Build Muscle And Gain Strength Using Scientific Principles That Never Change
Last Update: 13 August 2021
Know The Basics
There are few if any things that change when it comes to human physiology. Extreme adaptations just aren’t possible in the span of one human lifetime.
And yet, the fitness community is content to sell a “new” fix every week to those willing to buy into their falsehoods.
At the end of the day, putting on muscle and creating strength is the result of providing the correct stimulus to your body. If you can optimize that stimulus, you can optimize your gains and radically speed up your progress and increase your enjoyment along the way.
The human body has a limited amount of resources to repair and construct the protein structures that comprise muscle tissue. Because of this, is it absolutely essential to minimize fatigue while maximizing adaptive stress.
“Adaptive stress” is any stimulus that forces your body to adapt and grow–in this case it would be the act of lifting weights.
A relatable metaphor would be your paycheck: you only make so much money each week so you have to make sure you spend it intelligently so that it improves your quality of life as much as possible with your given income (or at least that is the goal).
In the same way, your body only has so much “rehabilitative energy” it can use towards building muscle–you have to make sure you use the correct training methods, or you will literally be wasting your time.
Periodization is, simply put, the purposeful alteration of volume and intensity throughout a training cycle. This can be done in a linear fashion–as volume increases intensity decreases, and vice versa–or through an undulating scheme that contains several micro cycles within each training mesocycle.
Believe it or not, high intensity lifting doesn’t effect fatigue very much if work output is kept low–for this reason training periodization is developed around volume.
Volume: total exercise output for any given muscle group
While there are several ways to track total volume, the most efficient way to do so for almost everyone is through counting sets.
Admittedly, certain nuances can introduce margins of error while using this approach. For example, do you count close-grip bench press as chest work or just tricep work? How do you count movements that only train a partial range of motion? How about counting how much of your calves are involved in squatting?
Yet, getting that nitty-gritty is extremely monotonous, even for top-level athletes. Ultimately, that precision is unnecessary and probably useless or detrimental—there are countless factors that we could track and measure; at some point you have to decide what is important and what isn’t.
It is worth noting that the weight used must still be challenging and must increase over time for you to continue to progress. By using the same exercises over and over with the same amount of repetitions and methodologies, and failing to use science-backed quarterly and yearly training cycles, your progress will stall quickly once your “noob gains” are used up.
Noob gains is a popular term used to describe the adaptations you make very rapidly when first starting to lift weights or returning to doing so; this is because your body is hyper-responsive to the provided stimulus: heavy weighted resistance.
How Training Is Different From “Working Out”
Training is different than “working out.” How? Training is focused on achieving a specific goal, whether that be a competition or personal deadline. It separates those who go to the gym and never see substantial results from those who completely transform their physiques, strength levels, athleticism, and most importantly health.
Even if you don’t compete in a strength sport or pose on stage, you must be setting concrete, SMART fitness goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound). If your goal is simply to add on more muscle mass, set a lean body mass goal. If you just want to get stronger, set strength goals and test yourself at pre-planned times.
Regardless of what you do, if you want the serious results that you desire, you’ve got to lift with a purpose.
But from a scientific standpoint, it utilizes microcycles, mesocyles, and macrocycles.
1. The Microcycle
When it comes to lifting, this is a week. That’s because it’s simply difficult to design any unit of time smaller that allows for human stuff (a.k.a. living life).
Each microcycle is intimately linked with the mesocycle plan. This will make sense further in the guide where volume indicators are introduced. But in short, each week of a training mesocycle should increase in difficulty and then be followed at the end by a deload.
2. The Mesocycle
Why is the range so large? If you are in a mass-building phase you might push it all the way to 8 weeks, However eight weeks is definitely an extreme and probably not as efficient as a 6 week cycle with a planned 7th week overload–thereby allowing you to use the 8th week to deload and prepare for the next mesocycle.
If you are in a competition mesocycle phase, however, it may be only 2 weeks of extremely low volume, extremely high intensity lifting.
3. The Macrocycle
This is your annual plan. Within this overarching cycle, there are 3 elements:
The preparation phase should comprise a majority of your training–around 75%. The prep phase is broken down even further, split between general and sport-specific movements. General movements should comprise more than half of this phase. That means at least 35% of your training should be focused around improving in a multitude of strength-specific areas. This comes in the form of exercise variety and knowing which movements provide the most results.
