What’s the best way to grow your muscles?

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Whether it is to help you gain strength, increase your metabolism and burn more fat, look great at the beach on in your bedroom, become a successful bodybuilder, or simply support your health, muscle growth may be part of your goals.

While knowing how to train for other sports is typically easy since guidelines are generally consistent from one source to another, training for muscle hypertrophy can be confusing since recommendations often differ. For example, various notorious bodybuilders have achieved world class levels using opposite methods (the legends Ronnie Coleman and Kevin Levrone were known to use extremely heavy weights, while Vince Taylor preferred to do high repetitions, and Tom Platz combined both. Also, the late Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates advocated low training volumes, while the Austrian Oak (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the late Rich Piana often performed extremely high training volumes (50+ sets per body part).

Mechanisms of muscle growth

The main mechanism of growth discussed in literature (and gyms) is via the synthesis of proteins, a phenomenon called myofibrillar hypertrophy. However, other mechanisms also exist.

  1. An increase in the number of fibers in a muscle – It is speculated that muscles can also grow via the addition of cells, a process called hyperplasia. This phenomenon is however believed to minimally contribute to overall gains in size and strength
  2. Increase in muscle fiber size
    1. Myofibrillar hypertrophy (increase in contractile units) – Through the addition (synthesis) of muscle protein (like adding small filaments to strengthen a rope) in response to mechanical stress or damage. This addition can either be done
      1. IN SERIES (believed to be significant for beginners), or
      2. IN PARALLEL (main form of myofibrillar hypertrophy in trained athletes).
    2. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increase in muscle cells cytosolic volume) – Through the addition of various components such as muscle glycogen, cytosolic (non contractile) proteins, phosphocreatine, various enzymes, minerals and water (like adding vegetables and broth to a soup) in response to metabolic stress.
  3. Increase in local fat tissues volume
  4. Angiogenesis (addition of capillaries), and growth of existing blood vessels
  5. Increase in intra muscular connective tissue
  6. Increase in interstitial fluids (water retention)

Some of the above are lasting adaptations (1, 2 and 5), while others are momentary changes (3, 4 and 6). Additionally, some lead to improved strength (1 and 2), others lead to an increase in endurance (3 and 5), and the balance have no major effect on physical qualities (4 and 6).

Determinant of anabolism balance

  1. Presence and amplitude of hypertrophy stimuli
    1. Mechanical stress
    2. Muscle damages
  2. Presence and amplitude of hypertrophy triggers
    1. Tension
    2. Muscle tearing damages
    3. Metabolic stress
    4. Anabolic amino acids leucine
  3. Anabolic, catabolic, and metabolic hormones levels
    1. Anabolic hormones
      1. Testosterone
      2. Insulin
  • IGF-1 (insulin growth factor-1)
  1. Catabolic hormones
    1. Glucagon
    2. Cortisol
  2. Metabolic hormones
    1. T3
    2. Human growth hormone
  3. Availability of determinant (methionine, cysteine, glutamine) as well as of other essential amino acids
  4. Recovery speed and capacity due to:
    1. Insulin sensitivity
    2. Energy production metabolic pathways efficiency (related to condition level)
    3. Anabolic pathways efficiency (related to condition level)

What mechanism and training method should you choose?

The questions you may then ask are: How do you trigger each of those mechanism, and which of them are most effective to grow a muscle. The answers to the first is are both simple and complex.

Changes in fat and water levels are generally simply reflecting a difference between caloric consumption and expense (in the case of fat), or a change in tissue concentration of polar molecules such as glycogen and electrolytes (in the case of water), while adaptations are specific to the stress imposed.

Triggers of growth mechanisms

Mechanism Triggers Impact on muscle growth
Hyperplasia ·   Tension and Microtears (releasing IGF-1) from heavy lifting

·   Excess of growth hormone

·   It was also speculated that electric muscle stimulation can cause hyperplasia, but this hypothesis has not been verified

Negligible
IN SERIES myofibrillar hypertrophy ·   Tension and Microtears (releasing IGF-1) from heavy lifting

·   Stretching

·   Consumption of leucine

Minor
IN PARALLEL myofibrillar hypertrophy ·   Tension and Microtears (releasing IGF-1) from heavy lifting

·   Stretching

·   Consumption of leucine

Primary
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy Hypoxia training and lactic acid accumulation from high repetition training Secondary
Increase in muscle glycogen storage Hypoxia training and lactic acid accumulation from high repetition training Minor and short lived, but also has an indirect effect by supporting greater training intensity, which allows for subsequent superior growth
Increase in local fat tissues volume N/A Minor short lived, and decreases muscular density
Angiogenesis Hypoxia training and lactic acid accumulation from high repetition training Secondary, but also has an indirect effect by supporting greater training volume, which allows for subsequent superior growth
Growth of existing blood vessels Hypoxia training and lactic acid accumulation from high repetition training
Increase in intra muscular connective tissues ·   Tension (progressive overload)

·   Microtears (releasing IGF-1)

·   Stretching

Negligible
Increase in interstitial fluids N/A Minor, and short lived

Finally, we can notice that 2 types of training can produce significant and complementary muscle growth: Heavy lifting, and high repetition training

Pierre Vinet, BSc. Biochemistry, Master Studies Biomechanics

Health & Fitness Professional

About the Author

Pierre Vinet is a Master Trainer who graduated in Biochemistry at Quebec University, and continued post graduate studies in Biomechanics. His fields of expertise include biomechanics, nutrition, exercise physiology, strength training, muscular hypertrophy, fat loss and longevity. to Over the last 40 years, he has trained thousands of individuals, including Professional athletes, as well as personally won the State Championships and was finalist at the National Championships at several occasions in both Bodybuilding and Olympic Taekwondo. For more information, you may visit www.pierrevinet.com, or reach him at pierre.vinet@pierrevinet.com.

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