When looking to gain muscles mass, controlling key variables both inside and outside of the gym can make or break the results you achieve.
In terms of gaining muscle mass, what we’re ultimately looking to do is place ourselves in a state where we’re able to break down and repair muscle tissue.
So the variables to control are all about providing the capacity to stimulate contraction and aid recovery.
Here’s my list of the 6 key variables to control, in order to gain muscle mass.
1) Protein intake
Protein intake is a crucial part of muscle repair and ultimately growth. Ensuring that we get sufficient protein in our diets is a key part of being able to grow tissue. There’s a kind of “Golden Rule” of bodybuilding that protein intake should be 1g per lb of bodyweight as a rule of thumb, but let’s look at the literature;
- Tarnopolsky et al. (1992) observed no differences in whole body protein synthesis or indexes of lean body mass in strength athletes consuming either 0.64g/lb or 1.10g/lb over a 2 week period. Protein oxidation did increase in the high protein group, indicating a nutrient overload.
- Walberg et al. (1988) found that 0.73g/lb was sufficient to maintain positive nitrogen balance in cutting weightlifters over a 7 day time period.
- Tarnopolsky et al. (1988) found that only 0.37g/lb was required to maintain positive nitrogen balance in elite bodybuilders (over 5 years of experience, possible previous use of androgens) over a 10 day period. 0.45g/lb was sufficient to maintain lean body mass in bodybuilders over a 2 week period. The authors suggested that 0.55g/lb was sufficient for bodybuilders.
- Lemon et al. (1992) found no differences in muscle mass or strength gains in novice bodybuilders consuming either 0.61g/lb or 1.19g/lb over a 4 week period. Based on nitrogen balance data, the authors recommended 0.75g/lb.
- Hoffman et al. (2006) found no differences in body composition, strength or resting hormonal concentrations in strength athletes consuming either 0.77g/lb or >0.91g/lb over a 3 month period.
As you can see, there’s essentially nothing really there to support any further surplus, I would say unless you’re an assisted athlete where there’s the potential for improved protein synthesis.
The first thing to consider here is, do you actually consume enough? Just by tracking protein intake to minimums, we’ll be able to see if we’re consuming adequate amounts and essentially there’s no real detrimental effect of consuming 1g per lb, so for simplicity, that could still be used, and when programming, it’s generally the measure I use.
2) Calorie intake
The 2nd variable to consider is overall calorie intake.
An essential element of being able to build muscle tissue effectively, unless you’re a complete beginner or an assisted athlete is to be in a calorie surplus.
The real reason that most people struggle to gain weight and muscle is because they quite simply do not eat enough.
Tracking your overall calorie intake and ensuring that you’re consistently in a surplus is an essential part of building muscle mass.
Understanding your BMR and NEAT to calculate the calories you need to maintain your weight is super important, place yourself in a slight surplus and gradually increase over time.
And to build muscle effectively, stay in a surplus for a long, long time.
The phrase, “sleep when you’re dead” certainly does not apply to bodybuilding.
A study by Centro de Estudos em Psicobiologia e Exercício, São Paulo, Brazil in 2011 examined how sleep deprivation affected muscle gains and recovery.1 The study followed individuals who were on a strict sleep schedule for 72 hours. During this time, one group was allowed 5.5 hours of sleep per night; another was allowed 8.5 hours per day. All individuals followed a calorie-regulated diet.
What researchers discovered was that the individuals who slept only 5.5 hours had 60% less muscle mass at the end of the study, while those who slept 8.5 hours had 40% more muscle mass.
As such, allowing your body sufficient time to rest and recover is an essential part of the muscle building process.
Now for the training elements:
We can basically surmise the training variables into two parts, volume and execution.
Volume is calculated by multiplying sets x reps x load. If we progressively overload i.e. add weight or reps to given exercises week to week, total output will increase and we’ll be achieving a novel stimulus with each given session.
What this doesn’t mean however is that the number of sets completed is the most important factor. There is a point of diminishing returns between sets per exercise and sets per muscle group per week.
Your total set volume should ultimately be determined by what you’re actually able to recover from and training at your maximum recoverable volume will be the most optimal for achieving hypertrophy.
What we can do however, is increase the frequency i.e. how many times per week we train a target muscle, as recovery time can be 48 hours+, we could realistically train each target muscle every other day as part of a full body or upper/lower split and utilise a higher intensity (load) to grow, so long as we’re able to recover effectively.
Take legs for example, if you put someone who trains legs once a week next to someone who hits them 3x a week, after 6 months, who do you think will have more developed legs?
Because a key element of volume is load, by adding load week to week and operating under extreme stress and high intensity, often close to or at the point of failure, we’re able to effectively stimulate contractions under a novel stimulus. It really is true that the last reps are the most important, as this is where the novel stimulus and maximal breakdown occur.
Which brings me on nicely to execution:
5) Exercise Execution
A consistent approach to the way you execute every rep of a set and add stress/load over time is going to be paramount to your ability to achieve metabolic stress and ultimately muscle adaptation over time.
There are two elements to consider in this, rep tempo (control) and mechanics.
Whilst there are widely believed benefits of a slower eccentric motion, literature does not really support this as stated by Schoenfeld et al 2015;
In terms of personal preference, from my perspective a slower eccentric in the 2-3 second range followed by a more explosive concentric seem to enable greater control over load and ensure a consistent approach to each rep throughout the entire set, and also allow for heavier loads to be utilised, coinciding with a key driver of total output, where as shorter eccentrics can inhibit effective loading on a target muscle.
The other variables in execution to consider are the planes of motion and mechanics. We want every rep to look identical, so understanding and utlising exercise queues, to ensure a consistent load path and providing tension to the target muscle in question creates an optimal condition for hypertrophy.
6) Exercise Selection
It kind of goes without saying that if you’re not actively training a target muscle, it’s not really going to grow as effectively.
So what we can do is select exercises that:
- Fit the mechanical profile of the joints and muscle groups
- Fit the relative strength curve of the muscle group in question
By being selective over exercises used, and progressing those movements, we can ensure that we’re recruiting as many fibres as possible, improving the rate of breakdown and growing through repair.
Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t have the “optimal” equipment, you can still grow, this is just talking in terms of what would be the absolute best case.
We want to select movements that use the target muscles, that we can perform safely and consistently and load over time, and you can essentially do that with anything.
This becomes an essential component of programming to choose where in a session you place an exercise, why you choose that exercise and understanding what it’s actually doing for you.
But a good rule of thumb is if you can feel the target muscle contracting, it’s probably a good exercise for you.
So there we have it, my 6 key variables to enable you to gain muscle mass, so just to summarise the key points:
- Eat adequate protein
- Be in a calorie surplus
- Rest well
- Increase training volume and frequency
- Work with consistent execution
- And make careful exercise selections based on intended motion of the target muscles and joints in question