3 Things To Help You Build MORE Muscle
We’ve talked about a few great strategies for increasing muscle mass in terms of how the movements are performed. However, looking at how much weight you’re lifting (intensity), how many times you’re lifting it (volume) and how often you’re lifting it (frequency) could be the difference for you in making more gains. When you first start a program you probably are pretty sore in the beginning. After a certain point your body will adapt and you’ll need to progress. Using intensity, volume and frequency we can increase the work needed from your body which will restart the adaptation process. Restarting this adaptation process will lead to the breakdown of more muscle and then, with proper nutrition and sleep, your muscle will rebuild larger and stronger.
When used appropriately, you can progress for quite some time just using these three variables. I’ll show you how to avoid plateaus and keep the gains coming! Before we dive into these top three methods, I’d like to explain in a bit more detail what these three variables mean in context to training.
Intensity relates to how heavy you are lifting. You usually represent this figure as a percentage of the maximum amount of weight you can do for that specific lift for only one repetition. For instance, in a back squat if you were going to lift 85% of the maximum amount of weight you could do in a set, you would say 85% 1RM. Or, 85% of the 1 Repetition Maximum for that exercise. For that amount of intensity (depending on how experienced you are) you would most likely be able do 4-5 reps at that intensity. You would NOT do that high of an objective intensity for 12 reps. Not only would not ideally do that much weight, you physically COULD NOT. Because if you could do that many reps, that amount does not represent your true intensity of 85% 1RM. There is a sliding scale between how MUCH you can lift and how many TIMES you can do it. The more you lift in a given set, the less reps you perform. It works vice-versa for the more reps you do. This balance is incredibly important for building muscle because you need to know when it’s appropriate to do more reps and less weight, or more weight and less reps.
If the percentage amount isn’t quite possible for you because you either don’t know your 1RM and don’t know how to find it out, you can use RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion as your scale to determine how hard an exercise is and thus how many reps you should be performing. RPE works like this:
1 - 10 Where
1 = Netflix & Chill
10 = Maximal Effort
If you try an exercise and do it 5 times and it’s an 8 or 9, you’re probably right around that 85% 1RM intensity. I use this scale with my online clients all the time in the beginning because it allows them to pick their own weights and try things out. You can also get creative with RPE because you can make an exercise with 20 reps be an 8 in RPE/ difficulty meaning over those 20 reps you’re giving an 8/10 by the end of it. So you can really make any exercise harder or easier depending on the RPE. It’s incredibly useful! So now that you have 2 ways to determine your intensity, let’s look at volume.
Volume represents the amount of sets and reps you are doing for a given exercise. If we’re looking at Total Volume in lbs for a given day, week, month or even year, we use this equation:
Sets X Reps X Weight = Total lbs of Volume
For instance, let’s use a 5x5 back squat at 165 lbs. That would translate to 5 sets/rounds of 5 reps of 165 lbs. If we did the math applying the equation:
5 X 5 X 165 = 4,125 lbs of Total Volume for that given movement.
As mentioned earlier, volume and intensity go hand in hand with one another when creating an effective training program. We want to maximize the amount of volume we can perform in a week without gassing the body out too much so that we’re unable to do that movement/ exercise again before the next week. I’m talking about the typical bro split that tells you to do 1 muscle group per day. What happens is that you hammer one muscle group SO HARD to where your volume in that one day is so insane. It’s so crazy in fact, that you’re unable to hit that muscle group again until next week because it’s always so sore. And be very clear, you WILL see results on a bro split, but only to a certain point. It’s to a point because there will be a time where your volume is way too high in a single training session and you’ll start seeing tendon issues, movement/mobility issues and a huge plateaus because you’re not providing the right level of stimulus. You’re overloading your muscles with volume.
Doing this volume overload leaves you super sore and never really allows for optimal recovery. You do NOT want to be sore after EVERY SINGLE SESSION. That’s not how we progress, that’s not how we grow more muscle, that’s not how we burn more fat. In the beginning of a program, of course, you’ll be sore because it’s a brand new stimulus to your body that you’re not used to. But if you’re sore a few months into your program and walking like you trucked by a linebacker, something ain’t right. The best way to balance the volume in your program is to progressively add volume over time.
But more on that later. Let’s talk about frequency.
Frequency represents the amount of times you are doing a certain movement or exercise per some factor of time. That can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly. You should of course look at the micro details of frequency per session as mentioned when talking about volume, but looking at the big picture, planning frequency on a macro level will get you the muscle growth you’re looking for. As your body adapts you’ll be able to adjust the frequency of your training to continue to see progress and avoid plateaus.
I plan to dive deeper into these concepts once I create my programming guide blog! For now, I wanted to just define these three variables so that for the rest of the blog, I can use them without explanation.
So, how do we grow using these variables?
As mentioned before, progression is the key. So let’s talk about these three progression methods:
Increasing Intensity Week by Week
In a typical program the easiest way to continue to see progress in the beginning is to just add a little bit of weight each week you do your routine. Depending on the lift 5-10 lbs is a good range to start with progressing your intensity. You’re consistently and slowly adding more weight to each exercise, so you’re forcing your body to continue adapting. At the same time, you’re not increasing by TOO much where your reps would decrease thus decreasing your total volume.
