How to Build Muscle the Natural Way

I’d like to follow up my entry on why we get fatter as we age with the solution to the problem.  So what can we do to prevent the loss of lean mass over time as we age?  Is it possible to control anabolic (tissue building) forces within the body to oppose the destructive effects of oxidation and gravity?

I’m glad you asked.

Girl With Weights

Weight-bearing exercise is the ONLY safe and natural way to create and maintain a true anabolic drive to compensate for the catabolic (tissue breakdown) toll that life and nature takes on skeletal muscle, cartillage, connective tissue, ligaments, tendons and bone mass.  While few would dispute this, many experts still debate the best application of weight training strategies.

As someone who has lifted weights for over 20 years, dead-lifted over 500 lbs, added 40 lbs of lean muscle to his body (100% naturally) and helped countless others achieve strong, muscular physiques, I think I may be qualified to voice my own opinion on the process.  As I break this down, I’ll assume everyone reading this is interested adding muscle and strength in the most efficient manner possible, regardless of how much you want to add.

How Much Weight Should I Lift?

As it relates to exercise, intensity is: the degree of strain your muscles are under at any given time during an exercise.  Intensity is considered to be at its highest (100%) when the individual has reached the point of momentary muscular failure.  This is when the muscles can no longer generate enough force to move the resistance placed on them from the exercise.  Most of the people I’ve observed rarely work up to this level of effort, opting to set the weight down after completing a certain number of reps even though many more may have been possible.

Failure in this case is not considered muscular but mental. The reason why training with a high-intensity is important is because muscles grow in response to the demands placed upon them.  Unless there is sufficient reason for muscles to grow larger as a result of the work imposed on them they will not, because additional muscle above what is needed to function at a “normal” capacity is metabolically demanding and the body doesn’t want that.

We know that skeletal muscle is comprised of fast twitch (responsible for explosive movements), slow twitch (responsible for sub maximal actions) and mixed fibres types. Fast twitch and mixed fibers are primarily responsible for muscle growth however, this can only occur if those fibers receive adequate stimulation.  At the beginning of a set, when the effort and force needed to perform the lift is lowest, the smaller slow twitch fibers are recruited first.  As fatigue accumulates, the mixed fibres take over and finally at the onset of muscular failure the fast twitch fire and are working at a maximum.

So it doesn’t really matter if you lift a heavy weight or if you lift a moderate weight, as long as the set is demanding enough that you physically cannot complete another rep.

How long should my set last?

Volume refers to the amount of exercise performed in a workout.  It is the totality of the time under tension or TUT (length of each set), number of reps, and the number of sets performed in a workout.  As is true with the other variables (sets, reps), TUT is dictated largely by the makeup of the individual.  If you excel at strength and speed sports you probably have more fast twitch fibers, in contrast to those who excel at endurance activities will usually exhibit more slow twitch characterisitics.

There is no practical way to know for sure but this will give you a ballpark idea . . . muscles that are predominately fast twicth will respond best to exercise that places them under maximum strain (tension) for 30-50 seconds. Training for muscle growth in the slow twitch type of individual/muscle is difficult, but for the greatest stimulation muscles should undergo a TUT of 80-120 seconds. The ideal TUT for mixed fibers can be anywhere from 50-90 seconds.

How many sets should I perform?

If you perform sets of a high-intensity or high-quality, this will greatly reduce the need to perform many sets for the muscle you are working.  The lower the intensity the greater the need for more sets.  For those who think they can work with light weights and just do 10 sets I’ve got some news for you.  Too much volume will not be tolerated by the body for very long before you become overworked.  This is why it is usually a better option to train hard with fewer sets.  You’ll tax the fast twitch fibers without wearing yourself down.

