trainees need time to adjust to lifting weights, so that the tendons and ligaments do not get damaged. Regular lifting to all body parts will provide a strong yet safe stimulus, giving the trainee a platform to progress from.
2. Often more applicable to sports
The whole body is rarely separated during sports, and working the whole body at once could have some carryover and improve performance. Also, movements between bodyparts can be practiced and can therefore be integrated easily.
3. Working large muscle groups release more natural growth hormone
A split program may have days dedicated to ‘arms’ or ‘shoulders,’ and smaller muscle groups typically result in less natural growth hormone output than when working large muscles. It may be beneficial to group these smaller body parts with bigger muscles to enhance hormonal output.
4. Is likely to be more advantageous from a fat loss point of view
More muscles are used, and also significantly bigger muscles are used – resulting in more calories burned and more muscle breakdown occurring. The extra muscle breakdown will mean that more energy is used to repair your muscles and therefore lose fat. Also, when large muscles are worked and rest periods are short, more lactate is produced which appears to magnify fat burning.
5. Absence scenario
If a workout is missed (due to kids, work, weather, motivation(!)) It’s easier to get back into training, whereas some trainees are accustomed to working bodyparts on set days – especially true if training with a partner. Full body training can start when the session starts and end when the session ends.
6. Bodyparts aren’t missed.
With full body split, trainees like variety and will actually work their legs. “Hey It’s legs day, and legs days hurt so I’m gonna just do Chest and Biceps!” In full body training, you might say “My arms are hurting now, I think I’ll lay off them while I do my lunges while my arms recover.”
7. Don’t get as sore
Full body workouts, (when done regularly) typically do not cause the kind of soreness that leaves you feeling like you’ve been in a car crash. DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) can leave you not wanting to return to the gym, and this could actually be worse if you’re the kind of person that can get de-motivated or lazy).
8. Easy to add exercises
Some exercises stimulate more than one muscle group, and it can be difficult know where to place them. For example, Deadlifts: Is it a Leg or back exercise? It’s essentially both, but which day will you do them? In full body training it doesn’t matter!
9. Increased frequency
Although full body sessions are less intense than split programs, there is increased frequency which may be better suited for some individuals. This is especially true if you are not doing enough volume, and that bodypart may not get stimulated for another 3-7 days.
Split program advantages
1. Can give maximum effort
A whole session can be dedicated to a body part and therefore the trainee can perform at a maximum intensity level. Rest periods can be at their maximum, and you will be confident you have done all you can for that muscle group in that session.
2. Can be more frequency
Although there is more frequency to each muscle on a full body program, a split program enables a trainee to get in the gym as often as they want. 6 days a week; Morning and Afternoon for 4 days with and 3 days off; Morning and Afternoon x 2 a week and Morning x 2 a week………The options are many – to say the least.
Can fit well into a persons schedule if they have other committments. For example, say a trainee can only train Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday; If a full body workout was done, many of the days quality would be reduced. Also, If someone can get in to the gym 6-7 days a week but only for 20-30 minutes, splits will work better as you’d have been training the same muscle groups on back-to-back days with a full body program.
Usually produces more soreness or DOMS – some people like the feeling some people hate it! While the feeling can be awkward, sometimes feeling the muscle the next day provides you with a signal of achievement, and sometimes a sign that you need to lift with more intensity on a regular basis, or gradually increasing intensity rather than ramping it up straight away.
5. Advanced techniques
It’s easier to do High intensity techniques such as dropsets, supersets, tri-sets etc. These can be used at the end of a session, or when finishing a body part in particular. New techniques or tools can be used, knowing that it will not interfere with other body parts.
6. Less fatigue to particular body parts
On a full body workout the later exercises often suffer – On splits, you get to identify if you have a weakness in a body part – not just that you’re generally tired from the past 40 mins of other exercises.
7. Specialization / Strengthen a weak area
A full body program trying to strengthen body parts/bring up weak parts could cause a problem in that reps, exercises, intensities, and other muscle exercises will cloud progress clues. A split program allows you to dedicate more days to a weak body part to bring it up to standard, and usually results come quicker as other parts are kept at maintenance levels.
8. Body parts might not get overused
Joints such as shoulders and elbows may get too much frequency on full body programs as they are worked 3 -4 times a week.
When training for size and strength, the exercises where you can lift the heaviest weights need to be emphasised. This means deadlifts, squats (link), presses, dips, pulls and lunge variations. Exerices such as Bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, wrist curls etc. are of secondary importance as the resistances involved are insignificant in comparison. What will build big powerful legs… A 45kg leg extension or a 120kg squat?
This guy squats
Nutrition is more than likely the limiting factor for most trainees. Have you heard of homeostasis? In summary, your body wants to maintain a balance so that it can stabilise and survive with minimal effort. With the goal of building muscle in mind, your body will not build extra muscle unless it thinks it needs it to survive and can afford to build it. You can’t build a house without bricks and you cannot build muscle without adequate protein.
What house is your body?
Athough protein will be looked at in further depth in the next article here is some basic protein information. Protein can be used to build muscle, or it can be used to make cells involved in metabolic reactions, or can be broken down and used as energy. To enourage our bodies to use it for muscle we need to train hard and heavy. Protein is made up of amino acids, which cannot be stored – they can only be stored as muscle if your body needs muscle. Otherwise, protein is likely to be used for things such as the manufacture of red blood cells and enzymes, even for supplying energy to muscles if calorie intake is low.
In a nutshell one should consume adequate amounts of protein as it promotes muscle mass, and it should be consumed regularly to prevent muscle breakdown in between.
Carbohydrates are a source of energy that burns quickly, and therefore become increasingly important with hard intense exercise and doubly so, as they spare the use of proteins as fuel. Therefore as a rule of thumb we should be consuming carbohydrates around workouts to spare protein. However, too much carbohydrate intake often leads to increased fat gain and so needs to be monitored. If you know a bodybuilder, you may see him or her stuffing their face with various foodstuffs and if you ask why… you’ll be greeted with “I’m bulking!” This is likely to result in excessive fat gain and is not advised as it will take just as long to shed the fat as it took to gain the muscle and said trainee will be back to square one. You can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time with sound eating habits and hard work – doing the right things (i.e not wasting your time).
Fats certainly get a bad reputation because of their high calorie content (9kcal = fat vs. 4kcal = protein; 4 kcal = carbohydrate). They tend to be burned a very low intensity exercise – mainly walking, resting and sleeping! Fats help make us the outer layer of every cell in your body so they are necessary. Fat intake should not alter that much as our requirement will not change significantly, however if healthy fat intake is low or the individual is fairly underweight to start with, this may need to be looked at further.
If an individual is struggling to gain significant muscle, as stated previously it is predominantly the diet that will be the limiting factor. Getting enough calories from healthy foods is hard and can be very hard for others.
Try this; Log your daily kcals into an online calculator such as fitday or nutritiondata and see if your intake comes close to your GDA (Guideline Daily Amounts). These are 2000kcal for women and 2500 for men (these are rough values to say the least as they do not take into account bodyweights or even muscle mass for that matter). However, as a rough estimate you can see if you are getting nearly enough quality calories in.
In summary, if you are struggling to add lean muscle or want to bump up your metabolic rate – try increasing your intensity, and possibly your training volume. Full body programs and splits both have their place – choose what is suitable for your individual circumstances. Your diet will also play a major part, but your starting bodyfat levels will need to be addressed when changing macronutrient levels.
If you wish to discuss this article, or find out more on the subject of health and fitness – feel free to contact me.