It's time to take your muscle building workout plan up a notch. It's no secret that the best way to build muscle is by lifting weights, but how much weight? What exercises should you do? How often should you train? All of these questions can be answered and more below.
In the video below, Jeff Hoehn (check out the strategies we used when coaching Jeff through his photoshoot prep here) and I talk through the keys you need to consider within your training to start building muscle faster ↴
KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR YOUR MUSCLE BUILDING WORKOUT PLAN
There are four main principles you need to focus on in order to build muscle faster:
1. Progressive Overload
4. Fatigue Management
Let's dig into each.
PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
To quote Renaissance Periodization’s excellent Scientific Principles Of Hypertrophy Training:
“In order to produce improvements in performance, training must be challenging enough to the targeted systems or tissues to stimulate adaptation.”
Your body is an adaptation machine - it’s constantly striving to get better at managing the stressor it’s faced with.
The first time you squatted 135 lbs for 10 reps, it was probably quite a stressful event for your body. The stress of this event triggered your body to adapt and grow stronger/more muscular, to be better prepare for similar events like this in the future.
Now, if you continued to squat 135 lbs for 10 reps, you would eventually reach a point where the stress (we’ll often refer to this stress as “stimulus” in this blog) created by this event was so small, that your body no longer felt the need to further adapt.
This is the principle of overload: you’ll literally often need to add load, reps, or sets across your training career in order to keep pushing your body to further adapt and grow. This is also why doing the same sets, reps, and loads for months will quickly lead to stagnation.
3 THINGS YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT OVERLOAD:
1. You need to be tracking your workouts to ensure that you're actually progressing over time. Our online clients use the Truecoach app. You can use a Google Sheet, pen & paper, or whatever you prefer. But you need clear reference points for past performance on specific movements to ensure you're doing more in the future.
2. Progressive overload doesn't mean add weight to the bar every time you train. Getting stronger over time in the 5-30 rep range is good, but simply moving heavier loads in itself won't actually stimulate muscle growth.
If your ability to execute a movement with good form deteriorates as you add load, you're actually going to get less muscle building stimulus from the movement than you would with a lighter weight.
Excellent execution of movements is the "foundation" that a muscle building workout must be built on.
3. Adding weight to the bar isn't the only way to create progressive overload. We can also use strategies like:
- Adding a rep with the same weight
- Adding another set
- Changing tempo
- Improving technique
→ DECREASE LOAD: Typically, if mind-muscle connection with the target muscles decreases with a load increase, and/or if joints start to hurt more.
→ ADD LOAD: You can max out the prescribed rep range and hit your RIR (reps in reserve) target for said movement, and don't experience a large drop-off in mind-muscle conncetion or increase in joint stress with added load.
SPECIFICITY FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
The way you’re training needs to be specific to your #1 desired outcome from your training.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but your program has you doing lots of olympic lifts for sets of 1, 2, or 3… you're violating the principle of specificity.
We know that:
a.) When it comes to the concept of Stimulus-to-Fatigue Ratio (more on this soon), most olympic lifts are a poor match for stimulating muscle growth.
b.) The low rep ranges you’re working with will likely be insufficient to stimulate new muscle growth.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but your program is based on burning lots of calories, or utilizes extremely short rest periods… you’re violating the principle of specificity.
You could grow a bit of muscle from training like this - but the largest adaptation you’ll be forcing is the progression of your aerobic system, not muscle growth.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but a large amount of your time is spent focused on running, HIIT style training, biking, etc… you’re violating the principle of specificity.
Nothing at all wrong with any of these modalities of training, and this isn’t to say they shouldn’t be done at all while simultaneously training for building muscle.
But they’re far from the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth. With your #1 goal being muscle growth, the majority of your time should be spent focusing on the modality of training that will yield the most progress per unit of time invested.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, and your program is focused on creating overload over time in the 5-30 rep range, while training relatively close to failure (usually stopping with 1-3 reps in the tank), and taking adequate rest periods (usually 1.5-3 mins)... you’re honoring the principle of specificity for muscle growth.
INTENSITY FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
Here, we're going to define intensity as...
"How hard you're pushing yourself in any given set."
You can be hyper-specific to your goal of building muscle... but if intensity isn't adequate, you won't actually grow.
On the flipside, training too hard can also hinder growth... because you can create too much fatigue in your training for your body to recover from (and thus stunt your ability to grow).
The duality of this means we need a smart tool to make sure online clients are pushing themselves hard enough in their training, but not too hard.
Enter: Reps In Reserve (RIR)
RIR gauges how many reps you have in the tank at the end of a set.
Ask yourself at the end of a set:
“How many more reps could I have squeezed out with good form if I absolutely had to?”
Your answer is your Reps In Reserve (RIR), or how many reps you feel you had left before failure.
The closer you take a set to failure, the more muscle fibers you recruit and fatigue. It’s thought that the last few reps of a set are by far the ones you get the most out of - the most "effective reps", because they do the most to disrupt homeostasis and spark new muscle growth.
But again, this is a balancing act between doing enough and doing too much.
So the most effective place to spend most of your time is likely with ~2RIR on average across a mesocycle/training phase (this could mean training at 2RIR every week, or moving from 3RIR to 0-1RIR across a training phase).
TO ENSURE YOU'RE TRAINING HARD ENOUGH TO BUILD MUSCLE:
It's important to audit your proximity to failure on each of your work sets in your training.
Generally, if you can do the exact same weight for the same reps across 3-5 sets it's a good sign you're either:
a.) Not pushing your first few sets hard enough
b.) Push your last few sets too hard
This is especially true for men, who have a slower recovery ability between sets.
Women typically have the ability to recover quicker (both between sets and between training days), so are more likely able to repeat performance like this across multiple sets.
