How to Build Muscle – the Right Way (Part III – training for hypertrophy)

In Part I and Part II of these series, we have looked at factors that are necessary to support muscle hypertrophy.  The primary trigger, however – a trigger, without which all of the previously discussed contributing factors are going to remain largely useless – is exercise.

The truth is – if you don’t train your muscle – it won’t grow.  No matter what magic pills, powders and potions you take. Hypertrophy is triggered by exercise and you need to know how to exercise properly, to produce maximum hypertrophy.

When you train to grow muscle, you get both sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increase in the volume of muscle sarcoplasm – the liquid that surrounds your muscle cells) and myofibrillar hypertrophy (the actual increase in the size of muscle fibers).  We have briefly discussed sarcoplasmic hypertrophy when we covered creatine supplementation in Part I.  The volume of sarcoplasm also increases with the increase in stored muscle glycogen, since each glycogen molecule requires four molecules of water for storage (this is why you might have heard that initial weight lost by people who go on carb-restricting diets is “water weight” – as glycogen is being used up, the water is being released).  Although some people view sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as “non-functional” and temporary, it does, after all, contribute to the overall muscle size.  In addition, some researchers theorize that increasing pressure of sarcoplasm against cell walls triggers the reinforcement of cell walls through growth of actual muscle fibers.

In most cases, however, most bodybuilders target myofibrillar hypertrophy, which happens when the rate of protein synthesis surpasses the rate of protein breakdown in muscle.  This is the real muscle growth that should also result in strength increase giving you not just better looks, but also the functional benefit.

There are many variables that you can manipulate – weight, speed, total exercise time, rest time, number of repetitions, number of sets, number of sessions per week, etc.  To get the best results you have to choose the right approach – and to do that, you need to understand what causes muscles to grow.

The science of growing muscles

It is easy to get a set of weights (or convenient exercise machines) and start blasting your muscles with frequent unstructured and haphazard exercise, go for the newest and most trendy workout from another glossy magazine and hope for the best.  Heck, you will probably get some results to show for it, too.  But we don’t want to leave this to chance or only get the residual effect – we want a proper plan of attack, a plan that is scientific, most effective and brutally efficient – after all, most of us do not have countless hours to dedicate to this professionally (even if you did – training for countless number of hours each day is counterproductive, anyway).

Aside from genetic mutations (a rare myostatin deficiency, which removes biological limits for “normal” muscle growth and results in monstrous hypertrophy) and as a part of normal growth and development through adolescence, it is actually not that easy to increase the size of your muscles.  This is why I always find it funny that some women fear becoming too bulky if they graduate to lifting heavy weights (which I always recommend) – I mean, come on, hundreds of thousands of men throughout the world spend a lot of time and energy deliberately trying to grow bigger muscles and they are either failing abysmally or, at best, experience very slow progress.  This is regardless of the fact that those men have help from testosterone, which is naturally present in much higher levels in males than females.  Testosterone is an extremely important component in triggering the growth of lean muscles stimulated by exercise.  It blocks inflammatory processes, which lets you feel better and exercise longer and harder. It interacts directly with muscle cell’s DNA and directly influences the rate of protein assimilation into muscle tissue.  (we refer to lean muscle because testosterone decreases expression of lipoprotein lipase – an enzyme that regulates fat storage – on adipose cells.  That’s an added bonus!).  So, without exogenous testosterone (steroids) women would have an extremely hard time if they decide to specifically increase muscle size.

Even in men, despite all the help from testosterone, building muscle takes a lot of effort.  Let’s look at a few rules of the game and what you should pay attention to.

