What is The MAX Muscle Plan?
The MAX Muscle Plan is a six-month periodized program designed to maximize your muscular potential. The program is a hybrid of the linear and undulating periodization models. Similar to linear periodization, it includes three mesocycles: a MAX strength phase, a MAX metabolic phase, and a MAX muscle phase. But consistent with undulating periodization, it employs a technique called “block periodization” where variables are manipulated on a weekly basis. What follows is an overview of how training variables are manipulated throughout each phase.
Training intensity dictates the number of repetitions that you can perform for a particular exercise. This is called the repetition range. Repetitions can be classified into three basic ranges: low (1-5), moderate (6-12) and high (15+). Each of these repetition ranges will involve the use of different energy systems and tax the neuromuscular system in different ways.
A low-repetition range (approximately 90-100% 1RM) is best for increasing muscular strength. This should make intuitive sense since strength is defined as the ability to exert maximal force. Because training in a low-rep range maximizes strength gains, it often leads to the notion that lifting near-maximal poundages is also the best way to increase muscle size. It’s not. Sure, muscles are under a lot of tension during a low-rep set. That’s a given. The problem: the limited time under tension shortchanges stimulation to certain fibers. Moreover, since low-rep sets last a very short period of time (generally less than 15 seconds), little if any metabolic stress is generated. Bottom line: while you certainly will grow from performing low-rep sets, it’s not an ideal range to maximize muscular gains.
At the other end of the intensity spectrum, a high-rep range (less than about 60% 1RM) is associated with adaptations specific to local muscular endurance (i.e., the ability to lift submaximal weights multiple times) with minimal effects on muscle growth. From a muscle development standpoint, the issue here is the opposite of low-rep training. Although working in a high-rep range does generate a significant amount of metabolic stress, the tension on muscles is inadequate to recruit and fatigue fast-twitch muscle fibers—the ones with the greatest growth potential.
By now you’ve probably guessed that training in a moderate-rep range (approximately 65-85% 1RM) is optimal for building muscle. This is consistent with the theory that a maximum threshold for tension-induced hypertrophy exists, above which metabolic factors become more important than additional increases in load. Moderate reps provide an ideal mix of these factors. For one, the weights are heavy enough to generate significant muscle tension. What’s more, the tension is maintained for sufficient time to enhance the potential for microtrauma and fatigueability across the full spectrum of available fibers in working muscles.
Moderate rep schemes also generate a significant buildup of metabolites that enhance the body’s anabolic environment, setting the stage for muscular growth. A byproduct of metabolite production is cell swelling, commonly referred to as a muscle “pump.” People often dismiss the pump as a temporary cosmetic phenomenon, but this is short sighted. The associated cell swelling is perceived as a threat to the integrity of the affected muscle fibers. The body, in turn, responds by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown— the basis of muscle development.
The MAX Muscle Plan makes use of a technique called “step loading” where progressive increases in intensity are followed by a brief period of unloading. This structure creates a wave-like loading pattern that allows the use of a broad spectrum of reps within a target rep range while reducing the potential for overtraining.
Training volume runs a close second to intensity in terms of its importance to muscle growth. Simply stated, workout volume is the amount of exercise you perform over a given period of time (usually expressed on weekly basis). Volume can be determined by adding up the total number of repetitions performed in a training session.
Given that reps are carried out in sets, training volume is inevitably predicated on the number of sets you perform in a workout. Although single-set routines can certainly help to build muscle, higher volume protocols have consistently proven superior to single-set protocols when it comes to maximizing muscle development. It’s not entirely clear whether this superiority is the product of greater total muscle tension, muscle damage, metabolic stress, or some combination of these factors. One thing, however, is patently clear: if you want to make the most of your muscular potential, multiple-set routines are a must.
How many sets are optimal? Anywhere from 2 to 4 sets per exercise is generally a good guideline, although this can vary somewhat depending on program design. Keep in mind, though, that long workouts tend to be associated with reduced intensity of effort, decreased motivation, and alterations in immune response. Thus, it’s generally best to limit intense workouts to no longer than about an hour or so in length to ensure maximal training capacity throughout a lifting session. What’s more, consistently training with high volumes can hasten the onset of overtraining. This speaks to the need to vary workout volume across the training cycle so that your body is not taxed beyond its recuperative capacity.
