Most people who go to the gym generally want to know how to increase muscle mass, as their first – and oftentimes only – goal.
Part of the reason is pure vanity, but athletes need hypertrophy as much as older people do.
Increasing muscle mass, as well as improving body composition, will help your body function better, increase your performance and in the years, you will be able to stay independent longer.
Training or nutrition?
Training AND nutrition are both fundamental.
I do not agree with people who affirm that “nutrition does 70% of the work”.
Calorie surplus and high proteins allow for muscle hypertrophy and the correct training forces the muscles to grow.
Your body cannot grow without correct nutrition and cannot grow without proper training.
And there’s more.
The lean mass increase is also the product of good sleeping habits, about 6-8 hours per night, and low-stress levels — the proportion of testosterone and cortisol in fundamental to muscle growth.
Genetics and muscle mass increase
Genetics strongly affects your maximum potential muscle mass.
I’ve already discussed the role of genetics in lean muscle growth, and what can expect when trying to increase muscle mass in my article natural bodybuilding.
According to Alan Aragon, this shows much our lean muscle mass can increase:
- Beginner: 1-1,5% pf your body weight per month
- Intermediate: 0,5-1% of your body weight per month
- Advanced: 0,25- 0,5% of your body weight per month
According to Lyle McDonald:
- In the first year of training: 9-12 Kg
- In the second year: 4-5 kg
- In the third year: 2-3 kg
- In the fourth year: 1-2 kg
The mechanisms of increasing muscle mass
Schoenfeld showed us the main mechanisms that increase muscle mass are, in order of importance:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscular damage
Mechanical tension is the force you place on your muscles under when you contract them against resistance.
Muscles do not recognize exercises, time under tension and breaks, but they do know mechanical tension.
Metabolic stress is the “pump” that we induce when doing high reps and short breaks.
Muscular damage comes as a result of applying tension on a muscle.
When training for muscle mass increase, we will need to focus on mechanical tension.
How to increase muscle mass: the most important factors
Eric Helms – in his book Muscle & Strength pyramid – helps us understand which are the essential elements to focus on when training for muscle mass increase.
His pyramids include the following parameters ranked by order of importance:
- Volume, intensity and frequency
- Selection of exercises
- Rest periods
- Lifting tempo
The average person training at the gym has probably never paid much attention to this factor.
Adherence to the training program and perseverance are the pillars that you need to stick to if you want to see results.
The best nutrition program and training program combined will mean nothing unless they are strictly followed for months or even years.
Building lean muscle mass takes time.
What contributes to adherence to the program is:
But don’t forget that training programs must also be fun, realistic and flexible.
In the second position in the pyramid, volume is probably the most crucial factor that helps increase muscle mass, provided we have a decent load (we’ll see it later).
The load doesn’t seem to have a predominant role in gaining mass, but reps do.
6-12 reps per set seem to be the most effective strategy to follow to increase volume and at the same time, allow for fast recovery.
Let’s say we are doing legs. If we do 10×3 squats, we will be exhausted; if we do 3×10, we will probably be able to follow squats by doing leg extensions and have better results.
This, however, has its limits.
Many authors claim that 10- 12 sets per muscle performed with a high level of concentration are ideal, and the rest are “garbage”.
The Principle of diminishing returns shows that:
- The first set will allow for growth X
- The second set will allow for growth X-1
- The third set will allow for growth X-2
When speaking about volume it is essential to understand that we need to vary the total volume of work on a single muscle. We should start from lower levels of volume and move towards higher levels and alternate with deload weeks to allow for recovery and rest.
For the muscle to grow, intensity is just as important as volume.
We need to use weights that stimulate the muscle and lead to hypertrophy.
Powerlifters often believe that high weights are fundamental to achieve results, and bodybuilders often work with lighter weights and lots of repetitions.
The ideal weight to gain muscle mass is the weight that brings us to muscular failure anywhere between by the 30th rep at max.
This is a pretty high range, yes: from 4 to 6 reps, all the way up to 20 to 30 reps, if not that far from failure, will stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
One of the best ways to see results is to train on different rep range.
Helms suggests that we should train from 2/3 to ¾ of the total work on a rep range between 6-12 to increase muscular hypertrophy.
The rest of the work can be done with heavier or lighter weights.
We can increase the frequency of the training of a single muscle to increase the total volume of the work.
You can do 16 sets per muscle in a single day of training a week, or you can choose to do 9 sets twice a week.
They both work, but training a muscle twice a week will:
- Allow you to be more focused in both sessions
- Allow for faster recovery of the muscle and the nervous system
- Increase the total volume on the single muscle
Each muscle needs to be trained with different intensity, frequency and volume.
