Anabolic Steroid / noun / “a synthetic steroid hormone that resembles testosterone in promoting the growth of muscle.”
That’s what is most important for muscle mass. Just kidding. Kind of. Not really. Not sure.
Anabolic steroids work. But work also works. And even if you’re juiced to the gills, you still need to do the work. I’m not advocating pharmaceutical assistance, especially since in many places doing so is illegal. It’s worth noting that people can develop a psychological dependence on the use of steroids, in case you were thinking about experimenting.
So, let’s focus on the work rather than what might be injected, along with some mention of nutrition and supplementation at the end. Time now for another definition:
Hypertrophy / noun / “the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells.”
Because I love alliteration, I want to lay down the Hierarchy of Hypertrophy. We’re going to look at the methods of building muscle mass from most important, to less important.
This seems cliché, but it must be said. Stop looking for a quick fix. The biggest guys in the gym, steroids or no, are the ones who log the hours, hard hours, day after day, week after week, year after year. Well, there is genetics involved too, but we’re focusing on stuff that is under your control.
Want to build muscle mass? Then get passionate about the iron.
2. PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
You may have heard this term before, but it requires some breaking down to understand what it means, because there are myriad ways of achieving it. Progressive overload is about increasing any of three things in your lifting regimen: Volume, Intensity, or Frequency.
To get more details on how these three aspect of training work in concert to create progressive overload, I spoke with Eric Helms, a bodybuilder with a PhD in strength and conditioning from the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.
Let’s start with some simple definitions.
Volume: If you lift a 100-pound weight 10 times, your volume was 1,000 pounds. If you do that for a total of three sets, then the volume is 3,000 pounds. Get it?
Intensity: How heavy was the weight? Low intensity means you didn’t have to strain too hard to lift it because it was lighter. Higher intensity means your face was turning red and you were praying to whichever deity you most closely identify with so you didn’t let that bar crush your windpipe. Also referred to as “load,” as in, how heavily is the bar loaded.
Frequency: How often are you training the same body part?
As I said, increasing any one of these is going to create progressive overload, which = bigger gun show for you. But what is the most effective way to use these three training parameters to achieve such progressive overload? That isn’t an easy question to answer, but Helms has some advice.
“It makes sense to start with a reasonable amount of volume and increase the load,” Helms told me. “Let strength push itself up with an appropriate level of volume.” What is appropriate volume? Helms says, “Training a muscle group two to three times per week and doing 40-70 repetitions per training session per body part.”
I’ll break that down for you. Say you’re training chest, because who doesn’t love training chest? For a single training session, you’re looking at 40-70 reps. How many sets that requires is based on intensity, but let’s say it’s 10 reps per set. That means doing four to seven sets of chest training each workout. But they don’t have to all be the same exercise. In fact, mixing it up can be good (although of lower importance in the hierarchy of hypertrophy than focusing on progressive overload). You can do some sets with a barbell and some with dumbbells and even some with weight machines.
And then you do that two or three times per week.
And note that when you make the calculations “per week”—something Helms is a fan of—it’s going to mean that “frequency” will affect volume. The reason why it makes sense to consider volume on a per week basis is because “You can do too much volume in a day,” said Helms. “It’s better to spread it out over the week.” So, if you do 70 reps of a body part in a single session, you take the volume calculation for that and factor it by how many times you exercised that body part that week for your per week volume calculation.
Clear as a pint of Guinness?
You want to push the strength when you have appropriate volume, as Eric says, but if mass is your goal, then there can be such a thing as taking too much of a strength focus. When you’re pushing to get as strong as possible, this can result in volume taking a major hit.
Here is an example: When I was training to achieve my max bench press, I wanted to hit 315. I worked my ass off to get that strong (which, in the powerlifting world, isn’t that strong at all), and was eventually able to lift 315 for just one rep.
But at the same time, I could bench 295 for two reps, and 275 for four.
So, 315 X 1 = 315 pounds, but 295 X 2 = 590 pounds, and 275 X 4 = 1,100 pounds. See how going too strength focused negatively influences volume? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a hardcore strength focus, but this article is all about the hypertrophy, so use strength building appropriately to maximize volume. Going too light won’t give you the volume you need either.
To reiterate, pushing strength appropriately is a great way to increase volume without having to increase number of reps, sets or frequency. If those three things stay the same, but suddenly you’re lifting 110 pounds instead of 100 pounds, your weekly volume just went up by 10%, and that’s good for mass.
