nov13-discovery-lean-seniorMy goal in this piece is to quickly provide four actionable strategies for safe and efficient muscular growth. While much of this will sound familiar to seasoned lifters, I believe you’ll find some valuable nuggets of wisdom here that will deepen and broaden your understanding of the hypertrophy process.

Before we start however, I’d like to point out that whatever your lifting or fitness goals might be, increasing your lean-body mass will play a significant role in your overall success. Greater muscularity directly and indirectly improves speed, power, agility, endurance, joint stability, endurance, personal appearance, and real-life functionality. In other words, it’s a very worthy goal, no matter who you are or what your objectives might be

And with that, lets get started:

Volume

When strength is your desired end game, intensity takes precedence. But when growing muscle is job one, volume— or the amount of work you do — must be prioritized above all else. In real-World terms, this breaks down into a handful of best-practices:

• Choose “big” multi-joint movements that allow for lots of bar weight: squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, and so on. Single-joint drills like arm curls and calf raises should be put on back burner status.

• Prioritize large range of motion movements: for example, the standard barbell bench press is a better hypertrophy exercise than board presses due to its greater range of motion. Remember that the definition of “work” is mass x distance — the same mass moved over a greater distance = more work performed. So skip (or at least minimize) the planks, rack pulls, and partial reps when you’re focusing on muscle growth.

• Small muscles shouldn’t be ignored, but training them doesn’t cause the type of significant homeostatic disturbance necessary for muscle growth. On an upper body growth cycle, hammer your dumbbell presses and pull-ups for the lion’s share of your session, and then finish with 2-3 hard sets for bi’s and tri’s, and you’re out.

• The type of work you perform is also important. Specifically, while your weights should be at least 65% of your maximum one-rep capacity, a more important concern is that each work set should be taken to or (preferably) 1-2 reps away from failure. In a cycle devoted to strength, focus on moving bar weight up from session to session. But for hypertrophy, try to gradually increase the total number of fatiguing sets (meaning, sets taken to or near failure) per muscle/per session.

Novelty

Working hard is a necessary, but not a sufficient, pre-condition for growth

Ideally, the work you do should also be as unfamiliar as possible. Think back to the last time you started a training cycle using a movement that you hadn’t done in a long time: the first time you did this exercise, you were sore as hell the next day. The second time, not as much. Third time around, you were hardly sore at all, despite increasing your weights and number of sets.

What happened here is that the first time you challenged your muscles with an unfamiliar movement pattern, your body went into overdrive, stimulating the growth of new muscle to prepare itself against similar threats in the future. But of course, after doing this exercise 3-4 times, your body has already “figured it out” so to speak, and doesn’t feel the need to grow much additional muscle as a protective response. When this happens (usually in 4-6 weeks) it’s time to switch things up again, by changing your exercise menu and/or set/rep brackets.

Enforced Progression

Once you’ve embraced the idea that work — and specifically unfamiliar work — is the key to growing new muscle, there’s still a third tactic that is absolutely essential for continued growth, and that’s progression. While this concept is completely familiar to most lifters, many of us inadvertently neglect or even abuse this concept in practice. A few of the most egregious errors include:

• “Instinctive” training: If you do different exercises every week, you’ll never know if you’re really progressing because you can’t compare week two’s performance to what you did on week one. A much better practice is to define your weekly exercise menus, and then repeat that weekly cycle for 4-6 weeks, with the aim of increasing weight, reps, and/or total number of work sets each week.

• Forced reps/manual assistance: I’m not sure why this eludes so many lifters, but lifting weights only benefits the person who lifts them. Sure, you can get a blistering pump (and even a great training stimulus) by doing forced reps with a training partner. The problem is, when you go to repeat that same workout the following week, it’s hard to know if you’re really doing more work, because you don’t know what percentage of your weights your buddy was lifting last time. Progressive overload hinges on the ability to objectively measure how much work you’re performing, and even though they hurt like hell, tactics like forced reps and partner assistance don’t play into that strategy at all.

Recovery

Finally, even the most perfectly planned and heroically-executed workouts aren’t worth jack unless you can recover from them. And while there are all sorts of recovery strategies available, it makes sense to focus your efforts on the few proven strategies that have the highest payoff: Adequate sleep, and sufficient caloric intake.