FATIGUE MANAGEMENT FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
One of the most underrated parts of an effective hypertrophy program is understanding how to manage fatigue well enough to allow your body to grow.
When you look at the SRA Curve (stimulus - recovery - adaptation) below...
[Image credit: bretcontreras.com]
...you’ll see that after experiencing the stress/stimulus of hard training, there’s a large amount of recovery that must happen simply to get your muscles back to their previous baseline before new growth can occur.
Too many hard working individuals like you fall into the trap of ignoring fatigue management and crushing yourself in the gym constantly.
This often leads to your muscles barely being able to recover enough to get back to their previous baseline, due to the huge amount of fatigue created in your training.
This is why so many people are working VERY hard in the gym, but still don’t look like they train.
Fatigue management isn’t just making sure you get plenty of sleep, eat enough, and manage life stressors - it’s also very intertwined with your exercise selection… because the movements you select are what determine the magnitude of fatigue that is created/must be recovered from in order to grow.
KEYS TO MANAGING FATIGUE FOR BUILDING MUSCLE:
1. Intermediate and beyond trainees lifting 4x/week+ should take deloads every 4-6 weeks.
2. Don't always train to failure. Again, across a mesocycle you should be averaging about 2RIR.
3. Apply the concept of stimulus-to-fatigue ratio (SFR). SFR is basically just a way of determining if the amount of muscle building stimulus you're getting from a movement is worth the amount of fatigue generated by doing said movement... or if you're better off plugging in a different movement with a better ratio of stimulus to fatigue.
Basically, we're weighing...
- How good was the pump from said movement?
- How good was the mind-muscle connection?
- How much muscle disruption was incurred from the movement?
- How much joint and/or connective tissue stress is the movement causing?
- What's the mental and physical fatigue toll caused by the movement?
- How taxing is the movement for non-target muscles and joints?
Some movements inherently create a lot of fatigue - especially those that load the spine heavily.
With these movements, it's smart to continue training the few of these that give you a great training stimulus, and find less fatiguing variations of the same movement pattern (I.e. a cable row instead of a barbell bent row) for those that don't.
Finally, it's important to realize that stimulus-to-fatigue ratio will change for movements over time.
It's normal for a movement to start to "stall" after months of progressing it - SFR will decrease, and it's likely smart to plug in a different variation.
Signs it’s time to swap out a movement for a different variation:
1. Movement has stalled out - No progression with a movement (i.e. adding reps or load) across a mesocycle.
2. Experiencing pain or discomfort with said movement.
3. Fatigue generated by said movement is extremely high, and seems to be detracting from the rest of training, when an equally stimulative/less fatiguing movement could fill its place.
EXERCISE SELECTION FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
When the goal is building muscle with your workout, you want the "rate limiter" (the thing that forces you to eventually stop a movement) to be the specific muscle group(s) you're targeting.
Let's say you're doing heavy Farmers Carries to train your core, and refuse to wear wrist straps.
As a result, your grip always gives out long before core fatigue would cause you to stop the movement.
Thus, this has become a pretty poor exercise for actually building a stronger core... but if the goal was building grip strength, it'd be a great fit.
Some common examples of rate limiters on exercises that are stopping you from building lean muscle:
→ Grip strength: See example above.
→ Unstable exercises: The classic example of doing squats on a bosu ball applies here. You don't "fail" the movement because of fatigue in your quads, you fail due to a lack of stability.
→ Cardiovascular Fatigue: The most common example of this is simply cutting rest periods too short between sets, or stringing together too many exercises in a row with inadequate rest (this is a big part of why we always prescribe specific rest periods for our online clients).
BEST REP RANGES FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
When assigning rep ranges we know a few things…
- When performing sets of less than 5 reps, you’ll need to do more total sets to make up for the low total volume per set.
- Sets 5 shy of failure all the way to failure are thought to be “hypertrophic reps” that stimulate muscle growth… so you’ll likely get more growth from doing a set of 5 to failure vs. 4, as you’re adding one more hypertrophic rep.
- We know that 30% of your 1 rep max for a movement seems to be the “floor” for the lightest we want to take a weight, as using weight lighter than this seems to be less effective for stimulating growth. So doing no more than 30 reps in a set is also a good idea for muscle growth.
- Most compound movements are better suited to the lower end of this spectrum (5-15 reps).
- Most isolation movements are better suited to the higher end of this spectrum (10-30 reps). Going too heavy on a Bicep Curl or Lateral Raise usually just involves sloppy technique and recruit other muscles that shouldn’t necessarily be heavily involved.
- Training in the 5-10 rep range is likely a bit harder on your joints and tendons (due to the heavier loads used), so we probably shouldn’t spend all of our time here.
1. Train in the 5-30 rep range.
2. Compound lifts should primarily be trained in the 5-10 and 10-20 rep range. Isolation lifts primarily in the 10-30 rep range.
3. Too much time in any one of these rep ranges is probably slightly less productive than a mixture of the 3.
4. It’s a good idea to vary these rep ranges across your training day. Meaning it’s smart to do your heaviest work (in the 5-10 range) when you’re freshest (at the start of a session).
If you save your heavy Romanian Deadlifts until the very end of a lower body day after doing sets of 10-20 Walking Lunges and Leg Extensions, and 20-25 Leg Curls… the decrease in performance you’ll see vs. if you did your RDLs at the start of the session will be huge.
But you wouldn’t see the massive drop-off in performance in all of the movements mentioned from doing the RDLs first in the session.
And that's how to start training to build more muscle, faster.
For a deeper dive into all of the concepts we discussed here, check out our Hypertrophy Training Guide.
Check out Jeff Hoehn's content:
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