What People Get Wrong About Muscle Growth
Since so many of us want to get big and jacked, it would be nice if we could all sit down and agree on the best way of going about it.
Unfortunately, the waters are a little muddy. Some point to weight on the bar as the deciding factor, otherwise known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. Others side with volume and fatigue as the big player, also called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Then we have the sensible guys who assume that muscle growth is produced by a blend of the two, which means the optimal programme would need to bring both into play.
As it happens, all three camps are onto something here, but they all manage to miss the mark. In one sense, the mechanism of muscle growth is driven by mechanically loading and fatiguing the fibers. That much is accurate, and the aforementioned camps appear to fall nicely alongside those lines.
But here’s where they go wrong. Weight on the bar matters, but it doesn’t lead directly to hypertrophy. In fact, when the weight gets heavy enough, it can actually diminish motor recruitment. Faulty technique and improper exercise selection can further put a dampener on muscular activation. So if you’re gunning for glory, and you’re running the gauntlet of heavy singles, that’s not going to be great for your size goals. Weight doesn’t equal mechanical loading.
Volume on the other hand, calculated as weight x reps, doesn’t mean much. If you’re half-assing the work, or struggling to generate any real contractions under tension, it won’t matter how long you string that session along for. To put it simply, junk volume is still made of junk. It’s a measure of the contractions, not the quality of the contractions.
And since both intensity (weight) and volume land awry, it makes sense that the progressive option of combining the two is also suspect.
At this point you might start to wonder why so many people have had success with all three camps. I’m not here to contest that, and I’m about to explain why so many roads arrive at Rome.
The Real Driver Of Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy training is driven by mechanical tension. And by which, I mean the sets where you go hard enough to see an involuntary slowing of contractions. This creates a greater number of cross-bridges between the actin and myosin filaments, spurring on a cascade of changes that culminate in more gains.
Let me put that into practice. You’re loading up the bar or machine with enough weight to allow hard reps taken close to failure. Typically the reps should start slowing down about five reps from failure. Those five reps are where the money is. This isn’t brand new information, I’m just simplifying what many of us have already known, down to the bare bones.
In a sense, volume drives growth. But it isn’t the sum of weight x reps. It’s the sum of effective reps.
So when people are pinning their hopes on volume or intensity, they inevitably end up reaching the same destination of mechanical tension. Lift heavy enough, and most reps will be within five reps of failure. Go for enough reps on lighter weight, and you’ll approach that same magic window. The great equaliser is the quality of those reps. They need to be challenging. Otherwise there’s little to no impetus to set off the growth cascade.
This also means that leaning too far into either camp can lead to less than optimal results. Sticking with the 1-3 rep range will make it difficult to sufficiently hit the required number of effective reps in the session. On the other hand, taking this up to the 10-15 range means a larger workload and more systemic fatigue to arrive at the same point.
If we were to throw up the ideal rep range for hypertrophy, it would be in the 5-8 range. This means that most of the reps you take would involve mechanical tension, and thereby stimulate growth.
What It Means In Practice
But, and I have to stress this point, that doesn’t mean that the classic 5×5 programme is your best option moving forward. While the 5-8 range might be optimal, sticking doggedly to it will see you fall prey to the repeated bout effect, otherwise known as the diminishing returns you get with a predictable stress.
There’s always more nuance.
The fact is, you still need to vary the stress, and that means switching up the rep ranges. That’s where a programme like DUP comes up trumps. You can check out that article for the full rundown, but to keep it brief, varying the rep ranges allows you to regularly change up the intensity, making you less vulnerable to the repeated bout effect.
The point of this article isn’t to say that you should be making exclusive use of 5-8 rep sets. It’s that you should make sure that you’re training close to failure. The best programme in the world won’t amount to much if you don’t put the work in. It still needs consistent effort.
This doesn’t mean you can go ahead and train to failure on every set. That would make for excess fatigue that outpaces recovery, preventing you from peaking as you near the end of a training block. Then there’s always the risk of injury, and the potential impairment of motor recruitment that comes with that fatigue. So you’d probably be better off making a habit of regularly training in close proximity to failure, rather than squeezing out every last rep.
To fend off another potential misinterpretation, when I’m saying ‘train close to failure’, I mean ‘mechanical failure’. You can’t just go in and go hard, pushing and pulling barbells till the arms stop moving. You still need to ensure that those reps are adequately stimulating the target musculature. That means picking the right position, staying stable, and making a point to feel each contraction.
As a final caveat, none of this gets to happen if you don’t get your nutrition in. Get your steak in, hit your protein count, and if you’re serious about this, stay in a surplus for at least three times the length you spend cutting. Optimal muscle growth needs sustained periods of plenty, and while you can gain muscle in a deficit as a beginner, it will be somewhat suppressed, and it will eventually fizzle out.
Check out my article on carnivore bodybuilding for the full rundown on gaining muscle on the primal diet.
- Muscle growth is driven by mechanical tension, or involuntary slow contractions
- Otherwise known as the five effective reps taken from failure
- Volume is only king if it calculates those effective reps rather than overall workload
- So in practice, train in close proximity to failure with technically sound reps
- Pair that with a sound progression scheme, adequate nutrition, and you’re set for sustained gains.