Building Muscle: Training Guidelines

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There are three main mechanisms for building muscle size (otherwise known as hypertrophy):

  • Intensity
  • Time under Tension
  • Metabolic Stress

Intensity refers muscle growth due to the recruitment of more muscle fibers with increasing load.

Time Under Tension refers to the tension generated in the muscle due to muscle contraction that has to be both high enough and long enough to stimulate muscle growth.

Metabolic Stress refers to growth that occurs due to “pump and burn”. The pump is due to extra blood in the muscle which causes the cells to swell. This swelling causes tension on the cell structure and stimulates growth. The burn is due to metabolites that accumulate. The metabolites themselves may lead to growth.

These three mechanisms of growth, intensity, time under tension,  and metabolic stress, indicate that a combination of loads, tempos, volume and rep ranges should be used to build muscle. Some exercises can be heavy with low rep ranges. Other exercises can be light with high rep ranges. A varied but strategic approach is a good way to cover all the bases.

Here is a list of evidence-based training guidelines. It is a good summary from Bret Contreras’ book Glute Lab (2019) and applies to all muscle building programs.

Frequency

Training a muscle group twice a week is better than once a week. There is not a lot of evidence to support of training more often than that except to split up volume when specializing.

Volume

A volume of 10 to 20 sets per week per muscle is ideal based on individual recovery. Some evidence suggests you can go higher for short periods, especially if specializing.

Effort

Most sets should be carried out close to muscle failure, but reaching actual failure is not necessary and can be counterproductive if not kept in check.

Load

All loads build muscle. Performing a combination of rep ranges might lead to better results.

Exercise Selection

Both multi-joint (compound) and single-joint (isolation) exercises build muscle. Multi-joint moves should be prioritized in training, but you cannot neglect single-joint exercises if you are seeking maximum muscle growth, as they are necessary for building certain muscles and subdivisions.

Exercise Order

Muscles targeted earlier in a workout will see slightly better gains than muscles targeted later in the workout, so prioritize exercise order according to your preferences and goals.

Tempo

Faster and slower tempos lead to similar levels of muscle growth, but you must control the eccentric phase and not let gravity do the work for you. The eccentric phase should last from 2 to 6 seconds per rep. It is very important to focus on the muscle while lifting (mind-muscle connection).

Rest Periods

Rest periods of 2 to 3 minutes between sets appears to maximize muscle growth, but you can go by feel and listen to your body. It may be optimal to rest more for big lifts performed earlier in a workout (3 minutes) and less for smaller lifts performed later in the workout (90 seconds).

Training Split

All popular splits can be effective for muscle building. Note also that total-body training has been shown to be equally effective for hypertrophy as body part splits.

Periodization

Having a plan is more effective for building muscle than winging it. However, there is no single best way to periodize a program, and many methods are successful at building muscle. Strategize, but allow for some flexibility based on how you feel from day to day.

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As you can see, there are a lot of variables that go into a designing a workout plan. Doing some exercise is better than doing no exercise, but having a plan does help! Most people start with full-body workouts 2 – 3 times a week, and then progress to more specialized programs depending on their schedule and goals.

Contact VAL to set up a training program for you!

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