How to Make Your Muscles Grow

Are you doing endless biceps curls but not seeing any muscle growth? Maybe you’re working your ass off (literally) to build some booty but have no junk in the trunk to show for it. Building muscle is part art, part science. This post will cover the science part. It’ll show you three types of training that need to be in your program to maximize muscle development.

Types of Muscle Tissue

There are three different types of muscle tissue: skeletal, cardiac, and smooth. Each type has a specific structure and role. For example, skeletal muscle moves bone and other structures. Our cardiac muscle contracts the heart to pump blood. Our smooth muscles form organs like our bladder that are responsible for bodily functions. Here’s what the three muscle types look like:

  Image source:  Visiblebody

Image source: Visiblebody

This post is all about skeletal muscles—they’re the muscles we’re trying to build with weight training.

Structure of Skeletal Muscle

Skeletal muscle is made up of numerous bundles of muscle fibers called fascicles. Each muscle fiber is called a myofiber. Myofibers have structures called myofibrils arranged in sarcomeres, which are the contractile units of the cell.

  Image source:  Visiblebody

Image source: Visiblebody

How Do Skeletal Muscles Grow?

When you lift weights or do a workout that creates muscle damage, your body responds by repairing or replacing the damaged muscle fibers. It does this through a cellular process that fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands. This is known as supercompensation—you build bigger muscles. Here’s what the process looks like:

During your workout, you are causing damage to the muscles. But the actual muscle growth occurs outside of the gym while you rest.

So, if you want to build muscle what’s the best way to trigger growth?

Three Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy

Our current understanding of muscle development suggests that there are three main mechanisms that result in exercise-related muscle growth (i.e., muscle hypertrophy): muscle tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.

1. Muscle Tension

You apply tension by lifting very heavy loads. For example, loads that allow you to lift a given weight in the 1-5 rep range would place high tension on the muscle. Powerlifters generally work in these lower rep ranges with the aim to increase their one rep max lift.

The tension from lifting weights disturbs the integrity of the working muscle. This results in a process called mechanotransduction. Mechanotransduction is a process that converts mechanical signals into chemical energy. These signals turn on the anabolic pathways resulting in muscle growth.

2. Muscle Damage

If you’ve ever done a tough weight training session that’s left you struggling to sit down on the toilet seat, you’ve experienced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS usually kick in around 24 hours after your workout and can last for up to three days post workout.

DOMS is caused by microtears in the contractile proteins and surface membrane of the muscle. The body responds by sending immune cells to the damaged tissue to remove cellular debris and repair it. This process leads to a growth response that strengthens the muscle and allows it to handle heavier loads.

3. Metabolic Stress

Metabolic stress is the pump you get after working a muscle to fatigue. Think higher rep ranges and minimum rest, or CrossFit style metabolic conditioning workouts.

Metabolic stress builds muscle through the production of by-products of metabolism called metabolites (e.g., lactate, hydrogen ion, inorganic phosphate, and others). When your cells swell, it stimulates protein synthesis and decreases protein breakdown. This is thought to result in an increase in cell size.

How to Put This Into Practice

If your goal is to build muscle, understand that the three mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy do not exist in isolation. They all contribute to maximum muscle gains. So, your program should incorporate all three. Here are some ideas on how you can do this:

Muscle Tension

  • Focus on lifting heavier weights in the 1-5 rep range
  • Use long rest periods between sets to allow complete recovery
  • Keep training volume low and intensity high
  • Focus on pure strength—i.e., your 1 RM should increase by the end of a strength phase

Muscle Damage

  • Use a moderate rep range like 8-12
  • Use slow and controlled eccentrics (e.g., 3-4 second lowering of the weight)
  • Use a higher volume

Metabolic Stress

  • Use short rest periods of around 30 seconds
  • Use higher rep ranges (15-20 reps)
  • Use superset and dropset techniques to fatigue the muscle
  • Train to failure
  • Use high volume

The best way to build the three mechanisms of hypertrophy into your weekly training program is through periodization.

Don’t Forget to Eat!

Nutrition is just as important as your training. If you’re not taking in enough overall calories, your body won’t build muscle. You also need the right amount of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats). I’ll cover nutrition for building muscle in another post, as it’s a big topic.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) try adding the three mechanisms of muscle growth into your program. Start with one change per week. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what’s helped you build the most muscle? Heavy loads? Moderate rep ranges? Lots of food?

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Hat Tip and Credits

This post was based on research conducted by Brad Schoenfeld and his amazing book The MAX Muscle Plan.

Cover photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.