Coach PK on The Keys to Muscle Gainz
Current research by the leading exercise physiologists and sports scientists confirms that there are three known pathways by which weight training signals a muscle growth response. These pathways are known as mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Let’s take a closer look at each pathway in detail:
One pathway exercise physiologists consider essential for muscle growth is the high mechanical tension caused by heavy weight training. This tension is believed to disturb the integrity of muscle cells, which in turn sends growth signals via a cascade of events. Although researchers are still trying to determine exactly how these events occur, one thing is clear; heavy weights are a key pathway to signal the muscle growth process. This fact has been confirmed by thousands of strength athletes, including bodybuilders, powerlifters and weightlifters over many decades.
So what’s the best way to train to leverage mechanical tension? In our experience, we have observed best results by training with moderate to high volume, keeping our reps in the 6 – 10 range. Rest intervals will be between 90-120 seconds, sometimes as high as 3-4 minutes on heavy compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Your tempo will be moderate as well, usually a 2/0/1/0 pace. This means you will take 2 seconds to lower a weight with no pause (0) at the bottom and 1 second to lift the weight with no pause (0) at the top. As a change of pace, we also highly recommend paused reps to increase the time under tension on a specific muscle group. For example, for paused squats you would use a 2/3/1/0 tempo. This means you will take 2 seconds to lower a weight with a 3-second pause at the bottom, and 1 second to lift the weight with no pause (0) at the top.
Although this is a tried-and-true method to trigger the musclebuilding process, it is certainly not the only way. Let’s take a look at another pathway:
Another essential pathway to signal muscle growth via weight training is muscle damage. A hard workout at a minimum level of intensity causes damage (microtears) to muscle tissue. This damage is believed to signal a muscle growth (hypertrophic) response. Scientists draw parallels between the response to muscle damage and the inflammatory response when one has an infection. The body recognizes that local trauma has occurred in a specific muscle group and responds by releasing various growth factors that govern muscle cell growth.
So what’s the best way to train to create high amounts of muscle damage and trigger a muscle growth response? We have observed great results by training with moderate to high volume, keeping our reps a little higher in the 8 – 12 range. Rest intervals will be between 60-90 seconds, sometimes a little longer on heavy compound exercises. You can also use techniques such as rest-pause and drop sets
The key variable here is tempo. You will really accentuate the negative component of each rep during your workouts. A tempo of 4/0/1/0 is very effective during this training phase. This means you will take 4 seconds to lower a weight with no pause (0) at the bottom and 1 second to lift the weight with no pause (0) at the top.
So we now know two strategies to take advantage of two key factors responsible for signalling muscle growth via training. Let’s examine the third factor most familiar to bodybuilders, physique, figure, and bikini athletes: metabolic stress.
Metabolic stress is the result of training that relies on carbohydrate breakdown (glycolysis) for energy (ATP) production, which creates a build up of metabolites like lactic acid and hydrogen ions. The searing pain you feel during a high-rep set of leg extensions or leg presses is a by-product of metabolic stress.
There are a number of theories as to how metabolic stress signals a muscle growth response, including cell swelling and changes in hormonal environment. While the various theories will continue to be debated, the firsthand results of bodybuilders are evidence that creating metabolic stress via training leads to muscle growth.
How do we train to trigger a muscle growth response via metabolic stress? Optimal results can be achieved here with a high volume strategy. Reps will be at a minimum of 10 and can go as high as 20-25, especially with muscle groups such as quads and calves. Rest intervals will be shorter than if we were training for maximum mechanical tension and/or muscle damage, ranging from 45-60 seconds. Rep tempo is moderate to fast (i.e. 2/0/1/0 or 1/0/1/0). Training to induce metabolic stress also allows for intensification techniques such as supersets; drop sets, and giant sets. One advantage of drop sets is that you are able to train at a higher intensity (achieving high mechanical tension) while keeping the muscle under tension for a longer period.
Make sure to incorporate these training strategies into your program to ensure complete muscular development. Train hard!