Want to gain muscle? Me too. And I've spent two decades chasing muscle gains for myself and my clients. I studied the science, then tested it out in the real world. Here's what works.
1 – Use Muscle Loading Variations
Some lifters think progression simply means adding more weight to the bar, but there are many different muscle-loading variations in which you can alter the time under tension, tempo, or use set-extending methods to trigger muscle growth.
Remember, the key to hypertrophy isn't how much weight is on the bar, but how much stress is placed upon the muscle. Here are three examples:
Working your muscles through a full range of motion is almost always a good idea. It'll develop your muscles to their greatest potential and accelerate your gains. However, there are a couple of things you must consider.
It's important to keep tension on the working muscles and increase the time under tension for each and every set. One advanced method to achieve this is called continuous tension sets, which is a technique that defies the time-honored tradition of locking out every rep. Just stop right before the weights are locked out at the top and proceed directly into the next rep.
In the book Supertraining (Mel Siff, 2009), continuous tension sets are defined as, "Any set in which each repetition is done smoothly without ballistic bounce, cheating, or significant pause at either end of the motion. Characteristically, the movements are executed fairly slowly without the joints locking completely at any stage of the exercise."
You go through a full range of motion, then a quarter of the range of motion, and this would be considered one rep. This is a great set-extending strategy that'll give you a bigger pump and faster muscle growth.
You'll usually see people doing this with squats, but try it with the chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension, and row variations.
The basic principle of the one-and-a-quarter rep is that it places more work in the disadvantageous or weak part of the lift. For example, in the squat and chest press, it's at the bottom of the lift.
Consider the triceps extension. The triceps are stretch-shortening muscles. This means increased muscle fiber recruitment when the contraction is preceded by a stretch. Using this stretch-shortening reflex to your advantage guarantees better motor unit activation.
Isometrics are one of the most underused training methods for creating high amounts of tension and stress in the muscle. Isometric training produces a greater level of activation than any other type of contraction. One of the main benefits is that the body is able to activate nearly all the available motor units, something that's usually very difficult to do.
Isometric holds also increase joint stability, improve reversal strength, and may be helpful in rehabbing injuries. It's also great because it can help you develop a stronger mind-muscle connection.
2 – Use Proper Execution and Tension
One of the biggest factors is creating tension in the muscle. Many lifters neglect this essential principle and try to lift weights that are far too heavy. This is counterproductive.
Execution is the key in being able to continually hit the threshold for muscle growth as your body and muscles adapt. To keep increasing the stimulus of tension, you have to be able to make the target muscle contract harder, with greater degrees of tension, and a greater time under tension.
Other muscles and momentum come into play to assist as the weight goes up or when you get fatigued. While this will allow you to move more weight for more reps, it'll actually decrease the tension and stimulus in the muscle. It doesn't matter if you work longer or harder if the muscle you're trying to grow isn't working hard and long enough to reach its threshold for hypertrophy stimulus.
In a way, your body is designed to cheat. It will try to move a weight by the most effective means (using several muscles) thereby dispersing tension rather than concentrating it – our goal for hypertrophy training.
Generally, when people plateau they believe that adding more volume will build more muscle. Unfortunately when we're talking about tension, it's not just time under tension that matters. It has to be time under a significant and direct amount of tension. Simply adding more poor quality reps won't help you stimulate hypertrophy.
The key for both mechanical damage and biochemical stress is tension. Mechanical damage is accomplished by having a volume of high tension work, especially in the eccentric (negative) range.
Biochemical stress is accomplished more by having continuous tension for extended periods, and taxing the same muscle's energy production and waste removal systems. However, even biochemical stress will require a high degree of direct tension to reach the threshold. Low quality work will make it hard to reach the threshold for all these stimuli because the tension is dispersed among the largest and least fatigued muscles.
This is why I believe there's no such thing as a weak body part, just ones you haven't learned how to create tension in yet.
3 – Master the Mind-Muscle Connection
Bodybuilders have always talked about the importance of the mind-muscle connection. It's a variation of the idea of "internal focus of attention" which comes from the field of motor learning. It's the process of actively thinking about the target muscle during training and then feeling it work through the full range of motion.
According to theory, this strategy maximizes stimulation of the muscles you're trying to target while reducing the involvement of secondary movers.
