This is Part III of a three-part series on understanding the fundamentals of a successful workout program. My goal is to help you avoid the common pitfalls in a world of false information. I will break down concepts using scientific reasoning and evidence, so you know exactly what you need to do to maximize your time and effort in the gym. (Part I and Part II are here).
Your workout routine has failed you.
In Part I, I outlined the lies told by the fitness industry. I also listed two incredible books you need to read.
In Part II, I discussed some of the science behind muscle growth- hypertrophy, progressive overload, and muscle fibers.
In this last installment – I want to touch on five specific techniques I have used in the gym to maximize muscle growth.
What do we need to do to maximize our gains and make sure we are doing everything in our power to get the best results?
Let’s find out…
How do we maximize hypertrophy?
We have established that muscle hypertrophy is maximized through progressive overload.
Based on this 2011 study[note]Schoenfeld, B. (2011). The use of specialized training techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal.[/note]- three actions need to take place to maximize hypertrophy (aka – muscle growth):
- Mechanical tension: Intensity (load) of the exercise
- Muscle fiber damage: Tearing and damaging the fibers – causing muscle growth
- Metabolic stress: Technical process, but increased recruitment of fibers, increased growth factors, cell swelling, etc.
We know how to maximize hypertrophy and the process that occurs when we do so. Now let’s discuss how we can enhance our workouts even further.
The 5 Workout Enhancements
1. Lift HEAVY
Progressive overload is best achieved by lifting heavier every time we enter the gym.
The ideal intensity for maximal muscle growth occurs with loads between 80-95% of 1 repetition maximum according to this 2004 study.[note]Fry, A.C. (2004). The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Medicine, 34(10).[/note]
We should be able to achieve at least 80% of our 1 rep max using a 4-7 repetition range.
My workout follows this script:
- A general muscle group each day (Shoulders, Chest, Leg, Arms, Back)
- 4-7 repetitions per set
- 3-4 sets per exercise
- 12-15 total reps
- 4-5 exercises in total
If I hit 7 reps with a set, I will move up in weight 5 pounds. If I cannot get at least 4 reps, I will move back down.
The key to the 4-7 rep range is to progress upwards when you hit the 7 reps.
I first read about these methods in Mike Matthews book, “Bigger Leaner Stronger,” which I have emphasized as a must read.
P.S. I will do additional isolation work from time to time on my weak spots after I have run the above routine. Even then – I will only do 1-2 more exercises, using strict form.
2. Compound Movements FIRST
Compound movements are crucial for maximum muscle growth.
Studies have shown compound movements to be highly effective at building muscle.
Why do I see so many people doing bicep curls and triceps pull-downs??
Too many of us get caught up with isolation exercises because they are easier to do and give an ego-boosting pump.
We look in the mirror and love what we see.
The problem with this?
Those “gains” do not last.
Once the blood flows back out of the muscle, we are left looking like we did before the workout, with minimal long-term muscle growth attained.
Compound movements include:
- Squats (multiple variations)
- Bench Press
- Barbell/Dumbbell Press
- Bent Over Barbell Rows
Your workout plan should be based around these core exercises.
3. Technique & Time Under Tension
Each repetition needs to have perfect form.
Stop taking after the steroid monsters jerking weight around with terrible form.
They are not you!
Check your ego at the door- only work with weights you can lift with perfect form.
The guy is this video shows (in a hilarious way) the crappy form you will see in the gym.
I know you’ve seen this stuff before:
For proper form – each repetition should be in a smooth, controlled motion – full extension, contracted into the squeeze and release back to full extension.
A 2-1-2 time under tension is perfect.
Time under tension refers to the total time to do one repetition.
It includes three movements:
- the shortening or concentric movement (the squeeze)
- peak contraction of the muscle (the hold)
- the lengthening or eccentric movement (the stretch)
Thus, 2-1-2 refers to two seconds for the concentric movement, 1 second for the hold at the peak, and two seconds during the eccentric movement.
I am doing shoulder presses for 10 repetitions:
I spend 2 seconds lifting the weight (concentric movement), hold for 1 second at peak contraction, and then spend another 2 seconds lowering the weight (eccentric movement).
Thus, time under tension is 5 seconds in total.
Time under tension is not effective as a standalone theory.
We shouldn’t make each repetition longer than necessary.
Lets look at why.
Say I can bench press 225 pounds for 10 standard reps, using great form and full range of motion.
What will happen if I add 2-3 extra seconds under tension?