Quick recap – Fast-twitch and Slow-twitch fibers

Broadly speaking, muscle tissue consists of two types of fibers – fast-twitch and slow-twitch (to be more precise, fast twitch fibers can be further sub-divided into a few sub-types, but that general classification is enough for our purposes)

The names “slow-twitch” or “fast-twitch” are a bit misleading.  Muscle twitch speed differences are only theoretical and, although fast-twitch fibers are capable of generating 2-3 times faster contraction speed, compared to slow-twitch fibers, in real life, limited by a lot of other factors, humans don’t usually reach these maximum muscle contraction speeds anyway, so for all intents and purposes – both fiber types are relatively equal in speed.  Where the distinction is important, however, is what energy systems they use and how fast they fatigue.

Slow-twitch (Type I) fibers depend on aerobic energy systems, are usually red in color (due to the presence of oxygen-binding myoglobin) and have greater capillary density – all conditions necessary to support delivery and utilization of oxygen for energy generation.  Slow-twitch fibers fatigue slowly and recover quickly, in the presence of oxygen – this makes them suitable for low-intensity, low-load endurance-type work (long walks, steady slow jogging, cycling).  In fact, slow-twitch muscles come pre-equipped with mitochondria – the powerhouses of muscle cells that produce ATP from lactate and pyruvate under aerobic conditions and the number of mitochondria in muscle cells can actually increase over time, as a result of adaptation to endurance exercise which eventually improves energy efficiency and increases your aerobic capacity.  This, however, has nothing to do with muscle growth.

Fast-twitch (Type II) mostly use anaerobic energy systems (because for fuelling explosive powerful contractions that need to happen right now, oxygen delivered by the bloodstream is not delivered fast enough to cover these immediate needs).  Fast-twitch fibers get engages in fast explosive movements – punching in boxing, jumps, weightlifting snatches, etc.  Fast-twitch fibers fatigue very quickly and need more time to recover.

Most muscles in your body have both fiber types present – that’s why, most muscle groups can use both aerobic and anaerobic (whenever cardiovascular system falls behind energy requirements) energy systems.  However, the distribution of these fiber types may be different depending on what kind of work a specific muscle is engaged in (this distribution is largely influenced by genetics, too).  For instance, the muscles in your lower body – the same ones that support long leisurely walks, or jogging – are 60%-70% slow-twitch, while the muscles in your upper body (those, for example, that are involved in punching, throwing things, etc.) – are mostly fast-twitch.  At the same time, even in lower body, you have a certain percentage of fast-twitch fibers because you should be able to perform quick intense sprints.

It is generally accepted that fast-twitch fibers have the biggest potential for growth, therefore the majority of conventional bodybuilding protocols target this fiber type.  However, slow-twitch fibers are also capable of growing in size – it’s just a bit harder to do.  Training protocols targeting these two fiber types are different, as you will see below, but the best approach to cover the largest proportion of muscle tissue and maximize growth is to train both types.

How your muscles get energy for movement

Your muscles use energy all the time – even when you rest.  Counterintuitively, muscles are rigid in their “normal” state and use energy through aerobic respiration to just stay relaxed (hence the reason why rigor mortis happens in dead muscle, when that supply of energy stops).  Similar rigidity (but on a smaller scale, because your body will never let your muscles to just completely run out of fuel and your central nervous system would stop sending impulses much earlier as a protective mechanism) happens after brief intensive exercise depletes muscle energy reserves.

The way this depletion happens during intense exercise follows multiple stages

Stage1 – Immediately available ATP (adenosine triphosphate) serves as a quick energy source for muscles, but only lasts for a couple of seconds of activity.  In the process of providing energy for muscles, ATP gets broken down into ADP (adenosine diphosphate) molecules.

Stage 2 – Creatine phosphate (CP) reserves get used to re-generate ATP from ADP (a metabolite of ATP breakdown in Stage 1) –the resulting new supply of ATP lets the muscles last for about 10-15 more seconds.  Free creatine is produced as a result (remember this for later).

