Building bigger muscles is the goal of many gym goers, but for one reason or another this goal is never really accomplished. Partly this is down to a lack of application, most new gym members have stopped attending after just a month. But there are some guys (and girls) who have been lifting for months with the intention of getting huge muscles, and are failing to see any changes.
This article is aimed at helping anyone who is looking to build muscles. As mentioned above this can be male or female, but because most readers will be male we will tend to concentrate a bit more on that.
Hypertrophy Vs Strength
When people say they want to build muscle, they usually don’t specify what exactly it is they want to achieve. Do they want muscles like Brad Pitt in Fight Club? Muscles like Arnie had during the 80s? Or do they want muscles like Eddie Hall?
Now a lot of that decision is made for you through your genetics. If you are skinny as a rake then aiming to become the world’s strongest man may not be the best course of action. If you are 300lbs then maybe the Brad Pitt look isn’t realistic.
Whatever you want to achieve will be split into two camps, either you are looking to build strength or you are trying to build size. Sure, at the beginning you will easily be able to achieve both, but long term you will have to decide. This article will focus on increasing muscle size (known as muscle hypertrophy), this is what most lifters really want (if they are honest with themselves).
Training For Hypertrophy
Building bigger muscles requires you to lift progressively heavier weights with excellent form. It’s as simple as that. People used to believe that you could only build bigger muscles within a certain rep range (8-12 reps). But recently, it has been found that muscles can grow from many different rep ranges.
Where hypertrophy training differs from strength is in its aim to reach muscle fatigue. Let’s use the barbell bench press as an example. A strength training program would target reaching a 1 rep max using the heaviest weight possible. No set is aimed at completely exhausting the muscles, as this would prevent the lifter from increasing the weight for the next set.
In hypertrophy training, the target is to fatigue the muscles as much as possible. Not in every set, but by the end of the workout you want your muscles fully fatigued. As such, hypertrophy training can involve a lot of drop sets, supersets, and back off sets. It can also involve a lot of isolation movements (bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions etc), something that strength training programs largely avoid.
For years, fitness professionals have believed that cardio kills gains. They point to pictures of marathon runners and claim that their small size is because the cardio exercise they perform catabolises muscle. This is not the case, but even if it was it would be an extreme reaction. Most people do not train to the same degree that marathon runners do, nor do they have to.
So long as you keep your cardio in check (in other words less than the 10 hours per week that marathon runners do) you won’t lose any gains. In fact, there is some evidence that people who have never lifted weights before can actually get some hypertrophy from cardio!
One thing that should be made clear though is that cardio is not necessary, if you want to do it then great. If you want to lose body fat, then adding cardio to your training could be a great call. But if you are looking to build substantial size, then it isn’t going to help. Hypertrophy training will help improve your cardiovascular system on its own.
If you want to build bigger muscles then you need to fuel this growth, it’s no use trying to lose weight and build muscle at the same time (unless you’re completely new to training). You need a calorie surplus to create more muscle fibres. To create bigger muscles you will also want to ensure that you are consuming sufficient protein.
A study by Helms, Aragon, and Fitschen (2013) identified the correct amount of protein per kg of bodyweight that natural bodybuilders should be consuming . The study claims that around 2.3-3.1g of protein per kg of lean body mass (your body weight without body fat) is perfect.
So if you weighted 100kg and were 20% body fat, your lean body mass would be 80kg. Then you would require between 184g and 284g of protein per day. Around 15-30% of your calories should come from fat, and the remaining should be made up of carbohydrates.
Rest & Recovery
How much sleep you get may not seem like a very important part of muscle building, but the reality is that sleep is crucial. If you aren’t getting enough then your testosterone levels will be lower, and this can reduce protein synthesis (which is necessary for muscles to grow). Ensuring that you have 8 hours plus per night is vital. Studies have shown that less sleep leads to less testosterone , so if you aren’t getting enough you may need to consider taking a testosterone booster.
Another consideration for rest, is how much time you should take between sets to recover. It used to be commonly believed that for hypertrophy you needed just 45-90 seconds, but recent studies have indicated that up to 3 minutes is the perfect recovery time.
Hypertrophy Training Program
Now that you know how much rest you require between each set, what exercises you need to do, and what sort of rep range you should be hitting (all different ranges). We are going to create an example workout that you can use to increase hypertrophy (muscle growth). It’s a 3 day per week, full body workout program, that is ideal for beginner and intermediate lifters.
- Hamstring Curls 3 x 12-15
- Deadlifts 3 x 4-6
- Leg Extensions 3 x 12-15
- Barbell Bench Press 3 x 12-15
- Lat Pulldown 3 x 12-15
- Bicep Curls 3 x 12
- Barbell Back Squats 3 x 15-20
- Hamstring Curls 3 x 12
- Walking Lunges 3 x 20
- Chest Press 3 x 8-12 + Drop Set
- Low Row Machine 3 x 15-20
- Seated Shoulder Press 3 x 8-12
- Leg Press 3 x 20 + Drop Set
- Romanian Deadlifts 3 x 8-12
- Push Ups 3 x AMRAP*
- Straight Arm Pulldown 3 x 20
- Rear Delt Flyes 3 x 12-15
- Tricep Press 3 x 12
- Abdominal Crunches 3 x 12-15
While good nutrition and exercise are the most important factors when it comes to muscle building (as well as good rest and recovery time obviously) there is a small edge that can be gained through supplements. A good whey protein shake can help you hit those protein targets, some creatine, caffeine, and a natural testosterone booster will all benefit you as well. But if you aren’t putting 100% into your diet and training, you won’t see any benefits no matter how much you take.
References Helms, E., Aragon, A., Fitschen, P. 2013. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11(20)