On Building Muscle

Time to head over to Conditioning Research to read Hypertrophy training – What does the evidence say?

Chris provides an overview of what the scientific evidence says is required to gain muscle. It isn’t about compound exercises or high volume. It is about recruiting muscle fibers. Your muscles don’t know if that recruitment is coming from free weights, body weight or a machine. But your joints sure do.

Conclusions: Evidence supports that persons should train to the highest intensity of effort, thus recruiting as many motor units and muscle fibres as possible, self-selecting a load and repetition range, and performing single sets for each exercise. No specific resistance type appears more advantageous than another, and persons should consider the inclusion of concentric, eccentric and isometric actions within their training regime, at a repetition duration that maintains muscular tension. 

Sorry to keep preaching the HIT gospel, but if one wants to safely recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers that means one should choose exercises that for safety reasons don’t force the lifter to reduce fiber activation. This is the beauty of HIT. By using machines, one is free to slow down the movement to maintain muscular tension without increasing safety risks.

Once you get past “must squat” bro-mentality and start to view exercise as an investor this all becomes clear. Gaining muscle is about a risk-reward profile. The young man is too focused on the reward without fully understanding or measuring the risk. CrossFit and Olympic lifts sure do look cool and they produce some amazing athletes, but the failures are hidden or explained away. We need to step back and reexamine exactly what the body needs to give the reward of muscle and then find the lowest risk path to get there.

The article Chris put together says the research tells us it is about muscle fiber activation. It is not about momentum lifts. It is not about volume either. Once you understand this concept, the genius of Arthur Jones becomes crystal clear.

weight machine

photo by kaysha


Add yours

  1. The problem must be clear before the best solution is provided. Sure, certain things may make you ‘stronger’ but at what cost? When machines are used, the full ‘movement’ is changed into an unnatural one. It may make bigger muscles, but based on my own experience, these muscles created in an unnatural movement cause injury later when you use them in a natural movement. Thus I believe the drawback of machines is not that it is not effective, it is that it is effective in a way that is not transferable to real life. That would be OK except most, if not all of us, move in real life.

  2. @Jeff – I 100% disagree. Anatomy is anatomy. Make the muscles stronger and use that strength to engage in all forms of movement. A muscle built via a leg press is no less natural than one built using a barbell back squat.

    I can hike up a mountain using the strength I gained from a HIT leg press without getting winded. Totally transferable to real life.

  3. Hypertrophy and strength are different goals that benefit from different training protocols. In my opinion, Hansen is correct when taking things to the limit. Specificity is crucial at that point. For general fitness, sure, machines will do. Anything will actually, but machines are more adequate in many respects (safety, simplicity).

    In regards to the post linked, I agree with the observations as long as they are considered that, observations. A review of studies can provide, or fail to provide, additional insight. Either way, it is certainly not the end of the conversation.

  4. What happens under load in the gym should not be one’s full expression of movement. A common HIT critique is that the fixed movement patterns under load are unnatural. It would only be unnatural if that individual restricted full range movement when not at the gym.

    Maybe it started in the 1980s, but there has been a belief that we need to train for skills under load in the gym. Different lifts for different athletes. Based off what I’ve learned from Dr. McGuff and others, this is flawed thinking. Skills should be trained frequently – which necessitates low intensity.


    Of course if your skill is Oly lifts or CrossFit then by all means train in those movements.

  5. MAS – What can I say except you are *so* right. But I can understand why old school thinking is so resistant to these ideas.

    Yes, Oly lifting looks really cool. Yes, genetically gifted mesomorphs get great results from *pumping* iron.

    As you importantly point out – what are the *risks* to us mere mortals of emulating these genetically gifted athletes?

    It’s so simple. Spend about 30 minutes in the gym about twice per week strengthening the muscles that are directly related to your chosen sport. (I.e. there is no point doing chest presses if you’re an endurance cyclist; in fact it’s counter-productive to have a big, strong chest if you’re an endurance cyclist).

    And then spend the rest of your time actually practicing your chosen sport, at differing levels of intensity and duration.

    Have you read The Sports Gene by David Epstein? It’s brilliant.

  6. I’m in my 50’s so risk is paramount, most guys my age can’t work out at all do to back and knee problems. I don’t deadlift or squat. I approach every exercise I do from risk/reward perspective.

    As a practical matter I think at my age my genetic potential is quite limited, I’m not so interested in building muscle mass that I would look into hormone therapies, so the point is probably moot. There are plenty of other exercises (yes machines, I like the Hammerstrength plate-loaded ones but the stack ones are pretty good too) that will take me as far as I can go.

    There was a guy in my gym who looked to be around 60, would spend 20 minutes preparing himself to do some squats, knee wraps and the whole bit, haven’t seen him in the gym for a year or so. Never seen an old guy dead lifting.

