Training is the first piece of the puzzle. Nutrition and recovery will also be important, but if you’re not actually working out sufficiently, they won’t result in strength or muscle gain.
The process of building muscle is somewhat like making a pizza. Your protein intake and diet are like the dough, the essential building blocks. Above that, you can add toppings and sauces for flavor. Once all those ingredients are assembled, the raw and mushy dough needs to go into a very hot oven to bake, gaining strong structure and flavor.
If you didn’t provide enough heat, or only put it in for a few seconds, the pizza would not get formed. In this case, stressing your body with resistance training provides similarly intense conditions to “bake” all your available amino acids into new muscles. This can’t just be done once by lifting weights for a few minutes, but needs to be done consistently and intensely for weeks or months to get the desired results.
Strength, Hypertrophy or Endurance?
Your ideal training program will be influenced by your goals. Though all exercise will provide health benefits, there is no “best” program or “one size fits all” solution here.
Strength is the maximal force you can apply against a load. With this in mind, is lifting the same weight 12 times in a row a measure of strength? You certainly have to have an element of strength to do so, but you could probably lift more if you were only lifting the weight once or twice. Therefore, maximum strength is generally measured in what you can handle for 1 rep, refer to in short as your “1RM” (1 Rep Max). For this same reason, when training for strength, we tend to focus on lower rep ranges and higher rest periods. For example, 1-3 reps followed by 3-5 minutes of rest to allow the CNS to adequately recover from the high level of stress that maximal loads place upon it.
Hypertrophy is the increase in size of an organ or tissue — in this case an increase in the size of your muscles. Hypertrophy mostly focuses on total volume. Research tells us that around 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps with around 2 minutes or less rest between sets will produce the most hypertrophy. Some research also suggests that volume and proximity to failure is more important than load. This means if strength isn’t your main goal, it is possible to build mass and maintain your physique with relatively low loads so long, as intensity is sufficient.
Endurance is the ability to remain in a state of exertion for a long period of time. It is generally not the primary goal for most people, but it still deserves a mention. Not much strength is obtained through endurance work, but some hypertrophy can be produced. Work capacity and lactate threshold is also increased, which will benefit your overall fitness and, in turn, may benefit your heavier lifting abilities. Endurance resistance training tends to focus on significantly lighter loads and reps of above 15 up to 25 and beyond.
There is some cross-over between each of these. Training for strength comes with some muscle, and adding more muscle through hypertrophy will also boost strength and endurance. Each utilizes slightly different energy systems in the body, hence the different training protocols.
Your body powers itself with 3 main systems that provide energy for different types of activity and movement. All energy systems run on a chemical called adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). It fuels all metabolic activity in your body, from breathing to running. Most ATP is made from the food you eat, by way of your glycolytic and oxidative energy systems. A small amount also is stored in your muscles for utilization by your adenosine triphosphate/creatine phosphate (ATP-CP) system.
For sudden and intense activities, your ATP-CP system kicks into play. Think sprinting, jumping and very heavy lifting. It is the fastest energy system to respond, but its speed in activation is almost matched in it’s duration. You can only store a small amount of ATP in your muscles, enough for about 6-10 seconds of max effort. Training using the ATP-CP pathway more often will improve strength, speed and power, but you can’t increase the size of your stores. Supplementing with creatine can help slightly, but more on that later…
For lower intensity weight training with higher rep ranges, your ATP-CP will still be the first responder, but after those initial 6-10 seconds your glycolytic system (also referred to as the lactic acid system) will kick in. This can keep you going for another minute or so.
Glycolysis is fuelled by converting carbohydrates into ATP. In this zone, you will start to feel the “burn” caused by a build up of hydrogen ions, a by-product of glycolysis. This is the type of energy source most people want to use when exercising, as it is the most effective at both producing muscle and burning fat.
For long duration and steady state exercise (like long bike rides, running, or low-load strength training for endurance) your oxidative system will take care of things. It is always working in the background, whether at rest or moving, and is fuelled mainly by fats and glucose. It is the only energy system that directly requires oxygen to function.
Regardless of your primary goals, the three main variables that you can control are volume, frequency and intensity.
Volume is defined as The total amount of work performed.
There are three common ways to quantify this:
Volume Load = Sets x Reps x Load
Number of Repetitions = Sets x Reps
The total number of sets at a given intensity
The latter is the most useful way to measure volume with regards to strength training, as the results are far more stable, therefore more easily correlated to progress. Research has shown that for the most part, when the number of sets is increased, both strength and hypertrophy also increase. In fact, studies have found that when intensity is equated — that is, you’re lifting to near failure - 3 sets of 6-8 would produce similar hypertrophy results to 3 sets of 15-20.
How much volume is needed to effectively build muscle?
This is where smart programming is vital. The ideal training volume for building muscle is around 9-18 sets, per muscle, per week.
