Many people start weight training because they want to improve their appearance. They focus on building bigger muscles. Hypertrophy training. Bodybuilding. And that’s great. Building bigger muscles can make us look bigger, stronger, and healthier.
But how well does that extra muscle size translate to our strength? What if we follow a bodybuilding routine that’s designed purely to build muscle mass. Will that make us strong? Or will it make us big but weak?
High-intensity training (HIT) proposes that we can gain muscle size and strength faster and more efficiently if we keep our workouts short, infrequent, and brutally intense. It’s not the most popular way to build muscle, but it’s had a loyal following for the past 50 years and shows no signs of giving up.
During these past 50 years, though, thousands of muscle-building studies have been published, and many of them have looked into the principles that define HIT. So, how many sets should we do per exercise? How often should we be training? Should we lift to failure?
Most of all, is HIT good for building muscle?
Our biceps aren’t big muscles. They’re a mere fraction the size of our quads, glutes, shoulders, and chests. But they’re disproportionately prominent. Building bigger biceps can make us look much stronger. And with good reason. Our biceps play a large role in our general strength.
There’s an old strength training adage, though, telling us that all we need to build bigger biceps is to get stronger at compound lifts—at chin-ups and rows. That’s not quite the case, and perhaps that’s why most people’s biceps lag behind. We don’t train them directly enough, hard enough, or often enough.
So, what’s the best way to build bigger biceps?
It’s fairly well established that if you spend most of your time being sedentary (aka sitting), then you’ll burn fewer calories, and you may find yourself getting out of shape, gaining weight, and losing muscle over time. Perhaps that’s why so many people who work desk jobs complain of being “skinny-fat.”
The solution to sedentariness is typically thought to be doing exercise, and that’s true. Exercise is the best way to specifically address these issues:
- The best way to improve your cardiovascular fitness is to do cardio.
- The best ways to gain/maintain muscle are to lift weights or do callisthenics.
The other obvious piece to this puzzle is getting your calorie intake right. If you’re eating more calories than you’re burning, you’ll gain weight. Or, if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning, you’ll lose weight.
- Lifting weights while eating in a calorie surplus (bulking) is the best way to gain muscle.
- Lifting weights while eating in a calorie deficit (cutting) is the best way to lose fat while maintaining your muscle.
So you might imagine that by doing cardio, lifting weights, and keeping your calories under control, you can maintain good health and body composition. And that’s true. But even when we control for all of that, sedentariness is still a factor.
Even for people who regularly exercise, eat well, and eat the correct amount, spending too much time sitting still has a negative impact on our body composition.
There’s a common rule of thumb that we should get lean before we bulk, and then stop bulking once we reach around 20% body fat. The idea is that as we get leaner, our insulin sensitivity improves, allowing us to make leaner muscle gains. And then as we bulk up, our body fat percentage gradually rises, our insulin sensitivity falls, and we begin to gain proportionally more fat.
But there’s new evidence that calls this idea into question. Two researchers, Greg Nuckols, MA, and Eric Trexler, PhD, have been going through hypertrophy research to see which body-fat percentages tend to yield the leanest muscle growth. I spoke with them and they shared their early results and recommendations, which are already creating waves among the top experts.
So, does having a higher body-fat percentage make it harder to build muscle leanly?
The best barbell exercises, without a doubt, are the 5 big compound lifts: the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. These are the lifts that will give you around 2/3rds of your overall muscle growth. In fact, if you’re able to get stronger at just these five lifts, you can build a muscular, strong physique.
But the big compound lifts aren’t good at everything. They’re great for building muscle in our torsos, not so great for building muscle in our limbs. For example, the bench press technically works the triceps, but it doesn’t work all three heads, and it doesn’t bring any of the heads close enough to failure. That means that if we rely on the bench press to build bigger triceps, they’ll lag behind. So the big compound exercises are a great start, but they aren’t a full workout program.
If we combine the big compound lifts with the right isolation lifts, we’ll have a complete set of barbell exercises that will develop all of the muscles in our bodies.
Bulking is when we gain weight to build muscle. Cutting is when we lose weight to burn fat. The problem is, most of us want some combination of muscle gain and fat loss. We want to gain 20 pounds of muscle and lose 20 pounds of fat. In that case, should you start with a bulk or a cut?
And once we start bulking and cutting, how do we know when to switch from one to the other? If we start with a bulk, how high should we let our body-fat percentage rise before switching to a cut? And when we cut, how lean should we get before going back to bulking?
Our shoulder muscles are the biggest in our upper bodies (study). They’re 50% bigger than our chests, lats, and triceps. And they’re 300% bigger than our biceps. No surprise, then, that building bigger shoulders is one of the best ways to improve our appearance and general strength (study). What makes our shoulders tricky, though, is that they’re made up of three different heads—the front delts, side delts, and rear delts—each of which performs different functions.
In this guide, we’ll go over the best exercises for your front, side, and rear delts, and then how to combine them together into an ideal shoulder workout.
Hypertrophy training is the style of training designed specifically for stimulating muscle growth. If you’re trying to build muscle, there’s nothing better. This will help you gain more mass than any strength training program. Plus, because bigger muscles have a greater strength potential, if you’re interested in getting stronger, building bigger muscles is one of the best ways to do that.
In this guide, we’ll teach you why our muscles and how to stimulate that growth. Then we’ll teach you the main principles of building muscle. And then we’ll go over how to min-max every variable of your workout routine, including which exercises to focus on, how many reps and sets to do, how close to failure to take your sets, how long to rest between those sets, and how long to rest between your workouts. By the end, you’ll know exactly how to train for muscle growth.
Bodybuilding is the style of training that’s best for building muscle, right? In theory, yes. But most bodybuilding programs fail to emphasize getting stronger at the big compound lifts, and so they fail to produce consistent muscle growth over time. The solution is simple, and everyone who’s ever tried strength training already knows what it is.
In strength training programs, your strength is determined by adding up how much you can squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition—your total. If your total goes up, you’re improving. If it doesn’t, you aren’t. And so the entire workout program is designed to help you lift progressively more weight, making you gradually stronger at those lifts. And if you aren’t getting stronger, you know there’s a problem you need to fix.
That doesn’t mean that isolation lifts are never used. You’ll find them in strength training programs, too. The difference is that they have a clear purpose—to support the compound lifts. If your chest is holding you back in the bench press, you might use an isolation lift to bulk up your chest.
It’s a good system. Or, at least, it’s a good system if you’re a powerlifter. But what if you aren’t? What if you’re trying to gain muscle mass? Would you focus on different compound lifts? How would you choose your isolation lifts? And how would you measure your progress? If we can figure that out, then we can bring the same clarity to our hypertrophy training that powerlifters have in their strength training.Hm. Tell me More.