• Sleep, and specifically quality sleep, has a massive impact on training recovery. While people vary somewhat in terms of their sleep needs, the overwhelming majority of hard-training lifters need 8-9 hours on a consistent basis. If you’re not managing this, make it the first order of business to ID and correct your faulty sleep habits. This subject has been written about voluminously, but the

• Calories aren’t the only important factor in recovery nutrition, but they are the most important. In a mass phase, your average weekly bodyweight should be slowly increasing — if it’s not, you’re not eating enough. And needless to say, the more important your training goals are, the more essential it becomes to actually track your nutritional intake. There are all sorts of apps for this purpose — I happen to like the (perhaps unfortunately named) Lose It! (www.LoseIt.com).

Growing New Muscle Is Tough, But Well Worth The Work

When you really think about it, mother nature isn’t all that enthused about your efforts to become more muscular. After all, that new tissue is metabolically expensive, which means you’ll need to ingest more calories every day just to maintain it. That’s why your training must be difficult enough to be perceived as a threat, which your body will protect itself against by growing more muscle. These strategies I’ve outlined above are proven ways of supplying that threat in a safe and efficient manner. I hope you found this discussion useful, and as always, please post your questions and comments below.

 

 

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Integrating Strength And Hypertrophy Training

by tffitness on April 9, 2016

Strength-24Most of us should prioritize the development of strength and hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) as two essential foundations of their training. Sure — there are other fitness characteristics that are also important for most of us — cardiovascular conditioning and mobility come quickly to mind — but these qualities can be at least partially addressed through a well-designed resistance training program.

I’ll start with two statements that underscore the importance of the topic we’ll be talking about here:

1)    Even if strength is your only training concern, developing muscular hypertrophy will still play an important role in your overall preparation.

2)    Even if you’re only interested in body composition or aesthetics, strength development will still play an important role in your training.

I’ll flesh out the rationale behind these two statements shortly, but the overriding point I’m making here is that no matter who you are, and no matter what your goals, you need to know how to develop your musculature, and you need to know how to make those muscles stronger.

Should We Train Concurrently, Or Sequentially?

This is a fundamental question for anyone who needs to develop two (or more) different capacities at the same time: are we better off trying to develop these attributes simultaneously (in one week or one workout for example), or in separate “phases” of training?

While either approach will “work,” the latter method is somewhat superior, for at least a few different reasons:

1)    The body can adapt in one direction faster and more successfully than if it is asked to allocate its resources in multiple directions at the same time. This is especially true if those adaptations are in vastly different directions (for example, maximum strength and aerobic endurance).

2)    Continued long-term adaptation requires novelty — occasional (but not constant) new challenges. This is especially true for muscular hypertrophy. If you constantly attempt to train “everything,” you’ll quickly paint yourself into a corner, physiologically speaking. But if you (for example) train with sets of 5 for perhaps 6 weeks, and then switch to sets of 12, your body’s adaptation mechanisms suddenly go into overdrive in an attempt to respond to the new “threat.”

3)    Some adaptations (such as hypertrophy) create a foundation for the development of other characteristics (such as strength). If a strength phases is initiated after a hypertrophy phase therefore, it will be more successful than if you never did a phase specifically dedicated toward muscular development.

How long should each unidirectional phase last? The quick answer is, until your body “figures out” the new threat.

So for example, if you switch to a completely new exercise menu next week, these new workouts will leave you with significant soreness after the first week. After each new week however, the soreness will be less and less pronounced, until, after perhaps 4-5 weeks, you’ll have no soreness at all. At this point, you’ll need to change your program to get that wheel spinning again.

Another indicator that adaptation has slowed to a crawl is when, despite your most sincere efforts, you can no longer add more weight to the bar for the same sets and reps. At this point, you need to change exercises, set/rep brackets, or both.

Development Versus Maintenance

A key principle in the previous discussion is the idea that whenever you’re trying to improve two or more fitness characteristics simultaneously, rather than placing equal emphasis on these different targets at the same time, you’ll see better results if work on improving one quality at a time, while you put the other qualities on “maintenance” loads. Maintaining a previously-developed level of fitness requires much less work than it took to improve it, which allows you to shuttle more energy into whatever quality you’re trying to improve.

A competitive distance runner for example, might work on improving her strength during her off-season by doing the bare minimum amount of roadwork necessary to maintain her running times while she diverts greater amounts of time and energy to strength training. Then, as she enters her competitive season, she’ll switch gears: Now, she’ll maintain her previously-developed levels of strength (with perhaps 30% of the volume it took to improve it), and divert the lion’s share of her time and energy toward roadwork.

Appreciating the distinction between development and maintenance work can be very helpful in terms of understanding how to most effectively manage your training efforts, especially if you’re attempting to improve two or more fitness characteristics simultaneously. I hope that this post will give you the tools and strategies needed to accomplish just that!

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