Building muscle is no easy task.
This is especially true after the first few months of gym. Prior to starting, you would have had practically no experience lifting a dumbbell and a rudimentary understanding how to stimulate a muscle; let alone know how to effectively isolate a muscle.
But regardless of the situation, you were motivated to hit the gym, so you tackle the problem head-on by performing exercises with machines and dumbbells in an attempt to grow. Like any beginner, after our first few workouts, we would go home with a grand smile believing that we’ve accomplished muscle growth thinking our ultimate physique was around the corner. However, little did we know how ignorant we were at the time. Yes, overloading the muscles with weights can lead to muscle growth, but it is just one of many variables that need to be applied to develop bigger and stronger muscles.
For many of us we had to learn the hard way and take months and for some, years before we stopped guessing and developed a stable foundation of knowledge before we could string a relatively good formula to grow. But if you are a beginner now, fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like that. Because in this article, I am going to give you an insight into primary factors the work behind the scenes that lead to building stronger and larger muscles to help you grow!
The Human Physiology
Although we don’t need to be a scientist that specialises in biology. We do however need to have a rudimentary understanding of how our body works to promote muscle growth.
Internally, our body is made up of a vast range of simple and complicated mechanisms that lead to muscle hypertrophy. But to make this article practical, I am going to just break down three essential functions that our body utilises for growth.WBFF Pro Muscle Model – Marko Djordjic
There are around 650 skeletal muscles in the human body, and every one of them will contract when triggered by motor neurons. It all begins with a component of the cell known as the sarcoplasmic reticulum whose primary role is to relay messages to your muscles telling them to contract. Essentially, the more frequently your muscles receive these signals (contractions), the stronger they become.
Over time, when muscles activate, they slowly build a sense of memory that allows particular movements to be performed at a quicker and easier rate than previously. For this reason, it is common that after a period of strength gain, muscles will be able to grow at a steady rate due to easier and quicker contractions.
Protein synthesis is a core process responsible for creating proteins for the body’s internal systems, including muscle growth. However, as a result of your body always prioritising nutrition for essential organs before muscle growth, you will never be able to achieve muscle hypertrophy as long as muscle breakdown overcomes the process of protein synthesis.
A simple solution for this issue is to provide your body with a caloric surplus. In doing so, you ensure that your body will not need to catabolise any tissue due to a lack of nutrition. To accurate calculate this caloric intake, you need to incorporate your BMI, fitness activity level and your lifestyle work out a number catered to your body. If you are unsure of how to put this together, this article here will provide you a step by step guide.
Additionally, you would obviously need to induce protein synthesis, and you can do this via two routes. One method is to perform some type of vigorous workout. This would be the ideal choice as training has a huge effect towards protein synthesis, and can ramp it up for up to 48 hours. The other alternative is through nutrients; however this route is short-lived. To do this, consume at least 3.2 grams of leucine, an essential amino acid to instigate protein synthesis each meal to keep this process going. This is equivalent to roughly 133 grams of beef or 139 grams of chicken outlined in this article by PhD Nutritional Scientist Layne Norton. And to top it off, a protein intake between 0.8 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight (1.8 – 3.2 grams per kg) is also required to promote an anabolic environment for growth (you need to figure out the amount best for your body). For best results, you need to implement both options.Full body workouts are great for promoting protein synthesis throughout the body. Athlete: Chris Dickerson
Satellite cells get their name as a result of being located on the outer surface of muscle fibers. Their role is to provide an optimal environment for growth, repair, and maintenance of skeletal muscle tissue. Usually, satellite cells remain dormant. But when muscles receive any type of damage or trauma – an inevitable component of any form of resistance training, they become activated.
When these cells are triggered, they multiply and gravitate towards damaged muscle fibers to donate their nuclei to the fiber signaling the start of the growth and repair process for that particular muscle cell.
There you have it, three primary physiological variables results of working out. Next up is hormones!
The Anabolic Hormones
Hormones are chemical substances that act as a messenger whose role is to trigger metabolic processes in your body. Hormones with a direct contribution to muscle hypertrophy include:
Insulin is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be your best friend by promoting muscle growth. It does this by accelerating the rate of protein synthesis by increasing the speed nutrients enter the cells. On the other hand, insulin can be your number one enemy as its antagonistic role is to accumulate fat.