Biceps, for example, has a fast recovery and can be trained even 4 times a week, quadriceps need a much longer time for a full recovery.
Progressive overload is one of the most important aspects of training.
Let’s look at two examples:
- If today you squat 3×8 using 150 lbs, in a few months you should do the same using 170 lbs
- If today you squat 3×8 using 150 pounds, in a few months you should do 4×12 using 150 lbs
Intensity and volume need to grow to gain muscle mass.
You can probably notice these progressions more when using machines and isolated muscles where your motor skills have a lower impact.
To fully understand your progress, you will need to start noting down weights and reps to see your results in the long run.
How to select the right exercises
I will go ahead and bust a myth here: there are no better exercises for hypertrophy, it really depends on the single person.
For most powerlifters, there are 3 fundamental exercises that help you gain muscle mass.
If you have the right levers, they will work wonders for you and you will see great results.
Progress won’t be so apparent if your levers are not right.
In the end, the muscle will understand mechanical tension, not the name of the exercise.
There is no supremacy of the bar when trying to gain muscle mass, machines and cables will get the job done too.
Bars are used to work more muscles In a single exercise, but they wear you down faster, and you will need a more extended recovery period. They have a higher impact on articulations and the central nervous system.
In this case, machines and cables will help you to accumulate higher volumes of work without all the consequences.
We must learn to use all the tools we are given: when it comes to gaining muscle mass, there is room for fundamentals, multiarticular exercises, cables and machines.
We generally don’t pay much attention to recovery time, but we now know that short breaks often penalize both the volume and intensity of the work.
Each exercise can have a different recovery time, but we can say that 2-3 minutes are enough to give us excellent results.
We can use short breaks when we don’t have a lot of time, or we are working on isolated muscles.
It is not a good idea to do the same when doing squats or any multiarticular or technically challenging exercise.
Most people overestimate the importance of the lifting tempo and train using slow eccentric and concentric movements.
In general, we do 2/0/2 or 4/0/4, which means we take 2 or 4 seconds for the eccentric movement, no stop and again 2 or 4 seconds for the eccentric movement.
This method can show some results when training with specific purposes or during rehabilitation, but it is not valid when training for muscle mass.
What is important is the time under tension (TUT) which contributes to hypertrophy and allows the muscle to grow.
Keeping the muscle under tension for more prolonged periods slowing down the movement might be a limit when the total volume and intensity, which are far more critical, decrease.
The right thing to do is to lift trying to control the movement but without slowing it down dramatically, taking from 1-3 sec for each phase.
IF you have a lot of energy, invest it in more reps or try using higher weights.
Hypertrophy and cardio
Excessive cardio can limit muscle growth.
Therefore, if you don’t want to give up on your weekly cardio, you can consider running or cycling a couple of times a week for about 20-30 minutes.
Running for hours a week can induce catabolism and slow down your muscle growth, so you might want to think about sprinting or doing HIIT.
How to increase muscle mass with muscular failure
I have already written an article dedicated to muscular failure, but I will recap the fundamentals here:
- Do not train to muscular failure too often
- Work with a few reps in reserve, but not too many (1-3)
- Some exercises are more suitable for this type of training compared to other multiarticular, complex exercises
- Train to muscular failure on occasion and if you can recover from it
How to increase muscle mass with nutrition
Again, here are some tips:
- Stay in a caloric surplus, trying to gain 0.4-0.5 pounds a week
- Check your protein intake and the quality of the foods you choose
- Stay high in carbs to allow for higher intensity in the training session
- Carb/ Fats Ratio is a highly personal matter
- The most effective supplements to induce hypertrophy are protein powders and creatine. BCAA and beta-alanine will not make you huge.
- The anabolic window does exist but it’s longer than you thought, so you should have some protein pre and post-workout, but don’t freak out if it’s 30-60 minutes after or before: you will be ok
Recovery, stress and sleep
To grow, you must stress the body.
However, you then need to rest and allow for recovery.
The levels of testosterone and cortisol need to balance out to create the best conditions for muscle growth.
Here are some tips:
- Sleep at least 6-7 hours a night and try to regulate your sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time
- Choose some relaxing activities to reduce stress. Take a walks outside or explore meditation.
- Stay in a caloric surplus for long periods and take care of the quality of the food. Keep a good ratio of the macronutrients
- Train well and increase volume and intensity, the most important factors
- Enjoy your training sessions, choose exercises and activities that you actually like
- Muscle understands mechanical tension and doesn’t know the name of the exercise
- Learn to manage stress, recovery and sleep in the most effective way
- The muscle and strength training pyramid (Helms, Morgan, Valdez)
- Supertraining (Verkhoshansky, Siff)
- Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy (Schoenfeld)
- Scientific principles of strength training (Israetel)