In order to optimize your training, you need to know the mechanism of muscle hypertrophy aka ways to increase your muscle mass. Hypertrophy specialist Brad Schoenfeld illustrated 3 main causes of muscle growth- mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
The prime mechanism of muscle hypertrophy is mechanical tension. It can be explained by total volume work ( load x sets x reps). So you need to keep increasing your volume to get maximum gains. So to grow you need to keep increasing your load or sets or reps. There is a study done where 3 groups were divided into different volume work- 5 sets, 6-9 sets and 10 sets in a week. The study showed that the group who performed more sets(more volume) had more muscle growth. But more volume also can hinder your progress. Do enough volume from which you can recover.
Next mechanism for muscle growth is metabolic stress. Swelling of the cell and building metabolites are caused by the occlusion of blood vessels when weight training. Basically, the pump which you get in the gym during your training session. Still, it doesn’t have that major effect as mechanical tension has.
The last mechanism for muscle growth is muscle damage. Damaging of muscle cells through micro-tears and contusions. It’s not a major mechanism for muscle growth. The prime reason you get sore after a workout is due to this mechanism. Its a positive sign to muscle growth for a while but not always.
So you got to know the 3 major mechanisms of hypertrophy. Let’s proceed into it one by one.
1. Mechanical Tension
The primary reason to hypertrophy is mechanical tension. The tension which is placed on the muscle when applying force and being easily stretched. In simple terms, the stress on muscle during high intensity over many reps.
Moving forward with this, volume and time under tension are the main ingredients to it. Volume means the heavier the load the more tension. High intensity performed per muscle. Time under tension means the span through which each muscle are producing force. Mechanical tension can be explained with volume= sets x reps x load. Sets and reps are connected to time under tension and load are connected to the quantity. Heavy load means a larger amount of tension.
Studies have shown that mechanical tension is the key mechanism of hypertrophy. To achieve great gains you need to always keep increasing your volume over time. This also means progressive overload where you need to increase your sets or load or reps. Always remember every workout of yours should be challenging one. Every week your training should be tougher than before. If you not growing in size that means you need to maximize your volume and mechanical tension. Recovery plays an important role. Do enough volume from which you can recover. Never increase it at a fast pace.
You got to know the primary reason for hypertrophy which is mechanical tension. Let’s move forward.
2. Metabolic Stress
The secondary mechanism of hypertrophy is metabolic stress through which muscles do grow but only has a small effect on it. Metabolic stress is the buildup of metabolites in our blood vessels, swelling cells and lack of oxygen. The pump which you get during high reps and moderate intensity, that is metabolic stress.
As Arnold said “the pump which makes me feel like cumming”
Doing heavy work and high volumes are necessary but it’s not possible to go all day heavy. Light days with high reps and short rest periods produce more metabolic stress. Stuff like drop sets, supersets, rest pause sets, etc comes under this category. It is not greater than mechanical tension due to its light load demanding but has its own benefit.
This is good for isolation movements where we do light work and opt for high rep range. Metabolic stress will also occur in mechanical tension work when lifting heavier and taking long rest periods. But the stress is more during high rep range and so on.
3. Muscle Damage
The third mechanism of hypertrophy that is Muscle damage. Going to keep this short and sweet.
It relates to the microtrauma of muscle fibres after lifting weights. It also occurs in endurance sports so don’t ignore if you don’t lift weights. This is the main reason you get sore or DOMS after a training session but few people believe that its due to lactic acid built up which is not true.
Muscle damage can occur during a new movement which you aren’t familiar with or even when loading the eccentric phase of a movement like a deadlift variant. Muscle damage has a very minimal role in building muscle. If you getting sore in every workout that doesn’t mean you’re building new muscle tissue.
There is a study done where 2 groups, one which was going to start a new training program and another group which was already into the program. Results were great at the end of the study. Both had gained new muscle mass but the group which started the new program gained more soreness and thus, muscle damage. The changes were very minimal and the study was done for a short period of time.
There are many more other studies done and had similar findings. Won’t dig much into it because it has a minimal role.
Muscle damage does help you to gain muscle but not every time. It can also worsen your case which can lead to muscle loss. It has a very small effect on hypertrophy. According to my experience, it is true, I used to train to failure all the time and used to switch my exercise variations every week before but never saw any drastic changes in my physique. Even my performance used to go down every week. So focus more on progressive overload (mechanical tension) and metabolic stress.
Take home message: Keep things simple and straight. The more you complicate, the worst your case gets. Keep lifting!
Yashovardhan Singh is a fitness coach with GetSetGo Fitness and a former national football player. He likes to keep a no-nonsense approach to fitness by applying scientific literature to provide results to his clients. Reach him at [email protected] for coaching and follow him on Instagram and Facebook.