Section 1: Prerequisites to Building Muscle
- Adequate Stimulus – If there is no stimulus, there is no growth.
Muscle is built as your body’s response to stimulus. A stimulus is “a thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction in an organ or tissue” (thanks for the definition Google). The functional reaction we’re looking for here is for muscle to be built. This happens when the muscle is stressed to a point of near-failure when contracting, in the most basic sense. There’s large swathes of research that delve into the particulars about why that’s the case, but it’s fairly settled that muscle is grown when exercises, and specifically the muscles involved, are taken close to failure. This has to be done multiple times, typically in ranges that vary from person to person. As a general soft-rule, larger muscles need fewer sets per week than smaller muscles to grow. Fortunately, muscles recover quicker and allow for more work throughout the week.
If you do too little, your muscles will not grow. You can usually tell you’re doing too little if you 1) don’t ever get a pump (your muscles don’t look substantially bigger during the workout or immediately after), 2) if you never have the slightest bit of soreness or 3) if you’re not getting stronger over time (for putting on muscle, you want to track this as getting stronger for reps. Week 1 you do 4 sets of 12 at 100lbs, week 4 you do 4 sets of 12 at 105lbs, you got stronger). If you’re getting more than one of these points, you likely need to increase volume.
If you do too much, your muscles will also not grow. If you’re starting to no longer get a pump, are always sore to the point of near-debilitation, and are getting weaker for reps, you’re probably doing too much. You aren’t recovering and the catabolism (the breaking down of muscle tissue) is greater than the anabolism (building up of muscle tissue). Lay off the gas a bit, focus on sleeping well, eating well, and managing your stress. You’ll be back to getting gains in no time.
- Adequate Protein – Your results will correspond to the amount of properly dosed protein you ingest (0.72-1g per pound of lean body mass).
This point has been hammered TO DEATH. Unfortunately, there’s lots of bad information as well. A quick synopsis of the research is that there has been no benefit shown (throughout large bodies of literature), in a lab, going above 0.72g of protein per pound of body weight (so eating 72g protein/day at 100lbs). That being said, there’s some contention that the research has not been adequate enough, and I think there has been a pop-up study here and there suggesting there may be benefits. If you are absolutely determined to eek out every last bit of gains, go for the 1 gram per pound. If you’re fine missing a small amount (and by small, I think the quantity was >5%), 0.72g per pound will do just fine.
Another topic that has been run into the ground is the question of protein quality. Without getting too deep into the science, the question revolves around whether a protein is complete or incomplete, meaning does it have the necessary amino acids for creating muscle. There’s several our body does not produce that are harder to find in plants than in animal protein. The consensus is that it is, in fact, possible to gain muscle as a vegan/vegetarian, but it’s going to be harder. Due to the required amino acids being more scarce in plant protein, you will have to consume more total protein to get the requisite amount of amino acids. If you are not consuming animal products, opt for a higher intake. I would also advise consulting someone who specializes in this specific dietary restriction, as I do not read enough about vegan/vegetarian protein needs to give a qualified answer as to how to construct your protein intake.
- Adequate Sleep – Similar to protein, your sleep quantity AND quality will gatekeep your results. If you sleep four hours a night, expect similar results. If you sleep 9 hours a night, you’re likely doing as much as you can to maximize growth.
This is fairly straightforward. Uninterrupted sleep is important. Your sleep goes in cycles that are typically about 1.5 hours long. Your goal is to not interrupt those cycles. Sleep seems to be when the body both repairs existing tissue and creates new tissue. People who were sleep deprived seem to lose more muscle when dieting compared to people who were not sleep deprived, suggesting that similar ill effects likely follow if you sleep deprive yourself while trying to gain muscle. The link to the study is buried somewhere in my fat loss guide if you’re interested.
The point is, get lots of sleep. This weird trend of depriving yourself of sleep to go work out is a bit self-defeating. Obviously, if it’s your only option, work with what you’ve got. But otherwise, get some sleep.
- Adequate Calories – As a beginner or someone who carries a significant amount of body fat, you can gain muscle while losing fat. As you become more advanced and more lean, you are going to experience gatekeeping in the form of caloric needs. If you don’t eat enough calories (i.e. be in a surplus), you will not gain muscle.
I’ve talked about this somewhere before, but the gist is: you can’t force feed muscle growth, but you can sure sabotage it by not eating enough. Calories are just a measurement of energy. Specifically, one calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise some amount of water by 1 degree Celsius. While we’re not here for a physics lesson primarily, you need to understand that energy is energy. I don’t care if it’s from Twinkies or from the cleanest food this planet has every produced. Strictly speaking about energy needs, a calorie is a calorie. When we get into cardiology, where you get your calories matters. When we’re talking about enough energy to facilitate growth of new tissue, it does not matter for that specific, exact process. I’m running out of ways to reiterate this, so just keep re-reading if need be.
Muscle requires enough calories to facilitate growth.
This has some caveats: 1) If you have a higher level of body fat (20%+), you can lose body fat and gain muscle simultaneously. Your body is more generous with sparing fat tissue at this point. 2) If you’re already fairly lean (I believe that number is about 10% body fat), you will generally not be able to gain muscle and lose fat.
