Muscle building is often seen as a very confusing process. There are so many workouts and routines out there that many lifters fail to see the bigger picture. Instead of trying to over-complicate the muscle building try creating your very own workout routines. The fundamental pillars of workout creation are sound, proven, and key to the success of nearly everyone that has ever built a substantial amount of muscle mass and strength.
Instead of providing you with a cookie-cutter workout plan, we will detail a series of options and choices so you can formulate a workout based on your needs, available equipment, and training experience level. So read on and be prepared to learn a thing or two!
WHY PROGRESSION MATTERS
The stimulus for muscle growth is progressive overload – the addition of weight and/or volume over time. As you progress, development gets harder, resulting in a logarithmic curve over time. Thus, progression for an advanced trainee is slower and require more effort than a beginner.
This is due to muscular adaptation – the body requires more and more stress (training) to keep adapting/growing. Progression begins on the set level, with the addition of reps. Eventually when you are capable of performing a quality number of reps per set, you must add weight to make the set more challenging and force continual adaptation.
Without progression, or the addition of weight over time, you won’t see much in the way of muscle and strength gains. There is simply no reason to even lift weights if you don’t intend on progressing in some form or fashions. Remember, no one with a substantial amount of muscle mass is weak, and the inverse is generally true as well.
TRAINING VARIABLES EXPLAINED
Below you will find some terminology to know before moving forward:
• Volume (of work done) = Sets x Reps
– Studies consistently show that volume, not intensity, is what controls muscle protein synthesis response (MPS) to training so long as the exercise is done to failure or “close to failure.”
– Example: Doing 3 sets of 10 with 60% of your one-rep max results in same muscle growth as doing 10 sets of 3 with 85% of your one-rep max.
• Intensity = Amount of weight in relation to your maximum capability (i.e. 100% intensity would be your current one-rep max)
• Frequency = The number of times you train a muscle or muscle group (typically per week)
• Time under tension (T.U.T.) is the amount of time a muscle is applying force, generally per set
– T.U.T. is generally greater when lighter loads are used
– T.U.T. is not a strong indicator of training intensity, nor does it necessarily correlate with muscle growth
STRENGTH TRAINING VS. BODYBUILDING
Power lifting (strength training) is largely neurological – training the body to recruit/turn on muscle fibers. Squatting 60% of your one-rep max is an entirely different movement than squatting 95% of your one-rep max as far as your brain is concerned.
Moreover, strength output is dictated heavily by a trainee’s ability to activate motor units, which are made up of a motor nerve and all the muscle fibers it innervates. Recruitment of a motor unit causes attached muscle fibers to contract and bring them into the movement, resulting in more force production.
Hypertrophy-specific training (aka bodybuilding), on the other hand, is largely about the stress placed on muscles and not necessarily the weight. This is to say that muscular hypertrophy is work-induced, with work being the force applied times distance moved (i.e. using a heavy enough weight and moving it through space repeatedly).
For bodybuilding, strength training isn’t necessarily the focus, but having a stronger neuromuscular system means you can generate more force which will lead to expanded capacity for overloading muscles in the long-term.
That being said, too much focus on strength training will take away from your hypertrophy-specific training since it can heavily fatigue the nervous system.
FORMS OF PERIODIZATION
There are two main types of periodization in resistance training: linear and undulating (wave). Linear periodization is generally only viable in novices (less than 6 months of dedicated training) as they can make steady, significant progress almost every week. This type of periodization typically relies on one rep range and linear jumps in weight each week (e.g. add 5lbs to your lifts each week and repeat the previous workouts).
Undulating periodization is where most people will flourish, though, as they need more a strategic approach for making progress. Remember, different rep ranges have different benefits, but for hypertrophy it appears that 8 to 12 reps per set is ideal. So this type of periodization would involve having a few days per week oriented towards strength-based rep ranges (i.e. 4 to 6 reps per set) and a few days oriented towards hypertrophy-based rep ranges.
Thus, you can, and should, utilize multiple rep ranges in your training routine to get a good balance of strength and hypertrophy (especially if you’re past the beginner stage).
As crazy as it may seem, it doesn’t make sense to only work each muscle group once a week with absurdly high volume (like most “traditional” bodybuilders do). The muscle protein synthetic response to hard training is only elevated for about 48-72 hours depending on the volume, and there is a cap.
Therefore, it’s more prudent to train each muscle group at least twice a week and split the volume over the two workouts. Just think, there’s 52 weeks in a year; do you want to give your muscles 52 opportunities to grow or 104 opportunities? Or even 156?
Just remember that training for both strength and size is not mutually exclusive. Split your training into high intensity, low volume days and high volume, low intensity days. You can even use days to bring up weak points; for example, if your arms are a weak point, train them with high volume on their own day (in addition to the indirect training they get throughout the week).
FORMULATING A PROGRAM
Compound exercises are the meat and potatoes of muscle building. They work multiple muscle groups and are the most challenging and rewarding lifts. Compound exercises provide you with the most bang for your buck. They should always be performed first in your workout plan.
Because the focus of compound exercises is to tax several muscle groups, you should not worry as much about feeling the muscles work when using them. Focus on proper form and progression of weight, and trust that this combination will build plenty of muscle, because it will.
Isolation exercises allow you to zero in on a mind-muscle connection, strong muscular contraction, and stimulating blood flow to targeted muscles. On these movements, it’s best to focus on form and not overly heavy weights, which can lead to sloppy execution. Save isolation movements for the latter part of your workouts when muscles are already fatigued.
KEY POINTS TO REMEMBER WHEN FORMULATING A PROGRAM
• Step 1: Choose periodization scheme (linear or wave)
– Beginners do best with linear periodization
– More experienced trainees should use wave periodization
• Step 2: Choose training days/frequency
– Remember to train each muscle group at least twice per week for maximum efficacy
– Four to five days of resistance training per week is likely best for most trainees
• Step 3: Choose exercises
– Emphasis should be on compound movements
– Use isolation movements in the latter part of your workouts
Remember to always be progressing (in some fashion) until you can no longer do so. Then consider taking a week off of training and starting a new program. This should occur every 12 to 16 weeks if you’re training hard. Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that strength is the foundation to building a lot of muscle in the long run. If you repeatedly lift the same amount of weights for years on end, your muscles will have little reason to continually adapt (grow).