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There are many resources, internet and on paper, that show us how to build muscle mass, with all sorts of exercise programs, myriads leading us to believe that achieving bigger muscles is a complicated and often confusing process.
I won’t argue that the mechanics of muscle hypertrophy isn’t complicated, but I’ll tell you how I successfully did it in the past, based on nearly 20 years of practical experience and of reading published papers in scientific journals like Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, among others.
As I’ve written elsewhere, building more muscle boils down to two main factors:
- Increase the strength of the muscle
- Impose metabolic fatigue in the muscle
To keep the explanation simple: increasing strength means you’ll increase the number of contractile proteins within the muscle fibers. Imposing metabolic fatigue means you’ll increase cytoplasmic volume (cellular fluid) within the muscle fibers, forcing an influx of key h0rmones and nutrients.
The Workout Strategy
When I was trying to build more muscle, I used a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. This means very heavy lifting with relatively few repetitions for strength, and lighter lifting with relatively higher repetitions for metabolic fatigue.
There are various “scientific protocols” for this combination, or periodization of cycles with specific purposes — microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle. Additionally, there are strict percentage-based programs that include such training structures that include the complex method and the conjugated system, as well as intuition-based programs like cybernetic training.
You can google these terms for further explanation, but I don’t bother with their definitions or their rules. There are many super-intelligent coaches and authors (like the incredibly strong Louie Simmon, the master Vladimir Zatsiorski, and the late but brilliant Dr. Mel Siff) who detail these various methods that help to create elite athletes, but I’m an average fellow, obligated to many fine things in a busy life, and I just want to be healthy, have enough strength to get out of my own way, and look decent doing it.
Keeping it Simple
The fact that muscle hypertrophy appear to boil down to two main factors was enough for me to lift heavy for strength some of the time, and then lift light to fatigue some of the time. Their cycling in my training didn’t matter to me so much as their inclusion in my training.
For strength, I stick with multiple-joint, multiple-muscle-group exercises using primarily barbells, like:
- Back Squats
- Overhead Presses
- Pull-ups (weighted, but varies with individuals)
I did sets of 5 and went as heavy as possible, which meant sometimes I was doing single reps per set. So 5 X 5, sometimes 3 X 3, other times 1 X 1.
For lighter, metabolically fatiguing sets, I used mostly dumbbells and kettlebells. I did sets of 6 all the way up to sets of 15 or even 20. I go for “the burn.” These exercises include:
- Dumbbell bench press
- Dumbbell flies
- Seated rows
- Lateral raises
- Biceps curls
- Triceps pressdowns
I kept things simple, ate only as much as I felt I needed to, and not more. I didn’t worry too much about meeting any protein minimum (which I knew was mostly an industry gimmick), and I didn’t really use supplements other than fish oil.