By Ryan Fairman, Certified Trainer

What's better for long term muscle growth?

This question, usually followed by heavy weight and low reps or light weight and high reps is a question I get a lot, and I think there is a common misconception when it comes to the type of training program you should implement (mainly due to marketing and silly advertisements).

Let’s look at it from the perspective of a male, trying to put on a little bit of muscle mass and lose a little bit of fat... aka look better (a very common goal). What should he do to maximize his effectiveness in the gym? Great question...

A saying that I heard recently and stuck with me is, "A random process (exercises) will yield random results." So, it’s best to have a plan of attack when it comes to reaching a specific goal. Here are the basic guidelines when it comes to resistance training and how to program your routine for a specific goal.

There are typically 3 program types when it comes to resistance training. Each has a set of specific parameters (intensity, sets, reps, tempo, and rest) which will vary based on the goal or adaptation you are trying to achieve. Those are:

  1. Power
  2. Hypertrophy
  3. Muscular Endurance

We won’t touch too much on the power or endurance programs today, since we are focusing on muscle mass, but they should not be overlooked and are vital to a well-rounded training regimen.

How does a muscle increase in size?

Muscle growth… What is it? How does it happen?

The common term in the science world is hypertrophy, which is essentially an increase in the size of the skeletal muscle through an increase in the size of the cells. Without getting too deep into the science of how this happens, there needs to be stimulus (resistance training) that is at or above an individual’s threshold for conditioning. Basically, a fancy way to say that you need to work hard enough for there to be any change. If you are below the threshold, then there won’t be an adaptation (muscle size increase). If you’re too high, then the body might not adapt because there is too much intensity. This is called overtraining and some symptoms include fatigue, decreased performance, decreased motivation, depression, and irritability.

Another thing to keep in mind, is that there are multiple muscle fiber types that will adapt differently to different stimuli. Again, without getting too deep into the science, you have muscle fibers that are really good at powerful, quick movements and others that are good at long duration movements or activities. Not saying one is better than the other, but knowing this will allow for a more efficient program, especially if you’re trying to increase the size/growth. Remember, a random process, yields random results.

What should I do to maximize my results?

So, we have a general idea of how a muscle increases its size. How do we make that happen? And as fast as possible?

Well, to be honest, muscle growth takes time and isn’t a quick process, especially if you’re doing it naturally through resistance training and a proper diet. Of course, you can always take supplementation and see quite a bit of progress in a short amount of time, but that usually puts you at a high-risk for other health issues down the road. So, I do NOT recommend or condone that.

Now that we got that out of the way, here are the specific guidelines and parameters to maximize hypertrophy:

  • Intensity: 75%-85% of 1RM
  • Sets: 3 to 4
  • Reps: 8 to 12
  • Tempo: 2-1-4-1
  • Rest: 30-60 secs

Why is this recommended? Because there is high metabolic stress due to the breakdown of type 1 and type 2 fibers (remember there are different muscle fiber types), ATP/CP and Glycolytic energy systems. Essentially, you’re able to improve a lot of variables with one set of parameters. And in terms of frequency per week, this will vary depending on your current fitness level, but anywhere from 2-4 days per week is recommended.

What should each exercise look like?

Now that you have a nice overview of what a program should look like each week, what should each exercise look like? If your main goal is to put on some muscle, then make sure you are doing these 4 things when it comes to your resistance training:

  1. Ensuring that you’re putting the tissue under enough stress/stimulus during each set:
    • This is why the reps and the tempo are set at the ranges they are. Research has shown that ~40 secs of time under tension or how long you are doing the set with the resistance, is optimal for muscle growth/hypertrophy. 8-12 reps at a 2-1-4-1 tempo will get you to those 40 seconds.
  2. Time is not the only factor...Intensity is just as important:
    • If you’re consistently using a low weight and not challenging yourself, then your results will probably be non-existent. Ensuring that your intensity is high on most days will set you up for success when it comes to building muscle. Now, of course there are many factors that come into play and you might not feel up to a high-intensity workout every day, but in order to see results, you will have to bump that intensity up at some point.
  3. Directly challenging the muscles/tissues you want to grow:
    • A big trend nowadays is the ‘functional training’ method, where you use exercises or movements that you do in everyday life. If all the muscles are involved they should grow and get stronger, right? Not necessarily, especially when were are talking about optimization. If you want the muscle to get bigger, you have to directly challenge it through strategic strength training.
  4. Have an internal focus when executing the exercise:
    • So, the bulk of this write up has a lot of external components (sets, reps, % intensity), which are vital and shouldn't be left out, but there is some cool research based on what you’re thinking about during the exercise having a pretty big effect on the outcome. So, don’t just mindlessly go through an exercise or lift and count the reps. Rather, think about squeezing the muscles involved and letting that be your main focus.

Follow these tips, and you will be on your way to maximizing your results with your resistance training, especially increasing your muscle mass.


Ryan FairmanAbout Author:
As a Fitness Professional and owner of Continued Performance in Chicago, Ryan helps driven professionals achieve their goals with expert exercise and nutrition coaching. "Quite simply, I love what I do and I put in the time and effort to make sure I’m providing the best service for my clients. I have 2-3 study group sessions per week with colleagues along with self study. I got into this profession to help people and I want to be confident I’m doing that in the most efficient and effective way possible." Learn more about Ryan at https://www.continuedperformance.com/

Experience: ACSM Exercise Physiologist, RTSm, MATjs, Precision Nutrition Level 1

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