Summer is ending, and fall is creeping in on us with its usual guarantees: shorter days and calorie-dense foods. With stick-to-your-ribs family dinners, fall festivals, and holiday parties coming one after another, calorie intake typically skyrockets this time of year. Instead of storing all of that excess energy in the form of extra padding, use it to build muscle mass.
Hypertrophy is the scientific term for getting jacked, bruh, or “a considerable increase in the size of an organ or tissue, caused by enlargement of its cellular components.” In this case, it’s muscle tissue. There are two types of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy happens when you increase the fluid volume in muscle cells. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the amount and density of contractile tissue in a muscle fiber.
Both come as the result of, you guessed it, lifting weights. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy tends to occur more quickly than myofibrillar hypertrophy because of the body’s inflammatory response as it heals. Mostly, though, the two types can’t actually be separated and occur in concert.
At one time, the common belief was that you should train like a bodybuilder for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and train like a powerlifter for myofibrillar hypertrophy. But we now know the science is unclear on whether or not that’s true. So let’s talk about what we do know about building muscle mass.
Building Bigger Muscles
Here’s a simplified version of science’s answer to the question of how to build muscle mass: Do more work, be in a caloric surplus, and eat enough protein.
Throughout the course of a training program, there must be an overall increase in the amount of work you do (resistance training). The result is more total time under tension. That time under tension signals a hormonal cascade that says, “We gotta grow these Bad Larrys, or we’re probably going to die.”
It’s not quite that dramatic. But the body’s goal is always to adapt to imposed demands so that it survives and thrives.
Guiding Principles for Building Muscle Mass
The good news is that there are plenty of options for creating that demand. Hypertrophy occurs across rep ranges and intensities (amount of weight). Here are the guiding principles help maximize hypertrophy:
- Increase the total amount of work over the course of the training program. Sure, some weeks you might reduce the amount of work you put in in order to drive recovery, but by the end of a program, you will have increased the total amount of work you’re doing week-to-week.
- Work close to muscle failure a couple of times every week. That doesn’t mean working to actual muscle failure. That’s no bueno. But get close while remaining within your given training rep rainge. A rating of about 8 on the perceived exertion (RPE) scale should do it: You should have two or three reps left in the tank at the end of a set.
- Train each muscle group twice per week. This seems to be the sweet spot for muscular growth. You’ll dose each muscle group with enough volume in one training session, and it will help you stick to the final principle on this list.
- You have to be able to recover. Muscles are built during recovery, not exercise. If you’re not recovering from your training, all of the work in the world doesn’t matter. Vary rep ranges and make sure you rest each muscle group for at least 72 hours between sessions.
Caloric Surplus and Adequate Protein
A caloric surplus is a simple concept to understand: Eat more than you burn. Knowing exactly how much you’re intaking and burning is the tricky part, but with all of the stews, pies, cookies, and casseroles headed your way, a caloric surplus shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. Just don’t take that as an excuse to eat like you’re headed to the electric chair.
To give yourself a caloric target, hop on an app like MyFitnessPal and enter your current bodily dimensions and goals. It’s not exact, but it will give you a good target to aim for. As you train, eat and pay attention, and then you can adjust course toward what’s working for you.
So that takes care of calories, but how much protein should be in your daily diet? According to nutritionist Layne Norton, Ph.D. about two grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass does the trick. Your lean body mass is your total weight minus your weight from body fat.
Now that you know how the machinery works, here are some training splits and daily workout examples that apply those hypertrophic principles we just learned about:
Three Day Weekly Split
This split gets you building muscle while lifting only three days a week. Set it up so you’re training with a day of rest between each session and two days of rest at the end of the training week.
Day 1 – Upper Body: Do an upper-body push-pull workout for the first training day of the week. It covers all of the major upper-body muscle groups. Push and pull horizontally (bench press, rows) and if you have healthy shoulders and a healthy lower back, push and pull vertically (military press, pull-ups) as well.
Day 2 – Lower Body: Make the squat or the deadlift your main movement and follow it up with one or two assistance movements for each.
Day 3 – Full Body: The full-body training day should include lighter assistance training (sets of 8 to 15 or 20 reps) and more unilateral movements (one limb at a time).
Four Day Weekly Split
If you have four days a week to pound iron, why not do it?
Set this split up by training Monday and Tuesday, taking Wednesday off, then training again on Thursday and Friday. Alternately, you can train on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Day 1-2: Make the first two days of the training week heavy. Do your heavy bench presses and heavy squats or deadlifts on those days. Follow them up with some lighter assistance training (8 to 15 reps).
Day 3-4: The next two days of the training week should include moderate-intensity training (6 to 12 reps) that get close to that 8 RPE score mentioned earlier. Dedicate one day to upper body work and a push-pull workout. For the other day, focus on the lower body with squat and deadlift movements; include single-leg variations.
A Note on Conditioning
Even though muscle building is the goal, your ticker is still important. An aerobic conditioning base increases the amount of work you can do and recover from, so don’t neglect your conditioning while training for hypertrophy. Simply decrease the amount of aerobic conditioning you do, and stick with Zone 2 training (60% to 70% of max heart rate).
Also, consider using carries and sled pushing for conditioning. Both are great for building work capacity while also putting your muscles under tension for extended periods.