How To Look Like You Lift

How To Look Like You Lift

When it comes right down to it, there are only a handful of things most people want from workouts…

  • Reduce fat.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Improve overall health.
  • Increase muscle.

Of these, building muscle is often the most demanding. It’s not easy, even with the help of quasi-legal drugs. We understand that, and we’re here to help!

There are 3 instances where targeted muscle gain can and should take priority in training.

  1. Address weaknesses
  2. Improve performance
  3. Aesthetic goals

First and foremost, muscle growth (hypertrophy) is a foundational pillar of strength training. A bigger muscle is not necessarily a stronger muscle, but it does have the capacity to be. Because strength is primarily a neurological quality, pure strength training programs often bypass a dedicated mass gaining phase. Although this approach will maximize strength (by improving neurological efficiency), it leaves some gains on the table over the long term.

For the athlete, bigger muscles may equal better performance in sport. Of course, this is highly dependent on the nature of the sport, practice, and weight classes. For example, an American football lineman benefits from increased muscle mass all the way up to the point where it negatively affects quickness in his position. This might occur only after dozens and dozens of added pounds. A strength-based athlete bound by a weight class (a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter) likewise seeks to maximize muscular size, but does so within the confines of his or her weight class. In those cases, hypertrophy must be balanced with neuromuscular efficiency.

Finally, exercise professionals can lay out training plans for the sole benefit of having bigger muscles. On the “professional aesthetic” side, we have bodybuilders and physique competitors who are judged on muscular size and symmetry. In some ways, this is the demographic where hypertrophy training is most important, as even slight differences in build separate the winners.

Of course, none of this is to discount the goal of anyone seeking to simply stretch their shirt sleeves!

A Time and a Place For Hypertrophy Training

When is it most advantageous to focus on training to pack on lean muscle?

There are two main considerations when choosing a time to dedicate to hypertrophy training.

First, choose a stretch of time (3-6 months) that doesn’t demand your energy go anywhere else. Building muscle is best done to the exclusion of other goals. If you’re an athlete, choose the off-season where you’ll have more time to dedicate to training and recovery as opposed to practice and competition. Likewise, don’t try to cut fat and build muscle simultaneously. As hard as it is to accept, specifically training for fat loss and muscle gain involves competing inputs from both training and nutrition. The result is that we usually get less of each.

Second, consider the timing (or phase) of your training plan. A dedicated hypertrophy block of training can be timed most effectively given the bigger picture of training. Although results will vary from person to person, training specifically to build strength just prior to a muscle gain phase will allow for more effective hypertrophy workouts. This enhanced opportunity for muscle gain is due to the net increase in weight that can be used in the muscle building phase. In turn, bigger muscles can later be put to use during the next strength-oriented routine.

On the other hand, a more robust muscular system tends to make fat-loss an easier process. Finding the best balance and timing of a muscle building phase of training may take some experimentation, but it is certainly worth paying attention to how you get the best results!

I’m in the Gym. Now What?

The best exercises for hypertrophy are largely the same used to build general strength - the compound lifts.

These “compound” lifts include movements that involve most of the body; back squats, bench and military presses, deadlifts, cleans, and farmer’s carries are among the most tried-and-true moves for efficiently taxing the entire body - just what we need to stimulate growth.

The main workout to workout differences from strength oriented sessions and muscle building ones are in the manipulations of volume and intensity. Essentially, volume (the overall amount of weight lifted; sets x reps x weights) needs to be trained as high as safely possible. Keeping the volume high often necessitates a lowered intensity of the main working sets. This simply means using a little lower weights.

For example - Lifter A deadlifts 500 for 2 sets of 1. This gives us 1,000 pounds of total volume and leaves the lifter pretty well toasted. Go home, eat and sleep...

Lifter B deadlifts 300 for 2 sets of 5 reps. Here, we achieve 3,000 pounds of total volume and still leaves the opportunity to for the lifter to handle even more work in the rest of the training session.

Volume for the compound movements can add up quickly with the bodybuilding style-approach of multiple sets of 6-10 reps. Higher rep sets of 10-15 are best utilized for accessory moves that are safer to push closer to failure. Think of the accessory movements as ones that don't involve the entire body working toward that movement: arm work, isolated leg work, direct abdominal training, etc.

With these ideas in mind, here is a general template that can be adapted to nearly any hypertrophy session:

Warm-Up:

  • 2-3 sets of 10-20 light reps to promote blood flow to the target areas.
  • 2-3 sets of 5-8 moderate reps leading into working weights.

Working Sets:

  • 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps on the main lift
  • 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps on a variant of the lift

Accessories:

  • 2-3 sets of 10 on an accessory lift
  • 2-3 supersets of 2 isolation-based exercises

A squat-oriented leg day would look like so:

Warm-Up:

  • 3 x 15 back squats with empty bar
  • 3 x 5 of 95, 115, 135

Workout:

Conclusion

Gaining muscle is about working hard in the gym, no doubt about that. Organizing the training sessions to maximize muscle growth is really valuable, but to maximize results, work must be done outside the gym as well. Actually packing on that muscle is all about recovery. Eat enough to support growth and sleep to maintain energy.

Indeed, hypertrophy is a dualistic, yin/yang endeavor. You must rest as hard as you work. That said, muscle growth need not be complicated. Follow the guidelines herein and be diligent in ensuring you are pushing your own limits safely into new realms of performance.

Better yet, work with a fitness professional to build an effective muscle building program.

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Zack Henderson is a strength coach in Nashville, TN and holds Strong First certifications in kettlebell, barbell, and bodyweight training. Zack's students include nationally ranked powerlifters, obstacle course racers, and everyday strength enthusiasts. When not lifting or coaching, he's probably playing guitar.

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