Lifting weights is easy. Yet lifting weights correctly, that’s hard work! It’s hard work because it takes great preparation and effort to create and execute a workout strategy that maximizes muscle growth. A well-designed workout regimen must entail the most efficient exercise movements with the right amount of weight within the perfect repetition range and, of course, all of this must be done with mind-blowing intensity! The perfect workout flawlessly blends the aforementioned variables, putting maximum stress on the muscle cell while promoting an anabolic environment that produces the greatest potential for muscle growth.
Many types of training techniques promote muscle growth. However, a few techniques have been well documented as having a greater impact on muscle growth and strength. These methods potently increase mechanical tension on the muscle cell, produce greater muscle cell damage or increase metabolic stress within the muscle cell— all the while stimulating the production of specific anabolic hormones, potently facilitating muscular development.
Forced repetitions involve assisting the lifter through additional repetitions after concentric failure has been reached. This technique promotes muscle hypertrophy by increasing metabolic stress within the muscle cell emerging from the additionally performed repetitions and supporting an anabolic environment. This hypothesis was investigated by Ahtiainen et al.1 when they tested the effects of forced repetitions on growth hormone release directly after performing forced reps in the squat and leg press. The group that performed forced reps had a significantly higher level of growth hormone secretion, suggesting that the increased metabolic stress from forced reps leads to increased growth hormone production and greater muscle mass.
Drop sets entail performing a set to failure with a given load, then immediately reducing the load and continuing to failure. This technique promotes muscle hypertrophy by increasing metabolic stress within the muscle cell due to extra time the muscle cell spends under tension from the extra repetitions. Furthermore, there has been evidence brought forward by Goto et al.2 demonstrating that drop sets also enhance the anabolic environment by increasing growth hormone production. In this study, the subjects performed 5 sets of several different lifts to failure at 90 percent of their 1-repetition max (1RM), followed by an additional set to failure at 50 percent of their 1RM. This group showed an increased level of growth hormone after their workouts, compared to the control group. More importantly, in a follow-up study Goto et al.3 showed a positive correlation with amplified growth hormone levels and increased muscle size.
Heavy negatives focus on the eccentric portion of the lifting movement while using a greater amount of weight than the subject’s 1RM. Given that the typical lifter is approximately 20 to 50 percent stronger during the eccentric phase of the movement compared to the concentric portion of the movement, heavy negatives typically produce greater muscle tension and muscle damage— producing greater muscle growth. The greater muscle growth associated with heavy negative training has been documented by Eliasson et al.4 to correlate with an increase in production of IGF-1. IGF-1 has been shown to initiate muscle repair due to acute muscle damage from resistance training.5 In addition, IGF-1 contributes to muscle hypertrophy.
Although there is a sufficient amount of evidence supporting the use of forced reps, drop sets and heavy negative training to augment muscle hypertrophy, these techniques should not be used for extended periods of time. They should be incorporated into the workout for a few weeks at a time in order to boost muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Slow lifting movements. Research by Burd et al.6 had a group of men perform leg extensions at 30 percent of their 1RM, with the concentric and eccentric portions lasting either six seconds or one second. Post-exercise muscle biopsies showed the group with the slower leg extension movement had a significantly higher increase in muscle protein synthesis, compared to the control group. In contrast with the prevailing belief that heavy weights are essential to build muscle, this study shows longer muscle contraction time is also sufficient for increased muscle cell protein synthesis. Moreover, this work suggests slow lifting movements as an effective alternative to heavy weights for increasing muscle mass.
Low load, high volume. It is commonly recommended that high load contractions with weight greater than 70 percent of your 1RM be performed for optimal muscle growth. However, Burd et al.7 illustrated that a low load, high-volume approach to weightlifting produces greater levels of certain types of muscle protein synthesis than the high load, low-volume approach. Again, this study contradicts the dogmatic principle that heavy weights are required for muscle growth. In this study, two groups performed leg extensions to failure with one of them performing the lift at 90 percent of their 1RM (high load, low volume) and the other at 30 percent of their 1RM (low load, high volume). The results showed that only the low load, high-volume group maintained myofibril muscle protein synthesis at 24 hours post-exercise. These data suggest that heavy weights are not an absolute prerequisite for stimulating muscle growth. This study also establishes that performing high reps with a moderate load intermittently will enhance muscle growth and mitigate the likelihood of soft tissue injury.
Heavy resistance with compound movements. Testosterone enhances muscle growth by binding to the androgen receptor within the muscle cell, thus initiating protein synthesis. Resistance training, especially compound movements such as the squat8, increases testosterone production— facilitating muscle growth and strength. In a more recent study, Ahtiainen et al.9 perform a 21-week study investigating the effects of heavy resistance exercise (leg press) on androgen receptor levels. After performing muscle biopsies before and after exercise, they discovered that the level of androgen receptor increased significantly. More notably, this study showed a correlation between androgen receptor levels, muscle size and strength. Overall, these two investigations demonstrate that heavy resistance exercise performing compound movements increases circulating testosterone and androgen receptor levels, producing greater muscle mass and strength.
Pre-workout. Nutrition and adequate rest are vital complements to your intense and varied training regimen. In fact, nutrition is the greater component for success if you want to drive muscle growth and strength. A good pre-workout can make a big difference in achieving those goals, as the right formulation can significantly increase nitric oxide (NO) levels— which has been shown to be a key factor in generating greater blood flow and vasodilation in working muscles for increased energy levels and better pumps. Look for a pre-workout that contains Nitrosigine®, a scientifically engineered, patented complex of bonded arginine silicate. Twenty five studies have demonstrated both efficacy and safety of Nutrition 21’s unique nitric oxide-boosting ingredient, and the latest research provides more insight as to how Nitrosigine® increases cognitive function and arginine absorption to give you the competitive edge you need to take your workouts and training to the next level.
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- Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, et al. Int J Sports Med 2003; 24(6), 410-418.
- Goto K, Sato K, et al. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2003; 43(2), 243-249.
- Goto K, Nagasawa M, et al. J Strength Cond Res 2004; 18(4), 730-737.
- Eliasson J, Elfegoun T, et al. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2006; 291(6), E1197-1205.
- Lu H, Huang D, et al. Faseb J 2010; 25(1), 358-369.
- Burd NA, Andrews RJ, et al. (2011) J Physiol. e-pub, ahead of print.
- Burd NA, West DW, et al. PLoS One 2010; 5(8), e12033.
- Fry AC and Lohnes CA. Fiziol Cheloveka 2010; 36(4), 102-106.
- Ahtiainen JP, Hulmi JJ, et al. Steroids 2011; 76(1-2), 183-192.