August 24, 2011

Bodybuilding - How To Gain As Much Muscle As Possible From Training

To start, this article is not about the sport of bodybuilding itself, but rather the training methods that bodybuilders employ, and explanations as to why bodybuilding methods are as effective as they are at stimulating such ridiculous amounts of growth, as evident in the overwhelming size of professional bodybuilders.

What Sets Bodybuilders Apart From Other Strength Trained Athletes?

All things being equal (nutrition, supplementation, rest, as well as steroids and growth hormones), bodybuilders have the greatest level of muscular development of all strength trained athletes. The only considerably glaring difference between bodybuilders and other strength trained athletes like power lifters, Olympic lifters, etc. is the style of their workouts.

Bodybuilders generally lift light weights relative to their strength levels, and focus on squeezing and feeling the muscles they are working, doing that repetitively with minimal rest, for the duration of their workout.

Athletes on the other hand logically focus on lifting as heavy or explosive as possible, taking the amount of rest needed to repeat their efforts, and doing that repetitively, in attempt to increase their strength, power, and/or explosiveness for their respective sport.

The rare occasion when athletes adhere to parameters that resemble that of a bodybuilder’s is during their offseason, in which the goal is to correct muscular imbalances developed from their sport/lifestyle (since such parameters are best suited for building muscle in the first place, oddly enough). Other than that, speed is king in sports, and heavy weights, or explosive lifts, will usually optimally prepare an athlete to perform at their best.

Before we look at what makes a bodybuilder’s style of training so effective at building muscle, let’s first clear up a few common myths.

Muscle Size Is Not Completely Related To Strength

If one’s size was directly related to one’s strength, then power lifters and Olympic lifters would dwarf bodybuilders, because in comparison to a weight lifter, or power lifter, bodybuilders certainly aren’t that strong. There are a few exceptions of course, Ronnie Coleman being the most popular of them, but for the most part, as a whole, bodybuilders aren’t known for their “impressive” levels of strength.

Many bodybuilders can typically load up a barbell with 3, 4, or even 5 plates depending on the exercise they are doing, which seems like a lot of weight. But given that they are on a professional level, weight lifters on the same relative level can usually out lift them by close to double that, depending on the exercise.

You Can Gain Strength Without Gaining Size

Being strong doesn’t always mean being big. Gains in strength can be made without necessarily adding inches to your arms, chest, thighs, for example. Increases in strength will certainly help with adding inches to your current measurements by way of enabling you to lift more weight for more reps, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will, especially if you don’t train accordingly to do so.

The nervous system is the primary factor contributing to increases in strength, even without an increase in the size of a muscle. The more frequently you perform an exercise, especially at a high intensity (percentage of max), the more efficient your nervous system will become at recruiting the high threshold motor units (muscle fibers and the motor neuron that innervates them, in this case the ones responsible for producing the greatest amount of force) of the agonists (prime movers), as well as possibly reducing its firing rate to the antagonist (opposing muscle of the prime mover that is unintentionally activated to provide joint stability). Obviously, if there are less motor units being sent to the opposing muscle group which would provide resistance, the ability to demonstrate greater levels of strength by way of lifting more weight is heightened.

You Can Gain Size Without Gaining Strength

Much like you can gain strength without gaining any size at all, you can also gain size without gaining strength. This can happen in the form of non-functional hypertrophy, AKA sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The reason it’s referred to as “non-functional” is because sarcoplasmic hypertrophy involves the increase in size of non-contractile proteins (glycogen) and fluids between the muscle fibers. In other words, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy presents itself as an increase in muscle size that does not directly contribute to generating maximum force. Sarcomere, or myofibril hypertrophy, involves the increase in size of contractile fibers that do produce force, thus it is termed “functional hypertrophy”.

If the goal is to be as big as possible, then focusing on methods that contribute to both types of hypertrophy (functional and non-functional) are of greater value, irrespective of the possible downside it may have on other physical attributes like speed, or flexibility.

Why Bodybuilders Type Of Training Is As Effective As It Is For Building A Ton Of Muscle

The loading parameters that bodybuilders choose to work within are extremely effective when it comes to building muscle for a few reasons, but first let’s go over a very common bodybuilder type of workout, and then breakdown why it’s so effective at building size.