The amount of time taken from the end of one set to the beginning of the next is called the rest interval. Rest intervals can be classified into three broad categories: short (30 seconds or less), moderate (1 to 2 minutes), and long (three minutes or more). Long rest intervals allow for complete muscular recovery after performance of a set. Approximately three minutes between sets is needed to fully regain your strength on a given exercise. Full recovery allows you to train with your heaviest weight within a given repetition range, ensuring maximal muscle tension is generated during the ensuing set. That’s good for increasing both strength and size. On the other hand, any metabolite buildup that may arise dissipates over the course of the rest period. That’s good for strength but not for size. Bottom line: longer rest intervals are beneficial when your goal is to enhance basic strength, but they are not ideal for maximizing muscle growth.
Short rest intervals basically have the opposite effect. Metabolite accumulation skyrockets with limited rest periods. Not only does this enhance the body’s anabolic environment, but it also makes your muscles more impervious to lactic acid— factors beneficial for both muscular endurance and size. The downside: short rest intervals do not allow sufficient time to regain your strength. In fact, strength decrements of up to 50 percent are seen in subsequent sets when rest intervals are limited to 30 seconds. The upshot is that muscle tension is compromised, making it difficult to build substantial amounts of muscle.
Moderate rest intervals offer an effective compromise for enhancing muscle development. For one, a majority of your strength is recaptured following a moderate rest period— enough to generate substantial muscular tension. Better yet, consistently training with moderate rest intervals leads to adaptations that ultimately allow you to sustain performance with even higher percentages of your 1RM— up to 90 percent of maximal strength capacity. Moderate rest intervals also promote significant metabolic stress, particularly when combined with moderate repetitions. Large spikes in metabolite production are seen following such exercise protocols, enhancing anabolic signaling. From a muscle-building standpoint, it’s the best of both worlds.
Frequency of Training
Frequency of training pertains to the number of exercise sessions performed in a given period of time (usually reported on a weekly basis). Research indicates that at least three resistance-training sessions per week are necessary to maximize muscle development, but a greater frequency can potentially augment results, at least up to a given point. Train too frequently for too long and overtraining ultimately sets in. Results can be optimized by periodizing training frequency so that you push your body to the brink without going over the edge.
Another important consideration with respect to training frequency is how much time to allow between training the same muscle group. Of particular relevance here is the time course of protein synthesis. After an exercise session, protein synthesis is markedly elevated. This increase has been shown to last for about 36-48 hours, post-exercise.
Training a muscle group before protein synthesis has completed its course can impair muscular gains. Compare the process to getting a tan. If you are very light skinned and bake in the hot sun for an hour, no doubt you are going to burn. In this case, you surely wouldn’t go back to the beach again the next day; that would only make the burn worse. Only by taking a break from the sun will the burn subside. Better yet, your skin adapts during this break by producing more melanin so that the next time it’s exposed to the sun you tan instead of burn.
Now let’s revisit the application to training. As with a sunburn, going back to the gym before the repair process has fully run its course will shortchange muscle development. In effect, you keep breaking down the muscle at a greater rate than the body can rebuild it. The muscle can’t keep up with the needed amount of protein synthesis, hastening the onset of localized overtraining.
Shortchanging the recuperative process also has a negative impact on your strength levels. Studies show that force production is decreased for up to 72 hours between high-intensity resistance workouts. This reduces the amount of weight you can lift, decreasing muscular tension and thus impairing muscle development.
Taking all factors into account, a minimum of 48 hours should be allowed between performances of exercises for the same muscle group. Moreover, consideration for recovery should be given to secondary muscle movers as well. Exercises such as pulldowns and rows require substantial muscle contribution from the elbow flexors (i.e., biceps brachii) while pressing movements involve contribution from the elbow extensors (i.e., triceps brachii). Thus, routines should be structured so that all muscles receiving significant work in a session are afforded adequate recovery time. Otherwise, you run the risk of localized overtraining of the involved muscles.
