For every person who lifts weights these days, it seems there are two who have a podcast about it. There are more bodybuilding tips promising greater strength and muscle than ever before, and along with them a ton of confusion; one buffed-up Instagrammer says lifting heavy will get you swole, while a well-known fitness personality has claimed in recent years that two 30-minute workouts per week netted him 34 pounds of muscle in a month.
There are undoubtedly many ways to skin the fitness cat. And even the most credentialed trainers and researchers admit they don’t know everything about how muscle building works.
But for those looking to develop bigger biceps or blow up their chest, there are a few, scientifically validated rules you need to follow — regardless of what @BuffGuy27 posts on Twitter.
3 Factors Affecting Muscle Growth
Recent research has confirmed that there are three primary triggers for increasing lean mass (a.k.a. muscle).
Muscles don’t grow unless they need to overcome a resistance, and, to a point, the harder you need to contract them, the greater the “mechanical tension” and resulting growth stimulus will be. It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. The most effective way to do that? Grab a weight (or resistance band) and have at it. Research suggests that mechanical tension disturbs the integrity of a muscle, triggering a series of changes that ultimately results in increases in not only size, but also contractile strength and power. In general, the heavier weight you can lift with good form, the more tension you produce, and the more you’ll grow.
Traumatic-sounding, but true: muscle damage — or more specifically, the micro-trauma to muscle and connective tissue that’s a natural consequence of resistance training — touches off a regenerative process that can stimulate the production of new muscle cells. Research shows that eccentric movements (e.g., the lowering phase of a bicep curl), which require a muscle to lengthen under tension, produce greater micro-trauma than concentric movements (e.g., the lifting phase of a bicep curl), which require it to contract.
You know the deep burn you feel in your muscles after sprinting up several flights of stairs or pounding out 12 to 15 reps on your last set of heavy squats? That’s the result of metabolic stress, which is the accumulation of waste products from anaerobic energy production, and research shoes that it can be a powerful stimulus for adaptation (i.e., muscle growth). Want to maximize metabolic stress? Do moderate-duration, high-intensity activities that causes burning in the muscles; think 45 seconds of max-effort bodyweight squat-to-presses or lunge-to-curls, or 30 seconds of max-effort sprinting.
7 Bodybuilding Tips Backed by Science
Unless your workout program involves one or more of the factors above, it won’t put any muscle on your frame. But that still leaves some essential questions:
What are the best ways to create tension, stress, and damage in the muscles? Can you combine these factors to maximize growth? Is there a limit to the stress, tension, and damage your muscles can take?
The experts don’t have all the answers yet, but the following bodybuilding tips — all of which you can do at home, whether you’re a beginner or a grizzled lifter — will help you find the sweet spot for maximizing muscle growth.
1. Keep challenging your muscles
Sounds obvious, but too often men and women aspiring to superheroic proportions fall into training ruts. Month after month and year after year, they use the same weights in the same rep schemes for the same exercises. Unsurprisingly, their muscles don’t grow.
Avoid this muscle-building trap through progressive overload: Regularly increasing the challenge to your muscles.
Lifting more weight over time is one approach to overload (and this study suggests it’s an effective one), but there are many others. You can:
- Do more reps
- Lift faster (or slower)
- Reduce the rest periods between sets
- Alter your grip (e.g., from underhand to overhand)
- Progress to a tougher variation of an exercise, such as a decline pushup instead of the classic version
Whatever approach you take, try to do even the littlest bit more than you did last workout. It won’t be possible every day, but over time, these small increases will add up. And don’t become discouraged if gains come slower as you get older; around age 30, you’re paddling against a slow tide of gradual muscle loss that makes gaining strength and muscle tougher than when you were younger.
2. Do multiple sets
The “one set to failure” approach — doing a single, all-out set of an exercise instead of multiple ones — has long been a popular, timesaving strategy among bodybuilders. And recent studies suggest that it can be effective for building muscle. But research (including this study) comparing lifters who performed just one set per exercise with those who performed three to five, suggests that, in general, more sets wins for muscle building.
3. Lift beyond the “hypertrophy rep range”
For years, researchers reported that bodybuilding routines should emphasize the “hypertrophy rep range,” which is 8 to 10 or 12 reps per set. In 2016, researchers at McMaster University revealed that there’s another way.
They found little difference in muscle growth between those who worked in the hypertrophy range and those who lifted lighter weights for 20 to 25 reps (i.e., deep into the so-called “endurance range). As long as the subjects trained to “volitional failure” — the point at which they couldn’t perform another rep with good form — they got bigger and stronger. (Editor’s note: Volitional failure is different than absolute failure, which is when you simply can’t perform another rep. More on that in tip number six.)
“Regardless of whether volitional failure is achieved through heavy weights or high reps, you’ll hit your type II muscle fibers, which have the greatest growth potential,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “But those lighter weight/higher rep sets will also nail your smaller type I muscle fibers, which studies have shown to have growth potential as well.”
Bottom line: To optimize your muscular adaptations to strength training, you should include a variety of rep ranges in your training program.
4. Do both split and full-body training
It’s a topic long debated among trainers and strength coaches. Some contend that full-body workouts ultimately build more muscle by working muscles more frequently. Others believe that focusing on one or two body parts in each of your weekly workouts (e.g., back and bis, chest and tris, legs, etc.) maximizes muscular gains by working a muscle group extra hard and then allowing it to recovery completely
The best strategy may be to alternate between the two approaches, spending a few weeks on split training followed by a few that focus on full-body workouts.
5. Rest more
For years, people seeking more muscle were counseled to rest just 60 seconds between strength-training sets. But newer research suggests that longer rest periods (2-3 minutes) between sets of both isolation exercises (like curls) and compound moves (like pull-ups) may be more effective in promoting gains in both strength and size.
Shorter rest periods have their place — especially if your goal is muscular endurance and fat loss. But longer rest allows you to perform more reps on subsequent sets, and this greater volume, over time, may lead to greater muscle gains in the long run. One convenient way to do this without tacking additional time onto your bodybuilding routine: Perform supersets, which are back-to-back sets of two different exercises that target non-competing muscle groups (e.g., the squat and biceps curl, or the bench press and bent over row).
6. Avoid lifting to absolute failure
Consistently training to absolute failure is unnecessary for increases in muscle size and strength. It can also be dangerous.
“It’s a recipe for injury,” says Thieme. “A much better strategy is to always and only lift to volitional or technical failure, which is the point — usually in the last set or two of an exercise — where you can’t do another rep without compromising form.”
Another way to think about it, according to Thieme: Always keep a rep or two in your pocket.
Studies can only identify training techniques that work for the largest number of people — they rarely account for individual variation, which can be considerable. “Every body is different, and there’s no one combo that works best for everyone,” says Thieme. “The key is to find what works for you.”
Of course, all of this hinges on eating right for your objectives. So make sure you properly fuel your body before and after a workout. Bottom line: expect to increase calories, particularly those from protein, timing them strategically throughout the day.