There have been numerous studies that have confirmed mind-muscle connection does in fact increase activation of the target muscle as measured by electromyography. However, until recently there have been no studies to investigate whether adopting a mind-muscle connection actually had a beneficial effect on growth.
A new study by Schoenfeld et al. examined 30 untrained college men who performed 4 sets of arm curls for 8-12 reps on 3 non-consecutive days per week. One group was coached to focus on technique and mind-muscle connection; the other group was given coaching cues not relevant to mind-muscle connection.
After 8 weeks, subjects who used mind-muscle connection had almost double the muscle growth in the biceps brachii compared to those using an external focus (12.4% vs. 6.9% respectively). The study found that participants made superior biceps gains by using an internal focus of attention.
There are three methods that can help improve your mind-muscle connection:
- Posing: Regardless of whether you're stepping on stage, practice flexing and contracting the body part you're wanting to build.
- Mirrors: Watching the muscle work can help you build the mind-muscle connection.
- Isometric Holds: Focus on contracting the muscle in a static position when loaded.
4 – Try Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood flow restriction (BFR) training, also known as occlusion training, has grown in popularity as more research has come out showing that it boosts muscle growth.
BFR entails occluding circulation of the working muscle by wrapping a restrictive implement (wraps, bands, cuffs) around the limbs while lifting. The objective of BFR is to occlude venous flow without significantly affecting arterial circulation. To achieve this, the wrapping is advised to be a perceived tightness of 7 out of 10. The guidelines for the load are 20 to 40% of your 1RM.
In Brad Schoenfeld's book, Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, it states, "BFR training stimulates anabolic signaling and muscle protein synthesis and markedly increases muscle growth despite using loads often considered too low to promote significant hypertrophy."
Many believe metabolic stress is the reason BFR works. This is the build up of training by-products called metabolites. Metabolites are implicated in promoting a hypertrophic response including lactate, inorganic phosphate, and hydrogen ions.
This enhances anabolism by a variety of mechanisms, including the release of growth factors. In addition, the production of metabolites drive cellular signaling in a manner that enhances protein synthesis and satellite cell activation which are essential elements needed for muscle growth. And since the load requirement of BFR is low (20 to 40%) you can avoid the joint stress and shear forces associated with maximally loaded exercises.
Here's what to remember about BFR:
- This technique works best with single-joint exercises, such as bicep curls, leg extensions, triceps pushdowns, etc.
- Use BFR as a finishing technique at the end of the session. Don't keep restrictive items on for more than 15 minutes. Don't take them off between sets of the same exercise.
- The first set should be 20-25 reps. Then rest about 30 seconds. This heightens the metabolic stress and pooling of blood in the muscle. Start the next set and repeat the same way until you're only able to do around 6-8 reps. Follow that protocol to achieve optimal anabolic benefits.
- Squeeze out every last rep to maximize metabolite accumulation and its associated anabolic response.
5 – Sleep
Studies have linked short, sleepless nights with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. For example, fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night has been shown to increase low-grade chronic inflammation and insulin resistance, two metabolic processes associated with the development of those health conditions, and a worsening of general health and well-being.
Insufficient sleep can slow muscle recovery, impair insulin sensitivity, increase cortisol levels and even mess with your appetite-suppressing hormone, leptin. It can also lower your serum levels of testosterone, reduce your natural levels of human growth hormone, and kill your cognitive performance.
Our sleep patterns are synched with light exposure. This is what our bodies are adapted for. This natural cycle (circadian rhythm) dictates that cortisol should be high in the morning to give us energy, mental focus, clarity, and be ready to manage daily stressors. As the day progresses, our cortisol levels should taper off and our melatonin levels should increase.
Melatonin is also the first step in a series of metabolic reactions that lead to the production of many hormones, including cortisol and sex hormones. Ever felt a loss of libido after a few bad nights of sleep? It's no wonder. In fact, the most influential factor in your testosterone production is actually sleep quantity and quality.
Here are some easy ways to improve it.
- Turn off electronics: An hour before bedtime turn off your phone, TV, computer, etc. Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake. One study found that exposure to unnatural light cycles may have real consequences for our health, including increased risk for depression. Some have gone as far as only using candlelight before bed.
- Be thankful: Right before you go to bed, jot down three things you're thankful for. Having positive thoughts before bed decreases stress levels even more. This is really powerful.
- Supplement right: My recommendation for awesome sleep: One serving of Z-12™ and one serving of ZMA®.