That being said, you require a small surplus to gain muscle effectively. The general advice is gaining about 2lbs a month, or 0.5lbs a week. It’s a long process, slow moving process as far as weight is concerned. I would keep track of your strength for reps as another proxy for whether or not you’re getting bigger.
Section 2: What is causing the muscle to grow?
As I talked about earlier, proper stimulus is essential to building muscle. Now, we’re going to go into some of the particulars of what that stimulus looks like.
- Proximity to Failure
Each exercise is done within 0-4 reps of failure. The closer you are to failure, the more fatigue the exercise is going to generate. The further away from failure, the less fatigue. The issue here is that the relationship is not linear. The fatigue generated by an exercise scales upwards with its proximity to failure. With this in mind, we want to keep our reps in reserve (reps from failure) to hover around 2 for each exercise. Earlier in a 4 week cycle, you want to hover closer to 3-4 RIR. As you come up on a deload, you want to push the envelope closer to 0 RIR for an exercise. This last concept has been coined as “functional overreaching”.
The idea is that if you’re going to deload anyways, you may as well get the most stimulus you can even if the fatigue generated is disproportionately high. The cost/benefit of high fatigue is usually that it impairs your performance the following week dramatically. If your performance is going to be artificially lowered anyways, then you eliminate the downsides of overreaching, making it a great time to use it.
- Exercises are taken through a full range of motion at an appropriate weight with good technique.
The best way to keep yourself honest is to ask whether or not your selected exercise is actually using the muscles it should be. We’ve all seen the person doing curls while simultaneously hip thrusting. Throwing momentum into your lifts is just wasting time. If you’re trying to grow your biceps, the muscle fibers running through your body, then your hips should have zero role in that. If your hips are generating force, the stress is no longer being derived from your biceps, and thus it is not growing your biceps. Apply this thinking to literally every single exercise you choose. If you are using body english, you are generating force from something other than the target muscle, and you are (inefficiently and non-productively) generating force from an unrelated muscle that likely will not grow from that stimulus anyways.
Always make sure to go through a full range of motion, getting the muscle to go through a full stretch and full contraction, in order to get the most growth. Partial reps likely don’t cause much growth, and if combined with higher weights, generate much more fatigue. An awful trade deal. Don’t do it.
- Do enough volume (hard sets).
As touched on earlier, proper stimulus is required to grow muscle. This stimulus is proximity to failure. As a general rule, smaller muscles take more hard sets to grow than larger muscles. On the bright side, smaller muscles also recover faster due to the difference in muscle size, so it works out.
When doing “hard” sets, you have to be entirely honest with yourself. You can lie to yourself for a while, but it’s going to become apparent you’re doing so when you don’t make any progress. That’s the neat thing about building up your body — you can’t cheat it. There’s no finger pointing to be done other than at yourself. So, let’s go over the two common issues that arise.
1) Some people vastly underestimate their RIR. Maybe they’re lazy, fearful of injury, or just plain don’t know what real struggle feels like. There was a study a while back showing that new lifters often underestimated their RIR by 10 or more reps. Considering you need to be in the ballpark of 0-4 RIR, it’s safe to say they weren’t going to find many results.
One way of overcoming this is by using a set to failure as a proxy. I’ve done this with virtually every new client I’ve ever had that was in general population. I’d have them do tricep extensions on a cable machine and pick a weight they thought they could do 10-12 reps with, but they weren’t allowed to stop until I told them to stop. Pretty routinely, they would hit anywhere from 25-30. I usually stopped them at 30 no matter what since at that point they’re just not doing enough work to cause real fatigue, they’re just getting tired.
The point is, for a good chunk of the population, you’re underselling yourself (let that sink in, because I bet it applies to more than the gym). Take a set of tricep extensions to failure, a set of bicep curls to failure, and maybe some leg curls and leg extensions. Once you get a feeling for what actual failure is (no longer being able to contract your muscle voluntarily), you will be in a much better spot to use RIR.
2) Some other people vastly overestimate their RIR. These people can be very ambitious, have a large ego, or are just really committed and want to make sure they’re leaving nothing on the table. This is not the “typical” issue that happens in newer lifters, but it does happen occasionally. It happens more often in people who have been around the gym for a bit. Either way, it will kill your gains.
Like was mentioned earlier, adequate recovery is necessary to building muscle. If you’re constantly pushing to 0 RIR and beyond (think cheater reps well after you should have stopped) constantly, you are going to impair growth. The fatigue and damage levied out by such levels of failure will likely cause your body to spent all of its resources repairing the muscle with not much left over dedicated to building.
The best way you can approach RIR is with a sober, level-headed approach. It’s just a goal to hit, and having a low or high RIR doesn’t say anything about you as a person. It’s merely a means to an end, the end being getting jacked.
I hope you found this post useful! If you’re interested in working with me, head over to my contact page here, or email me directly at RDKLifting@Gmail.com.
Whatever you have, wherever you are, you can hit your goals. Having a coach is a sure-fire way to make the process more enjoyable with less pitfalls along the way. When you’re paying for a coach, you’re paying for someone who has the experience necessary to save you potentially years of wasted time. Whether your goal is weight loss, building muscle, getting stronger, or a mix of all three, having me as your coach will guarantee steady progress.