Q. I have been naturally skinny since a kid, and I now want to begin weight lifting to build bigger muscles. I am 22 and have begun going to the gym, although I am unsure on the correct exercises, and how many repetitions to do for muscle growth. Are there any routines and exercises recommended for maximum muscle growth? Also, should I be looking to buy any muscle building supplements, and what foods should I be eating?
A. Muscle growth, known as muscle hypertrophy, is the goal of many, yet there is some debate on the most effective repetition ranges for inducing muscle growth. Muscle hypertrophy is split into two categories, myofibrillar muscle growth (hypertrophy) and sarcoplasmic muscle growth (hypertrophy). These are different than muscle hyperplasia, which is the creation of new muscle cells, not the growth of existing muscle. Myofibrillar muscle growth is when the muscle myofibrils increase in size, and there is notable increased muscle strength. Sarcoplasmic muscle growth involves the heightened levels of sarcomplasmic fluid, resulting in larger muscles with less increase in muscle strength.
Exercises for muscle growth
A typical training regime will involve three to four workout sessions per week, although some may decide to train for up to six or seven days per week. Three or four training sessions per week would be highly effective for a novice or intermediate trainer, and even an advanced trainer would be able to progress well from this level of training frequency. More workout sessions does not necessarily equal more muscle growth. Three to four workouts, each roughly an hour in duration, with high intensity, will be very productive for inducing muscle growth if the correct plan is followed.
Three training sessions per week allows for three full body workouts, where compound exercises are used to train all the major groups of the body in each session. A typical training session would include the bench press, row, and squat, targeting the pushing, pulling and leg muscles in one session. This style of training would serve well inducing muscle growth, although those who are seeking muscle growth tend to follow a body split training plan.
A three or four day body split will target one or two muscle groups per session. For example, a three day split may target the back and biceps on Monday, the chest and triceps on Wednesday, and the legs on Friday. A training session would involve compound exercises, with one or two isolation exercises added in. So, a chest and triceps day may look like the following:
Barbell bench press
Incline dumbbell bench press
Repetitions for muscle growth
This is where there is some debate on the optimal range for muscle growth. Some declare a 5 reps x 5 sets is optimal, others state 6-8 reps, whilst others say 8-15 reps per set is best. From this we can learn three things 1) various repetition ranges will induce muscle growth, 2) people response differently to stimulus, and 3) people may wrongly confuse increased muscle strength gains with increased muscle growth.
Those implementing 5 x 5 may notice great gains in muscle strength, and may therefore conclude the repetition range is highly effective as a whole. Yes, it is effective at causing strength gains, but is it optimal for muscle growth? Maybe for some (it is likely some respond well to this plan), but I would argue not for most.
When it comes to optimal repetition ranges for muscle growth I would argue a repetition range between 8-12 is optimal for most people. There will be those who respond better to higher repetitions, and those who response better to lower repetitions, but for the majority of trainers the science points to this range being the most effective for muscle growth.
The following bullet point list indicates why this is the case:
• Increased lactic acid levels. Many think of lactic acid as a limiting factor for optimal performance, yet it is actually a potent anabolic facilitator. Lactic acid is produced from moderate repetition ranges (8-12 reps would be ideal), due to carbohydrate catabolism. Once there is a heightened level of lactic acid there is commonly a spike of anabolic hormone levels as a result, creating a highly anabolic environment for muscle growth to take place.
• Increased myofibril hydration, resulting in heightened protein synthesis. This is commonly referred to as the muscle “pump”, a phenomenon often labelled as an ego aspect of bodybuilding, as the muscles temporally swell and appear larger. It is a shame not all trainers know the full story behind the “pump” process, and how it is an important process for bringing about muscle growth. This process is often brought about from moderate repetition ranges, so again, 8-12 reps would be ideal.
• TUT (time under tension) is optimal for fibre damage and therefore growth. 8-12 repetitions has a time under tension which maximizes muscle damage due to a longer cross-bridge formation duration, whereas lower repetition ranges induce less myofilamental damage.
Supplements and dietary intake for muscle growth
Real food should take priority over supplements. Sufficient levels of protein, carbohydrates and fats should be consumed to aid in the muscle growing process. Those looking for muscle growth will tend to have a calorie intake greater than an average person, due to increase energy demands for building muscle and also maintaining increased muscle mass. Potatoes, rice, pasta, cereals, chicken, red meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other wholesome foods are popular among bodybuilding diets due to the high quality nutrients needed for muscle growth.
Supplements can be added to the regime once a suitable diet is followed. A whey protein is commonly consumed post workout due to its quick absorption, whilst a slower absorbed protein blend is consumed at various times during the day or last thing at night, by some trainers. Creatine is a popular supplement, and will likely aid those looking for increased muscle growth. Both whey protein and Creatine are not particularly expensive supplements, and it would be advised to shop around and also avoid other expensive supplements which offer “steroid like” results, as they will likely lead to nothing but an empty wallet. There are other effective supplements available on the market, but a quality whey protein product and Creatine will suffice for the beginner and intermediate trainer.