This is a wide range, since it is so individualized. For example, different people may be stronger or weaker in different lifts for different reasons. Some of the bigger, heavier compound lifts will tax your CNS a lot more than isolation work.
However, if you’re following a well designed program and lifting with good form, doing 2-4 sets of 6-20 reps per set, and bringing those sets within 1-3 reps of failure, the bottom end of this range (9-10 sets) is usually enough to elicit muscle growth.
Doing the least amount of work required to stimulate a response (muscle growth) is where most people want to be, most of the time.
How often should you actually workout?
Frequency is largely down to personal choice, schedule and goals. 3 well programmed workouts a week, around 45-60 minutes in length, is generally accepted as a good starting point. More is an option if you prefer. If the goal is maximal strength over actual hypertrophy, then even less than this could be beneficial, due to the high amount of stress placed upon the CNS. The more pertinent question to ask would be:
How often should you train each muscle group?
Most research suggests that for maximul muscle growth (hypertrophy), each muscle group should be trained at least twice a week.
If you train 3 times a week, this could be achieved with 3 full body workouts. You’d train every muscle group at least once in each workout.
Or you could do 1 upper body, 1 lower body and 1 full body workout. You’d have more time to focus in on specific areas in each workout, but the frequency per body part would be more or less the same.
If you train 4 times a week, 2 upper body and 2 lower body workouts would do the trick.
5 times a week may be push, pull, lower, upper, lower.
And 6 times could be push, pull, legs, push, pull legs...
When you start hitting 5 or more workouts a week, varying the intensity is also a good idea. For example, 2-3 with a strength focus and 2-3 endurance and hypertrophy sessions.
Whatever “split” you choose, what matters the most is that the frequency suits you and your schedule.
The best program in the world, is the one you can stick to.
Intensity, with regards to strength training, is usually referring to the amount of load being placed upon the body.
The most popular and well known way to quantify this is the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale, which is an ascending scale of numbers that correlates to a person’s heart rate or how hard they feel they are working. The one used more often these days is actually an updated version of the Borg RPE scale. Where the Borg scale had a range from 6-20, the updated RPE scale has a range from 1-10.
When training for max strength, RPE 9-10 is where you want to be. This is 1-3 reps, max effort, long rests.
When training for hypertrophy, between 7-9 is a good range. Not quite failure, allowing for higher volume and room to grow, but still producing enough stress to stimulate the stress-response you want from the workout.
While the RPE scale gives us the ability to describe how hard we are working, how do we actually ensure that intensity is correct? How can we remain at an optimal level while we get stronger and fitter as the program continues?
The Principle of Progressive Overload
Progressive Overload is defined as continually and gradually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system over time.
Progressive Overload ensures the loads and intensity of the training is generating enough stress over time to generate a response. If you keep on doing the same thing, your body and muscles will adapt and you will stay the same. You need to make sure that every workout, or every week, you slowly increase the intensity by way of reps, sets, load, tempo, and various other variables that we will be discussing below.
The most common and effective variables will generally be sets reps and load. To optimize your progression we usually suggest using a system of auto-regulation known as Reps in Reserve (RIR).
Reps in Reserve (RIR)
RIR is the number of reps you stop at before reaching either technical or muscular failure. Although going to complete failure is correlated with maximal muscle growth, it's also the most fatiguing so we don’t *usually* want to go that far. By stopping before failure, you accumulate less fatigue and also leave room for progressive overload. RIR allows you to to incrementally increase the demands and stress of your workouts over time.
Research shows that the optimal reps for muscular growth are the ones that are around 0-3 reps from failure, so we recommend starting your RIR cycles by pushing to around 3 reps to failure. Or, 3 RIR. The following week you would aim for 2 RIR, the week after 1 RIR, then 0 RIR, then and optional deload before starting again.
A sample Reps In Reserve Model
Week 1 — 3 Reps in Reserve
Week 2 — 2 Reps in Reserve (More reps than last week, or More weight with same reps)
Week 3 — 1 Reps in Reserve (More reps than last week, or More weight with same reps)
Week 4 — 0 Reps in Reserve (More reps than last week, or More weight with same reps)
Week 5 — Optional 0 RIR again or Deload
The focus should be on always beating however repetitions you completed last time with the same amount of weight, or matching the number of reps but with more weight. All while staying roughly to the designated RIR.
A deload week is a week where you take it easier on your training by significantly decreasing your workload for that week. This enables your body to fully recover from the previous weeks of training, so you can come back stronger.
This is based on research of how the body deals with and recovers from the physical stress of workouts. When training, we stress our muscles and this temporarily decreases aspects of our fitness, such as strength.
Rest days and deload weeks allow time for necessary adaptions to occur, through a process commonly known as supercompensation.
