Counting reps has been around FOREVER! If you want to bulk up, do sets with heavy weights for 6 – 8 reps. Want to build endurance? Do sets of 10 – 12. Is getting lean your goal? Do sets of 15 – 20 reps.
Turns out this may not be a determining factor in whether you get larger, more muscular, or stronger.
What Matters When Adding Muscle Mass Is…
So what DOES matter? One major factor is the amount of waste products that are produced in your muscles during your workout. You may be familiar with lactic acid. As your perform an exercise lactic acid is produced and almost instantly metabolized into lactate and other substances. Additionally other waste products are also produced during exercise and accumulate depending on how fast your blood carries it away. This accumulation of waste is what causes the burn you feel when you perform a set (not, as commonly believed, the lactic acid). The concentration of lactate and other waste products seems to have a major role is stimulating your muscles to grow (read more here). Since your blood flow constantly removes waste accumulation during any physical activity, the intensity of your workout is what determines the concentration level of these by-products in your muscles. Put another way, the more intense the burn, the more muscle growth you are likely to achieve.
It’s All About The BURN
How much weight you use is not the most important factor (check out this scientific publication to gain some insight – and also this one). What matters is achieving the burn! To do that, your set must invoke enough muscle cells to work and produce lactic acid (and its resultant by-products) at a faster rate than your blood can remove it. What I am stating here is a great over-simplification as the process of producing and metabolizing lactic acid is very involved. And what really produces the burn is not lactic acid itself, but other bi-products of exercise. It is also important to understand that the way the body works is incomprehensively complex. Science is coming to understand much more about how muscle growth actually occurs. But there is still a long way to go. I say this so you understand that common sense and real world experience must also be applied to any workout strategy. But it seems that lactic acid (or, more specifically, lactate) in your muscle causes it to respond with growth. Check out this scientific paper for more info.
Get Them All In
Another important fact is making sure you actually invoke as many muscle cells as possible during a set. When you start a set, depending on the weight, a certain number of cells are invoked for work. The heavier the weight, the greater the number (this is not linear, however, and depends on your mix of fast and slow twitch fibers and your nervous pathways). As you progress through your set, some cells fatigue out and others are invoked to continue the work. The greater the net number of cells that drop off, the less the force that can be applied to the weight. There comes a point where the available population of cells is less than the number required to complete a movement. This is called “failure”. However, just because you achieve failure does not mean that all the muscle cells available were invoked, just that the number remaining were insufficient to move the load.
This is where strip sets comes in. Once failure is achieved, immediately dropping the weight and picking up a lighter one allows you to continue performing the movement, and thus recruit the remaining cells. In fact, if you are already highly conditioned, you will have to do three or four drop sets before you recruit and exhaust enough cells to elicit the hypertrophic effect needed to build additional muscle mass. This intensity of exercise is painful as the levels of lactic acid and other waste products are produced at a much faster rate than the circulatory system can remove them. But it is necessary to invoke muscle growth. Scientific studies on older individuals further supports the notion that exercise intensity is the only way to gain improvements in muscle strength, even among sedentary people. (read more here).
And Keep Them There
Lastly, the length of time your muscles are under load, also called time under tension, is a major factor in inducing muscle growth. The reason is, in order to achieve the effects I mentioned above, your muscles must be under strain long enough to exhaust the maximum number of cells, and produce the maximum concentration of waste products in the muscle tissue. How long this takes depends on the load and cadence, as well as your overall capacity to sustain the work load as your body transitions from anaerobic to aerobic modes. 40 – 60 seconds seems to be ideal per set, with 3-4 sets per exercise. But I encourage you to experiment and use your level of discomfort as the gauge.
I know it seems I’m making the case for increasing your level of pain and discomfort during your workouts. Well, I am. But, to be more precise, I’m taking about the burning pain of a muscle being taxed to the extreme. A pain that dissipates a few seconds after the exercise is discontinued. I am NOT talking about a torn ligament pain, or a joint pain.
The sweet and long lasting feeling of well-being that follows an intense workout is more than worth a few minutes of discomfort.
Besides, if you want it – larger muscles, feeling and looking better, achieving your optimum fitness, you have to GO FOR IT!
Cellular Expansion Protocol
Figuring out how to incorporate these training principles into your workout regimen can be complicated and very time consuming. Ben Pakulski has designed a comprehensive solution to those seeking explosive muscle growth which does precisely that. He calls his patented innovation cellular expansion protocol (CEP). I wrote a blog about his discovery. And I wrote a review of his excellent product (which I purchased immediately).
Go here to get it directly from Ben. That’s him below. (Full disclosure – I am an affiliate.)