Gaining muscle (also known as hypertrophy) is more than just going to the gym and lifting as heavy as you possibly can. We’ll explain how to grow your muscles in a safe and effective way, whilst staying lean – muscles you can really see!
Progressive Overload – the key to muscle growthProgressive overload is where you work your muscles increasingly hard over time. If you just do the same thing over and over your muscles will adapt and you will stop gaining muscle. There are 5 ways you can progressively overload to get bigger muscles. Whichever method you use, your form should be correct and you should push yourself to failure (where you can’t do another rep), or almost failure.
- Increase the weight
- Increase the number of reps (without decreasing the weight)
- Increase the number of sets
- Improve your form, especially your mind-muscle connection (see next section)
- Do slower reps (increase time under tension – see next section)
Correct Form – the best way to liftMany gym-goers think that you must lift heavy weights to build muscle. You should use weights that are heavy enough to require effort and work the specific muscle(s). You should also increase the weight you lift over a period of time to create progressive overload. However, the most important, safest and effective way to build muscle is by using correct form. Think QUALITY over quantity.
- Focus on the muscle. When you are performing the exercise, focus on the muscle that the exercise targets. This is also known as the mind-muscle connection.
- Time under tension. It is easier to focus on correct form when you don’t perform the exercise too quickly. Muscles are overloaded by weight, but also by time under tension (i.e. the more time spent doing the movement = more work for the muscle = more muscle growth). It is important to focus on both the up and down, or concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening), part of the movement. There is no perfect amount of time to perform the movement. We generally recommend a controlled one second concentric (up) movement and a slower and controlled two second eccentric (down) movement. You can vary this depending on your preferences or training goals.
Volume – How many reps should I do?There is no magic number of reps. Certain numbers of reps are suitable for certain purposes, e.g. 1-3 reps if you are training for power or max. strength. The most important thing is to make sure you have good form and that you feel your muscle(s) being worked. Although there isn’t a magic number of reps, around 6 – 14 reps are generally suitable for hypertrophy and can be a good range to aim for. Fewer reps than this suggests that the weight may be too heavy; more suggests that the weight may be too light. Generally, you may be able to do more reps for isolation exercises (like cable fly, or triceps extensions), as they place less demand on your body than compound exercises, such as squats or chest press. Don’t stop on a set number of reps, e.g. 10 reps, if you can do more. Working your muscles harder with progressive overload will help muscle growth.
Frequency – How often should I lift & how should I organize my sessions?It is common to train each muscle group in a separate session once a week. If you are doing this you are probably missing out on extra muscle growth, as you are not making the most of the muscle protein synthesis (MPS) window (explained below). Research (e.g. Schoenfield, 2016) shows that training the muscle twice a week or more leads to more muscle growth than once a week. After training, your muscles will grow, depending on the quality of your training and diet. There is an ‘MPS window’ of around 12 – 48 hours (depending on your training experience) where you get the most muscle growth. This is because the muscles are most sensitive to amino acids (protein is made up of amino acids). during this period. If you only train the muscle once a week, your muscle only undergoes a higher rate of growth for 1 – 2 days per week. However, if you train twice a week, you can take advantage of this MPS window twice. Therefore, over 7 days, your MPS is high for 2 – 4 days – that’s almost 50% of the time! We recommend that you train each muscle group twice a week (or more). This means that each gym session will involve working out more than one muscle group. The picture below shows two training split examples.
What diet should I eat to gain lean muscle?There’s more to gaining muscle than just eating lots of protein. To maximise muscle growth, you need to eat high-quality protein and consider food timing. To gain lean muscle (more muscle and less fat) you need to gain muscle and lose fat (or at least not gain fat). The problem with some weight training diets is that you will gain muscle but also fat. Although you gain muscle and size, you may not be able to really see the muscle or may get a fatter stomach. This is why people ‘cut’ after a ‘bulk’ diet. However, it is possible to eat a healthy diet where you can gain muscle and lose fat. Learn more on our gain lean muscle diet page.
Self-isolating at home or don’t have a gym membership? Here’s a home workout video to gain muscle.
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