  7. We are all such unique physical specimens, general advice thus is just….general.
    I love different ideas however.
    MAS, Strongfirst is having a kettlebell course in the Seattle area and I am thinking of attending. After my 3 or so month strength phase, I may try a simple conditioning type phase. Your current thoughts on Kettlebell type training. It apparently focuses on the swing, the turkish get ups, some deadlift type lifting etc but with the kettlebell.

  8. @Glenn – I have not read that book, but I did enjoy his interview on EconTalk. His comment about dopamine levels as a predictor to exercising is something I am interested in learning more about.

    He would make an excellent guest for Sports Coach Radio.

    @Rob – Yep. You have witnessed exactly what I have.

    @Jeff – I have mixed thoughts on the KB. I would first divide the KB exercises into 3 groups.
    1- high skill (Turkish get up being one, advanced pistols)
    2- swinging for reps (metabolic)
    3- low skill strength (goblet squat, various static holds)

    As you can probably predict, I would strongly favor Group #3 movements over Group #1. As for Group #2, I honestly don’t know. I researched this a little a while back and basically came away unconvinced that swinging was either a great exercise or a dangerous one. I’d be interested to hear from others that have looked into this.

  9. I have trained with kettlebells for nearly 4 years. In my experience swinging for reps can be a good conditioning workout, but one’s attention to form must be rigorous. As the fatigue of a conditioning workout mounts it is very easy to get sloppy with one’s form. There are some visual cues that can give you a clue when your swing form is deteriorating, but take it conservatively at the start so you won’t be that guy who feels the workout in his low back the next day. Doing 10 to 20 rep sets “interval style” with active recovery rests in between can be effective for a beginner.

    This all pertains to the “Russian-style” swing to chest height (which I suspect would be the swing taught in the StongFirst setting). The CrossFit/”Santa Cruz-style” swing to overhead is a totally different animal which I find to be significantly less safe due to the stresses it places on the shoulder. If I want to put a ‘bell overhead I’ll press it or snatch it, not swing it.

    I’ll put in a kind word for the Get Up here. It is a fabulous total body movement when done properly – which nearly no one does. A test to tell if you’re even in the ballpark of a correct Get Up: do one with nothing but an empty paper cup in the palm of your hand. Did you get up and back down without the cup tipping over? If not keep working on the movement in stages and don’t even think about adding load. Done properly the Get Up is fluid, graceful, and beautiful, and there’s nothing graceful or beautiful about a heaving, jerking clown show.

    Pavel’s “Program Minimum” consisting of 2 days a week of swing intervals for 12 minutes each session and 2 days a week of Get Ups for just 5 minutes each session was an excellent antidote to days of sitting hunched over at a computer. I did not build a ton of strength, muscle, or conditioning with that program but I did feel much better all over.

  10. @Geoff – Thanks for the tips. I have a 25# KB that I never use, but now that I’ve quit my Glitter Gym, I’ll start using it following you and Pavel’s advice. Well I’ll ease into it a few minutes at a time.

  11. Thanks, MAS. One other suggestion regarding kettlebell swing conditioning. When I started the “Program Minimum” I went the full 12 minutes on each swing session, but within those 12 minutes varied the volume of swinging vs. active recovery, slowly increasing my swings:recovery ratio.

    Pavel recommends starting by swinging to a “comfortable stop” and then actively recovering (jogging, jump rope, jumping jacks) for a minute before starting the next set. This may be too much at the beginning. I’d recommend starting with sets of 10 in the swing and actively recovering between sets for as long as necessary in order to feel fully recovered at the start of each set. The recovery should not be intense – walking worked just fine for me.

    Build volume at first by slowly shortening the rest interval, not adding reps to the work sets – doing so will help mitigate “style drift” during your swings. Once you are doing a set of 10 perfect swings on the minute for 12 minutes (120 swings in the workout), then start adding reps to the sets.

    It’s pretty simple, really: Don’t extend the sets of swings so long that your form degenerates and recover as long as it takes in between to start the next fully recovered and capable of completing the set with proper form.

  12. What i discovered is TO ME (tall and more of skinny side), to build size its about recruiting muscle fibers (high intensity training, but do it with body weight) AND eating minimum double calories of maintenance. No 100 or 500 calories bullshit for me. If i mantain at 2300, without 4500, forget about muscle size. FOR ME, tall and more skinny.

    What i do is the old ABCDE: 2 weeks at 5000 calories (real food, mostly raw) and then back to maintenance for a month or so. Repeat until desired. Its a slow and secure approach to build size withou gaining fat. But must be lean first to take full advantage of calorie manipulation. Living and learning.

  13. @Marcelo – Thanks for sharing. Good point about being lean first.

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