For a few minutes, forget everything you know about hypertrophy (i.e.muscle growth). Forget about rep ranges, rest intervals, training to muscular failure, supersetting, quadruple setting or whatever the flavor of the week is. Gaining muscle size isn’t easy. In fact, it takes a lot of work (and a ton of calories). Traditionally, coaches have used a variety of methods to get their pupils bigger - that said, all successful hypertrophy focused programs have one main commonality - VOLUME. Yes, other training variables are important, but when it come to muscle growth, in my opinion, this one takes the cake.
Let me ask you a question. Have you ever read a research article on muscle hypertrophy? Or several articles on the topic? If so, you would have noticed that in almost every study, subjects that were assigned a training intervention increased muscle size & thickness. Why is that? It’s quite simple actually - apart from using novice subjects (who will gain size and strength from almost any program) - researchers try to control as many variables as they can. And one variable that is ALWAYS manipulated is volume. These programs use a variety of progressions to increase volume - either it’s an increase in sets, reps, load, time under tension, number of exercises, type of exercises or a combination of these variables (note - there could be other training variables not mentioned here).
Before we move on to how we can use data - the topic of this article - to monitor our muscular growth goals, here’s a quick look at the underlying mechanisms that NEED to be present in some form or another, for increases in size to occur.
There are 3 key mechanisms that stimulate muscle growth. Here’s a brief description of each (an in-depth look at this topic can be found in this review by Brad Schoenfield):
1 - Mechanical tension → there is enough load (or stimulus) to elicit an adaptation to training; i.e. if you’re an experienced lifter, doing bodyweight squats probably won’t have a big enough stimulus because of the ‘Size Principle’ - more on that here.
2 - Metabolic stress → a build-up of metabolites (like lactate, hydrogen ion, inorganic phosphate etc); training that induces this type of stress creates an anabolic environment for muscle growth; i.e. training to failure.
3 - Muscle damage → damage to muscle tissue(s) - the result will be a localized (muscles you trained) hypertrophic effect - i.e. performing bench will primarily work the pectoralis muscle groups.
It’s important to note that you don’t need all 3 of these mechanisms to be present at the same time. For instance, bodybuilders will generally train to muscular failure - this creates a hormonal milieu by inducing metabolic stress in the targeted muscles. On the flip side, powerlifters - who aren’t small...they are in fact massive - use heavy loads (i.e. mechanical tension) which also increases muscle size. Both the first and the second mechanisms will cause muscle damage (third mechanism) and none of the mechanisms are mutually exclusive.
GET BIG WITH DATA
When it comes to muscular growth, 3 key metrics to monitor are time under tension (TUT), volume load (or tonnage) and total work. To gain a better understanding of these metrics, check out this post - A New Approach to Monitor Training Volume.
So instead of explaining why these metrics are important (because the research already tells us they are) - we’re going to look at how YOU can make use of these metrics to monitor volume and increase muscle size.
Metric #1 - Time Under Tension (TUT)
If you’ve ever received a hypertrophy program from a trainer, you’re probably familiar with tempo. If not, let’s quickly go over tempo. Have you ever seen something that looks like this:
If you’re confused, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Basically, each number represents a duration that you should try to attain in each phase of a lift. There are technically 3 phases during a lift….so why do we see 4 numbers? Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
First number: This phase is called the eccentric component. Alternate names include the down phase (also popularised in the bodybuilding community as ‘negatives’).
Second number: This phase is called the isometric component. It’s the portion of the lift where there is no change in muscle length - i.e. there’s no movement, you’re static...like at the bottom of a squat.
Third number: This phase is called the concentric component. It’s also referred to as the pushing or the ‘up’ phase of a lift.
Fourth number: This phase just corresponds to the time between reps - example - the static time at the top of a bench press.
There is still no consensus in the research as to what sort of TUT is best for hypertrophy (research suggests 0.5 seconds to 8 seconds does the trick - wait a minute, that’s a big difference!) but it is clear that the greater the TUT, the greater the metabolic response. Check out figure 1. From the PUSH Portal, I was able to export time under tension for 2 separate training sessions. You’ll notice that on day 2, the total TUT for a sumo deadlift was higher than day 1 - it’s important to note that for each of these sessions, sets and reps were virtually the same but the load on day 2 was higher (more on that a bit later). Because of the increased load, the eccentric phase of each rep was longer, ultimately contributing to an overall longer TUT (Figure 2 shows the eccentric TUT).