Stage 3 – anaerobic glycolysis, or glucose breakdown, kicks in once creatine phosphate reserves are depleted.  Glycogen stored in muscles (essentially, a tighter packed polysaccharide storage form of glucose) undergoes a series of non-aerobic chemical reactions, freeing up ATP and producing pyruvate (subsequently converted into lactate under anaerobic conditions).  Your cardiovascular system then needs to start working harder to supply necessary oxygen to your tissues so that aerobic energy systems would take over.  The supply of oxygen helps clear the muscles of excess lactate (lactate molecules enter the mitochondria of muscle cells – either those muscles that are being exercised or, when lactate is transported out by the blood, other muscles in your body – which oxidize them to produce more ATP)

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Stage 4 – aerobic glycolysis and fat oxidation is what kicks in after all immediate energy reserves have been depleted.  Aerobic energy system is designed to fuel long (but not very intense) activities.  If those activities consume ATP produced by aerobic glycolysis or fat oxidation at the rate that is about the same as the rate at which your bloodstream can supply the necessary oxygen (and as long as there is glucose or fat to oxydize) – this system can run for quite a long time at a steady rate, as, compared to anaerobic systems, it produces significantly larger number of ATP molecules (16 times more) to fuel muscle activity.  Aerobic energy system is what fuels long-distance runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes.

Aerobic energy production takes place predominantly in slow-twitch fibers – these are the fibers that take longer to fatigue precisely due to their reliance on constant slow oxidation.

What makes your muscles grow (and how to design proper bodybuilding protocols)

Most anybody these days knows that to get your muscles to grow, you need resistance exercise.  Sorry – aerobic exercise and cardio conditioning does not grow your muscle (see why below).  This resistance can technically come in a form of free weights (barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, or whatever heavy object you can find and use), exercise machines, or calisthenics (body-weight exercise).  I do, however, recommend that you dedicate at least 80% of your exercise time to compound exercises with free weights – they lead to a more balanced development and not only induce muscle hypertrophy, but also add to your strength and improve functional movement.

What triggers muscle growth?  Several things, actually.  Loosely defined, the sequence of events goes like this:

  1. When a muscle is exercised under a heavy enough load that requires sufficient effort, after some time elapses and the shortage of available energy leads to fatigue, subsequent load will create microscopic tears in muscle tissues (specifically – actin-myosin filament pairs the movement of which against each other creates muscle contraction) – given the lack of energy, some fibers can’t stretch any longer and, if the load continues to be applied, tear instead. As a result of exercise, metabolic waste is generated in the form of lactate and positively charged hydrogen ions (H+).
  2. These micro-tears initiate inflammatory response when your body mobilizes its internal machinery to re-synthesize muscle proteins from amino acids in your blood stream (from food and supplements). As an adaptation, to give your muscles enough strength reserve for future potential feats , your body over-builds the tissue somewhat, so that you are better equipped in case you decide to handle similar weights on a regular basis.
  3. Obviously, this synthesis requires a supply of energy to fuel it – which the cells get from glucose, fat or ketone bodies (all of which are eventually processed by different cellular machinery to produce ATP that fuels all biological processes). Therefore, the need for that energy immediately after exercise increases and this creates a “window of opportunity”, during which your muscle cells can hungrily absorb glucose as energy and proteins as building blocks.  Such anabolic (muscle-growing) effect of exercise can last up to 72 hours – this is why it is wrong to assume that you can exercise the same muscle group every day – if you do, you deplete energy reserves it uses to repair itself (forcing it to cannibalize muscle proteins, instead), add more micro-tears to the muscle that hasn’t fully healed and thus do not let it properly repair itself and compromise your progress.  At the same time, elevated metabolism following resistance exercise helps you burn body fat for energy – the key here is to still supply sufficient protein (with all the energy in the world, if you have nothing to synthesize muscle from – that energy is wasted) and be keto-adapted (train your body to give preference to fat as fuel, as opposed to carbs – this is achieved through following low-carb ketogenic diet with sufficient amount of fat and protein – most diet-related articles on this website follow these guidelines).  This becomes more challenging, however, if your body fat percentage is already low (10% and lower), at which point you might need to add more carbs to your diet as fuel.
  4. Metabolic waste generated during resistance exercise creates conditions that lead to the increase in hormone levels (for example, lactic acid – a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism – stimulates production of testosterone and growth hormone). Exercise also elevates sensitivity to insulin for at least 16 hours helping insulin channel necessary nutrients into muscle cells.   The effect is even more pronounced given that these metabolic byproducts – namely, free creatine, which is a metabolite of the ATP-PC energy system (or a result of creatine supplementation, as discussed in Part II), as well as hydrogen ions (H+) further improve muscle cell permeability to allow better uptake of the said nutrients and hormones.