This phase is pretty self-explanatory: it’s when you compete. It will almost always include a taper just prior to stepping on the stage, platform, field.
This is when you take time off. For psychological reasons, this period is needed. If your training is very serious, this can be as little as 2 weeks. Anything more than a month off, however, leads to considerable strength atrophy accompanied by losses in muscle size as well.
The purpose of this period is to create rest and relaxation that can then lead to biological regeneration and erase deep structural fatigue in tendons and bones that don’t heal from workout to workout. You should still maintain a general level of physical activity: get out of the house and explore your city. Whatever it is that you do, just make sure to stay active (just no weights).
Often times this is planned around holidays or other times that it will be highly inconvenient to eat correctly and train properly. By doing it this way, you get to enjoy being a normal human being for a couple of weeks, while recharging your vigor for when you do return to lifting.
These 3 distinct cycles provide a large outline for creating an effective training program, but they don’t provide the actual “meat” of how workouts should be structured to achieve maximal gains.
That’s where volume comes into play.
The 4 Volume Indicators
Maintenance Volume (MV)
This is how many sets you need to complete to simply keep what muscle you do have. If you have never trained before, or it’s been several years, this will be zero sets. However, once you start to lift weights, that will immediately rise to a non-zero number.
Unfortunately, the science is conclusive: there’s no way to keep your muscle without doing anything to maintain it. If you fail to work out, your body’s muscle will atrophy. While this sounds bad, it’s still a very low number. You can keep a majority of your gains with as little as 6 sets per body part, per week. Furthermore, this number doesn’t actually scale much at all for intermediate and advanced lifters. As you put on more and more muscle, your body will retain it easier. While the human body is very resistant to making new changes (putting on muscle, gaining strength, and losing fat), it is very good at keeping adaptations it already has.
But why would you ever train at just your maintenance? Isn’t the goal to actually build muscle? Absolutely. However, by including weeks of lowered volume (deload weeks) on purpose after overreaching blocks, your body is able to heal and become re-sensitized to hard training again.
Minimum Effective Volume (MEV)
This is how much you need to workout to actually make progress and pack on lean body mass. Anything less than this will simply maintain your gains.
Additionally, this is the smallest amount of volume that you can do to make progress–notably, that means at this level you will be making the slowest gains possible. However, this is where every training mesocycle should begin. That allows the body to continually adapt to an increasing stimulus as the weeks go on and you add volume.
If you are a beginner, this value is very close to your maintenance. This changes as you become more experienced though. Fundamentally, training must get harder over time. Advanced athletes will need a more extreme stimulus (heavier weights with more sets and reps) to cause new muscular adaptations.
Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV)
This is what everyone is shooting for, and where you will make your best progress and most gains. It is a much more dynamic number than any of the other indicators though–it increases as you complete a full mesocycle. If you are using an intelligent program that is based around these scientific volume principles, your training should get harder from week to week. Every time you hit a muscle group with enough sets to elicit growth, they grow.
Overload your body’s system with the appropriate stimulus and you grow.
But, what was overloading last week isn’t going to be this week. In order to keep growing and overloading, you have to continue to add more sets (with heavier weight) each week. Again, if you are using a training plan that is founded on periodization, this means each microcycle will be harder than the last.
Eventually though, the number of sets you need to do to grow will exceed the number of sets you are able to recover from. This is where a deload week comes into play–by returning to your maintenance your bodies adaptive system can recover for another mesocycle. Additionally, it is sometimes appropriate or needed to introduce different exercises in the next wave of training.
If your minimum effective volume hovers around 10 sets, your full mesocycle might look like this:
Week 1: 10 Sets
Week 2: 12 Sets
Week 3: 15 Sets
Week 4: 18 Sets
Week 5: 20 Sets
Week 6: 6 sets (deloading)
This schedule would ensure that you make the most efficient gains throughout the entire 6-week cycle. Instead of trying to immediately jump to 18+ sets on week where you would make amazing gains for the first 7 days, but quickly hit a plateau and make no further progress through the remaining 5 weeks. Again, this is because your body will adapt to that amount of sets and without an overloading stimulus no muscle can be built.
Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV)
This is your max–you can only recover from so much and this number represents that. Once your body’s recovery resources have been tapped out, doing anything more is non-beneficial.