The best way to approach your deload week is by changing very few of the actual exercises, but just adjusting the loads or volume accordingly. For example, in your deload week you could…
- Reduce the weight you lift by at least 10%, or even up to 50-60% less
- Reduce weight by 50-60%, keeping rep ranges more or less as normal
- Keep same weight but reduce workout volume, as much as 50% if you only slightly reduce load
For example, in a normal week if you are doing Bicep Curls with 3 x 10 reps / 15 kgs — your deload may be 3 x 5 reps / 12 kgs OR 3 x 10 reps / 7.5 kgs
Just pull back the intensity, enjoy the “time off” and know that you are allowing yourself to be fresh and strong for the following week.
Periodization is the process of systemizing the stages of your training program to optimally reach certain goals, and ensure performance is maintained while issues such as plateaus are avoided.
This advanced concept is not as important during the early stages of your training career, where progressive overload and RIR likely to suffice for some time. However, after a while, you will find that the gains don’t come so thick and fast as they used to. This doesn’t mean that you should give up. The solution to this is to get a bit smarter with your programming.
The are three phases to periodization training:
These look at the big picture, usually a whole year, or 52 weeks. They provide a birds-eye view of your entire program, incorporating every phase in the macrocycle. Being able to view your program in this way is especially useful for competitive athletes, so you can see the entire journey that will take you from that first day to game day.
These are the blocks or phases that make up the macrocycle. For example, you may have a 6 week strength mesocycle followed by a 6 week hypertyrophy mesocycle, then perhaps an endurance, speed or power phase. Strength and hypertrophy are the most relevant to building muscle when combined with the right dietary practices and recovery protocols.
Microcycles are usually just a week long, and really hone in on a specific type of training. They’re less common or useful with strength training, as they usually focus on high intensity, consecutive workouts followed by intense recovery periods to boost lactate thresholds and aerobic capacity.
Periodization is certainly more for the advanced or advanced-intermediate trainee, or competitive and amateur athletes, but once you start hitting more plateaus and deloads and progressive overload stop working as well, it could be time to start training smarter.
If and when you get to this stage and you need some guidance, let us know. We have coaches in the app who would be happy to help!
Optimizing the Variables
Now that we’ve covered the main principles of strength and muscle development, let’s look at ways you can squeeze as many gains as possible out of your training. To get the most out of every workout, ask yourself:
How can I get the best possible muscle fiber recruitment while achieving high tension within those fibers?*
Increasing and optimizing tension requires maintaining good technique, while achieving a high level of effort and proximity to failure. There are three main ways to maximize this...
1) Maintaining Proper Posture
Maintaining a proper posture when strength training ensures the exercise you’re performing is stimulating the intended muscles. This could be making sure your back stays straight and heels stay planted when you squat, or not allowing your back to round in a deadlift. This also reduces exposure to unnecessary risk of injury.
Your first and last rep should look the same.
Don’t ruin your form in order to get a few more reps in, because likely those reps aren’t as stimulating if you are sacrificing good posture, joint alignment, range of motion or control over the tempo.
2) Range of Motion (ROM)
Range of Motion refers to the full movement potential of a joint, usually its range of flexion and extension, and while this varies from person to person, it is important to make sure you are working within your full and controllable ROM.
By controllable, we mean the full ROM in which you can still initiate and *control* a force, such as a press, pull, hold or squat.
Avoid “half reps” or incomplete ROMs, unless you have restrictions in mobility that prevent you from working safely beyond a point. For example, limited dorsi flexion (ankle mobility) preventing you from squatting deep.
Optimizing ROM recruits the most muscle fibers possible for maximum recruitment across the whole muscle(s).
Look for that that “stretch” in the targeted muscle at the “bottom” point of the lift and that strong contraction/squeeze at the “top”.
Control and Tempo
Don’t use momentum with your body to “swing” or “pull” a weight up.
Using the correct weight is key here, but how do you know what the correct weight for you is?
By selecting a weight that challenges you, but allows you to complete all prescribed sets and reps with good form, while leaving some reps in the tank (RIR).
Utilize tempo by slowly lowering the weight back down. If you’re not controlling the eccentric (lowering phase of a lift) or if you’re using momentum on the way up (concentric phase of a lift) then you’re losing tension, which is the primary stimulator for muscle growth.
Enhancing recruitment is about increasing motor unit activation — the activation of additional motor units to accomplish an increase in contractile strength in a muscle.
Or, for a simpler way to look at it: working your hardest, or close to it.
3) Increase Intensity with Progressive Overload
Ways to increase intensity for your next workout inlude...
- Add reps
- Add weight
- Add sets
- Decrease rest periods
- More time under tension (tempo)
The idea of a connection between your muscles and brain has been proven to be more than just “bro science”. Focus on squeezing at the top of a movement. Really think about the muscle(s) that are working. For example…
Pull-ups. As you pull, focus on your latissimus dorsi (upper back) muscles pulling you up with the assistance of your biceps. At the top, squeeze your biceps as you pull your shoulder blades back and down for extra lats recruitment. As you lower back down, feel the tension moving across your biceps as they lengthen.
