Building muscle is a complicated science, make no mistake.
When you’re young, you can usually get away with training as hard as you can, eating peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and drinking a gallon of milk per day.
If you try that now, you’ll get fat… probably hurt too.
Not only that, but you’ll throw your hormones out of whack and you’ll feel like crap.
Again, we can’t do things the same way we did when we were 20.
So now that you’re an “adult”, you have to approach the muscle building game with a little more purpose and strategy.
Now – when you’re an adult – it isn’t so much about “working out”…
…it’s also about recovery;
…and if you want to get/stay lean while you build muscle… it’s about nutrition too.
The 3 Phases of Muscle Building
Phase 1 – Mechanical Tension
This is traditional strength training.
Use a heavy weight, low repetitions (in the 1-5 range), and creating lots of tension – not only in the working muscles, but in all muscles in your body – to get STRONGER.
Here’s the thing about mechanical tension… you must have a PRACTICE mentality.
It takes practice to be able to tense your muscles in the right way to lift a heavy weight.
STRENGTH is a SKILL. It is the FOUNDATION from which all other physical qualities are derived from.
This tension that you generate creates a more efficient nervous system and recruits more of your existing muscle fibres to do the job at hand (ie to lift a challenging weight).
When it comes to mechanical tension, you NEVER lift to failure.
Quite the opposite actually…
…you want to remain fresh so that you can “practice” the lift perfectly for multiple reps thus entraining the skill into your nervous system.
Creating tension and taking your muscle through a full range of motion also creates a dense, long, hard muscle…
…not the puffy bodybuilder kind; think more like the statue of David.
PHASE 2 – Muscle Damage
Muscle damage occurs when the internal structures of a muscle fibre, or its outer wrapping layers, are disrupted. These disruptions cause a reduction in our ability to exert force within the muscle.
Muscle damage is primarily caused by stretching muscle fibres forcibly under load.
This type of “stretch loading” is called a controlled eccentric.
It happens when you lift a load (the concentric phase of an exercise) and slowly lower it under control (this is the concentric phase, also known as “the negative”).
Some of us may remember our young bench pressing days where holding the weight above our chest and lowering it was much easier than pushing it off our chest when the bar got down there.
Some of us – and this has NEVER happened to me… not even once 😉 – may have even gotten “pinned” by the bar after lowering it to chest level.
This occurs because we are stronger eccentrically (lowering the weight) than we are concentrically (lifting the weight).
We can use this to our advantage by using an exercise that forces us to explosively lift a weight, and then eccentrically lower it.
By doing this, we get the benefit of lifting explosively – stimulating our fast twitch fibres – and then using a controlled eccentric to elicit a “muscle damage” response – to stimulate muscle building.
When you do this, you create micro-tears in the muscle belly.
When we recover optimally – with proper nutrition and rest – these micro-tears are repaired by creating a thicker, bigger muscle fibre.
This point outlines why recovery is so important… the training is the stimulus to signal a growth response.
But if you don’t have adequate nutrition or recovery, then it’s difficult for growth to occur.
This is why you should only train intensely 3-4x per week.
More than that and you are consistently stimulating but limiting your body’s ability to recover and repair itself.
PHASE 3 – Metabolic Stress
Metabolic stress is simply training for that “pump” and “burn” feeling.
The key is to keep constant tension on the muscles by maintaining a continuous cadence (no rest between reps)… complexes anyone?
This way, as blood gets pumped into the muscles by the arteries, the steady muscular contractions will prevent the veins from letting blood escape, resulting in high levels of metabolic stress and cell swelling.
This type of training quickly elevates the heart rate and will produce a lot of metabolic by-products – like lactic acid – which stimulates the release of growth hormone.
In addition to being a powerful muscle builder, Growth Hormone is also our #1 fat burning hormone.
When training to get a metabolic stress response, we need to push our body a little harder and do so for moderate to high TOTAL reps with short/incomplete rest periods in between.
In the end, the 3 Phases of Muscle Building can be organized into a hierarchy that looks like this…
Get Stronger > Lift Explosively > Get a Pump
1. We must get stronger first to allow our body and our connective tissue to adapt to heavier loads.
2. Once we become familiar with heavier loading and our bodies can accommodate this, we can start to lift explosively with the confidence knowing that we have the ability ability to handle these loads.
3. Once we have developed the strength and the skill and have learned how to lift explosively with heavier loads, we can now challenge our system with higher rep ranges knowing that we’ve gotten stronger and have practiced our technique enough to “push the limit of discomfort” with metabolically stressful training.
Important Points to Remember…
- You must approach muscle building with more purpose and strategy when you’re over 40
- Middle Aged men can put on MORE muscle and strength than their younger counterparts
- Older men (60+) can also put on muscle safely and therefore improve the quality of their life
- All of this is dependent upon following a structured, professionally designed, periodized training program