This short article will explain in a very simplified manner the process of how muscle is actually gained as you follow a weightlifting routine, whether that be a bodybuilding routine or a strength routine. In this article we will also address how this relates to what weight you should be lifting based on your current capabilities.
How Muscle Is Actually Built
This is a very simple description, essentially the bare minimum of what you should know before starting any weightlifting routine. Your muscles are made up of individual fibers which fill with blood when you tense the muscle, causing the muscle to contract. So as you perform a weightlifting exercise your muscles contract to move the weight and as a result individual fibers are broken. When these fibers are repaired they come back bigger and stronger – they are repaired with the protein you eat and while you sleep causing you to gain muscle mass, hence why diet is equally as important as the actual exercises that you perform in the gym. Your central nervous system also plays a part in all this – your CNS essentially controls how much of the muscle that you have can actually be utilised by your body to create functional strength.
Your body adapts to the strain you put on it by lifting weights. The idea is to perform at or close to the edge of your capabilities so that when your muscles are repaired with rest and food you will ultimately be able to lift more weight that you did previously. This process repeated over the space of weeks, months, and years leads to significant and astounding results.
How All This Relates To You
With all this being said it is now time to consider your goals. Weight lifters generally fall into two categories as described in this article entitled “How To Gain Muscle” – bodybuilders, and powerlifters. If your main focus is bodybuilding then you are focusing on the size of your muscles, whereas powerlifters are concerned with how much weight they can lift – how strong they are. Your body responds in different ways to different types of training – low volume (low reps, low sets) routines will improve the efficiency of your central nervous system, and so strength is the main focus. Oppositely high volume routines will promote a hypertrophic response, which will make your muscles larger. It should be noted that powerlifters will also experience size gains, and bodybuilders will experience strength gains. See this bodybuilding article, and this beginner strength training article for routines which are designed for optimal results.
In the articles linked to above you will notice that most exercises are listed alongside a number of sets and reps (e.g 3×5 would be 3 sets x 5 reps), but what weight you should use is not addressed. This is because everyone will have to start at a different point, some people might be able to bench 60kg(130lb) from their very first day, whereas others might have to start on 30kg(66lb).
You will have to judge the right starting point for yourself, and it might take a few gym sessions to figure it out. You should use the rep ranges listed in the routines as a reference to help you judge this. Let’s say that you’re following a bodybuilding routine and so for bench press you’re doing 3×8-12, that is, 3 sets of 8-12 reps each. This means that for whatever weight you start at, you should be capable of getting 8-12 reps for all 3 sets. If you can’t, then you need to lower the weight for your next session (or even during your first if you can’t meet your rep range requirements in the first or second set). On the other hand, if you manage to bang out your chosen weight for 3 sets of 15 reps then you need to move up in weight.
After one or two sessions you’ll know the right weight for you – once you find this out it’s time to start progressing. Once you are hitting the top range or near the top range of each of your sets then it’s time to increase the weight by 2.5-5kg(5-10lb). Generally if you are hitting the top of the ranges with a certain weight, then you should be around the bottom of the rep range after you increase the weight by 2.5-5kg. Then you stick with the new weight until you reach the top of the range, and then increase it again. If you stick to your routine every week and stick to your diet you will be absolutely astounded by how quickly you progress. It should be noted that illness, injury, or time off can potentially reduce your capabilities – if this is the case you need to decrease the weight and start building again. You will find that it is quicker the second time around due to muscle memory.
The Importance Of Correct Form
As I have mentioned the idea is to perform at or near the edge of your capabilities. So obviously this means that you will need to push yourself. It may take some time for you to develop some mental strength to force yourself to do a few extra reps – but this is essential as it is only when you get near the edge of what you are capable of that you force your body to adapt and improve. You will be surprised to see how many extra reps you can do, even when you try to tell yourself that you can’t. Your mind will always tell you to quit before your body is actually incapable of continuing.
Now while it is important to push yourself it is equally important to maintain the correct form for whatever exercise you are doing. For example a bench press in which you do not touch your chest with the bar at the bottom of the rep is not a full repetition. Likewise a squat in which the tops of your legs are not parallel with the ground at the bottom of the rep should not be considered a full repetition. As you get near the ends of your sets there will be a temptation to do something like a half rep – do not give in to this temptation, you are only lying to yourself. If you can’t complete a full rep then your set is over, it’s as simple as that. You must be consistent in your form to accurately measure improvements. More importantly, incorrect form can cause injury. I’ll state this once more for emphasis – if you cannot complete a full repetition with correct form then your set is over. It is better to do one less rep than it is to attempt that rep, injure yourself, and perhaps never improve again as a result.