Once insulin is released, it sends a message to the brain stating that the body is being fed. This instigates a chain reaction where the body halts the fat burning process and begins to rely on the food being ingested as the primary source of energy. To make it worse, insulin also joins with fat cells which then encourages the cells to update with more fats and glucose molecules, subsequently leading to more fat storage.A powerful physique is not obtainable if you have a weak mind.
Fortunately, we can make insulin work to our advantage by eating it at particular times of day. And by particular times of the day, I mean post-workout. Why? As you wake up, your body is burning fat for energy. However, once you consume any form of carbohydrate, it will halt this fat burning process. Not only that, but the chances are your body already has a storage of glucose (energy). Therefore, the carbohydrates you consume will more than likely be stored as fat. Though it has been said that there is a slight give-way. As long as you don’t consume an excess of 30 grams of carbohydrates (some say 50 grams, but let’s just go with 30), it will not hinder the process of fat burning drastically.
So, then why would post-workout be ideal to consume carbohydrates (spike insulin) you ask? Well, after your workout, your energy sources will be depleted. Most likely not completely, but to a certain point that even if you eat carbohydrates, it will go on to be stored as fuel (glucose) instead of fat. On top of that, this is also the period where you would like a rush of nutrients to enter your cells to cater for the repair and growth process that lays head.
Another tip is to control your insulin sensitivity, which is the amount of insulin released when you consume carbohydrates. If you’re interested, the information, in fact, an overview of the hormone insulin can be viewed in this article: Friend or Foe? – An Insight into insulin.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1)
The primary role of IGF-1 is to stimulate cell growth. Therefore, when this hormone is secreted, a rapid burst of growth and regeneration for muscle cells occurs.
Studies have shown that IGF-1 levels can impact muscle strength and size, promote a drop in body fat, and increase the rate at which muscles repair. Fortunately, this hormone is secreted when HGH is released in our body as well. Therefore, by performing activities such as less carbs or more sleep, you are able to promote to production of both HGH and IGF-1. Quite convenient don’t you think?
As everyone knows, testosterone is a primary factor in stimulating protein synthesis. For this reason, women who have much less testosterone than males, have a much harder time gaining muscle. Fortunately, there are numerous routes you can implement to increase testosterone levels naturally.
Some of these options include eating specific nutrients such as vitamin B and C, zinc and a certain amount of fat (15-30% of daily calories) to promote the secretion of testosterone. Incorporating resistance training with short rest periods, as well as compound exercises has also been known to impact the release of testosterone levels.
Human Growth Hormone
Human growth hormone was discovered in the 1920’s, and studies have manifested that it has a direct relationship with muscle growth. It’s beneficial attributes include an increase in synthesising new protein tissues for recovery and repair and metabolising fat, on top of promoting higher energy levels and stronger bones. Essentially, HGH has a hand in any process that requires growth in your body.
HGH is predominately secreted during resistance training and while you sleep. Studies have shown that your body secretes up to 50% of your HGH during the deep sleep phase alone. Moreover, results have portrayed that you can increase HGH production by incorporating a balanced diet with proteins and fat and a restriction of carbs.
Two Types of Muscle Hypertrophy
When you perform weight lifting exercises, there can be with two different goals in mind. One option would be to grow muscle, and this is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The second’s alternative is to develop strength, otherwise known as Myofibrillar hypertrophy.
Myofibrillar Hypertrophy (Strength Training)
Myofibrillar Hypertrophy refers to an increase in muscle fibre through the gaining of more myofibrils. This type of muscle growth is slower and usually will not produce the same increase in size as Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy. But, it does provide a great increase in strength. To achieve this perform low volume and low intensity at 80 – 95% of your 1RM coupled with a rep range of 1 – 5 and rest times consisting from 2 – 5 minutes.
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)
On the other hand is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which occurs when fluids (the pump) begin to amass in the muscle cell, which makes up to 25-30% of a muscle size. This type of growth is achieved through fatigue training and intensity and usually consists of around 60 – 75% of your 1RM. The conventional rep range is said to be between 8 to 12 while rest time in between sets is shortened to 45 – 90 seconds. Sarcoplasmic growth is typically referred to as “bodybuilding” training, due to significant growth in muscle cross-section.