You should feel disruption in those muscles (tension, heat/burn, “pump”) if you're successful.
Proximity to Failure
Not working close enough to failure will fail to produce adequate stress or stimulation for growth. Conversely, working to absolute failure can have a place occasionally, but is not necessary, is highly stressful, and should not be done too frequently.
For the most part, working within 1-3 reps RIR before either complete muscular or technical failure (whichever comes first) will produce the most effective reps.
Rest and Recovery
You don’t get bigger and stronger in the gym.
Without time to rest and recover, your muscles, tendons and ligaments will not have the opportunity to repair, grow and strengthen. This leaves huge gains on the table, causes plateaus in training, and increases your likelihood of injury.
There is no need to overthink this. Just understand that when you resting, you are building. When you are training you are stressing. Between any targeted training session you should leave at least 48-72 hours before targeting the same muscle group again. In some cases, even more can be beneficial. Don’t be scared to rest, it really can make all the difference!
Sleep is extremely influential on your results. Optimizing both quality and quantity will go a long way toward bigger, better and more sustainable progress.
Tracking progress is important, as you can’t expect to be motivated all the time, and you will have good days and bad. On bad days, without quantified data to keep you honest, your capacity to tell yourself you look the same or things aren’t working is huge.
Also, if you just rely on scales to track progress, the inevitable fluctuations (mostly down to water or food) can be as much as 5-6 pounds up or down during a day. Interpreted incorrectly, this can be extremely demotivating and unhelpful. The scales are useful, but they’re just one of many tools you should look at.
So, how should you track your progress?
Taking photos are high recommended. There may be times when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror convinced nothing is changing, when it actually has. It usually takes around 4-6 weeks for significant adaptions to take place, so we recommend taking photos every 4 weeks.
- Make sure lighting is good and can be replicated each time
- Make sure you wear minimal clothing
- Take one from the front, back and side
- Stand in a relaxed stance for the above three, but you can take some extra “flexing” pics too if you like
Measurements are another metric that can be accurate. If you’re trying to pack on size, measurements are very useful to know. Every 2-4 weeks is a good rule of thumb, with the following being good areas to keep an eye on.
- Upper arms
- Waist (around navel height)
Find the widest point of all areas and take a few times to make sure it’s as accurate as possible. No flexing!
Strength tests and exercise videos
Choose movements or lifts you want to progress, take videos, record form, max reps, max weight, and check in every 2-4 weeks. Push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, squats, plank holds are all good ideas, but think about what matters to you for your athletic goals.
Weigh yourself every day, or just every 2-4 weeks
You weight will fluctuate significantly every day, but in the short term it’s rarely from bodyfat or muscle. When you consume carbs or sodium rich foods, your body holds onto water, about 4 grams of water for every gram of carbohydrates. This can add up, but it’s nothing to worry about.
Exercise, sleep, stress, menstrual cycles and the literal weight of the food and drink you consume will cause some natural fluctuations on the scale.
Weighing yourself every day but looking only at the weekly 7 day average in your weekly report is the best way to follow your progress in gaining or losing weight.
Do it at the same time every day, preferably in the morning, wearing as little as possible, post-bathroom and pre-food or drink. At the end of the week, calculate the average and compare weeks to weeks and months to months.
If you’re bulking (building muscle), an increase of around 0.25-0.5% of your body weight each week is a good target to aim for. If you’re cutting (losing fat), 0.5-1lb of weight loss based on your weekly averages is a good place to be. More than that is possible, but be aware that the faster you go, the harder it will be to sustain and the more likely you are to lose some muscle in the process. More on bulking and cutting in the next chapter...
Put your metrics into Gyroscope
Gyroscope tracks all of your important biometrics, so be sure you have all devices working in sync and everything is up to date before you begin! This will be useful for knowing not only your physical measurements like weight, bodyfat and muscle, but all the other aspects of your health like VO2Max, resting heart rate, HRV, blood pressure, glucose levels, ketone levels, and more.
It’s vital that you focus on optimizing the basics above everything else. Regardless of what protocol and periodized plans you follow, a good training plan will always be based on the optimization and repetition of the same fundamentals.
- Choose your program and ensure you can keep up with the frequency
- Make sure the volume and frequency is adequate for your goals
- Maintain intensity by using RIR to apply progressive overload
- Recover by way of rest days and deload weeks
- Optimize tension and recruitment of muscles
- Repeat for as long as it works, then consider periodization to keep making progress
Once you start training and are adequately stressing your muscles, nutrition is essential to provide your body with all the buliding blocks to create new muscles. In the next chapter, we will look at how to optimize your nutrition for getting the most results from your training.