I will slice my total reps to something like 5-7, as my strength would rapidly deteriorate due to the increased time under tension. Increasing time under tension sacrifices repetitions and total weight lifted.
Since we know that progressive overload is how we build more muscle, prolonged time under tension workout routines are a road best avoided.
Studies have agreed with this logic.
- This 2006 University of Connecticut study found that a “very slow (VS)” velocity “may not elicit appropriate levels of force, power, or volume to optimize strength and athletic performance.”
- This 2011 University of Oklahoma study no difference between traditional training and time under tension training. The study concluded: “Percent improvements were similar for the traditional resistance training (TRT) and SuperSlow resistance training (SRT) groups, but only the TRT group reached statistical significance for the strength improvements, and both groups were equally effective for improving flexibility.
**Form is KING**
Instead of worrying about time under tension – let’s focus on lifting as heavy as we can without sacrificing form.
This means we will still fully contract the muscle, and squeeze at the peak, but we will not purposely slow down the repetition.
Each repetition should be controlled, without momentum and to the full extent that our muscles can contract.
Most guys do not fully contract the muscle on their lifts and instead use momentum to swing weights that are too heavy for them to handle.
This diminishes the effect of the movement greatly. If the weight is too much to handle, simply drop down to a weight in which we can get a max of 7 reps with strict form.
4. Focus & Mental Connection (Mindset)
Our brains have succumbed to the fast-paced world around us, and the gym is no different.
It’s easy to get lost gazing around at the monsters lifting around us, or the new girl in the corner on the treadmill – but we must remain mindful of our purpose.
Try to avoid the distractions in the gym.
Focus is one of the most important aspects of our workouts – we need to be present in the moment and fully aware of the task at hand (lifting heavy weights).
The mind-muscle connection is when the brain telling our muscle to contract. Every single repetition should have our undivided attention.
Some muscles are particularly hard to activate, especially smaller ones.
Take the rear deltoid for example. It’s small and the average person probably doesn’t even realize the back of the shoulder even has a muscle.
To grow this specific muscle – we must be extra strict with form, and will the muscle to grow through exceptional repetitions and a mental focus on the muscle each rep.
Some people think the mind-muscle connection is nonsense, but T-Nation tested it out and concluded that it was, in fact, a real occurrence with certain muscles.
More studies are needed for conclusive results, but I know this much:
When I go into the gym mindful of my goals, crushing weights with perfect form, I get great results.
I spend some extra time at the end of my workout doing isolation work for 1-2 exercises. This is when I will attack my “trouble areas” – muscles that are harder for me to grow and maintain. I focus on the muscle and contract, holding a bit longer than usual.
P.S. I close my eyes from time to time, especially during warm-up sets, to fully embrace the moment and help to level my focus on the task ahead (lifting heavy weights).
5. Outside the Gym – Diet, Sleep, and Motivation
Our diet makes up 70-80% of how we look.
We lose weight through a calorie deficient diet, and we gain weight through a calorie surplus diet.
Everything we do in the gym is worthless if we neglect a healthy diet and lifestyle.
The specifics of a healthy diet are beyond the scope of this article, but know this:
we must self-educate about nutrition, foods, and the science of weight loss and gain.
7-9 hours every night.
Some people get by on less, but those people are few.
Sleep is the greatest driver of muscle growth, as it is the catalyst for our recovery and the time in which our muscles are repaired (and grown) after an intense workout.
When we get solid REM sleep, we wake up feeling energized, alert, and replenished.
Having the necessary energy to physically go to the gym is often difficult.
A strong process is mandatory. What I mean by process is the pre-gym habits we construct.
Here is mine[note]I go to the gym at night[/note]:
- Know what muscle group I am focusing on ahead of time
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated all day
- Pre-workout proteins and carbs
- Breathing exercises
- YouTube videos (for an extra kick)
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, so lets recap the important takeaways:
- Muscle hypertrophy is maximized due to progressive overload – lifting heavier weights each week.
- This process maximized through mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle fiber damage.
- Always lift heavy – work in 4-7 rep ranges using at least 80-85% of your 1RM
- Stick to compound movements – squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups, push-ups, etc.
- Perfect form and a smooth, controlled time under tension is imperative.
- Focus & mindfulness – Stay in the moment and focus on your workout – avoiding what is going on around you.
- Proper sleep, diet, and motivational tools are vital in muscle growth.
I hope you all enjoy this series.
In the coming days, I plan to package the 3 parts together in a free PDF that will be available as a gift. Just sign up for my newsletter below to receive your copy.
If you have any questions or comments – leave them below and I’ll be sure to respond!
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