Follow these rules to maximise your gains, starting today
Muscle growth is an incredibly complex process, including actions by as many as 70 genes and a list of hormones you’d need a graduate degree in endocrinology to fully understand. Your body simultaneously speeds up the mechanisms that encourage growth and slows down the ones that inhibit it. The payoff is that, for 24 to 48 hours following a workout, your body adds protein to your muscles faster than it takes protein away.
The process is not only complex, but for most guys it’s also painfully slow. It takes a lot of hard work to go from someone who lifts to someone who looks like he lifts. And sometimes progress is so slow it seems nonexistent.
What qualifies as a major exercise? It’s probably easiest to sort them into four major categories:
- Upper-body pushes (chest and shoulder presses)
- Upper-body pulls (rows and pulldowns, pullups, and chinups)
- Hip-dominant lifts (deadlifts, glute bridges, hip thrusts)
- Knee-dominant lifts (squats, lunges, stepups)
Do three to four sets of one exercise from each category per workout, alternating between the two types of upper-body pushes and pulls. So one
workout you could do bench presses and rows, with shoulder presses and chinups in the next.
Include core exercises as part of your warmup, and you’ll hit all your major muscles every workout.
All sets are not created equal
As you know if you’ve been lifting for any amount of time, there are lots of ways to follow these recommendations. Four sets of 12 reps will have a different effect than four sets of 6.
Most of the time, you want to use about 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max. You don’t need to know what your max is on every exercise. If you reach momentary exhaustion in 8 to 10 reps, you’re in the right ballpark.
Counting reps is another way to measure your total training volume. One study found that quadriceps muscles grew 0.13 percent per day when lifters did 40 to 60 reps per workout, or four to six sets of 10. Biceps grew at twice that speed — 0.26 percent — with 42 to 66 reps.
You can use any configuration of sets and reps to reach 40 reps per exercise, if that’s your baseline. For example, you could do 12, 10, 8, and 10 to 12 reps, using heavier weights on the first three sets, and then finishing with the same weight you used on the second set. (It’ll feel lighter following the set of 8 with a heavier load.)
Or you could go heavier on your first few sets — three sets of 5 — and finish with a set of 25 using a much lighter weight. A 2004 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that unusual sequence increased muscle size more than the heavy sets alone.
The best approach, Schoenfeld says, is to gradually increase your workout volume over time. The goal is “functional overreaching,” which Schoenfeld says will coax your muscles to compensate with accelerated growth without the risk of overtraining.
Eventually you’ll hit the point of diminishing returns. You’ll run out of time, or energy, or the ability to recover from one workout to the next. The trick is figuring out what your own limits are; they’ll be slightly different for each lifter. When one week’s workouts are less productive than the previous week’s, it’s probably time to back off a bit and give your body a couple of weeks to catch up.
But for most of us, the more pressing problem is how to coax slightly better results from our current routines. And for that, the solution is probably as simple as doing just a little bit more.