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How Muscles Work Pt. 3: Building and Hypertrophy

Hello again fit friends and welcome to the last segment in the "How Muscles Work" series. So far we've learned the basics on how muscles actually perform and also how muscles are repaired after working, but there is still another question that needs to be answered - how do we focus on building them?

Focusing your workouts around hypertrophy.

Now you might be asking what the heck does that word even mean? The definition is simple, it's the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in the size of it's cells. Remember the last article that focused on satellite cells? Let's refer back to this diagram and paragraph:

satellite cells in hypertrophy

“​If you look at the diagram below, you can see the satellite cells lying outside the muscle fiber. When signaled, the satellite cells fuse together to either patch the tear on the original muscle fiber or form a new muscle fiber altogether. This fusion creates more cross-sectional area, or simply stated, increases muscle size.” ​

When you first are reading this information you might think to yourself “Okay, so if I just create more muscle damage, these satellite cells will do their thing and I’ll be good to go.” Well, yes and no. You have to create muscle damage for the satellite cells to work and for the muscle to rebuild and repair, adding more size, but there is such a thing as too much training.

Muscle growth occurs when you introduce different types of challenging activity and engage different types of muscle fiber. That’s right, not all muscles are the same. There are a couple different types of muscle fiber I want to focus on in this lesson:

First, Type I muscle fiber (aka slow twitch) are the first to contract during your lifting sesh. This is because they have a low activation threshold, but they are not able to produce a great amount of force. Type I muscle fibers are used more for endurance and aerobic activities. This means slower movement that will last longer and uses oxygen. If Type I muscle fibers are not able to generate the amount of force needed to complete a lift, this is when Type II muscle fibers will kick in. ​

Type II muscles fibers (aka fast twitch) can be divided again into two more separate categories. Type IIa are recruited second after Type I and are able to withstand a moderate amount of fatigue because they still use oxygen as part of a fuel source to convert glycogen (energy fuel that’s stored in liver and muscles) to ATP (expendable energy source used by muscles). Type IIb fast twitch muscles are recruited last and rely on ATP already stored in the muscle cell and because of this they fatigue the quickest. These fast twitch muscles are actually the responsible parties for the shape and size of a muscle group. ​

Okay, now that you know a few facts about these muscle types, let’s get back to the topic of how to achieve hypertrophy. Hypertrophy will occur when an individual CONSISTENTLY trains with anaerobic resistance training. This will increase muscular endurance, muscular strength, and with time (and CONSISTENCY) muscular size. If you need a refresher on how muscle size increases, refer back to the previous article on tearing and repairing. Here are some tips for getting started with hypertrophy training:

  • I recommend beginners to lifting start with 2 to 3 sessions a week working full body in each session.

  • More advanced lifters can split their training into specific muscle groups they want to focus on 3 to 6 days per week, depending on current fitness level. For example...

  • 3 Days: Lower Body, Push (upper), Pull (upper)

  • 4 Days: Glutes and Hamstrings, Chest and Triceps, Back and Biceps, Quads and Calves

  • 5 Days: Glutes and Hamstrings, Chest, Back, Quads and Calves, Shoulders and Biceps and Triceps

You can split your program into working whatever muscle groups you please on what day, just remember to have rest days programmed in and to give that muscle group a day or two to rest before you work it again.

Start your lifting session with compound, multi-joint movements first and then move into accessory work. Compound movements recruit muscles to work together as a group and are moves such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, and pull up. Accessory movements are less taxing and focus on fine-tuning certain muscles. These involve exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extension, and hamstring curls.

Focus on volume and pay attention to your lifting tempo. More volume means you are working with sets of 3 to 6 and lifting for 8 to 12 reps within those sets. Your tempo should be focused on slowly lowering the weight in each movement with control, a quick pause at the bottom, and then raising the weight up quickly, again with control. For example...

If you are bench pressing, start at the top of the movement with arms fully extended. Then slowly lower the weight down until the bar or dumbbells are close to your chest and arms are bent, pause for just a second or two, then raise the bar back up into start position as fast as you can while still in control.

Switch up your workouts every few weeks. Your body adapts to the workouts you are performing! This means if you do the same lifts with the same weight and same reps every week, you will hit a plateau. To avoid this, every few weeks you should focus on either increasing weight, increasing reps, switching to different exercises that hit the same muscle groups, changing rest times, and increasing the number of sets.

Bonus Tip: In addition to making changes to your workouts, you can also add in supersets and dropsets.

A superset is performing exercises back to back with little to no rest in between and can add an extra “pump” to your muscles but also have the benefit of engaging more muscle fibers than what you might recruit just doing one straight set.

​Dropsets also have the added benefit of engaging additional muscle fibers and can push your lifts to failure. Perform these by picking your starting weight, lifting to failure, then dropping the weight down and performing the same exercise again until failure. For example, if you are performing a dumbbell chest press, you might start with 40lb dumbbells, lift for 12 reps, then drop down to 30lbs and lift until failure. Adding these will help activate more of these Type I and Type II muscle fibers discussed previously. ​

Also, make sure you pay attention to this part, because this is probably one of the most important and also most neglected part of all when it comes to building muscle. You absolutely, positively in no way can neglect proper nutrition and recovery and expect to see the results you are looking for. So what does this part entail? This means you need to eat to fuel your workouts and your body and drink lots of water. Eat whole, nutrient-dense food and don’t neglect your carbs! Eat a protein source at every meal and if you are engaging in intense weight-lifting sessions, you can aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you can eat about 150 grams of protein each day (if you are a healthy individual with no known medical issues, this amount of protein will not harm you, but if you are concerned speak with your health practitioner). For hydration, women need to drink at least 2.2L of water per day and men need at least 3L per day, with additional ounces taken in during your workout. ​

When it comes to recovery, plan a rest day in your training split. Stretch after your workouts and learn how to foam roll. Foam rolling is also known as self myofascial release and when done properly can help release tension in muscles and increase circulation, aiding the recovery process. Treat yourself to a massage every once in awhile.

In conclusion, focus on volume (lifting for 3 to 6 sets within the 8 to 12 rep range), change your workouts every few weeks to avoid a plateau, drink your water, eat your protein, carbs, and fruits/veggies, and take time to let your body recover. Focus on consistency, be patient, and the muscles will start making their appearance!

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