In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis of 15 different studies published in the Journal of Sport Science asserted “Results showed an incremental dose-response relationship whereby progressively higher weekly training volumes resulted in greater muscle hypertrophy.”
The consensus is that higher frequency, meaning hitting the same body part multiple times per week, is good for hypertrophy. Part of this is because it contributes to higher volume. Training for one hour on a body part twice a week is better than training it for two hours once a week. Eric Helms says that part of the reason why is that “Spreading it out over the week allows for more meals in between, more recovery time, and therefore better performance that leads to higher reps and higher intensity and therefore higher volume.”
And if you can hit it three times a week, even better. But how to best split it up? Depends on your schedule. So let’s look at …
Body Part Training
“If someone is really busy,” Helms says, “Spending a long workout training the entire body two or three times a week might work best for them.” He said other alternatives might be to do two upper body sessions a week with two lower body sessions. Another is, “If they have a lot of small pockets of time, they might want to split it into upper body pushing (chest, shoulders and triceps), legs, and upper body pulling (back and biceps) times two, so they’re training six days a week.
A Note about Training to Failure
Lifting until you can’t lift anymore is overused and overrated. Strategic use of training to failure is beneficial. Note the word “strategic.” If you’re always going to the limit, it is going to affect the total volume of later sets. Learn more about how to properly use training to failure in my article here.
Whew. That’s the basics of progressive overload. What’s next in the hierarchy?
3. EXERCISE SELECTION
It’s not a good idea to do a ton of triceps extensions right before you attempt your bench press, because your arms will be fatigued and your bench will suffer.
Bench press is a “multi-joint” movement (also referred to as a “compound movement”), and triceps-focused exercises are “single-joint” movements (also referred to as an “isolation movement”).
“Compound movements are an efficient way of training multiple muscle groups at once,” Helms said. It’s a good idea to put the focus there, but there is value in doing isolation work afterwards to target things like biceps, triceps, quadriceps etc. to give them a bit more focused work and add to their specific training volume.
And what about weightlifting machines? Don’t listen to the purists who disrespect their use. They can be valuable tools for attaining greater hypertrophy. Learn more about weightlifting machines in my article here.
4. REST PERIODS
The important thing about rest periods isn’t to make sure they’re not too long, but to ensure they’re not too short. Because if they’re too short you won’t be able to go as hard for your next set, and volume will be sacrificed. This article of mine shows how longer rest intervals don’t matter that much (as long as you’re not in a hurry to leave the gym).
“Doing very slows reps means you have to decrease the load (amount of weight),” said Helms. Going super slow decreases total volume lifted. And if you haven’t realized it yet from reading this article, volume is a big deal for getting big.
How to lift? Helms says there is benefit to accelerating the bar during the concentric movement (when you’re working against gravity, like the push of a bench press), if you’re not building up a bunch of inertia and throwing the weight at the ceiling, that is. Conversely, for the lowering, that’s when you want to take a little time. Emphasis on “little.” Don’t let gravity do the work; make your muscles do it.
An exception here, says Helms, is things like calf training, where it’s beneficial to pause at the bottom of the movement. This is because the Achilles tendon holds a lot of tension. If you go right into the raise immediately after the lowering, the tendon is doing a lot of the work. If hypertrophy of calf muscles is the goal, pause for a moment so the tendon relaxes, then lift using mostly muscles.
A NOTE ABOUT NUTRITION AND SUPPLEMENTATION
Eric Helms has great information about both the exercise and nutrition side of building muscle in graphic pyramid form on his website. Getting enough calories is important to ensure muscular growth, but beware overdoing it and gaining fat.
And there needs to be some emphasis on getting the right kind of calories. You want high-quality to fuel your performance, and as I showed in this piece, carbohydrates are critical for going hard. But you also need adequate protein. How much is adequate? I examined protein in this piece for the Los Angeles Times. Protein supplements aren’t critical if you have your food dialed tight, but they certainly can be an easier and more convenient way of ensuring you get the required protein to gain muscle mass.
There are many other methods of supplementation, and a lot of it creates expensive pee. But time and again creatine is held up as beneficial for muscle hypertrophy. Learn more about creatine in my piece for the Chicago Tribune here.
Want to get big? Put your emphasis of what is most important, and worry less about what is lower down in the hierarchy. As Helms says, “When people try to outsmart the body to gain hypertrophy, they usually end up missing something.” That means unintended consequences that can decrease volume.
Again, it’s mostly about doing the work.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.