If you are still confused, watch these video as Omar Isuf explains the difference between both the hypertrophies:
So now that you know all about muscle hypertrophy, but how do you achieve it in your own workouts?
Triggering Muscle Hypertrophy
There are three primary mechanisms for triggering muscle growth – muscle damage, muscle tension and metabolic stress. These are all backed up by research and studies in muscle growth and are founded on the fact that muscle hypertrophy is activated when stress is applied to muscles.
There are many ways to trigger muscular damage. Put simply, by just lifting weights can cause muscle damage that then activates the process of repair and growth leading to bigger and denser muscles. But here’s the catch. Our body adapts extremely easy, which is why you need to change your workouts continuously (usually after every 3 weeks) to challenge your muscles to grow. Other alternatives would be to lift heavy weights (probably the best route), changing your tempo and even emphasising the contraction at the top part of the moment.
Often a good indicator of muscle damage is DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which often manifests itself 24 hours after a vigorous workout. This is the result of extensive damage applied to muscle tissue in the form of microtears. As a result, our body responds by releasing inflammatory molecules, immune system cells, and cytokines which in turn provide an anabolic environment for muscle growth. Moreover, DOMS also leads to strengthening the muscle tissue to withstand future muscle damage.
Although DOMS can be an indicator of muscle growth and a great workout, experiencing DOMS too frequently or for too long can be a sign that you are consuming inadequate nutrition or overtraining. Essentially, this means your body is struggling to recovery. As a result, it sends a signal in the form of pain to indicate that it needs either more rest or nutrition to facilitate the repair. And then there’re times where you don’t feel DOMS at all, yet you really are growing. At the moment, this is a mixed subject and science is yet to confirm the exact reason behind DOMS. But for now, since there isn’t a fine line to determine if your particular DOMS is beneficial, it is best to rely on trial and error and determine how your body reacts.
Make sure you eat an ample amount of nutrition and then train to see how DOMS affects your body. With experience, you will eventually be able to determine whether DOMS after a leg day is positive for you or not.Mix it up, incorporate workouts such as German Volume Training to shock your muscles. Athlete – John Grimek
Time under tension, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. To activate protein synthesis, you should at least reach 30 seconds of muscular tension during a set. Some studies have suggested that achieving an excess of 50 seconds of tension during a set can lead to a large spike in protein synthesis.
And for those that are confused. Tension is the amount of time your muscle is contracted. Say you’re performing a barbell bicep curl, and you wish to execute a tempo of 3/1/2 (Concentric/Isometric/Eccentric). In laymen terms, the 3 means the concentric phase (the lifting portion of the barbell) will take 3 seconds to execute. As for the isometric phase (the top portion of the curl), you will contract/hold your muscles for 1 second. And for the eccentric phase (lowering the bar), will take you 2 seconds to perform.
So in all, if you performed 10 reps of bicep curls with the tempo I mentioned above. The total duration of tension on your biceps on that set will be equivalent to 60 seconds (this is quite a lot, particularly for beginners). If tempo is not your thing, as it will provide a massive burn of lactic acid. Other training techniques such as supersets, drop sets and giant sets can be implemented to increase the time your muscle is under tension.
The sensation you feel after doing 20 reps of relatively heavy weight is called Metabolic Stress. It’s a result of build-up of lactate, cellular swelling (pump), and oxygen deprivation that triggers a release of cytokine (proteins that activate satellite cells) which correlates with muscle growth as mentioned above. You know the pain you feel after sprinting 100 metres? Yeah, that’s metabolic stress.
Moreover, metabolic stress has shown to contribute to the secretion of testosterone and growth hormone as well as insulin-like growth factor 1, all factors of hypertrophy. Therefore, if your goal is to focus on metabolic stress and muscular tension. You can kill two birds with one stone by performing high reps and long tempos to trigger each hypertrophy variable respectively.
All in All
There you have it, some of the essential variables that work behind the scenes that develop bigger and stronger muscles. Bear in mind, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The process of muscle growth is extremely complex, and there are many other variables that come into play. But for now, focus on the simple variables above. And once you’ve got that down pact, begin searching for more knowledge to help you on the way to effectively building a bigger and stronger body!