While going hard in the gym is a great thing, it’s important to remember that gains are made while you’re healing and recovering. It is through this process that new protein structures can be built–more muscle. Furthermore, you can’t even make gains if you are training right at your MRV. Your body will utilize every last resource it has just to try and keep up with recovery demands; it doesn’t have anything else left to devote to growing.
Interestingly, studies have shown that for beginners, very little to no growth actually occurs in the initial weeks of working out. This is because the body is so unused to lifting weights that any amount causes a large disruption and shock–only once the novice has trained for a few weeks can he or she be able to heal fully from the volume and still have recovery resources left to growing.
In conclusion, your MRV is the ceiling of what you can do. Pushing past it towards the end of a smart program can make you grow even more through an overrreaching and supercompensational effect, but anything more will lead to no gains. Over time you will actually start to lose results because your body has been introduced to the same stimulus for such a long time, while also being extremely and deeply fatigued. Your MEV actually passes your MRV, at which point it is literally impossible for you to progress until you return to your MV for several weeks to allow your body to heal and return to hormonal homeostasis.
Common Values For Each Body Part
Note that values of .5 on the chart mean a “light” workout. This means you would complete the majority of your sets during one harder workout, and then finish any remaining sets to hit proper MAV on the smaller workout later in the week.
Now that we understand these measures of stimulus, we can design a training plan that takes advantage of them to supercharge our results while dramatically lowering the fitness commitment needed to achieve great results. Though it is a heroic gesture, training as hard as you possibly can in the gym year round is not only pointless–it’s detrimental and will lead to a loss in size and strength.
The human body is an “adaptive machine”—it is constantly seeking homeostasis, and in doing so it is highly efficient at readjusting to any given scenario. How is this applicable when it comes to lifting? If you provide the same stimulus over and over for an extended period of time, it becomes less and less effective—this is the well-known concept of diminishing returns.
While your exact values will differ slightly from the chart above, it is a great starting place. For a more detailed look at each muscle group, check out the individual guides.
How To Get Stronger
Everything discussed up until this point dealt with hypertrophy, or the enlargement of muscle tissues from an increase in the volume of its individual cells. Within muscular structures in your body, there are two relevant forms:
- Sarcosplasmic hypertrophy that is caused by an increase in glycogen stores within your muscles–this is transient and will change depending on what stage of training you are in. If you are in a maintenance phase, the loss of size is due to this and not because of an actual loss in the cellular size of muscles, which leads to the second type…
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy which is an actual increase in myofibral size.
Myofibril tissue is the foundation of what muscle is; collectively, it is the group of fibers that can actually contract against a given resistance.
Before we can talk about improving strength, we have to lack at the factors involved.
- Muscle Size
- Neural Efficiency
- Structural Health
- Genetic Factors
We’ll start with the obvious one: muscle. By building more muscle using the correct techniques, you will be able to lift more weight, thereby creating more muscle. It is a “positive cycle” that is extremely important to consider as a natural.
Many gym-goers use “bodybuilding routines” that lack intensity in an attempt to pack on muscle. This is completely wrong. By not focusing on building strength, these gym rats will never be able to maximize their strength that would allow them to use heavier weights, thereby packing on more mass.
When all other factors are optimized, muscle is the factor that determines how much weight you can lift. When comparing two lifters in the same lifting environment provided the same stimulus, the one with more lean body mass will always be stronger.
Another way to put it: the 160 pound version of you at 10% body fat will always be weaker than the 170 pound version of you at the same body fat. It’s admittedly common sense, but can get lost in the weeds from time to time.
But muscle isn’t the only thing we have to be concerned with when becoming strong.
You also have to learn how to lift with proper technique that will allow you to leverage more weight, thereby building more functional strength, which then leads to bigger muscles, which then leads to a leaner physique. It’s all connected!
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons world-class strength athletes are able to lift so much is because they have mastered their individual technique. It is impossible to prescribe the same thing to every single person; each body is unique and with that comes distinct structural differences that will determine what positions you are strongest in.
While it is important to understand this on an intellectual and functional level so that you can improve your results, it shouldn’t be used an excuse for lacking strength. Chris Duffin, the lightest man in the world to deadlift over 1,000lbs for repetitions, has an ape index of 1—completely normal.
