The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

3 Ways to Get Big!


When someone starts to lift weights it's usually for one main reason: to build muscle.

Almost everyone who starts lifting wants to gain muscle to some extent. They might not know it, but they do! Even the girl who doesn't want to get big, just get "more toned," will need to build muscle to reach her objective.

Muscle growth is the way weight training improves your appearance the most. From looking hard and defined to being downright freaky, you need to build muscle to attain what you want out of training. In that regard, it's interesting to know what stimulates growth. It can get pretty confusing, too!

Some big guys will tell you that you should lift big weights: "Just lift the damn bar and progressively add weight; that pumping stuff is for wusses!"

Other guys who are just as big will then say that the key is volume work: "Top bodybuilders lift in the moderate rep ranges, so you should just leave the super heavy stuff to powerlifters!"

Others with equally impressive physiques will point out that you should focus on muscle tension, squeezing the muscle hard: "Simply lifting the weight isn't enough. You must aim for the quality of the contraction!"

The thing is that they're all right to some extent! You can't argue with results. Some guys have been getting big by focusing on lifting huge weights on a few basic exercises. Others built their mass by doing a lot of physical work on several exercises with a moderate resistance. Some built great physiques "just lifting the damn weight" while others really emphasize the squeeze, the pump, and feeling the muscle.

It's hard to say that any of these methods don't work because for each of them we can find thousands of successful proponents. We know that all of these methods can stimulate muscle growth, but how? And is it important to know? Yes, it is. You should at least have a general idea about these concepts so you'll be able to optimize your own workouts.

You have three basic ways of stimulating growth: heavy lifting, volume work, and constant tension lifting. They all work via slightly different mechanisms so it's worth it to take a quick look at each.


Method #1: Heavy Lifting

When you're performing sets with a relatively heavy weight, you stimulate muscle growth via muscle micro-trauma (a high force output leads to a high rate of protein degradation), neural factors (more complete recruitment and fatigue of the high-threshold motor units) and hormonal (increase of free Testosterone) factors.

This is especially true when the progressive overload principle is followed (trying to increase the weight lifted over the weeks) since it forces the muscle to make itself stronger and bigger to be able to sustain that type of physical demand. Heavy lifting also has a potentiating effect on the other exercises performed since it "wakes-up" the nervous system, making it more efficient at recruiting the high-threshold motor units in subsequent sets.

Finally, heavy lifting increases muscle density and myogenic tone (tonus: the muscle looks harder even at rest). You don't need to lift your 1RM or shoot for singles or doubles to have the benefits of heavy lifting. If anything, when training for hypertrophy it's best to keep lifting heavy but keep the reps moderate. Beginners and intermediates will do fine with lifting around 85% of their maximum (lifting in the 6-8 rep range to failure) while more advanced trainees will need to go up to 90% (lifting in the 3-5 rep range).

Advanced lifters can also use high-intensity techniques such as cluster sets (sets of 5 reps with 90-92% of your max taking 10 seconds of rest between sets) and rest-pause (perform a 3-5 RM, rest for 10-12 seconds, and perform a few more reps).


Method #2: Constant Tension

Here we're talking about sets where the muscle doesn't relax for one fraction of a second during the execution of a set. In other words, the worked muscle needs to be kept super tense for the duration of the exercise; the moment the muscle is allowed to relax, the set (using this method) loses its efficacy.

Constant tension sets are obviously performed with fairly light weights since it's almost impossible to maintain muscle tension throughout every inch of every rep of a heavy set. The light weight oftentimes doesn't allow for much muscle damage to occur, yet this type of training has been shown in studies and with bodybuilders to be effective at building both strength and size.

So, there must be a second pathway for hypertrophy stimulation. That pathway is the blood occlusion that occurs during constant tension sets which prevents oxygen from going into the muscle during the exercise. When you perform a strength training exercise while depriving the target muscle of oxygen, several things happen: lactate production increases, so does hGH and IGF-1 levels (two anabolic hormones).

Furthermore, there's some evidence showing that when a muscle is being stimulated in a hypoxic state (oxygen deprived), fast-twitch fiber activation is increased, possibly because the shortage of oxygen prevents the use of the aerobic pathway on which slow-twitch fibers are dependent.

Here we're talking about relatively light weights being used for sets lasting at least 30 seconds, preferably 40-70 seconds (to maximize lactate production) with a relatively slow (but not super-slow) tempo.

The real key is that the target muscle should never be allowed to relax during the set. This means no pause between reps and keeping the muscle flexed at all times. When the muscle relaxes, oxygen will enter the muscle and you lose the efficacy of the technique. Due to the nature of this method, isolation movements are your best choices.


Method #3: Volume/Cumulative Fatigue Training

Zatsiorsky wrote that a muscle fiber needs to be not only recruited but also fatigued to be stimulated. Heavy lifting, while being a fantastic tool to stimulate growth, often leaves some fibers un-stimulated.

