Everyone wants to know what is the best way to build muscle. This is a very broad question. However, there is a standard answer: Lift moderately heavy loads, 3-4 sets per major muscle group, and 8-12 repetitions per set. So there you have the general formula that’s been used for decades.
There’s a problem with it. This standard application doesn’t work for everybody—every body. This now begs the question: How does one figure out what application works best for his or her body?
The anabolic hormone testosterone is at the forefront of muscle building. Not everyone’s body releases this hormone in the same way. Other hormones that can affect testosterone must also be considered, such as cortisol, the so-called stress hormone. Cortisol has the potential to break down muscle tissue.
Testosterone builds muscle, and cortisol breaks down muscle—cortisol is catabolic. You must learn how to find the proper balance between these two hormones.
It would be nice if everybody could neatly fit into that standard template of 3-4 sets per muscle group, moderately heavy weight and 8-12 reps. Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all application exists for those who wish to build muscle, or gain a lot of strength, or slash body fat, for that matter.
Instead of recognizing this simple fact—that we can’t use a cookie cutter approach—many trainees blame “bad genes” on their failure to get great results.
Some people respond beautifully to a very heavy, low rep scheme. Ask them what is the best way to build muscle, and guess what they’ll tell you: Lift very heavy for low reps.
A second demographic thrives on moderately heavy weights, which allow for eight reps, up to 14 or 15. They’ll swear that this is the secret to impressive lean mass gains.
There is yet a third group, though certainly not the majority, who experiences hypertrophy with moderate/light weights and reps of 15-20. This doesn’t sound right, but such individuals do exist.
What we have here are three basic applications. Which is right for you? Which group do you fall under? There’s a way to find out.
Science Of Building Muscle
A study (which was reported in the 2008 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, March 2008) showed that trainees can figure out which is the best approach.
The study involved professional rugby players who did the same exercises, but the applications differed in terms of weight loads, sets, reps and rests in between sets.
There were four applications:
1) 4 x 10 with moderately heavy weight and two minutes of rest between sets. This approach was geared towards building muscle.
2) 3 x 5 with heavy weight and three minutes of rest between sets. This was the strength building approach.
3) 5 x 15 with moderate weight and one minute of rest—an endurance based approach.
4) Low reps but with light weight, and one minute of rest
According to the decades’ old application, the first approach here should have excelled, when compared to the others, at building muscle. The 3 x 5 scheme should have resulted in the most strength gained.
The study did not yield the predicted results. Instead, what was revealed was that a person’s hormonal response (particularly that of testosterone) is a function more of that person’s unique body chemistry, rather than a template model for achieving hypertrophy or strength.
Each of the four study applications produced at least one individual who experienced maximal testosterone release.
In other words, some of the athletes had maximal testosterone release from the #3 approach (endurance), while others experienced maximal testosterone release from the strength protocol, and, believe it or not, #4, the light weight approach.
A second study ensued which placed the athletes in the protocol that produced the most testosterone response for them. Most of the subjects in this second phase increased muscle size plus strength with their protocol.
In short, some subjects grew in size and strength with the light weight/high rep scheme, and others grew with the low rep, heavy scheme.
Is there a way for a person to analyze his or her hormone response without the sophisticated tools that researchers use? Not in the true sense, but the trainee can find out the effectiveness of a particular protocol for their particular body by asking themselves a few specific questions.
One of those questions is how sore you are following a workout, and for how long are you sore.
Debilitating soreness, or intense soreness that exceeds three days after a workout, may indicate (though not always) an imbalance in the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio. Such an imbalance will not promote the best results.
Do you seem unreasonably sore?
Unreasonably is the key word, because just about anyone will experience fiery soreness if they push themselves harder than ever with a brand new exercise or with a new spin on an old exercise, such as very deep, static-hold leg presses when they’ve never gone deep before nor done static holds.
The next question is whether or not strength is increasing in a particular application. If not, the application may not be right for you, though again, there are other reasons for stagnation that are unrelated to body chemistry, such as poor nutrition or overtraining. These other variables must be ruled out.
If you’ve noticed lately excessive hunger, difficulty sleeping and lower energy levels that can’t be explained, this could signal an undesirable testosterone-to-cortisol ratio—not enough testosterone and too much cortisol.
Really look closely at what your results have been lately, and at anything else that’s been going on, like fatigue, restlessness, food cravings and stunted results.
These are all feedback methods that can help you get a clearer idea of what training protocol may work best for your muscle building goals. Remember, muscle building does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
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