Building muscle is not just a matter of lifting weights.
Weights are a TOOL to help build muscle - but this is where some science and art enters the equation.
If your progress has stagnated, the following tips are likely to help you kick off some new growth.
Firstly we have to differentiate the different OBJECTIVES of those who lift weights.
I am assuming that you are here because you want to develop or condition muscle - i.e. Physique or Figure DEVELOPMENT - as opposed to other types of competitive lifting (these include power-lifting, Olympic lifting, Cross-fit, and other strength competitions.
If you are into competitive lifting of some type, then the law of specificity applies - i.e. to get better at that sport, you practice it and develop the skill sets,, as we as develop your physique to handle the demands. For example, power-lifting relies on a short powerful burst of strength to move a heavy weight, and the training will develop fast-twitch fibres, neuromuscular control (the ability to recruit the fibres with maximal force), tendon strength, bone strength (yes, the bones also adapt to loading protocols)
Now here's the rub . . .
Many people in gyms actually WANT to develop a great physique or figure, but are training in a style that is better suited to power-lifting or cross-fit.
Their focus is on lifting the weight.
But if you want to build muscle, the type of loading required is different.
Won't you build muscle by training as a power-lifter? - yes, certainly - but the amount of muscle and quality of muscle will be different if you apply the following techniques
Firstly, some very basic "muscle 101" facts (isolating our discussion to skeletal muscles that move joints):
Muscle is adaptive - it will adapt to a given stressor - this is brilliant stuff! Think about it - if this did not happen, you would still have the same muscles you had as a baby.
Muscles can only contract - they cannot push.
There are two main types of contraction - isometric and isotonic - the former is where the muscle length does not change and the latter is where the muscle length does change during the contraction
There are two main types of isotonic contraction - concentric and eccentric. Concentric is where the muscle shortens as it is contracted and eccentric is where it lengthens - the latter is obviously where it is resisting a force - i.e. lowering something against gravity. The muscle "controls" the rate of movement, hence it is still a contraction, even though the muscle is lengthening
putting these two together, you can understand how a biceps curl works - the biceps uses a concentric contraction to raise the weight, and then an eccentric contraction to lower it steadily (i.e. gravity pulls the weight down, it is not the triceps working to pull it down)
It has been generally recognised that eccentric contractions produce significant stresses to promote adaptation
There are several elements within a muscle that cause it to operate. Typically, many articles focus on the Fast-twitch (F/T) and Slow-twitch (S/T) muscle fibre types and discuss how F/T are better at short powerful contractions and S/T are better at sustained low-intensity work that may last for some time, i.e. endurance.
We can think of a muscle with all its elements, a bit like a car engine. The "block" is like the fibres. Fuel is needed to make it work and this is like our glycogen and mitochondria, which is the body's way of storing sugar. Oxygen is required (A carburettor and manifold in a car and lungs, arteries, capillaries in muscle), as well as an electrical stimulus (distributor and wiring in the car vs the body's brain, neural system, sarcoplasmic reticulum, and sodium/potassium exchange in the cells). There's more to it than this, but let's keep it basic, because the main point is that, like a car engine, we are dealing with a SYSTEM
Now we have identified that we are working with a SYSTEM, we can start to determine WHAT it does and HOW to stress it to force it to ADAPT and either grow or improve in condition, or both!
(there are other factors also relating to the adaptation but these will be covered in another article - in brief,the Stimulation prompts the adaptation, but Recuperation is required for the adaptation to occur, and Nutrition must be appropriate to support the stimulation and recuperation processes. These three key factors also have an impact on your endogenous hormones that are also significant in the overall process)
Getting back to our statement that to BUILD or CONDITION muscle, the lifting protocol is different to that for developing strength and focussing on moving a weight - and combining this with our quick analysis of a muscle SYSTEM, let's now look at how you can ACCELERATE your GROWTH.
We'll also refer to the earlier statement that muscles are adaptive, and adapt to a stress that we place on them. Combine this with the realisation that we are dealing with an entire SYSTEM and that ALL elements of that system can improve - much like preparing a car for a drag race - you don't just increase the size of the engine - you must also increase the performance of all other elements of the entire engine.
We now need to find the maximal stress that the muscle can be placed under to force adaptation. In doing this, we can also see that there are a range of training protocols that are available and that they will all place different demands on the various elements of the system.
This also means therefore that if one of your elements is a "weak-link" in a given training protocol, it will LIMIT the stress on the remaining elements.
For example, if your F/T system is limited in capacity, then lifting in that style (heavy weights) will be limited - it will "max-out" at a relatively low level - and the remainder of your muscle system elements will not be stressed. They will not have much reason to try to adapt. Naturally, your F/T system will be stressed and will try to adapt, but since we've stated that it is "below par", the potential for growth may be limited.