The loading parameters for a typical bodybuilder type of workout would be as such:

Exercises: roughly 4 per bodypart

Reps: roughly 10 per set

Sets: roughly 3 per exercise

Rest: usually around 1 minute

Intensity: roughly around 80%, or less

Based on those numbers, which are generous to say the least as the number of exercises, reps, and sets are usually a lot higher, a typical bodybuilder type workout would consist of a minimum of 120 reps per bodypart. This does not include any common training techniques like drop sets, super sets, etc. to increase the time under tension, which bodybuilders are known to frequently implement.

So what makes these parameters so effective at building muscle?

1. EXERCISES: It may come as no surprise but every muscle has thousands of muscle fibers that run in multiple directions depending on where the muscle originates (starts) and inserts (finishes). Because of this complexity, there is no single exercise for any bodypart that will effectively recruit/stimulate each and every fiber of a certain muscle throughout its entirety, no matter how heavy the weight is. While some exercises provide more bang for your buck than others, to ensure maximal stimulation, a variety of exercises are needed. The most effective way to ensure that you are taxing as many muscle fibers as possible is to hit your muscles from as many different angles, and ranges of motion, as possible, and the way to do this is to do multiple exercises for the same bodypart. Bodybuilding is the one aesthetic endeavor in which the usage of a variety of machines is promoted because they offer consistent tension throughout the strength curve/range of motion, in a manner in which free weights cannot provide, which alone increases the likelihood of stimulating maximal growth.

2. REPS: Higher reps result in the stimulation and growth of slow twitch muscle fibers as well as non-contractile elements (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy), both of which contribute to one’s overall size, even though they have very little effect on increasing strength, as slow twitch fibers are endurance-oriented and aren’t capable of producing high levels of force. This alone, is one of the major reasons behind why bodybuilders are as big as they are.

On a side note, overreliance on methods that result in the hypertrophy of slow twitch fibers and non-contractile elements (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) will ultimately affect maximal strength as well, because increasing the size of the slow twitch fibers and non-contractile elements can have a dampening effect on overall speed of muscle contraction of the fast twitch fibers.

This is why athletes in sports that require explosive strength and power ought to refrain from building too much non-functional hypertrophy, as it would likely negatively affect speed/performance (unless they played a certain position in a sport where extra bodyweight, irrespective of “functionality”, would be beneficial – think offensive lineman in football. The bigger those guys are, the harder it is to move, or get around them).

3. REST: Minimal rest intervals increase lactate build up and the “pump” effect that comes from training, which has positive implications on the hormonal response to training. The pump that comes from lifting weights repeatedly without much rest is typically thought of as a short term training effect, but the cellular swelling can cause an increase in protein synthesis (turning food into muscle) as well as a reduction in protein breakdown (prevents the body from using muscle as energy), both of which will positively affect the end result. When a muscle becomes “pumped”, the cell perceives it as a threat its integrity and responds by sending signals promoting it to grow larger to protect its structure. Also, minimal rest between sets of high reps will increase lactate build up (the burn), which creates a more acidic pH level, to which the body compensates by producing more growth hormone. All of these factors will ultimately contribute to an increase in overall muscle mass.

4. SETS X REPS (VOLUME): High volumes are especially effective at depleting glycogen storage. The more you deplete through training, the more you can store when you eat (carbs) which will lead to larger and fuller muscles. The size gains from this will more so come from diet, but it is the type of training that will initiate this process (if you do not deplete glycogen through training, the body does not need to replenish).

5. INTENSITY: Russian weightlifting coach and sport scientist Robert A. Roman has published papers citing research showing that performing pulls with especially heavy weights (such as above 90 percent of 1RM in the classical lifts) adversely affects the coordination pattern of the pull. Obviously the heavier you lift, the more muscle fibers will be recruited, but this will happen at the expense of primarily connective tissue (ligaments), taking on a greater percentage of the load.

With bodybuilding, you want to control the weight and focus on mentally directing as much stress as possible on the targeted area, whatever that may be, and if the weight is simply too heavy, you will likely compensate and lose control of the weight.

A practical example that demonstrates this point can be seen by watching elite lifters deadlift near maximal poundage. Traditionally with a deadlift, you want the back to remain as straight as possible, but when attempting weights in excess of 90%, it is very likely that the upper back (thoracic spine) will round slightly to compensate for the heavy load. If the weight is essentially “hanging off the ligaments”, you can bet that the load is being shared with areas beyond that which may be intended, which would otherwise be possible if you were using a lighter weight and had more control.

