Muscle growth is a multifaceted process that is determined by two key things – training and nutrition.
It is true what they say- that muscles are built in the kitchen and not in the gym. A good meal plan will validate all your lifting efforts, and will be instrumental in increasing your muscle mass. But we digress.
Training is the subject of interest in this context. Exercise science has come a long way since bodybuilding started gaining prominence as a sport. And now, many decades later, the secrets to muscle building have all been laid bare.
Muscle tissue is responsive to the stresses that are exerted upon it. In keeping with evolution, muscle adapts to the challenges it is subjected to by increasing in strength and size. During exercise, muscle fibres are torn. These small traumatic experiences called microtears are then repaired in the process of muscle repair, with the resultant muscles being both stronger and bigger.
The goal of any weight lifting program is to therefore, ensure that the muscles are continually pushed to their limits. This will sustain the process of tear and repair, and ultimately lead to gains in muscle mass if a recovery period is observed.
Lifting heavy weights is more effective at creating microtears, because of the extra tension exerted on the muscles, and the greater number of fibers recruited. It also stimulates the production of testosterone and growth hormone which are critical in muscle building.
Reps and Sets
After much research and study, two discoveries have been made.
To sufficiently stimulate a muscle, an exercise routine has to be repeated. The ideal number of repetitions depends on the goal. If it is to purely increase muscle mass, or hypertrophy, high weight, low rep routines are best. This means lifting a heavy weight between 1-3 times. For maximum stimulation, these repetitions have to be made three times, in what we basically call sets. The inherent limitation with this strategy is that it limits your ability to do different exercises for one body part. This leads to trivial gains in strength.
To stimulate gains in both size and strength, the weight should be heavy enough to lift for 6-12 times. Again, this needs to be done in three sets. If the weight can be lifted more than 12 times with relative ease, it is not heavy enough.
To sum it all up, the ideal number of sets is three, and the ideal number of reps is 6-12 with a sufficiently heavy weight.
Of course, bodybuilding is part science, and part discovery. When you train for a couple of months, you realize your lower body can handle more weight and reps, and in such cases, you should adjust your sets and reps to ensure your muscles are sufficiently stimulated.
In the end, the ideal sets and reps should be determined individually. Our different genetic make-ups make it hard to comply with some recommendations. Similarly, your goals will have a say on what these are. So long as your muscles are adequately challenged with every workout, you should be able to build muscle.
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