View Full Version : How muscles grow

17-12-2006, 12:30 AM
By nature our bodies are lazy and would prefer to just eat, sleep and sit around all day. When you start weight training you introduce a new stress or workload to the body. Your body will then adapt to this new stress by increasing strength and muscle size. The body does not like hard work so it adapts in order to conquer the new workload just so it can cruise again. As weight trainers we can play with this principle by giving the body a workload it does not know all the time. By lifting heavier weights or changing our volume of work such as doing more sets and reps, we can constantly shock the body so it is always adapting.


A beginner will make great progress for the first year no matter how basic their training routines are. Even if they have no idea and are just playing with weights they will grow and make progress. After about a year the honeymoon is over and in order to still get results you need to train a lot smarter.

Experienced trainers adapt quicker to new routines and need to change something about their routines every 3 weeks or they will reach the point of staleness. Small changes are all that is needed - consider the following examples of how this can easily be achieved by changing:

1. the order of the exercises, or
2. the number of reps per set, or
3. the resistance used, or
4. the speed or tempo of each rep, or
5. the exercises themselves or
6. the number of sets per exercise or
7. the rest periods between the sets and exercises , or
8. the environment such as switching from a stable environment (machine) to an unstable environment (swiss ball or dura disc).

Here's an example on how to change the rest period between sets - by doing this you have changed the routine:
For example, do a chest routine for 3 weeks with 3 minutes rest between sets, for another 3 weeks rest just 2 minutes and for the last 3 weeks rest 1 minute between sets. Each work out feels completely different yet the only change has been the rest periods and that's 9 weeks of chest training taken care of.

Speed or tempo of each rep can also be changed for new shock value. Time under tension refers to how long a muscle contracts or works during a set. For example on a bicep curl, you may take 2 seconds to raise the bar, hold at the top and squeeze that bar hard for 1 second, then lower the bard for 3 seconds. That's six seconds time under tension for one rep. If you get 8 reps like this, that's 48 seconds time under tension for the biceps. Your time under tension range for growth should be no longer than between 20-60 seconds.

Your mental focus will be much greater with this type of training and your muscles will be working a lot harder than just throwing the weights up and letting them fall back down thanks to gravity. Momentum will be eliminated and the muscles will be lifting the load not throwing it as it common practice in most gyms.

Research shows that the lifting portion of a movement recruits the most muscle fibres when it is performed slowly (about 2 seconds for most movements) the lifting portion of a movement shortens the muscles and is called the concentric part of the lift.

Lowering the weights lengthens the muscles and is called the eccentric portion of the lift. The eccentric part of a lift should be even slower, up to 5 seconds. It causes the maximum microtrauma at a local level to the muscle fibres, which will result in the muscle cells growing back bigger and stronger provided they are rested and optimally fed (through your diet and supplement program). By changing the speed of your lifts every few weeks, you have again changed your training and your body gets another work out that it does not know, which leads to more adapting and growing.

Cycling is a great way to eliminate overtraining and undertraining. It is an easy concept to understand but forgotten about by advanced lifters who are the ones who need it most. Start a cycle with a low volumes of work like just two challenging sets on each exercise after warm ups. Your body will recover quickly and easily and will programme itself into believing that this is the new standard.

As the weeks go by, add more work in the form of 1 extra set every 3 weeks. This will shock the body into having to readapt to the new increased work load. You keep adding a set on every 3 weeks until eventually you reach a point where the body cannot handle the level of overload you are giving it. (Usually by the time you reach 5 sets on each exercise.)

Your body will find it harder to recover from these workouts and soon will enter an overtrained state. This is when you back off and rest for seven to fourteen days (no weight training). During this rest period your body will repair and grow and you will come back stronger when you resume training.

Upon your return, reduce the volume of work back to 2 sets again. The body will re-adjust to the lesser workload and soon consider this the new standard again. But just as you are getting used to low volume workouts, you repeat the cycle by adding a set every few weeks. As you repeat the cycles the body considers the increased workload as new stress again and continues to adapt and grow.

