Most of us want to build shape and size when we hit the gym, but how is muscle actually built, and how can we maximise our potential?
Words: Tom Ward
Building muscle is easy, right? Pick up something heavy, put it down again. Repeat. Once you’re done, guzzle as much protein as you can stomach. Then just wait for the gains.
Although, also, no. Granted, the lift-more-eat-more approach will probably lead to muscle-growth, but it might not be the kind of muscle-growth you’re after. It also might not happen at the rate you’d like, or in the places you’d like. Which is why, for targeted, intelligent training, it pays to know a little bit about how muscle is actually built.
Get an understanding of this and you can work to maximise your biological potential, building strength and shape quickly and honing your body to actually do something with that newfound strength.
This is where qualified exercise physiologist and personal trainer Kiran Chopra comes in. As the in-house fitness expert at space-age London wellness centre Lanserhof At The Arts Club, Chopra knows exactly how to get the most from his clients. Here’s his advice to you.
From a physiological perspective, the main question we need to ask is why does a muscle cell grow and how does it grow? “Although it is a heavily debated topic of research, scientists still do not completely understand the complete – and very complex – image of how skeletal muscle adapts to gradually overloading stimuli,” Chopra explains.
Muscle growth can mean a couple of different things. If you increase the number of muscle cells, that’s hyperplasia. Whether or not humans can actually do it is a controversial topic in physiology research, which can be best summed up as: inconclusive. Maybe it’s happening, probably it’s not, but you certainly shouldn’t make it your training goal because no one is quite sure how you’d achieve it, if it’s even possible.
Hypertrophy, however, is very definitely real. It means growing each individual muscle cell, which adds up to an increase in mass and area across the muscle as a whole. “The increase in dimension is due to an increase in the size – not the length – of individual muscle fibres,” says Chopra. Your skeletal muscles do it, and so does your heart, since it’s essentially a big muscle pumping away inside you.
In terms of cardiac muscle, the heart becomes more effective at squeezing blood out of its chambers and you become fitter. Skeletal muscle becomes more efficient at transmitting forces through tendons attached to bones, so you become stronger.
“When muscle fibres experience tension under load and reach a crucial threshold, they can trigger a chain of processes that transform mechanical inputs to chemical stimuli,” says Chopra. “These signals eventually contribute to hypertrophy.”
In other words, progressive overload – doing a little bit more tomorrow than you did today – is your friend.
Bodies are built in the kitchen and nutrition is one of the most important aspects in muscle-building. “To acquire muscle mass, you must consume enough calories to support growth,” says Chopra, who recommends a 350-500 calorie surplus depending on your metabolism. You’ll also need to make sure you’re eating enough protein – the building block of muscle. Chopra recommends 1.6-2g of protein per kilogram of body weight to provide the optimum amount of fuel for a bodybuilding training regime.
(We should point out here that it is possible to achieve muscle growth on a calorie deficit – the fitness holy grail of burning fat while building muscle – but it’s much trickier and involves fairly complicated management of what you eat and how you train).
It’s not all about what you eat, though. Eat all that protein for breakfast and your body can’t process it all, so it’s best to have some at every meal, plus snacks. Depending on your bodyweight-to-protein ratio, Chopra recommends between three and five meals containing 30-40g of protein at a time. Huel can help here, as all our products contain plant-based proteins that include all the essential amino acids.
We’ve explained the science of muscle growth, but how do we successfully put this into practice and gain weight the right way? Chopra recommends hypertrophy-oriented resistance training: 3-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, with short rest intervals of 60 seconds. You should be lifting between 60% and 80% of your one-rep max (the heaviest weight that you can complete one rep of a given exercise). To promote growth, you can up this to 12-28 sets per muscle, per week.
What this training consists of is largely up to you. As Chopra explains, there are arguments for both single-joint exercises – think moves like bicep curls or leg extensions, which tend to work one muscle group at a time – and compound moves, where you’re moving multiple joints at once (more complex moves like squats, deadlifts and bench presses).
The former are easier, which makes them quicker to learn and simpler to perform well, which can mean more muscle growth. But compound moves mean you can move more weight, which is a key element of increasing strength. Chopra recommends trying both approaches and seeing which one works for you. Or, to hedge your bets, follow a programme that includes both.
If time’s tight, you can combine exercises in supersets (paired moves that work opposite muscle groups, like bench press and row, or leg extensions and curls) or try drop sets – work to failure at one weight, then go a few kilos lighter and work to failure again, repeat down the dumbbell rack. This way you can take your muscles to exhaustion while limiting the amount of time spent standing around looking at your phone.
However, Chopra advises that any of the above should put you in a great position to continue to develop lean muscle tissue.
Time to put the theory into practice. “Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned lifter, workouts consisting of compound movements means maximum muscle recruitment, greater nervous-system activation, and more stimulation for growth,” Chopra says.
Chopra holds up the six types of exercises below as the cornerstones of muscle building, explaining that how you implement them in your training programme is up to you. To help you get started, we’ve provided examples for each type of move, but let your imagination run wild when it comes to designing your own plan – just remember to stick to the format Chopra outlined above and you’ll build shape and size in no time.
Example: dumbbell bench press.
Find a pair of dumbbells you can comfortably lift. Lie down on a bench. Screw your feet into the floor and your bum into the bench, leaving a slight curve in your lower back. Hold the dumbbells horizontally, level with your nipples. Contract the chest to guide the weights overhead, so that they meet above your nose. Exhale as you slowly lower for one. After the first warm-up round, increase the weight, aiming for the same reps.
Example: bent-over rows
Load up your barbell. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and lean forward from the waist, keeping your back flat. Hoist up that barbell with an overhand grip and brace your core as you row the weight up to your belly button. Pause. Now slowly lower for one.
Example: dumbbell shoulder press
As with the bench press, it’s smart to warm up with a lighter load at first. To start, hold the dumbbells by your shoulders with your palms facing forward. Your elbows should be tucked in and describing a right angle. Power the weight up overhead in one fluid movement, extending – but not locking – the arms as you go. Return to the start, up the weight, and you’re good to go.
Grasp an overhead bar with your palms facing towards you, hands shoulder-width apart. Push up from your toes to get an initial boost, then engage the biceps and back muscles as you pull yourself up. The clue is in the name here – your chin needs to go higher than the bar, although don’t hook it over as that’s going to hurt on the way down. It’s crucial here that you lower yourself down as slowly as possible, returning to a full, arms-extended hang before pulling yourself back up for round two.
Example: barbell hip thrusts
Sit with a bench behind you. Bend your knees, so your feet are firmly planted. Your barbell should rest just below your hips. A padded bar is best here. Hold on to the bar with an overhand grip. Brace your shoulders against the bench, push down into your heels and thrust your bum up from the floor until your back is straight, describing a bridge between knees and shoulders. Hold, squeeze those glutes, then lower to complete rep one.
Example: goblet squats
Any type of squat would fit the bill here, but goblet squats are pretty fun. Grasp a heavyish kettlebell or dumbbell in two hands and hold it in front of your chest, adding extra tension to your arms and abs.. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your knees straight, sit back onto an imaginary bench, then drive through your heels and push your hips forward to return to standing.
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