6. TECHNIQUE/FORM: Technique, and manner of execution, will ultimately determine the outcome of your training efforts as far as muscular development is concerned. The smallest changes of hand/elbow/knee position, or mechanics of a movement, will sometimes be the change needed to break through a plateau, or correct imbalances (strength or aesthetic imbalances).

Something as small as holding a dumbell with an offset grip (thumb tight against plate) will direct more stress to a different area of the same muscle, which can be seen as a positive thing, depending on what exercise you are doing and where you are trying to target. It is not uncommon to see bodybuilders using machines in a completely different manner that what they were intended for (a good example of this is how they will face the opposite direction on machines like a shoulder press, hack squat, and lat pulldown) in an attempt to stimulate muscle fibers that may not have been recruited while performing an exercise in its original manner.

As it relates to technique, the speed in which the reps are done will affect what muscles take on a greater percentage of the load. For example, a curl is an isolated movement for the biceps. However, if you curl with as much force as you can, the biceps may be more active than if you curled slower, in which the brachialis may be more active. To explain the specific modifications that can be made to each and every exercise would take days and is beyond the scope of this article, but if you have questions about one specific exercise and how to modify it to your goal, feel free to contact me.

Principles That Need To Be Followed To Build As Much Muscle As Possible

If your goal is to be a bodybuilder, or you just want to build as much muscle as possible, then it is in your best interest to adopt the principles that bodybuilders adhere to. To recap, those principles are:

1. Many exercises, whether they are free weights or machines, are needed to ensure that as many muscle fibers are stimulated as possible.

2. High reps will result in the growth (hypertrophy) of slow twitch fibers and non-contractile elements which heavily contribute to the end result.

3. Minimal rest will maximize the “pump”, and thus, the hormonal response.

4. High volumes of work will deplete glycogen storage and enable you to pack on more muscle after your workout if you eat enough calories (carbs).

5. Light weights, relative to your strength levels, will enable you to control the weight and mentally focus on directing more tension onto the muscles you are working.

6. You can modify how you perform any exercise whether it is a free weight, or a machine exercise, to apply more tension to different areas of a given muscle.

Why Strength Matters

Do you need to be strong to build muscle? No. But it will help, and here’s why. Let’s say you are training to be a bodybuilder, and based on everything that was just covered, your workouts consist of relatively light weights, high reps, minimal rest between sets and multiple exercises. If you were to do the exact same thing, but with more weight, it would stand to reason that you would obviously increase your potential to build more muscle.

Using the bench press as a practical example with a hypothetical maximum of 365 lbs. it would be safe to say 75-85% (274-310 lbs.) would represent the amount of weight that could be lifted for 5-10 reps. By focusing solely on increasing strength and increasing the hypothetical max to 405 lbs. would then allow for 304 lbs. (75%) to be managed for 10 reps. The more weight that is lifted, the more times it is lifted, the bigger the muscles will have to be.

Aside from increasing the potential amount of muscle that can be built by increasing strength levels, lifting heavy also teaches the brain to become more accustomed with recruiting the high threshold motor units, and the more efficient you become at recruiting those fibers, the more effective your training will be.

How much stress is the muscle under?

At the end of the day, bodybuilders are bigger than other strength trained athletes because they expose their muscles to more tension when they train, than other athletes do. Tension in this case referring to how much stress the muscle is under, NOT how much weight is on the bar. Regardless of whether or not they lift as heavy in relation to their strength levels, or use pieces of equipment that other athletes wouldn’t consider using, like smith machines or hammer strength machines, at the end of the day their muscles produce more tension, and this is why their muscles are bigger.

If there’s anything that can be learned from how bodybuilders train, it’s that time under tension will positively affect muscular development more than any other variable, and you don’t need to kill yourself for not setting personal records (as far as strength is concerned) every time you walk into the gym.

Though lifting heavier weights can help you build more muscle, it is not necessary if your goal is strictly muscular development. One of the most dreaded questions you could ask a bodybuilder is “how much do you bench (or whatever exercise for that matter)?” The reason bodybuilders dread this question is because they know it’s not about the weight, but rather how much stress the muscle is under, and more often than not, it’s a lot easier to mentally focus on directing stress upon a muscle when it is light enough that you have total control over the weight.

If you have any questions about how to train like a bodybuilder, or the training methods that bodybuilders follow, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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