The ape index is the ratio of one’s height to arm span (wing span); it is used as a metric for determining if someone has “long limbs.” While you may think you have certain bodily proportions, the ape index doesn’t lie—give it a quick test.
Using the proper form also ties in heavily to the next point: neural efficiency.
The human brain is heavily involved in several of the key processes that deal with producing a force against any given resistance.
- At the beginning of any given set, your brain is notified so that a nerve impulse can be generated.
- This electrical signal engages in the form of a neuron.
- The electrical signal creates “potential energy” which allows an impulse to travel from the body of the cell to an axon—an area that allows information to exit.
- This in turn quickly causes the cell to become depolarized and electrically charged.
- At synaptic junctions this energy is released in the form of neurotransmitters that cause excitatory post synaptic potential (EPSP).
- The EPSP response is carried throughout the myofibril tissue, and the muscle contracts.
This neural recruitment can be improved, which manifests as greater strength.
The health of your body—specifically your joints, tendons, and connective tissue—will also determine how much you lift.
This is where 99.9% of people go dead wrong, and that includes many gym attendees who should honestly know better. Instead of taking care of their body with the proper mobility routines, they smash the gym and do virtually no stretching or warming up. This is a recipe for disaster, and surprisingly, is probably the biggest factor that stands in the way of people making consistent, long-term progress. A coach and mentor once told me that the most successful athlete is the one who can train hard without getting injured. As I’ve gained my own experience and life-lessons, I can tell you his advice was right on the money!
Most of these injuries come in the form of insidious, acute pains that we try to ignore. But, ignoring pain while training is a terrible, terrible idea. Guaranteed, the problem will simply get worse until it puts you out of the gym for good, or even worse: culminates for a terrible injury.
The most common ailments include tendonitis—this one is not fun and the best way to handle it is never letting it develop in the first place! I have personally lifted with patellar tendonitis, and stupidly ignored it, allowing the injury to develop into tendonosis (chronic tendonitis that eventually leads to a structural breakdown within your body). Learn from my mistake and follow this guide in its entirety, which includes the awesome mobility routine I designed after rehabbing from another terrible injury (athletic pubalgia—a nasty tear in the lower abdominis/groin area).
Undoubtedly, genetics is one of the largest determinants of exceptional muscle and strength potential. It isn’t, however, a big factor before a lifter is several standard deviations from the norm.
What does this mean? When viewing the population as a whole, a large majority of individuals will be relatively close to the “average”—it is the outliers that are the genetic freaks that set world records and accomplish amazing feats.
And yet, as you become stronger and build more muscle, you will receive diminished returns for your efforts. When reviewing raw stats, those genetic “superhumans” aren’t multiples stronger or bigger than the average person.
For example, the Men’s Raw American Record for squat in the 83kg (183lbs) weight class is 661.4 lbs (done by John Haack). While this is surely an amazing feat of strength, it isn’t multitudes better than a 500lb squat, which has been accomplished by hundreds of athletes in the same weight class and division.
The point is, while your genetics will play a large role in whether you become a world champion, they don’t matter much at all when it comes to achieving a very respectable physique and strength level. Blaming your genes on the fact that you can’t reach an above-average level of strength and muscle isn’t productive—and frankly it’s even less accurate.
And, the final factor that will play a role in your development is age. This one is rather touchy, because I personally believe that outside factors that you can’t control should never ever stop you from taking positive and constructive steps to reach your goal. BUT, for the sake of honesty and completeness, there are a few things to discuss.
- The nervous system is more responsive and “excitable” at a younger age. Also, learning proper movement patterns is often considered easier (remember the old saying about teaching an old dog new tricks?)
- Your body is “newer” in general (duh); this comes with benefits—one of them being that your tendons have more elastin from protein and are thus able to store more potential elastic energy while you lift.
- Hormone levels are higher during specific times in one’s life—specifically testosterone which provides countless strength and muscle-related benefits (more growth hormone released at night, better sleep, less stress—it’s no wonder people take testosterone as a steroid, it’s the closest thing you can get to magic in a bottle)
The good news? None of these play a critical role in how successful your training will be. Furthermore, they are completely out of your control so there is absolutely no reason to let them linger in your mind. We covered it here because it’s important for you to be aware of, but beyond that it has no practical impact on your results. But clearly, the sooner you get started, the better! Keeping this in mind, the program below was developed to help you reach your potential in the most efficient, optimized way possible.