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The basics of gaining muscle, being informed keeps you from losing motivation when legendary gains don’t magically happen!
The question that everyone who steps into a gym for the first time asks himself and interestingly enough the question that even top athletes and trainers haven’t quite managed to answer. What is the fastest method to gain mass, what type of exercise offers the best gains in strength, how often should we exercise, what should we do when we’re not at the gym. Just ask in any gym and you will receive 3-4 different answers. There isn’t really a definitive answer and if there is we are nowhere close to finding it. Different people can have very different bodies and reactions to the same stimuli. Much like physics though, even if bodybuilding lacks a unifying theory it doesn’t mean we haven’t covered the basics.
I will try in this article to present some of these basic mechanics so that anyone who wishes to build muscle mass will have a comfortable, informed base to start on.
As time passes and you get to know how your body reacts to weight training you will be able to fine tune your gain and experiment with the more subjective theories.
At first the process of muscle gain can be a bit counter-intuitive. Not only do we not gain muscle in the gym but we actually lose some muscle mass while we lift. The muscle groups we exercise, especially in resistance training do become bigger, but it is not actual muscle, they are simply engorged with blood rushed there by our bodies in order to raise the oxygen levels and burn more energy. It’s how we can withstand unusually high effort levels. The muscle itself suffers tears and begins to break down during that sustained effort so in reality when we leave the gym we actually have less muscle mass than when we went in.
Catabolism – The breakdown of complex molecules in living organisms to form simpler ones, together with the release of energy; destructive metabolism (oxford dictionary)
That is basically what happens to our muscles when we lift, our body starts to break them down in an oxidation process that results in the energy that allows us to keep going and cellular waste like lactic acid which gives us the soreness we feel in our muscles.
Anabolism – The synthesis of complex molecules in living organisms from simpler ones together with the storage of energy; constructive metabolism (oxford dictionary)
These types of metabolic pathways are our bread and butter. This is how we gain muscle mass. The micro-traumas we have inflicted on the muscle have weakened it and now the body overcompensates by not only rebuilding the muscle tissue but adding more so that the risk of repeat trauma is diminished. That causes myofibrillar hypertrophy or simply put muscle growth. This process does not take place in the gym, it happens when we rest. So even if we had an excellent workout session it is equally imperative to rest afterwards, to have a healthy sleeping program and to eat a lot of proteins in order to facilitate the muscle building process. It has been shown that working very hard in the gym without a healthy nutritious diet and proper sleeping we can actually lose muscle mass. We need to take all the steps to ensure that the rate of protein synthesis in our muscles is greater than the rate at which we break them down. They need to be predominantly in an anabolic state.
How much you should sleep or what you should eat is always in the debate, countless diets protein diets and supplements. And if they perfectly fit your workout, weight, age, body type etc. they can indeed offer impressive results. As a safety net though you just need to remember to sleep eight hours a night and include one of the many sources of easily available protein in your meals; red meats such as stakes, chicken breast, ground turkey, eggs, nuts, tuna, salmon and dairy products.
Hypertrophy – The enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells
Hyperplasia – The enlargement of an organ or tissue caused by an increase in the reproduction rate of its cells
One of the questions still left unanswered is whether muscle also grows thrfough hyperplasia. It is documented that the strains of the muscle become larger through the incorporation of proteins into existing myofibrils producing growth by increasing the size of existing cells. There have only been a few studies though supporting hyperplasia and so far all are inconclusive. Regardless of the exact biological process however what we do know for certain is what growth responds to, and that is progressive overload.
Our bodies are very lazy and maintaining a large muscle mass can be a lot of work, that is why gaining mass can be so difficult, and especially keeping it. The body needs to be forced into action and for that we need to keep it at high levels of stress when we work out. Progressive overload has been proven to be the best way of doing that, constantly increasing weight to avoid the body becoming comfortable with the exercise and varying the number of repetitions and sets to force it to adapt and constantly gain muscle mass in order to sustain the constantly increasing levels of effort.
The best approach for building muscle is 10-12 repetitions and 4-6 sets. Powerlifters use only 2-6 repetitions with maximum 3 sets they use very large weights, however, increases their strength very fast. Unfortunately, most of that strength comes from neural adaptation; simply put they learn to use their muscles more efficiently. It is believed that can seriously hamper muscle gain, as we said before our body is very lazy and the more efficiently he can use the available muscle the less he needs to build more in order to keep up with lifting.
Ultimately however it all comes down to motivation. As long as you keep going to the gym, resting well and making sure your diet has enough protein you will gain mass. Maybe not as fast as you could or as efficient, but as the months pass you will see results and slowly you will be able to adjust your routines in order to get the most out of your effort and time.
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