How does this help you? First, if you maintain the same load from week to week, you’ll need to change up your tempos and increase overall TUT to stimulate your system. If not, plateaus are inevitable. Second, simply increasing your load, reps or sets at the same given speed of movement will increase TUT. Overall, TUT is a great metric to use during bodybuilding type workouts where you often isolate various muscle groups. This sport requires attention to detail and comparing TUT for different muscle groups may make the difference between finishing a meet first or finishing third
More on these metrics HERE.
Metric #2 - Total Tonnage
Traditionally, when it comes to monitoring workload, total tonnage (or volume load) has been the cornerstone of many strength & conditioning programs - and for good reason. If you’re consistently putting more weight on the bar, you’re consistently providing the body with a stimulus. This fits well into the first key mechanism for hypertrophy - mechanical tension. And because you’re constantly stressing the body, you’ll also create tissue damage (mechanism 3).
Don’t know how to calculate total tonnage? No problem, both the PUSH app and the PUSH portal will do it for you. If you want to compare total tonnage for specific exercises (Figure 3) you’ll also be able to do that by exporting data from the PUSH portal.
ow does this help you? Look at Figure 3 again - there was a large increase in total tonnage from day 1 to day 2. This was accomplished because of a 10% increase in load along with the addition of an extra set (5 on day 2 vs 4 on day 1). Increasing load may be the best way to achieve increases in volume over time...until you hit the proverbial wall. Then what?
Manipulate other training variables! - like number of sets - for instance, to add volume over time. A recent study by Radaelli et al 2015 suggests that a 5 set protocol was better at increasing muscle thickness versus both a 1 set and a 3 set protocol. What’s interesting was that each group increased strength at similar rates over the course of the 6 month study (keep in mind they were novice lifters) - more sets may be more important for size compared to strength.
Bottom line, increasing volume through tonnage is a great way to see your plan progress over time - along with your shoulder width!!
Metric #3 - Total Work (TW)
There’s very little research on this metric - mainly because it takes a deep understanding of physics to calculate it accurately and historically, the tools used to measure TW have been lab-based. In my opinion, it’s an overlooked metric. Why? Because TW takes into account the eccentric component of a rep (it is concerned with external forces, while tonnage ONLY takes into account external loads). The eccentric phase has a greater capacity for force production, and subsequently, muscle damage. A review by Schoenfeld et al 2015 suggests that this may have a large hypertrophic effect on muscle size.
With PUSH, you can easily see TW in action. I use it in a couple different ways. Either I track it in the app while I’m training (this is found in the timeline or the profile sections of the PUSH App) and try to beat my previous training session or I monitor it after the fact.
Look at Figure 4. My goal before day 2 of the overhead press was to increase volume but I wasn’t monitoring it during my workout. I thought because I increased my overall load by 10% that I would surely increase my volume...that didn’t happen, and here’s why. Again, I added load and performed the same number of sets (5) but my reps in each set dropped. The load was too heavy to maintain the same rep count. Bad move on my part! I would have been better off to increase my load by 5% and maintain the same rep and set scheme as the previous session.
Take a long hard look at your training program. Are you getting the gains you’re looking for? Or have you plateaued? The fix may be easier than you think. Use a bit of data monitoring to make sure your volume is increasing from week to week, month to month and year to year.
IMPORTANT - size and strength DO NOT increase in a linear manner. On certain days your volume will be lower than other days - same goes for certain weeks and months. BUT, year after year, like many elite lifters, volume SHOULD BE INCREASING - this is where REAL GAINS happen.
Whether your goal is to increase muscle size or not, you won’t know if you don’t MEASURE and MONITOR - it’s that simple.
Radeallit et al. Dose-Response of 1, 3 and 5 sets of Resistance Exercise on Strength, Local Mucular Endurance and Hypertrophy. J Strength & Cond Res 2015.
Schoenfeld. Effect of Rep Duration During Resistance Training on Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 2015.
Schoenfeld. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and thier Application to Resistance Training. J Strength & Cond Research 2010.