Why aerobics don’t build muscle

Popular workout programs sold on DVDs (you know which ones I’m talking about – those that require countless hours of sweating and moving to music) are not going to give you meaningful results in the muscle-building department, despite pompous names promising several weeks of hell in exchange for a body of a Greek god(-dess).  This is not about killing yourself and the “no pain – no gain” motto is true only to a certain extent.  In fact, if you structure your training the right way, it will take you a minimum amount of time and give you maximum results with the least amount of discomfort.

As you have seen above, the stimulus for muscle growth comes largely from byproducts of non-aerobic metabolism – lactic acid and hydrogen ions, which stimulate growth hormone production).  If you engage in prolonged exercise but the resistance is low to moderate (a typical DVD-program workout), you risk damaging your muscle fibers due to rising acidity (driven by accumulating hydrogen ions that have no chance to clear in time).  If you engage in such prolonged exercise sessions on a frequent basis (as some of these programs suggest) you add constant micro-tears into the mix that do not get a chance to recover properly.

Moreover, low-intensity aerobic-type exercise simply does not recruit enough muscle fibers that are responsible for strength – such low-intensity activities are usually supported mostly by slow-twitch fibers (which are fuelled by aerobic metabolism).  Remember, muscle recruitment is a gradual process – at any point in time your nervous system only activates the number of muscle fibers necessary to do the job and nothing more.  As the load increases, more and more fibers get “turned on” and fast-twitch fibers get activated.  If you only exercise using low-intensity, half of your fibers may never get a chance to turn on.  No reasonable growth in strength means no increase in weights used – which means that once your muscles adapt to the initial load – they have no stimulus to grow further.

A popular belief is that “muscle burn” is a good indicator of the effectiveness of an exercise.  Originally thought to be a result of accumulating lactate, this burn was subsequently demonstrated to be a result of mounting acidity due to accumulation of hydrogen ions.  This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing if these hydrogen ions are not allowed to accumulate to excessive levels and are cleared out of the muscle as soon as possible.  To reduce such acidity, you need long rest intervals between sets to let your aerobic metabolism catch up with your energy needs and re-use hydrogen ions (which, combined with pyruvate – a byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis, form lactate that can be further re-used by cell mitochondria to produce more ATP in the presence of oxygen).  In other words, all byproducts of anaerobic metabolism at different stages – pyruvate, hydrogen ions, lactate – get utilized for further aerobic energy production.  This is why anaerobic exercise is said to produce “oxygen debt”, which needs to be “repaid” through aerobic respiration after exercise.

If your rest periods are inadequate – the acidity will get too high, making exercise impossible, hindering performance and, in fact, damaging the cell mitochondria.  Insane workout programs that require too much and leave you wasted and unable to move, counterintuitively, through action of free radicals produced during prolonged anaerobic work may inflict cellular damage that may lead to overall lack of energy, lethargy, adrenal fatigue and related endocrine problems and even accelerated aging.

Getting your muscles ready

Unfortunately, it is not enough to just pick up something heavy and do whatever for however long, whenever you feel like it.  Yes, you might – and probably will – get some benefit from random unstructured exercises, but if you are after optimal and most effective muscle growth – you need to follow specific rules.