It also should be noted that exercise frequency has a direct effect on total training volume. Assuming volume within each session remains constant, more frequent workouts will necessarily increase weekly training volume. It therefore follows that, all other things being equal, increased training frequency heightens the potential for overtraining. Thus, it’s unwise to continue to train on successive days over long periods of time, even if individual muscles are afforded sufficient rest between workout sessions.
To an extent, training frequency is limited by how you structure your routine. Specifically, training can be carried out either in a total-body fashion where all the major muscles are worked in a single session, or by various types of split routines where multiple exercises are performed for a given number of muscle groups in a session. A benefit of total-body training is that each muscle is trained with a greater frequency compared to split routines. This is particularly advantageous when the goal is to enhance strength and metabolic adaptations.
Total-body routines generally don’t work quite as well when the goal is to maximize muscle development. Compared to full-body routines, a split routine allows total weekly training volume to be maintained with fewer sets performed per training session and greater recovery afforded between sessions. This may enable the use of heavier daily training loads and thus generate greater muscular tension. Moreover, split routines can serve to increase metabolic stress by prolonging the training stimulus within a given muscle group, thereby heightening acute anabolic hormonal secretions, cell swelling and muscle ischemia.
First, muscles often have different attachment sites (the location where muscles attach to bone). This increases leverage in one aspect of the muscle while decreasing leverage in another aspect depending on the exercise performed. For example, the trapezius (a large muscle residing in the back) is subdivided so that the upper aspect elevates the scapula, the middle aspect abducts the scapula, and the lower portion depresses the scapula. Hence, shrugs would work primarily the upper traps, rows the mid-traps, and lat pulldowns the lower traps. Other muscles such as the pectoralis major (the primary chest muscle), deltoids and triceps are segmented into distinct “heads,” where each head is responsible for carrying out different joint actions. Thus, a variety of exercises is required to ensure complete stimulation of all fibers.
Additionally, muscle fibers don’t necessarily span the entire length of the muscle as is commonly believed. The rectus abdominis, for example, is subdivided by several fibrous bands called tendinous inscriptions (the connective tissue that gives abs the “six-pack” appearance), with the upper and lower segments supplied by different nerve branches. Many other muscles are similarly subdivided by one or more fibrous bands and innervated by separate nerves. These architectural differences allow you to selectively target portions of a muscle by performing specific movements.
Bottom line: No single exercise can effectively maximize development of a muscle. This can only be accomplished by varying exercise selection so that muscles are worked from different angles in all planes of movement. Moreover, frequent rotation of exercises is needed to ensure stimulation of the full spectrum of muscle fibers. Even changing hand spacing or foot stance in a movement can bring about different muscular adaptations, improving symmetry and development.
Exercises can be classified into two broad categories. 1) multi-joint exercises that require two or more joints to carry out movement (such as the bench press, where the shoulder and elbow joints are both involved to lift the weight) and 2) single-joint exercises that require movement of only one joint to complete a repetition (such as a biceps curl, where the elbow joint is solely responsible for lifting the weight). Both multi- and single-joint exercises have a place in a muscle-building routine.
So how often should you change exercises? This really depends on the phase of the periodization cycle. Strength improvements tend to be maximized with a limited number of exercises, given that maximal strength is highly dependent on neuromuscular factors (i.e., the “connection” between the brain, nervous system and muscles). The goal here is to hardwire the movements into your “neural circuitry.” The more frequently you perform a given exercise, the more your body develops an affinity for the movement.
During a hypertrophy cycle, on the other hand, frequent rotation of exercises is highly desirable. The goal here is to vary parameters (i.e., angle of pull, exercise modality, etc.) to elicit different activation patterns within whole muscles and muscle compartments, as well as providing a unique stimulus to muscle fibers that heightens microtrauma. Conceivably it can be beneficial to switch up your exercises on a weekly basis. At the very least, you should aim to switch around your exercises every few weeks or so.