skip to Main Content

You were probably first drawn to the weight room because you wanted a flatter belly, better shape and definition in the arms and legs, a tight butt and – if you’re a guy – a more angular torso. But initially, for someone lacking a six-pack stomach or biceps the size of grapefruits, all those rows of iron discs can be not just intimidating but also mighty confusing. How, for example, do you figure out which exercises to do, not to mention the number of sets or repetitions?

The first thing you should know: The hard part of achieving a well-muscled physique involves eating right. All the time. The other component (the easy part) concerns training. That said, if you harbor doubts or curiosities about the how-tos of training for maximum muscle, now is a great time to learn. Because even though bodybuilding is generally associated with hyper-macho types, the resistance training it requires is for anyone who wants to age with grace and self-reliance. All you need is a little understanding of the basic physiological principles and a few pointers on how to get started.

The Physiology of Brawn

Although there’s significant overlap in every well-rounded training regimen, some types of training encourage muscular endurance, while others promote strength, and still others emphasize muscular growth. For example, running can help you lose weight and develop cardiovascular endurance, and it might make your legs stronger, but it won’t build a shredded torso to show off at the pool or even give you diamond-shaped calves that look great in high heels (or hiking boots). To achieve this, it takes resistance training.

In athletic circles, trainers refer to the mechanism of muscular growth as hypertrophy (a Greek word that means the over-feeding of muscles). We all know that protein feeds muscles, but this doesn’t mean that to get bigger muscles you should stuff your face with steak.

The trick is to get your body to steer the protein you do eat directly into your muscle fibers – instead of making a detour to your love handles. And this requires a specific kind of training, the kind that bodybuilders do.

Before we jump into the sets and reps, let’s digress and explore the physiology of bodybuilding. Because if you think grunting out a routine is all it takes, you’re wrong. It takes brains to achieve brawn. If you don’t know how and why your muscles grow, you also won’t know the right ways to encourage them. In the simplest sense, the process of hypertrophy is an increase in the number of protein filaments(myosin and actin)in your muscle fibers. The larger the amount of protein filaments, the bigger your muscle fiber diameter will be. Increase your muscle fiber enough and you’ll start to see those satisfying “pops” (or definition) in your physique. Your muscle fibers may split and increase in number, too, but this less frequent type of growth (called hyperplasia) contributes little to your visible muscle development, even when conditions are optimal.

High-intensity, high-volume resistance training stimulates the genetic synthesis of contractile (squeezing) proteins in your muscles and forces the quality and the size of your muscle fibers to improve over time. A multitude of naturally occurring hormones – anabolic (growth-promoting) hormones such as insulin, insulin-like growth factors, testosterone and human growth hormone – contribute to this process. But one of the first physiological reactions to resistance training is a dramatic decrease in the catabolic (muscle destroying) hormones, such as cortisol and progesterone, which degrade cell proteins and support glucose synthesis.

Age and Muscles

Before you can build up, you have to stop breaking down. After age 30, the average person loses about a pound of muscle every year. Unless you train vigorously, your muscles lose size and density – even as your intra-muscular flab increases dramatically. If you had x-ray vision, your biceps might look like a marbled lump of greasy beef instead of a sinewy segment of lean animal protein. These changes come as a predictable outcome of aging and are most pronounced in women.

In either gender, though, muscular atrophy (the opposite of hypertrophy) results from a drop off in activity and a gradual deprivation of the muscle fibers’ nerve supply. This effect is most notable in Type II fibers – the fast-twitch muscle fibers that resistance training stimulates.

Type II fibers depend on a dramatic increase in protein synthesis to maintain their size. Before growth can occur, a body of advancing age has to contend with the loss of muscle mass and strength. One study found that 40 percent of women over the age of 40 couldn’t lift 10 pounds. Not only does this decrease in strength affect your daily life, it may determine the age at which you can no longer take care of yourself. The basic lesson is this: If you’re not looking forward to assisted living, don’t lose your muscle mass.

Training for Size

For an effective workout, a bodybuilder needs to use moderate weights that are light enough to perform six to 12 repetitions but heavy enough to elicit contraction failure or near-failure (the inability of your muscles to shorten or lengthen under control) within those six to 12 repetitions. You’ll typically perform three to six sets of each exercise and break up each set with a short-to-moderate rest period. Unlike strength training, you’ll get more bodybuilding benefits if you begin the next set of exercises before recovering fully from the first.

It’s not unusual for a bodybuilder to perform 12 to 20 successive exercises that focus on a single muscle group during one training session. For example, a bodybuilder might engage in an hour-long weightlifting bout that concentrates primarily on his chest and arms. He may perform four to six chest exercises doing five sets of each and then perform six to 10 arm exercises following a similar pattern. This high-volume training is optimal for increasing muscle girth when coupled with moderate loads.

When you begin high-volume training, changes in your muscle protein start to take place within a few workouts. As training continues and your muscle fibers increase, the size of your contractile tissues also starts to increase. True hypertrophy doesn’t begin to appear until after 16 or more workouts, so you’ll have to remain patient to see a lot of physical evidence of your progress. The older you get, the longer it takes to see results.