Conventional knowledge states that low-rep exercise with very heavy weight is usually reserved for strength-training and medium- rep/medium intensity training is more for muscle gain. The distinction between strength- and hypertrophy-based training is a bit blurry, though. Whatever protocol you select – you will undoubtedly experience some carryover – building strength is guaranteed to give you some hypertrophy and pure bodybuilding is still going to give you extra strength – it’s just that the results will probably not be as pronounced.

You do not, however, have to pick one or the other.  I am suggesting that you pick both.  The majority of your training should focus on building strength – this makes total sense, because without proper strength you will have no progress.  Strength-based training gives you the proper foundation, helps increase weights (which is important even for bodybuilding protocols to continue getting results) prepares you for any surprises of everyday activities, protects from injuries, teaches you proper biomechanics and gives you tremendous confidence.  Strength (i.e. increase in weight you are able to move) should be the primary measure of your progress.  But I understand that looks matter, too.  And, frankly, at 30% body fat – you can still be strong and intimidating, but there really is no excuse to be that way.  For that purpose, hypertrophy protocols can and should be combined with strength protocols – even in one session.  You simply start your sessions with strength training and finish them with hypertrophy-oriented training.  The strategy of combining exercises that have different objectives in mind (strength, hypertrophy and, sometimes – endurance) – through varying cadence (tempo), weights, rest time, number of reps or other factors – ensures synergistic effect and, in my opinion, is the best choice for an all-round balanced development.  In addition, because strength powerlifting-style exercises are compound and target multiple muscle groups, the amount of lactate produced is inevitably higher – and higher amount of lactate means more metabolic triggers for hypertrophy overall, as we’ve seen above.

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So, start with designing a training schedule based on powerlifting exercises (deadlifts, bench presses, squats) – you can, maybe, add (military) presses and pull-ups.  These were (or will be) discussed in other articles so I am not going to spend a lot of time on them.  Simply, keep in mind that with these compound exercises you are going for heavy weight, not more than 5 reps per set and around 5 sets in total.

If you are a beginner, my suggestion is that you do not even consider pure bodybuilding protocols until you build up measurable increase in strength. The reason is twofold.  First, building a certain amount of strength reserve will protect you from injuries if you become too overzealous and overenthusiastic in following high-rep medium intensity bodybuilding protocols.  Weak muscles are not a good substrate for demanding strenuous exercises.  Second, starting with strength training would teach you to be patient without losing interest in your training – strength-training requires minimum amount of time, but gives you measurable results that would encourage you to continue.

Once you’ve established a schedule that gives you adequate rest time between training sessions for a specific exercise (see Part I for periodization example), you will realize that training for strength really takes minimum amount of time.  Training for strength, you will be working with heavy weights and will be limited in the number of repetitions and sets you would do – very rarely going beyond 5 sets of 5 – and usually doing more like 3 sets.  If you are training with adequate weight, you will almost never have enough gas in the tank to fuel so many reps in total in pure strength-oriented training.

Which means that, even with more than average rest time between sets, you will probably complete one exercise in about 15 to 30 minutes.  Once you are done with a compound exercise of choice for a given session, you can use the rest of your time to focus on assistance exercises or what some people call “beach work” – isolation exercises to target smaller groups of muscles, bodybuilding-style. This is when you can use lower weights – the objective in bodybuilding-style work has traditionally been to increase the total volume, or the total amount of weight you move during your session – and you can do this by using either higher number of reps per set or higher number of sets in total (or, simply slowing down – more on this below).

Beach work

Bodybuilding protocols usually target fast-twitch fibers that depend on non-aerobic energy systems.  These fibers are believed to have the highest potential for growth.  Accordingly, the exercise protocol that focuses on building muscle size usually features exercises that are targeted to fast-twitch fibers – short- to medium-duration (8-12 repetitions), often going to failure (reaching the point at which the muscle can no longer contract due to fatigue), which, essentially, translates into using weights between 40% and 70% of 1-repetition maximum (1RM).