Remember: Total Volume = Sets X Reps X Weight
Let’s say I’m doing a typical 3x12 and using 20 lbs to being with. I would be lifting a total volume of 720 lbs for that exercise. However if I tried to double that to 40 because I thought 20 was too easy and not only does my execution go down, but my reps do as well, now I’m only doing 5 reps per set so my total volume would only be 600 lbs. So if you try to go up TOO fast, you’ll see your total volume go down because your body simply isn’t ready to perform the same repetition count at that intensity quite yet. Slow and steady is the key.
Stress is a good thing, but like all things, it needs to be an appropriate amount. The only to way TO grow is to stress the body in some way. At some point though, this form of progressive stress won’t work forever. You’ll find a place where you can’t increase the weight anymore and you’ve reached your max for the set volume you want for that exercise. Here’s the thing: we have 2 more ways to talk about! So don’t worry, we got this.
Increasing volume is an easy way to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting in total volume without struggling at a weight you can’t handle. Add another rep or two, then add another set, then another exercise (to a point). The key to this is taking it slow. In the beginning, depending on your program, you probably won’t need to add THAT much volume initially. You’ll still be growing accustomed to the program itself and will probably take some time to adapt. If you see yourself growing used to the movements and unable to progress from the first method by adding a bit more weight each time you perform the exercise, then it may be time to use volume as your next progression point.
Honestly, here is where RPE comes into play heavily. Let me paint the picture for you:
You’re on your last set and your RPE for that exercise is a 9 but you’re feeling like the exercise is around 8. You try to up to your weight 5lb and the RPE jumps to a 10. On some exercises 5lbs can do that. So you can’t progress with weight, but you’re not quite at a 9 yet. What should you do?
Bang out a few more reps. Add 1-3 reps which should get you to that 9 RPE point your exercise calls for and keep doing that. In a week or two, try to hit that new weight progression you’ve been stuck at. If you recover properly through adequate nutrition and sleep, you should be able to crush that intensity progression. If you find this progression to be possible, guess what?
This strategy is pretty effective because it can scale to reps, sets and then exercises as I mentioned before. However, be very careful to avoid adding too much of this progression either. As you can see everything must be taken with a grain of salt. The human body is a highly adaptive machine, however we’re not in fact, robots. We eventually reach a point where there’s too much input and we can’t output the expected result. If you go through a period of high volume, you NEED to taper or deload.
A taper or deload is a point where you purposefully lessen the intensity of your workouts to allow your body to recover. When you go hard for 4-8 weeks, you need to give your body a break. Being proactive about this period is important. Don’t wait until you feel like shit to deload. Deload early to avoid feeling like shit. Deloading is not key to just building muscle, but CONTINUING to build muscle and avoiding burning out.
When deloading, drop your intensity 30-40% and avoid any HIIT, burnouts or things that will leave you super gassed. You definitely still want to train, but just not train as hard. I’ve had clients deload for a week, even two weeks and come back to their programs STRONGER. They come refueled and well rested. Recovery is everything with high volume periods. You can’t just bang your body to the ground with volume without a break and expect to grow!
When increasing volume, a third way to do it without adding more to your current session, is to do ANOTHER session later on in the week. When you do that you are increasing the next progression technique, frequency.
You can see the trend here. Now we’re going to increase the amount of times you frequent the gym and train a certain movement, muscle group or exercise. When you increase your frequency you increase your total volume per week. You can be clever here with balancing your total volume per session and your recovery. One of my favorite programs the Upper/Lower split balances frequency and recovery for those who aren’t as experienced or are just starting in the gym. It’s also a very effective program for people who are busy! Here is a typical Upper/Lower split schedule:
It gives you at least 2 days to recover from your previous which is usually good enough to feel ready to train again, even if you go hard. You don’t have to start with upper on that Monday, you can start with lower. It really depends on preference and other activities you do outside the gym. For instance, if you know you go hiking up some pretty steep hills every Sunday, you wouldn’t do lower on Monday because your legs aren’t going to be fully recharged come the next day. By the same token, you probably wouldn’t do an upper day Monday if you went rock climbing the day before. So balancing your regular activities with what you do in the gym is key to continue to build muscle, recover and not burnout.
When planning your days in the gym, regardless of what split you decide to do, make sure you can recover from it and be sure you ACTUALLY do it. If you’re reading this and haven’t been consistent in the gym lifting heavy for some time, I would not recommend a very frequent and intense program. I’m referring to this monster of a program:
It’s a shit ton of volume and frequency so you may see some great gains. However, it’s tough to recover from if you’re newer to the or haven’t been getting busy for sometime. I would recommend this split way later down the line when you’re more experienced and can handle this level of volume in your training program. Because remember: if you can’t recover, you can’t build muscle. If you can’t build muscle, you can’t burn fat. At the end of the day you just have to try stuff out for a few months at a time and see what works for you the best!
Using Intensity, Volume and Frequency, you can make so many gains without really changing your exercises too heavily. It’s all about doing a little bit more every time to continue to progressively challenge the body and continue growth. Proactively deload every 4-8 weeks and decrease your intensity for a week or two so you come back stronger!
If you’d like personal help building your training program look out for my next blog post on doing just that, or sign up for a free 30 minute strategy call with me HERE and we can go through what you need to build muscle and burn more fat!