Individual fiber type is an important consideration and so is the muscle being trained.  Each muscle group has its own unique fiber distribution.  For example, the extensors (eg. triceps and quadriceps) are usually more fast twitch in makeup.  The flexors (eg. biceps and hamstrings) tend to be more fast twitch. For a fast twitch muscle or individual, as few as 1-3 high intensity working sets total are suggested.  For a mixed muscle, I find 3-5 sets to be suitable for most.  For slow twitch muscles 4-6 sets is usually enough if intensity is high.

How many reps should I perform?

This is the one everyone is most concerned about.  “How many more Craig? I need a goal”.  This is all well and good but unless you know the answer to all of the above questions, you cannot accurately determine a rep number.  Most media publications will have you believe 8-12 reps are best to build muscle.  The problem is that they don’t factor in your fiber type, how much TUT, how many sets or how intense you are training. These generic rep prescriptions are useless without consideration of these factors. Even still I’ll make some generalizations myelf.

If your TUT is low, intensity high, for  fast twitch dominant muscle, then reps of 4-10 are about right. If your TUT is high, intensity high (at the end of the set), slow twitch dominant muscle then reps of 10-20 are about right.

 How fast or slow should I lift weights?

When you watch most people in the gym performing their exercises they are usually moving very quickly, banging out a given number of reps and then setting (or dropping) the weight down when finished.  This is precisely how not to perform your exercise, at least not if your focus is on doing high quality exercise.  When moving at this quick pace the muscles are not working as hard as they could or should be.  This is best accomplished by moving at a slow and controlled tempo.  I like to use the term smoothto describe repetition cadence. You should avoid momentum and be able to stop at any point in the range and at a moment’s notice without carrying over additional momentum.

The faster you move the weight the LESS muscular work you are performing. Conversely, when you move slowly, you must generate more muscular force in order to complete the rep.  Additionally moving slower makes performing the exercise HARDER!  And, as we know, the harder or more demanding an exercise is, the greater the likelihood of it encouraging a physically adaptive response.

How often should I train a muscle?

proper squat technigueThere are two ways of looking at frequency.  The first relates to how often a particular muscle group is trained (e.g. training the back muscles once every 7 days). The second relates to how often any workout is occurring.  It is important to note that your muscles must have enough time between workouts to FULLY recover and overcompensate otherwise they will not develop, function or perform up to their potential.  It does not matter that each day you might be training a different muscle group.  If the body is being systemically rundown it will have a direct effect on local (muscle) recovery.

Just as there needs to be a “certain amount” of intensity to stimulate growth there needs to be a “certain amount” of frequency for optimal results. Generally, novice lifters (1-6 months experience) should train each muscle up to 3x/week.  Intermediates (6 months-2 years experience) would train 2x/week whereas advanced lifters would only require 1x/week or less. You need to allow at least 48 hours recovery between workouts for the same muscle.

It also depends on hard you train.  You could train more often if you reduce the overall intensity of some of the workouts. The bottom line is that you need to slowly and methodically decrease or increase frequency to what is ideal according to your individual requirements, the intensity and volume of each workout.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of the many variables to consider when designing an effective strength and muscle building program.  It isn’t quite as simple as just showing up to the gym, doing “x” amount of reps and then calling it a day.  The more you understand the principles, and how to apply them, the closer you’ll be to achieving the leanest and most muscular body nature will allow.

 Please leave your comments/questions as they relate to this post.

Craig Simms
Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 11 years and has amassed over 15,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
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2 Comments

  1. Rick Westgate February 24, 2013

    Hi Craig, I’m a man of 67 years. A little over weight and would like to build muscle. Could I do this with light to medium weight?
    Could you give me a routien to follow?

    Rick Westgate

    reply
  2. Craig February 24, 2013

    Hi Rick. Of course you can build muscle with light to medium weights, so long as as the effort is high. As long as the load is progressive over time, you’ll build SOME muscle. At 67 years of age, keep your expectations reasonable though.

    Are you asking for me to write a routine up for you here? If so, I don’t prescribe programs without a full assessment and health history. This can only be done in person.

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