What does it take to pack on the muscle and get big, without steroids or other strategies that could potentially damage your health?
Hypertrophy training, or building muscle and gaining muscle weight, comes down to three vital principals that, if followed will get you guaranteed results. We’re talking A+B=C. I’ll lay out a simple path that will take you from scrawny bag of bones, to jacked-up bad-ass.
The biggest thing to cover first of all, let’s call it “Principle Zero” is expectation. You can make incredible progress in muscle building, but you simply will not ever look like the mass-monster “enhanced” body builders as a clean athlete. It’s important to set expectations based on people in the same situation as you – not those on huge amounts of performance enhancers, and probably not the top 0.1% genetically either.
With that out of the way, let’s get in to it.
So what does it take to pack on significant muscle mass?
Here’s an overview of the principles of hypertrophy:
- To gain muscle weight you must be providing a training stimulus with progressive overload. The key phrase is “muscle weight”. That leads us to the next principle.
- To gain ANY weight you must be in a caloric surplus (this principle works in reverse as well). That means eating more than you are expending. Without this, you will not gain any muscle. In a caloric surplus you will gain weight. You need the training stimulus to ensure it is muscle, rather than fat.
- Next, you need to look at your lifestyle. Do you get enough sleep? Are you stressed out 24/7? These things will impact your goals and need to be addressed.
Alright, let’s flesh out these bones:
1. Training Principles for Hypertrophy
Muscles do the work: The biggest mistake novice and even intermediate lifters make in the gym is focusing on moving a weight from Point A to Point B, instead of focusing on working the muscle to its fullest potential. When you are just moving a weight, you will be using momentum, leverage and a host of other muscles assisting it.
Check the ego at the door and look for ways to make the movement harder rather than easier. Your muscles don’t know how much weight you are using, only how much force is required. Using a lighter weight, with less momentum, and less leverage, will increase the force produced.
Increasing Density & Volume:
The two biggest variables to manipulate in hypertrophy training are density and volume. Density is how much work is completed in a given time. Volume is the total amount of work completed. These can be measured per workout and also per week. Therefore, a way to increase both density and volume is to increase training frequency (more training sessions = more work per week, and more training sessions = more total reps completed).
Other ways to increase density include doing more total reps in the same amount of time. If you spend the same time in the gym, and add an additional set, you have increased density. Likewise you can add reps to every set, to increase density. The opposite way is to keep the volume the same, but do it in less time (shorter rest periods, or less total sets for the same number of total reps).
To increase volume you simply do more. Add reps, add sets, add exercises.
Too much of a good thing?
Of course, more is not always better. You should increase the workload incrementally, to avoid overtraining. If you exceed your capacity to recover from the workout, you will quickly stagnate. Progressive overload is key.
2. Dietary Principles for Hypertrophy
We already mentioned that you need to consume more than you expend. The greater the surplus, the greater the weight gain will be. The faster the weight gain is, the more fat you will gain, along with the muscle. Realize that hypertrophy is a slow burner and a couple of pounds a month of muscle mass gain is actually good progress. You will be surprised how large an effect just 10-20lbs has on your physique, if it is solid muscle that is.
Muscle is built from protein and this should be the basis of any physique-oriented diet. Personally, I think the recommendation of 100g per lb of bodyweight is a good starting point, for no other reason than; it’s a simple target to aim for that will make you aware of your protein intake and definitely cover your bases getting enough.
Remember that protein is predominantly in meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but will also be in smaller quantities in other foods. It all counts towards your daily target.
Carbs are super important for muscle building and if you have been on a weight loss diet previously, or are simply a carbo-phobe, you will need to get over your aversion to the carbohydrate.
Insulin is released from the pancreas when you eat carbohydrate and is responsible for shuttling nutrients in to tissues (muscles, after a training session). Insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the body (even more so than testosterone) and manipulating insulin by eating carbohydrates and taking advantage of the post workout feeding window with simple sugars is the best way to pack nutrients in to the muscles for growth.
Finally, fats are essential for good health and are the building blocks for hormones (like testosterone) which you will need for muscle building. Ensure you are eating healthy fats in oily fish, avocado, olive oil, etc.
3. Lifestyle Principles for Hypertrophy
After diet and exercise are in line, you also want to tweak a couple of lifestyle points, for maximum results.
Sleep is Vital:
Your body grows while you rest. The better you sleep, the better you recover from training and the more you are capable of doing. Sleep is also when you release growth hormone, which is integral to muscle building. Ensure a pitch black room and consistent routine to maximize growth hormone levels.
Cortisol – the primary stress hormone – directly opposes testosterone. If you are highly stressed, testosterone will tank and with it will go your strength and muscle mass. Manage stress levels by eating clean, sleeping well and dealing with emotional stress to maximize testosterone levels (for men) and immune function. Can doing yoga and meditating help you get stacked? If it lowers your stress – yes!
Final Word on Achieving Safe Hypertrophy
To sum up the key principles for hypertrophy training; you must progressively overload the muscles in training by increasing volume and/or density, and support your training with a caloric surplus; adequate protein and carbs; and maximize sleep, while minimizing stress, to aid recovery. Follow these principles, be smart, have patience, and you’ll absolutely see results.