Cycling is a great way to avoid overtraining and keep shocking the body. Each time you repeat the cycle you will get fresh growth as well as getting a lot stronger. Also be aware that the new "increased" muscle gained from each cycle will make you stronger on the next cycle. Cycling is an excellent way to allow you to structure your training to cater for business trips and holidays and not feel guilty for not training. Remember this two week break is essential for optimal growth and recovery.

There are different types of fibres in a muscle with the low endurance (fast twitch) fibres being recruited immediately for high tension (heavy weight/lifts). As their name suggests, low endurance fibres don't last for long but they have a lot of strength. Lifting weights of 4 to 6 reps causes the maximum amount of motor unit recruitment and is very demanding on the central nervous system but will make you develop strength. The high endurance fibres (also fast twitch) come into play with rep ranges of 8-12 and are more likely to cause muscle growth or hypertrophy to occur.

Training with 4-6 reps and heavy weights all the time leads to injuries so cycling 3 weeks of heavy 4-6 rep training with 3 weeks of 8-12 rep training is the way to go. You will avoid injury and the strength you develop on the heavy phase will carry over to the 8-12 rep cycle where you will break plateaus which you were stuck on before and cause new growth. Most people overtrain their high endurance fibres while their low endurance fibres are unemployed. Cycling the two ranges of rep training makes a lot of sense and evens things up.

Muscle adapts and becomes stronger during rest periods, not during exercise itself. During a work out we damage the muscle tissue by breaking down muscle proteins and energy stores in the muscle. After a work out you are weaker than you were at the start but with adequate recovery or rest periods between workouts you should start the next work out at a slightly higher training level.

For example if you train weights on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday you will be strongest prior to your Monday work out after the weekend's two day rest. Strength levels may drop slightly during the week but the next Monday you will be at a higher level than the previous Monday. With proper rest, nutrition, supplementation, and sleep our bodies can recover, grow and adapt to training demands. Rest between workouts and length of time until a body part is trained again is so important.

Large body parts like legs may need several days to recover whereas calves can recover overnight. Chest and back need 2-3 days between sessions. A simple rule to remember is that if you are due to train a body part, but it is still sore from a previous workout, give it an extra day off. If it is still sore it has not fully recovered and repaired, so don't train it yet - train a different body part instead.

Sleep is also of major importance to the recovery process as many adaptations to training occur while sleeping. Sleep is when out bodies secrete growth hormone via the pituitary gland. Growth hormone can help increase lean muscle mass and high levels help to keep fat at a minimum.

Poor diet, not enough sleep and training too often so you cannot recover in time for the next workout, all lead to overtraining. Each of these by themselves or together lead to overtraining which will put a halt to muscle growth and even cause you to lose muscle. Overtraining can also cause injuries and you will feel tired all the time. You will also lose motivation for training and start to dread your training sessions. By getting enough sleep, eating frequently and training smart (for example using cycling), you can eliminate this problem.

An often misunderstood idea among weight trainers is that you have to be sore after every workout otherwise you will not grow and get results. Some people get little soreness, which is fine because soreness is not a requirement for muscle growth. Muscle soreness is the body's way of saying "let me recover". If you are not sore it means you have accomplished sufficient training to cause growth but not enough to cause the body to give you the "let me recover" signal. Do not make the mistake of using muscle soreness as a barometer for success.

Whenever training is stopped, people feel that they are losing muscle and strength after only a few days. Don't panic - a short break up to 2 weeks can be used to rest your body and recover without any loss of muscle strength. The type of training done just before the break is the key to turning the time off to our advantage. If training was high in volume and very stressful prior to the short break a gain in strength will occur because the break will give the body well needed recovery time. Loss of muscle size will be minimized as well so after the break you will come back stronger, feeling rested and you won't have lost any muscle. This break can be incorporated into training cycles so that at the end of a cycle as you are about to enter an overtrained state you have up to 2 weeks off. Breaks longer than 2 weeks will cause a loss of strength power and muscle size.

Another trick is to follow an intense training period with a period of reduced training instead of taking a complete break. Do just one or two weight workouts per week but keep those two workouts at the same intensity. Strength, power and muscle can be maintained for a period of at least 8 weeks on this reduced training cycle.

So now you can have some time off without feeling guilty and know that you are not going backwards but are actually making progress.