Current bodybuilding science suggests that there are 3 mechanisms for growing muscle in the gym. We’ve all heard arguments for one kind of lifting over another. Some lifters are convinced that you have to get a massive pump. Others, using heavy weight. Still others, that you work a muscle group really hard, but only once a week. So, which one is best? Actually, they all are because each uses 1, but only one of these mechanisms. By using all 3, you can get an even better muscle building workout than one alone. First let’s identify each mechanism.
The 3 Mechanisms of Bodybuilding Science
1. Muscle Swelling
No doubt you have heard guys in the gym referring to their pump. This feeling of muscle soreness from a lift makes you at least feel like you have accomplished something. Actually, you have, but again, this is only 1 of the mechanisms that stimulates muscle growth.1 It is based on an idea known as cell swell theory. The concept is that when you cause swelling in your muscles, it is perceived by them as a threat. So, in a sense, they have a choice. Grow or die. Naturally, they “choose” growth. This sort of stimulation is best accomplished with short rest periods and 8-12 reps. Super sets are ideal as well. The object is to keep blood flowing into your muscles without leaving much time for it to clear out like it would if you rested for 2 or 3 minutes. Supplements that increase blood flow are ideal for this too as it simply enhances the process.
2. Recruiting Larger Muscle Fibers
As you may already understand, we all have slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers. Slow twitch fibers are great for endurance, but not for lifting. This is the job of fast twitch fibers. They work hard and fast and are best equipped for explosive exertion. They are also the muscles that grow. Slow twitch muscles grow very little in size, even when stimulated to do so. Instead, they tend to become more efficient rather than build more protein. On the other hand, fast twitch muscle cells add size. Sure, they become more efficient to some degree too, but they are far better at increasing in size with the right stimulation. This is done with very heavy weight in the 6-8 rep range.2 This hits them hard and stimulates them to synthesize protein.
3. Mechanical Trauma
Bodybuilding science has known for a long time that we have to break down muscle tissue to build it up. That’s what lifting is all about, right? Again, its one part of a 3-part equation, but significant. When you lift, it causes tiny little tears in your muscle fibers. Particularly if your diet is adequate, these tears are ‘patched up.’ In other words, your body heals the tear and adds a little extra protein for good measure. By definition, this is growth. Of course, the way to accomplish this is again, heavy weight. Light weight, high reps has its place as mentioned above, simply does not cause significant muscle tearing.
These techniques have each been proven effective for muscle growth. You may also realize that many prescriptions for lifting, perhaps yours too, don’t include all 3. The answer is to periodize training to include each and there are many ways to do it.
Bodybuilding Science and Muscle Growth
One proven theory that works right along with these ideas is metabolic stress. You make your body experience trauma, or stress, and it will respond by growing.3 For example, when you train, you build up lactic acid, a stress! We used to think lactic acid just made muscles tired. But it turns out it stimulates muscle growth in the long-term.4 If you want to incite this response, you need to build up lactic acid in your muscle and keep it there. That means short rests of about 60 seconds and higher reps. About 8-12. More reps builds up more lactic acid and shorter rests doesn’t allow your blood time to carry away much of it.
But say you want to focus on mechanical stress. This will require heavy lifting, but you can’t lift heavy with short rests. On days you focus on mechanical stress, you actually want rest periods as long as 5 minutes, but at least 3. Of course, this doesn’t bathe your muscles in lactic acid, but it does maximize mechanical stress as you are able to lift heavy weight. Since you don’t specifically want lactic acid for this kind of lift, a product such as beta alanine can help. It actually helps clear out lactic acid. It does actually make your muscles tired, which is the opposite of what you want on heavy days.
Surpass Your Limits
In the gym, most people underestimate what they are capable of. As a result, they limit themselves mentally, which leads to physical limitations. How often do you see otherwise fit-looking people in the gym lifting half of what you warm up with? Sure, you might be bigger and stronger, but come on! Oftentimes, they are worried about overtraining. You might too, but at least for the right reason. However, studies are showing that the more often you train, the better your gains.5 If you load up the same muscle day after day, your performance will of course be limited. But you are beating up your muscles so much that they have no choice but to grow.
Studies have even shown that lifters training a body part 6 days per week saw better gains by increasing that to 6!6 Naturally, this is not a realistic strategy for most people, but it blows away this idea of overtraining. The real point here is not to get you to train like this, but to recognize that you cannot limit yourself if you want the best gains. If your diet and sleep are in place, you don’t have much in terms of limits.
How to Build Your Physique
Compound movements are the centerpiece of bodybuilding science. Think squats, dead lifts, bench press and leg press. But it is important to remember there is a difference between bodybuilding and powerlifting. Bodybuilding is all about making the lift difficult. The point is to beat the hell out of your muscles, not just lift a heavy weight, which is what powerlifting is all about.
So, say you do bench press. You will tend to have a flat back and focus on your chest muscles as your purpose is to work them as hard as possible. Powerlifters, on the other hand, will arch their backs, shorten their range of motion and even drive with their legs. Their whole purpose is just to get the weight up. It doesn’t matter which muscles they use and how they accomplish the lift. As a bodybuilder, your objective is to focus on the muscle and stress it. You will utilize isolation lifts as well, but a strong compound base is essential. No one every got big by doing only small lifts like curls and calf raises!
What Does Bodybuilding Science Say About Cardio?
Perhaps the biggest challenge in bodybuilding science is increasing muscle size while losing fat at the same time. They just don’t go together. To do build size, you lift. To lose fat, you do cardio. Yet cardio can burn muscle too, particularly if it is long. In fact, some guys will do as much as 2 hours of cardio a day to burn fat, but they also lose mass. Look at a marathon runner. Is that the physique you are after? In turns out that research shows that the longer you do cardio, the more muscle you lose.7,8
But There’s a Solution! You may already be familiar with high intensity interval training (HIIT). It simply means all out, kill yourself, nauseating, balls to the wall sprinting for 10-30 seconds. If you have anything left when you’re done, you didn’t do it right. But if you don’t, it depletes huge amounts of your muscle energy stores in that tiny amount of time. It can take up to 60 minutes of cardio to produce that result! Plus, it creates a serious fat-burning result which can last the entire day.9 Doing sprints like this is more effective than traditional cardio, in much less time.10 So rather than spending an hour on the treadmill, you could do 4-5 intervals with a 2-3 minute rest between each and get a better workout without losing any muscle gains.
Periodization is the best way to avoid injury in the gym. This allows you to get great results while not overloading your body with the same type of stress all the time. For instance, we already know that heavy weight with long rest periods is great for maximizing mechanical stress. But if that’s all you do, you are likely to eventually experience injury. If you hurt yourself for say a month, and take another month to regain your lost ground, you’re behind 2 months. That’s huge for a bodybuilder.
Periodization automatically reduces your injury risk by spreading out the type of stress you are putting on your muscles. Some days you can train with heavier weight, higher reps and longer rests. Others you can use a little bit lighter weight, but with shorter rests. Others yet can be lighter weight, high reps and really short rests to maximize swelling while minimizing mechanical stress on joints and ligaments.
Become a Master
Like any sport, the best bodybuilders master their trade. You should too. Get everything you can out of every lift. Every single rep should count. Studies show that when people focus on a muscle, more of it is activated. If you just go through the motions, you will see those kinds of results. Every bite of food should count and every minute of sleep should count. Be meticulous as you follow the latest bodybuilding science and you will become the best bodybuilder you can be.