Everybody starts going to the gym for different reasons. One of those reasons is to look better naked! I’m sure at some point you’ve googled “how to ‘tone up’” or “how to build muscle” (let’s be honest, we all have!) There’s a lot of information out there and a lot of people claiming their way is the holy grail.
Well, what exactly is the key to building muscle? The answer is: Progressive Overload. Progressive overload is king when looking to achieve hypertrophy (muscle growth). Basically, there needs to be a gradual increase in the stress placed upon the body through exercise in order to see the best results. If you keep doing the same old thing, how can you expect your body to adapt and grow? This is where progressive overload comes in. You must adapt if you want your body to grow. So, what do we need to look at when our goal is to increase muscle mass?
Let’s keep it simple! Here are the 3 mechanisms of hypertrophy that you need to know about:
Number one: Muscle Damage.
Muscle damage sounds scary, but it is an essential part of the muscle building process. What is it exactly? Well, I’m sure you’ve experienced DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) before, especially when you first started going to the gym. This sensation is the result of micro tears in the muscle that have been sustained during resistance training. You know how you feel like you can barely walk down the stairs 24-48 hours after leg day? That’s DOMS.
Looking at what this is exactly from a cellular level, the onset of this muscle damage triggers mTOR pathways which activates protein synthesis to occur, which then allows the rebuilding of the damaged muscle to begin. This is also why it’s important to be consuming enough protein, so you can allow your body to not only repair the muscles, but ensure they are able to build and grow as well.
Don’t get me wrong though, if you’re not feeling DOMS after every session it does NOT mean that muscle damage has not occured! Your body adapts to and handles stimulus differently as time goes on, so don’t go chasing the feeling of being sore as it does not necessarily mean you have had a better workout or have induced a more optimal amount of muscle damage.
Number two: Mechanical Tension.
The second piece to our body building puzzle! Mechanical tension can be defined as using a heavy load whilst performing exercises through a full range of motion for a period of time.
The key takeaway from this definition is that the time that the muscle spends under tension (also referred to as Time Under Tension or TUT) by the external load of a barbell, dumbbell etc. is what creates mechanical tension in the muscle.
TUT is therefore an important aspect of training for hypertrophy. To implement this, you can incorporate less rest between sets, slower eccentric phases and other forms of tempo work in order to achieve mechanical tension. The more time spent under load, the more mechanical tension!
In order to ensure we are working to our maximal potential of muscle growth, you must also make sure the muscles are working through their full range of motion. Combine working through full range of motion with a heavy weight in a controlled manner, and you’ve hit the jackpot for mechanical tension.
Number three: Metabolic Stress.
Going hand in hand with lifting heavy weights for mechanical tension, another way to promote muscle growth is to lift moderate to light weights for a higher number of repetitions. This induces what we refer to as metabolic stress.
I’m sure that at some point in your training, you would have performed a high number of reps of a certain exercise and felt the ‘burn’ or a ‘pump’ in that particular muscle that’s being worked, particularly as you get close to the last few reps of each set. What exactly is this feeling? Well, a few things are happening as you reach the end of your set.
The muscles have been continually contracting and relaxing which creates a blood pooling effect within the muscle. This is what the swelling and ‘pump’ sensation is that you often hear about.
With this blood pooling occuring, the result is a restriction in blood flow to the muscle and with the lack of oxygenated blood to fuel the muscle during the contractions, we see a large build-up of metabolites such as hydrogen ions, lactate etc.
This results in metabolic stress being put on the muscle which has an anabolic effect which in turn leads to an increase in hormonal response by the body.
Allow me to sum things up!
We can strive for hypertrophy by utilizing a number of different variables, those being muscular damage, mechanical tension and metabolic stress. One is not necessarily better than the other, all 3 must be utilised and combined in order to have an anabolic effect on the body. This results in an increase in hormones that are key players in not only triggering, but maximising, protein synthesis such as testosterone and growth hormone, both of which are required to repair and build our muscles and allow us to reach our goal of hypertrophy.