The complexity of the exercise movements you do also influences the degree of muscle hypertrophy. More complex movements, such as the leg press and bench press, require relatively longer neurological adaptation periods, which delays muscle hypertrophy in the trunk and legs. Bodybuilders typically work isolated muscle groups in a way that maximizes the direct growth but does not contribute to functional integration (the ability of various muscles to work together for synergetic strength and agility). However, just because you want bigger muscles doesn’t mean you should strictly limit your workouts to isolation exercises like curls and lateral raises. On the contrary, complex, multi-joint exercises like squats are extremely beneficial for strength and overall conditioning. Still, focusing on exercises that target specific muscles guarantees the quickest tangible bodybuilding results.

A Typical Workout

A typical hypertrophy workout includes several stations (i.e., different lifts) with a routine involving three to five sets of eight to 10 repetitions each. Your workload ranges from 70 to 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum (the maximum weight you can lift once with good form). Each set should take about 30 seconds to complete followed by a one- to two-minute rest. Most bodybuilders target one or two muscle groups (such as chest and shoulders, or hamstrings and quads) during each lifting session, and engage in three or four bouts weekly. On the off days, light aerobics helps to burn a few extra calories.

Hypertrophy-Specific Training

Brian Haycock, a well-known bodybuilder and training coach, recommends a slightly different method for muscle growth, which he calls Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST). Instead of blasting one muscle group at a time to induce hypertrophy, Haycock believes that in order to grow, muscles require an environment of chronic stimulation. According to Haycock, if you only work a muscle once a week, the muscle responds for about 36 hours and then begins to decondition again. So, as he says, “you spend two days growing and half a week returning to normal.”

To keep your muscles stimulated, Haycock recommends training more frequently. His routine includes a quick total-body workout that should be performed three times a week. The sets and reps in Haycock’s basic routine don’t involve high volume at each station. But if you add up the total workload per muscle group, you’ll see that, at the end of the week, his workouts compare favorably to the traditional approach.

Because tissues adapt as they become resistant to the old stimulus, Haycock recommends cycling through a two-week program of incremental loading. To do this you need to determine your maximum weight for the final workout in a two-week block. Then, in 5- to 10-pound decrements, assign decreasing load values by working backwards. If your maximum 12-rep bench equals 200 pounds, you would assign this weight for the last workout and then, dropping 5 to 10 pounds at a time over six sessions, start your lifting at about 145 to 170 pounds. Then work back up to your maximum over the next two weeks.

During the following two-week cycle, cut your reps to eight and begin the same incremental weight pattern, only use your eight-rep maximum. Then, during the next two-week cycle, cut back to five reps per set. This will allow you to change the stimulus and prod your muscles to grow more. Haycock believes that muscles react as much to strategic changes in load as they do to regular increases. Even if most of your sessions don’t involve maximum lifts, the incremental approach stimulates muscle better than constant work at the extremes of your strength.

Haycock recommends one week of total rest every six weeks. This “strategic deconditioning” is necessary to perpetuate the stimulus needed for growth. “Once your muscle is tough as shoe leather, all the work you do in the gym just serves to maintain the size you already have,” he says. Strategic deconditioning primes muscles to respond once again to the training stimulus and allows growth to resume.

Weight, Rest, Run, Eat

It’s not unusual to gain weight when you participate in a high-volume bodybuilding routine. The first adjustments your body makes to high-volume lifting are neurological: muscle tissues change at a more gradual and slower pace. What’s more, the increased level of energy you expend during each workout will make you hungry. Unless you concentrate on eating the right foods at the right time of day, your gut will grow along with your biceps.

Don’t try to go on a diet and lose weight as you’re bodybuilding. Instead eat a higher-than-normal amount of lean protein and complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes and vegetables). Aim for six small meals a day, each of which should include a serving of protein. Have your carbs early in the day and avoid them at night. You should avoid quick-burning, high-glycemic foods – except after a heavy workout. A carbohydrate drink or even a few M&Ms coupled with protein, if consumed immediately after you exercise, can help drive protein into your muscles and speed your growth and recovery. When eaten before bedtime, however, those same M&Ms (or even a bowl of rice) will only contribute to your padding.

While pumping iron creates the stress that’s needed to stimulate your body to grow bigger muscles, the actual bodybuilding comes while you sleep. So, the more macho you are in the gym, the more you’ll need your Zs. Rest has to be a part of your workout or you and your muscles will wear out.

A final note about muscle growth: Too much aerobic work inhibits hypertrophy. Many of us who are trying to grow muscle think that we can make up for bad eating habits with unlimited mileage on the treadmill. Sorry to break it to you, but that approach actually stifles muscle-building. Competitive bodybuilders don’t spend hours on the treadmill while hypertrophy training, although they do increase their cardio levels when they go into fat-loss mode in the final month before a competition.

If your health goals are geared more toward general fitness, incorporating a moderate amount of aerobic exercise is a good idea. Weigh your athletic, aesthetic and health priorities carefully before committing to any kind of intensive bodybuilding program. Then incorporate hypertrophy-inducing techniques in a way that supports your larger fitness strategy.


Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier (Human Kinetics, 2001)

The Body Sculpting Bible for Men by James Villepique and Hugo A. Rivera (Hatherleigh Press, 2002)

Frank Zane: Mind, Body, Spirit by Frank Zane (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1997)

Resources on Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST): — History of HST, principles of HST and an HST workout calculator. — A collection of HST-related training articles by Bryan Haycock, including Q and A. — An overview of the HST program as reviewed by Testosterone magazine.|

Muscle Meanings

SIZErefers to how big your muscle can be, although actual muscle girth is not as important as having a body that is symmetrical. You don’t want Popeye-sized forearms and spindly legs, or huge quads and an emaciated torso. In bodybuilding, like yoga, the best bodies are not the biggest but are those with near-perfect proportions.

SHAPE describes a pleasing pattern in the lines of muscles, such as cannon-ball delts, horseshoe triceps, diamond calves and washboard abdominals. Good shape comes from doing your resistance training with perfect form.

DEFINITION refers to the degree of prominence in a muscle. A bodybuilder with great definition is one whose muscles stand out in bold relief (he’s “ripped” as opposed to “smooth”). Definition is a function of diet more than training. Thin skin that is low in fat allows whatever muscle you have to show more conspicuously.

Strong-Arm Tactics

Judging by the muscular development of women athletes, it’s obvious that women who regularly participate in high-volume, high-intensity training programs can muscle up. The fact that elite women gymnasts can pump out 40 pull-ups and competitive female weight-lifters can clean and jerk two times their bodyweight is further proof that upper-body strength is not the exclusive territory of men.

Still, many regular women, apparently fearing the immediate onset of bulk, never work their upper limbs at all. That’s a mistake! Although many women prefer aerobic and lower-body exercises, a significant portion of any female training program should focus on developing the upper body, which is where most women tend to have comparatively little muscle mass. Shoulders, triceps, biceps – not to mention abs – can all benefit from a bodybuilding approach to resistance training and can lend good visual balance to hippier figures. Don’t worry about looking dudely (unless you take anabolic steroids). No matter how hard you work, it’s tough for most women to build even a little guy-like muscle. Female muscles, by definition, look feminine.

Success or Failure?

Many lifters think that exercising until they can’t complete another contraction (temporary muscle failure) provides the best stimulus for strength and hypertrophy. Others argue that pushing to absolute fatigue only invites injury and provides few if any training benefits. Although exercise physiologists don’t know the answer for certain, their research does suggest some useful conclusions. Read on to make up your own mind.

Why train to failure?
During a typical bout of resistance training, as certain muscle fibers begin to fatigue and drop out of function, additional motor units take their place. The progressive recruitment of muscle fibers allows the lifter to continue exercising until all motor units have become exhausted. The proponents of training to failure believe this effect enhances the training stimulus.

Why fail, when you want to succeed?
A growing number of professional trainers conclude that fatigue alone is not a sign of successful training. If it were, then simply training to failure with light resistance (lots of reps) would produce marked strength gains and hypertrophy, but it doesn’t. Using heavier weights recruits more muscle fibers from the first repetition without requiring exhaustion.

Experience and published research seem to suggest that training intensity (average weight lifted per session) produces the training effect, not pushing to failure. Using heavier weight, even while reducing repetitions below the threshold of muscle fatigue, seems to induce the greatest training effect for strength. And a moderately high number of repetitions, but not necessarily to failure, seems to induce the greatest training effect for hypertrophy.

So what should I do?
It depends on your goals. For hypertrophy (muscle growth), the published research suggests that increasing your exercise volume – not training to failure – leads to success. Instead of performing three sets to failure, drop a rep or two off each set and complete four to five sets instead. For strength, use heavier resistance with only a few repetitions. Power lifters typically perform three to five repetitions per set. Although some claim that one or two slow repetitions will produce the same or better results, here the research is not ambiguous: Multiple sets of 10 to 12 reps yield better results.

Any dangers of training to failure?
Yes. Training to failure too often can lead to overtraining syndrome, whereby your nervous system becomes exhausted and unable to recuperate before the next bout of exercise. If you continue resistance training after you are too tired to use adequate technique, you’re inviting injury and lowered immunity.

In some people, training to failure can occasionally cause adverse physiological responses, such as high blood pressure or even cardiac arrest. But even for healthy athletes, research suggests that training to failure may not provide an advantage and may actually become detrimental. If you decide to train to failure, use this technique as an occasional, short-term period of muscle stimulation, which may produce some short-term gains. Long-term training to failure seems to invite, well, failure.

Thoughts to share?

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

City and state are only displayed in our print magazine if your comment is chosen for publication.


More Like This

By Nicole Radziszewski
How to rebuild lost muscle mass after illness.
Man runs on rocky sea side
By Matthew Sanford
The ability to tune in and focus on how you move and feel during your workouts can help you function at peak levels — in the gym and beyond.
Back To Top