Hi Germany! For those who are new to me first a short introduction. I'm Christiaan Heemskerk an amateur Exercise Physiologist and Nutritionist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. A place probably totally unfamiliar to you. But it was recently crowned Europe’s Hottest place to be. So if it’s not for me, just get your ass to Rotterdam.
Sticking to fitness, exercise, the human body and what not. This post is going to be a short introduction into the why, what and how of physical development ( or muscle growth) and the most effective style of resistance training that follows from this understanding. The most effective you say? A bold statement I know, that’s why I’ll be going over the basics and explain why I’m so confident in making the statement in the first place.
How to Build Muscles: Your Muscles Always Want to Grow
Right of the bat I'm going to start out with another bold statement in all caps.
YOUR WORKOUT SHOULD PER DEFINITION LEAD TO VISIBLE PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT! IF NOT, SOMETHING IS SERIOUSLY WRONG WITH YOUR TRAINING ROUTINE, AND YOU’LL NEED TO KEEP READING!!
The reason for this is very simple. When you stimulate muscular growth properly, your body will always respond and develop bigger, stronger, and more flexible muscles. Yes I said it, ALWAYS. They won’t be like stubborn, winey little children and be like: “No … I don’t wanna grow.” On the contrary, your survival is your bodies number one priority, so when you tell it to grow, then HELL YES, it’s going to grow! Physical growth is therefore assured from the first step you take into a gym.
This off course begs the question. But how?
Well physical development can be broken down into three parts:
This list on how to build muscles also acts as an hierarchy, in which exercise is the most important element. Without this you can eat and rest all you want but no muscle would ever be incentivized to grow. Then a close second is nutrition, because you can stimulate all you want but if there’s no food to build muscle tissue with, it will be very hard to develop anything. Just like you need bricks to build a house, you need nutrition to build muscle tissue.
Of course there is the question of what type of foods you should eat. Animal or plant or both. Well, if you only want a muscular and strong body then an animal based diet will work fine for you. On the flipside, if you want to stay healthy too, you need to eat as plant based as possible. The why and how of this fact, I’ll reserve for later blog post.
Last in the hierarchy there is rest, broken down in days of rest after a workout and sleep. Most people agree that some rest is needed for physical development but most disagree on how much rest. What I experience in my practice and what scientific studies clearly validate is that your body can handle quite a lot of punishment. Especially if you’re an advanced trainee. Most people can handle two hard full-body workouts a week. And I wouldn't recommend more. Firstly because you also need to have a life outside the gym. Secondly, if you train too much, you probably can’t keep it up mentally. Your workouts will become weak and meaningless, even to the point that your muscle growth will stop and it would have been better to just stay home to charge your mental reserves and then work out hard two days later.
Sleep, of course, is also important. But your muscles can grow regardless of you being sleep-deprived. Though, being sleep deprived does have a negative impact on your workout performance. For this reason alone you should make sure to get your 7 to 8 hours of sleep a day.
The Workout That Will Make You an Addict
I could write a book about every one of these three basic elements of physical development. But for now let’s stick to the most important and 'Grand Daddy' of all: the exercise that sets you off to real results.
If you would ask your average "run of the mill" fitness enthusiast about their approach to resistance training and muscle growth (I say resistance training and not weight training because the weight is just one element of the total resistance, which is a combination of the weight, the leverage, and speed of movement), most enthusiasts would immediately start telling you all about reps, sets, weights and exercises, which are useful tools if you know how to apply them correctly. But if you ask the same people what muscle growth actually entails, most of them fall silent very quickly. Some are able to tell you something about overloading the muscle and create microscopic tears in their muscles. These are steps in the right direction but far from the whole story.
The Mastery of Anatomy
So let me first give you the full story on what micro tears have to do with muscle growth and how my training style can assure real results with every workout. I want to keep this first post simple and holistic, meaning to show you the whole picture instead of just a scraping of tiny parts.
So the research that I will be citing is based mainly on fundamental muscle biology. Taking this scientific direction steers us away from as much fitness bias as possible. In particular, I will refer back to now Emeritus Professor of Anatomy Geoffrey Goldspink, who became a professor when only 32. I have read his large body of work starting back to the 60s all the way to 2012, a total of more than 45 years of experience. He was awarded the chair for his contribution to the understanding of how muscles grow and develop. He has held nine professorships, including a visiting professorship at Harvard University. So you could say he is the real deal and not some fringe professor from a random diploma mill. Some might say I’m limited in my sources. But I would rather tap from the genius of one master, then the confusion of 10 rookies. The same way you wouldn’t denounce the works of Einstein’s or Newton’s because they were just one man.
The Muscle: It's Elastic Fantastic
So talking micro tears, what you first have to understand is that the muscle is an elastic tissue which can extent and contract in a linear fashion. Be it the muscles of the biceps, abdominals or hamstrings, they all support a movement in one direction.
When the muscle is overextended, so beyond its optimal point, it will start to show small tears: THIS is the ultimate trigger for growth and strength to increase.
To illustrate this elastic quality, let’s take an elastic rubber band.
In extension it also shows the properties of small tears on the side of the band. In my early childhood, I had a hands-on experience with this very fact. I came to discover together with my childhood friends that you can shoot rubber bands at each other. We harassed our local mailman, who used them for tying up his mail, to give us a whole bunch of them. We would use them to literally engage in all out rubber band shootout.