Volume work, especially when performed with short rest intervals, can increase the number of muscle fibers being stimulated via the cumulative fatigue effect. Sure, some argue that this will lead to more slow-twitch fiber hypertrophy (which is true), but if you're only after maximum muscle growth, it doesn't matter!

Athletes should focus solely on fast-twitch fiber development, but mass-minded individuals shouldn't shy away from volume work. Heck, even the Westside guys are known for doing repetition method work, sometimes with very high reps.

To be effective, this method should be performed with sets ranging from 8-12 reps (up to 15 or 20 on some exercises) with short rest intervals (45-60 seconds). Advanced lifters can also use high-density techniques such as pre/post-fatigue (superset of two exercises for the same muscle group), drop-sets (perform 8-12 reps to technical failure, drop the weight by 15-20% and continue to perform reps), and double contractions (one and half reps).


Arranging the Methods into a Workout

Here's a good rule: You should always put the more CNS-demanding stuff early in the workout. Heavier exercises and more complex exercises involve the CNS more. So in a workout using all three methods you should use this order:

The second rule is that the lower the reps per set, the more sets you do. Good arrangements for each muscle include:

CHEST — BEGINNER

A. Decline bench press

B. Incline DB (dumbbell) press

C. Cable crossover

CHEST — INTERMEDIATE

A. Decline bench press

B. Incline DB press

C. Cable crossover

CHEST — ADVANCED

A. Decline bench press

B1. Flat DB press

B2. Flat DB flies with a pronated grip

C. Cable crossover

BACK — BEGINNER

A. Chest-supported DB rowing or chest-supported T-bar rowing with a parallel grip

B. Lat pulldown

C. Bent over DB laterals

D. Straight-arm pulldown

BACK — INTERMEDIATE

A. Chest-supported DB rowing or chest-supported T-bar rowing with a parallel grip

B. Lat pulldown

C. Bent over DB laterals

D. Straight-arm pulldown

BACK — ADVANCED

A. Chest-supported DB rowing or chest-supported T-bar rowing with a parallel grip

B1. Lat pulldown

B2. Rope lat pulldown

C. Seated rowing to abdomen with a pronated grip

D. Straight-arm pulldown

QUADS - BEGINNER

A. Front squat

B. Close-stance leg press

C. Leg extension

QUADS — INTERMEDIATE

A. Front squat

B. Close-stance leg press

C. Leg extension

QUADS — ADVANCED

A. Front squat

B1. Close-stance leg press

B2. DB squat

C. Leg extension

HAMSTRINGS — BEGINNER

A. Romanian deadlift

B. Leg curl

C. Three-fourth DB Romanian deadlift (stop 3-4 inches short of lockout to maintain tension on hams)

HAMSTRINGS — INTERMEDIATE

A. Romanian deadlift

B. Leg curl

C. Three-fourth DB Romanian deadlift (stop 3-4 inches short of lockout to maintain tension on hams)

HAMSTRINGS — ADVANCED

A. Romanian deadlift

B1. Leg curl

B2. Wide stance/feet-high leg press

C. Three-fourth DB Romanian deadlift (stop 3-4 inches short of lockout to maintain tension on hams)

DELTOIDS — BEGINNER

A. Military press

B. Neutral (hammer) grip seated DB press

C. One-arm cable lateral raise

DELTOIDS — INTERMEDIATE

A. Military press

B. Neutral grip seated DB press

C. One-arm cable lateral raise

DELTOIDS — ADVANCED

A. Push press

B1. Neutral grip seated DB press

B2. Incline lateral raise

C. One-arm cable lateral raise

BICEPS — BEGINNER

A. Preacher curl (close grip)

B. Incline DB curl

C. Low-pulley cable curl

BICEPS — INTERMEDIATE

A. Preacher curl (close grip)

B. Incline DB curl

C. Low-pulley cable curl

BICEPS — ADVANCED

A. Preacher curl (close grip)

B. Incline DB curl

C. Low-pulley cable curl

TRICEPS — BEGINNER

A. Close-grip bench press

B. Decline DB triceps extension

C. Rope cable pressdown

TRICEPS — INTERMEDIATE

A. Close-grip bench press

B. Decline DB triceps extension

C. Rope cable pressdown

TRICEPS — ADVANCED

A. Close-grip bench press

B. Decline DB triceps extension

C. Rope cable pressdown

If someone wanted to build a routine from this example you could use a split looking like this:


Conclusion

The examples given above are merely there to illustrate how the three types of hypertrophy training can be used in a training session for each muscle group. The real objective is to show you three effective ways to make your muscles grow. The more approaches to hypertrophy you know, the better your chances of getting the results you desire!

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