On the other hand, if your F/T system is superior and you try to train in a way that emphasises more endurance, those (endurance) systems will max out and prevent you placing much demand on your F/T system elements.
This then is what has been referred to for the last 50-plus years when experts suggest that for maximum gains "you should train to suit your body-type"
So the big question is - How do you identify your optimal training "mode"?
And this is also where we need to go back to grass roots to define what we mean with "optimal training mode" - remember "specificity" and that, for example, the "ideal" protocol for power-lifting is heavy weights to develop that capability - But for muscle CSA development, we want to cause maximal stress in ALL the muscle elements . . . . .
We can state that for maximum increase in muscle size (Cross-Sectional Area, or CSA) that:
Muscles will improve in size and condition if they are subjected
to loads that increase their Work Capacity whilst under
the same or greater stress factors
(I can go into this more at a later date - but please work with me on this for now)
Essentially that means that:
The ability to do work means being able to exert a Force and move against a resistance. F=m.a and W=F.S where
m=mass but also means "resistance",
a=acceleration, (overcoming gravity in most cases here)
S=distance or displacement
The Capacity for Work means performing Work in a given period of time - so another term for this is Work Intensity
The same or greater stress factors mean that we aren't resorting to techniques to move the resistance - i.e. the muscle we are targeting is actually doing Work and experiencing similar stress factors as before but is now capable of a greater Work Capacity (basically, we aren't cheating)
THIS IS THE KEY PROBLEM THAT MOST EXPERIENCE - their focus is on increasing the weights lifted (or getting more reps) - BUT THEY DO IT WITH NEW TECHNIQUES - SO WHILST THE "ACHIEVEMENT" APPEARS TO IMPROVE, THEY ARE ACTUALLY NOT SUBJECTING THE MUSCLE TO GREATER LOADS
My constant mantra to people I train is: - "You are not here to lift weights . . . you are here to stress the muscle . . . "
There are TWO key considerations in solving the riddle of maximising muscle stress:
Biomechanics and physics: - How to perform the Work so that the muscle is stressed through the ROM (Range of Motion) - we actually WANT a style that places big loads on the muscle, which is quite counter-intuitive to normal human behaviour - we generally find the path of least resistance as a natural survival instinct!
Mathematics: - Once we get the lifting style right, we still have the riddle of which combinations of parameters (training protocol) achieve the maximal stress on the entire muscle system - i.e. take into account our "weak-links" and limit their impact on the overall performance (you will see eventually also that we can bring up those weak links to continue to progressively overload the muscle system)
The biomechanics is a matter of studying the movements and having a knowledge of physics and the muscle attachments and actions. I will be posting videos on these techniques later. The factors I consider are:
Muscle - the muscle being worked
Joint - the joint(s) upon which it works
Force - the force we are dealing with (gravity, cable, cams etc)
Point of Impact - where the Force is applied on the body or limb
ROM - the Range of Motion of the exercise and joint
Angle of Attack - how the force impacts with the body through the ROM
The mathematics is more tricky - but fortunately has been solved with technology. If you consider the muscle system described earlier and the roles that the various muscle elements play in the muscle performance, you will appreciated the inter-play of the elements and loading protocols.
You will know intuitively that if you increase the weight, your reps will decrease. If you increase your Time Under Tension (TUT, being related to the tempo of the reps and the biomechanics described above), then the reps will also decrease. If you reduce your rest periods, your intensity (Work Rate) goes up, but you will also drop some reps.
And finally, when we consider that what we are trying to achieve is maximal stress on the muscle system, according to the earlier definition (around increasing the Work Capacity of the muscle while maintaining the stress), we can appreciate that it is a matter of finding the optimal combination of the training variables.
This can only be done with a high level of technology. to monitor and determine the stress. The process I use is via the AMP Your Workout app which is essentially an artificial intelligence (AI) that learns about your performance each workout and guides you to ever increasing levels of muscle stress. The system brings together "Black Box" methodology (a mathematical means to "understand" a complex system) and "Predictive Modelling" (once we have a model of a system or of its behaviour, we can start to predict its behaviour)
The way that we therefore address the biomechanics and mathematics described above to stress the muscle, is with the AMP Your Workout app and its accompanying training philosophy and methodology.
AMP Your Workout is completely automated and guides you each session. Your lifting parameters are all automatically monitored via a smart-watch and fed to the mobile phone for processing. More information is available here: http://www.ampyourworkout.com/training/faster-results-by-training-to-your-genetic-strengths-a-how-to-guide/