We would extent the rubber band to its max and see the tears on the side together with a color change. When we would extent the rubber band to often it would lose its elasticity and strength, leaving it useless for the shootout.
Just like the rubber band the muscle also shows small tears as it extents. But counter to the rubber band that loses its elasticity and strength, the muscle is live tissue and can adapt to the pressures places upon it by becoming bigger and stronger.
And the further the muscle extents, the greater the pressure placed upon it, the more micro tears are created, and the bigger the overcompensation will be1.
1 Goldspink, G., A. Scutt, P. Loughna, D. Wells, T. Jaenicke, and G-F. Gerlach, Gene expression in skeletal muscle in response to mechanical signals. Am. J. Physiol. 262: R326-R363, 1992.
Why Stretch Is THE Muscle Builder
In a real world setting, this notion of extension and getting stronger would for example apply to you being overpowered while fighting an opponent. The more your opponent has the upper hand, the more likely he is to extent or stretch your muscle to their absolute breaking point. Just like the MMA fighters who often pull each other’s arms and legs to the point that one of them has to give up.
The extension is the ultimate trigger and sign that the muscle isn’t strong enough and needs to grow to get stronger. Another example would be you walking alongside a dangerous cliff and slipping. Luckily, you're fast enough to catch yourself on the edge of the cliff, in which you will give it your all to try and pull yourself up to safety. Here again the muscles of your arms and back would be extended to their maximum breaking point. A clear sign that the muscle needs to grow to get stronger in case something similar happens again.
Goldspink refers to the consequent micro tears as muscle splits, meaning that the muscle splices apart, leaving you with microscopic muscle injury to which the muscle reacts by releasing its own growth hormone: the Muscle Growth Factor (MGF). This hormone stimulates the muscle cells to grow and become stronger1. Consequently, maximizing muscle growth would mean maximizing the injury in a safe and controlled fashion, giving you constant muscular growth because the extension will always result in muscle splicing and the consequential release of the MGF. This is why I was so bold in stating that this is the most effective training. It doesn’t follow a personal bias toward a certain training technique, but stems from a deep understanding of the muscles' own mechanisms.
1 Zabłocka, B., Goldspink, P. H., Goldspink, G., & Górecki, D. C. (2012). Mechano-Growth Factor: an important cog or a loose screw in the repair machinery? Frontiers in Endocrinology, 3, 131.
So, How Do We Maximize The Muscle Splicing, the MGF, And Muscular Growth?
Well, Goldspink explains that strain is the most powerful determinant for muscular development. With strain, he means first and foremost stretch combined secondly with force, which is then compounded by the amount of work that you do. In simpler terms this comes down to stretching the muscle as far as possible under the highest amount of safe resistance. With every additional work or workout set you perform you create bigger results.
Sticking to our holistic approach:
A 2009 meta-analysis by Roig of 20 concentric (muscle flexing) versus eccentric (muscle extension) training studies showed that eccentric training resulted in superior results1. With the researcher concluding that “In summary, this systematic review suggests that compared with concentric training, eccentric training may be associated with greater improvements in both total and eccentric strength in healthy individuals.” They left out the mechanism that cause the superior results even though they cited some of Goldpink's work2. We now know the underlying mechanism of strain: maximizing strain means maximizing growth.
1 M. Roig, K. O'Brien, G. Kirk, R. Murray, P. McKinnon, B. Shadgan, W. D. Reid. The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2009 August; 43(8): 556–568
2 Goldberg AL, Etlinger JD, Goldspink DF, et al. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1975;7:185–98.
So How Do I Apply This All In Practice?
In a gym environment this would look something like this: If you would for example do a dipping exercise, you would dip as low as possible, and thoroughly work the shoulder muscles and muscles of the chest. At first, you would maybe need to use a pad to support a part of your bodyweight, then you would move to your full body weight and eventually you would start to add additional weights.
Getting to the state of adding weight will first take some significant development though. Because this training style of full extension works the muscle in their weakest position. I personally use dippings to train my chest and shoulders. I find this is the best exercise to fully extent, especially the muscles of the chest.
I approach this exercise by not even lifting myself of the ground. I keep standing on both feet, grab the handle bars, place myself in a stretched position, flex my muscles hard to the point that they become stiff without actually moving them, and then I slowly lower the support from my legs and raise the tension on my muscles. This way you can really direct the tension on the muscles without becoming overpowered. It truly feels amazing. And as a bonus, it doesn’t cost a lot of energy, so afterwards you feel fully energized to continue your day.
So, in your training, I would advise you not be too concerned with heavy weights. They are quick to overpower you, and will leave you with serious injury. It's extension under a safe amount of resistance that should be your main concern. Therefore, especially when you are first starting out with this training style, you should focus on proper form and get accustomed with the stretched feeling in the muscle. Once you get the hang of it, and you’ll start to see results; and even more results over time. You will know why this posts title has a cautionary message.
This is the basic outline of this training technique. I have probably raised more questions then I answered. But to cover all the details this would end up becoming an entire encyclopedia of anatomy. So first let me know if you are interested in knowing more about this training technique, and what your most pressing questions are. Just post your questions in the comment section. In future posts, I’ll try to answer them as adequate as possible.
Thank you for reading and hoping to hear from you.