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Proven muscle-building training principles

This is an excerpt from Strength Zone Training by Nick Tumminello.

Over the years I’ve come to recognize and rely on a handful of basic, proven principles that allow everyone to maintain long-term, sustainable results. Stick to these and forget the fads.

The Best Rep Ranges

Mechanical tension drives muscle growth. Research shows that lifting a lighter load to failure produces gains in muscle size similar to those produced by lifting a heavy load to failure (1). The scientific evidence on rep ranges tells us that there’s no magical range for maximizing muscle size. You can use both heavy, low-rep (1-5) sets along with medium-load, high-rep (15-20+) sets if you’d like. But many people focused on building muscle are usually not interested in using weights so heavy that they can only do five or fewer reps with it. And that’s fine. Doing some sets in the six to eight rep range serves as a nice middle ground.

The amount of weight you’re using also determines the quality of reps you’re doing. If the load is too heavy, you may not be able to do good-quality reps. That said, at any given time at any big-box gym, you’ll see at least one guy doing biceps curls or shoulder raises, and he’ll have to thrust his lower back into it each time he brings the weight up. It’s easy to make this mistake. After all, you’re in the gym to lift weights, and everyone knows heavy loads are an effective stimulus for muscle growth, right? Well, sort of.

Training to maximize muscle isn’t about becoming a weightlifter as many seem to think. It’s about using weights as a tool to increase your muscle size and strength. Simply moving as much weight as you can is a less effective and a risky approach. Here’s what happens when you use weights that are too heavy:

  • You reduce the time under (mechanical) tension because you’re forced to use momentum to cheat.
  • You’re unable to lower the weight slowly and with control, further reducing your time under (mechanical) tension.
  • You use more muscles, which reduces the accumulated pump (metabolic stress) in muscles you’re trying to target.

Training to maximize muscle isn’t just about moving the weight from one point to another as you would when powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. It’s about controlling the weight through the entire range of motion. The point of emphasis on each rep is to avoid swinging the weight up or cheating by using other parts of your body to move the load.

The Best Tempo

Perform the concentric (lifting) portion of each rep at a normal tempo and maintain control during the lowering portion for about three seconds on each rep. When you’re trying to maximize gains, controlling the weight and minimizing momentum also applies to the eccentric (lowering) portion of each rep. People who cheat the weight up normally also let the weight come crashing back down. When getting the most gains from each rep are the focus, maintaining deliberate control is paramount.

Letting the weight swing down without control may be even more ineffective than you think. Evidence demonstrates that a slower (four-second) eccentric action during biceps curls produces more arm growth than a one-second eccentric action (2). This makes perfect sense. Lowering slowly creates more mechanical tension on the working muscles than a shorter eccentric portion does.

And because cheating creates an overload of mechanical tension only in a small range of the motion, it’s more likely that you’ll use a weight that’s too heavy for you, making the muscles deal with forces that exceed the structural integrity of your tendons and ligaments. Injuring yourself isn’t conducive to building muscle. If you want to maximize your size gains, maximize your time under tension by using strict form and a controlled eccentric portion lasting about three to five seconds, with three seconds being a sweet spot that doesn’t take too long on each rep.

The Best Weight

The amount of weight you use on each set is determined by the number of reps you’re doing relative to your strength level. Choose a load that leaves you unable to perform any more reps than indicated on your workout program, but without cheating by using additional jerking, twitching, or momentum. If your program calls for three sets of 8 to 12 reps, grab a weight that allows you to complete at least 8 reps using proper form, but not so light that you can do more than 12 reps before reaching technical failure.

Also, if you’re using the same weight for each set, you may be able to do 12 reps on the first set, 11 on the next set, and 10 on the third set because of accumulated fatigue. Or you can reduce the weight you’re using with each consecutive set to achieve the higher end of the given rep range on each consecutive set. Both methods are effective, but using the same weight on each set often makes the most logistical sense, especially when training in a busy gym.

The Best Number of Sets

I remember listening to a two-hour debate from a couple of science-based coaches who both specialize in hypertrophy (i.e., muscle growth) training. Their entire debate concluded with the agreement that 12 to 20 total sets per muscle per week is a good rule of thumb for hypertrophy—an idea that’s been around for years.

That said, if you’re looking to bring up certain lagging muscle groups, the first thing you need to do is count the total number of sets you’re doing each week for those muscles to see whether you’re getting at least 12 sets per week on each area. If you’re already hitting that minimum, then it’s time to add a few more total sets per week to those muscle groups. You can apply this to any of the workout plans for strength zone training in this book by simply adding a few extra sets of the exercises that hit the muscle groups you want to develop most.

The Best Training Splits

The best type of training split is determined by how many days per week you’re training. It all comes down to getting in enough training volume of each muscle group throughout the week. If you’re training two or three times per week, total-body workouts are best. If you’re training four times per week, an upper-body, lower-body split is the best. If you’re training five or six times per week, a body-part split is best in order to allow sufficient recovery of each muscle group between workouts. You can use either a three-day-on and one-day-off rotation, or use a four-day-on, one-day-off rotation.

Regardless of which setup you use, you have flexibility. You can always throw in a few extra sets for a muscle group that is not the focus of a particular day’s workout if you want to spark more growth.

The Best Rest Periods

A review of the research found that resting three to five minutes between sets produced the greatest increases in strength by allowing your body the optimal amount of time to recover. Higher levels of muscular power were demonstrated over multiple sets with three to five minutes of rest than with one minute of rest between sets (3). Resting longer than three to five minutes doesn’t further increase performance. Plus, you have only so much time to work out anyway.

Speaking of maximizing your workout time, the workout plans in this book use a lot of paired sets, such as pairing a chest exercise with a back exercise, a lower-body exercise with an ab exercise, and an arm exercise with a shoulder exercise. What’s a paired set? You might guess supersets, but there is a difference. Whereas there is no rest between exercises within a superset, you rest strategically between exercises when doing a paired set.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing at all wrong with straight sets. You can use them effectively to get seriously big and strong if you have the time. But paired-set training may be more effective than traditional set training at enabling you to handle maximum volume in your workout. In fact, researchers who compared paired-set versus traditional-set protocols suggested that anyone who wants to maximize workout efficiency and minimize time should try paired sets (4).

More Excerpts From Strength Zone Training