This is not to say, however, that slow-twitch fibers are useless for bodybuilding.  First, slow-twitch fibers, which most people associate with endurance, are just as strong across a cross-section as fast-twitch fiber.  As we know – better strength means higher possible weights and thus, better load on the muscle in general.  Second, slow twitch fibers provide at least 50% of input in all activities.  By somehow excluding them from exercise (which would be hard to do completely, because with heavy weights all muscle fibers get involved, albeit potentially using different energy systems), you would be leaving a significant proportion of muscles unused and untrained.  So the best approach is to utilize both types of fibers.

Although we talked about “volume” above, the actual factor that directly influences muscle hypertrophy is “time under tension” (only after a muscle remains under load for some time do the conditions necessary for muscle hypertrophy present themselves).  Most people translate this into higher number of reps per set and higher number of sets in total, thus making the muscle work for longer periods. While this is a somewhat valid approach, this can also be achieved through significantly slowing down your movements.  If you take 4-5 seconds to lift and 4-5 seconds to lower your weight and your set lasts for only about 40 to 60 seconds, it actually puts your muscles under tension for longer than if you did explosive, fast movements and just let gravity do its job when the weight descends.

Remember that fibers involved in explosive powerful moves are usually fast twitch and they do not generally require the presence of oxygen, but they get fatigued quickly – so after several seconds of such exercise the work will have to be taken over by slow-twitch fibers (at that point, fast twitch fibers are still not recovering).  These take longer to fatigue and recover quickly, but by using smooth and slow tempo without “mini-breaks” that let your muscles rest between phases (the easiest example to think of is standing biceps curl, when you let your weight drop down all the way, fully extending your hands and taking a brief moment of rest before curling again), you limit blood (and oxygen) flow (which cannot enter contracted muscle) and, thus, fatigue your slow-twitch fibers, which depend on oxygen for aerobic respiration, much quicker (and make the muscle in total work harder).

Such slow cadence is only possible with lower weights (10%-40% of 1RM), but don’t be fooled – they will feel heavy!

So, to recap the rules:

  • long rests between sets (at least three, preferably five, possibly up to 10 minutes if the set was really intense) to get rid of mounting acidity;
  • slow movement;
  • no rest between reps;
  • total 30-60 seconds for each set, 4-9 sets per session, with sessions targeting the same muscle group repeated 3-4 days later;
  • attempt to go to failure;

Hypertrophy work should be either the only (on days when you don’t do strength-targeted training) or the last part of your sessions – for obvious reasons, if you reach failure, you won’t be able to handle heavy lifts.

One important thing to keep in mind is that, given that total volume, it is easy to overtrain and cause more harm to your muscles than good.  This is when rest and recovery become paramount.  The whole idea is to stimulate size and strength increase by mild stress and production of certain metabolites to reach anabolic threshold, but not take it to a point where these metabolites overwhelm your system and become harmful or mechanical damage to muscles, ligaments and bones is inflicted through abnormal wear and tear.

On the other hand, if your sets are too short – you would most likely not generate sufficient amount of anaerobic metabolites that trigger hypertrophy and not recruit enough muscle fibers.

Whether you alternate training days between hypertrophy-focused and strength-focused, or do some of both on the same day is largely a matter of available time and personal preference.  Obviously, focusing only on one goal would give you better results for that specific goal, but, as we established, all-round more balanced development may trump these objectives.

Conclusion

Building muscle is a hard and demanding process that requires dedication, hard work and discipline.  If you are looking for a quick fix – it won’t happen (at least not in the way that would keep you healthy).  It takes time and puts additional demands on your schedule and diet that you may or may not be able to meet (especially longer term).  But, while blindly going after insane hypertrophy with no regard to anything else may not be the best strategy, transforming your body by getting rid of excess body fat and gaining a reasonable amount of lean muscle can be very rewarding and a huge confidence booster – for men and women.  So – by all means, train for hypertrophy, but don’t forget to work on your strength – in the long run, this is more important.

Until next time – stay the Alpha course!