There are two popular ways of training for muscle growth. The first style of training is a descendant of strength training, and it focuses heavily—often exclusively—on the big compound lifts. These are the programs built around the squat, bench press, and deadlift, often with some overhead pressing and barbell rowing added in afterwards. We see this in programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts, as well as a number of other popular programs that claim to be good for gaining both size and strength.
The second style of training is popular among casual bodybuilders, and it focuses more heavily on isolation lifts, sometimes at the cost of compound lifts. This is the style of training where people might use the leg press as their main lower-body movement, but will also be doing leg extensions, hamstring curls, and calf raises.
The more popular opinion is that compound lifts are better at stimulating muscle growth, but for many of the muscles in our bodies, that’s actually not the case.
Both barbells and dumbbells are great for gaining size and strength. However, they aren’t quite the same thing. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses.
For example, the barbell bench press is the most famous lift for building up our chests, and with good reason—it’s the heaviest, and it does the best job of building our triceps and shoulders alongside our pecs. But if we’re trying to build a stubborn chest, or if we have cranky shoulders, the dumbbell bench press might be a better choice. Why is that?
Or what about when we’re doing biceps curls or overhead presses? Should we grab a barbell or some dumbbells? The barbell allows us to lift heavier, which forces our cores to work harder and our spines to grow tougher, but dumbbells allow us to lift with a freer range of motion, and they engage different stabilizer muscles.
And why are barbells so popular in strength training while dumbbells are more popular with bodybuilders? Is it because barbells are better for gaining strength in our lower bodies whereas dumbbells are better for building bigger and more symmetrical muscles?
It also helps to know the pros and cons of barbells and dumbbells so that we can decide what type of home gym we want to build. Should we build a barbell home gym in a spare room or should we get a pair of adjustable dumbbells that we can store in the closet? If we want the best results, do we need access to both?
Some argue that we should wear lifting belts when training for size because they allow us to lift more weight while protecting our lower backs, and there’s some truth to that. If we can lift more weight because our spines are held rigid in a more neutral position, then that would certainly be an asset while bulking.
Others argue that we shouldn’t wear lifting belts outside of powerlifting because they prevent us from strengthening the muscles in our lower backs and cores. That doesn’t seem to be true, but lifting belts do indeed increase intraabdominal pressure, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for everyone. Furthermore, not all spinal experts recommend lifting belts, especially when our goal is merely to gain muscle size. So there’s some nuance here.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
- How lifting belts can help us build more muscle.
- Why some people may want to avoid them.
- Which lifting belts are best.
- And how to use them.
Recently, research has been coming out showing that long rest periods between sets are best for building muscle. With longer rest times, our muscles can better recover their strength between sets, allowing us to maintain more of our performance from set to set. More weight lifted for more sets means more mechanical tension, higher training volumes, and thus more muscle growth. Because of this, most bodybuilders rest 2–5 minutes between sets.
But a decade ago, short rest times were thought to be best for building muscle. Bodybuilders would rest just 30–60 seconds between sets because it gave them better muscle pumps, kept their workouts short, improved their fitness, and, they thought, helped them build more muscle.
What’s neat is that both approaches are correct. Using long rest times allows us to use heavier weights and gain more strength, helping us to build more muscle. Short rest times, on the other hand, help us to improve our work capacity and general fitness, also helping us to build more muscle.Tell Me More
There are three conflicting ideas about how the range of motion we use while lifting affects our muscle growth:
- The first idea is that lifting with a larger range of motion means doing more work, which will then stimulate more muscle growth.
- The second idea is that keeping constant tension on our muscles throughout the set gives a better muscle pump and thus stimulates more muscle growth.
- The third idea is that doing heavy partials can strengthen our tendons and bones, allowing us to build more muscle in the longer term.
All three of these ideas seem to be true. For maximal muscle growth, we probably want to use a smart mix of all three.Tell Me More
How many weekly sets should we be doing per muscle group per week when training for hypertrophy? That’s a good question but also a tricky question because of how many factors are involved:
- What rep ranges are you lifting in?
- How long are your rest times?
- How close to failure are you going?
- How often are you training each muscle?
- Are you aiming for overall muscle growth (bulking) or are you focusing on a few muscles (specialization)?
In this article, we’ll start by going over the ideal type of volume for building muscle—the ideal number of reps per set, how close to failure we should be lifting, and how long our rest times should be. Then, once we’ve narrowed in on how to lift for muscle growth, we can talk about how much volume we should be doing to build muscle as fast as possible.Tell me More
If we want to make our muscles bigger, we need to challenge them enough to provoke an adaptation. How much our muscles are challenged depends on our leverage. By adjusting our leverage over the weights, we can change which muscles are being worked, how hard they’re being worked, and how hard they’re being worked relative to one another.
For example, by changing our leverage while squatting, we could:
- Lift heavier weights and engage more muscle mass.
- Emphasize either quad growth, glute growth, back growth, or aim for equal stimulation of all three muscle groups.
- Make the lift hard at one specific part of the lift, stimulating a smaller amount of muscle growth, or hard throughout the entire lift, stimulating a larger amount of muscle growth.
By understanding and min-maxing our leverage, we can improve how much muscle we build and how much strength we gain while lifting weights.
What’s kind of neat is that the word leverage has two separate meanings:
- Leverage: the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.
- Leverage: use (something) to maximum advantage.
Let’s talk about the first so that we can do the second.
Most people are overweight, most people try to diet that extra fat away, and most people fail. But it’s not that we fail to lose fat. Most of us can grit our teeth, go on a diet, and lose some fat. Most popular diets, ranging from keto to veganism, really do succeed at helping people lose weight (study, study).
The problem is that our motivation ebbs and flows. When we’re riding a wave of determination, we succeed. But then when our well of willpower inevitably runs dry, we succumb to our appetites and undo all of our hard-fought progress.
When we finish a successful diet, we’re still the same people as we were before. The only difference is that because we’re leaner, we’re hungrier, and because we’re carrying around less bodyweight, we burn fewer calories as we go about our days. No wonder, then, that it’s almost impossible to keep ourselves from regaining all of the weight we lost—our cravings are worse than before and our metabolisms are lower.
So over the course of a few months, or maybe even over the course of a few years, our body-fat percentage climbs right back up to where it used to be. And then we need to start the process all over again.
Total bummer. If only there were another way…The Other Way
On the one hand, chin-ups are the bigger compound lift, they allow us to load our biceps far heavier, and they use a larger overall range of motion. On the other hand, biceps curls are lighter, yes, but they’re limited purely by the strength of our biceps. And even though curls have a smaller range of motion overall, the range of motion for our biceps is quite a bit larger. Which lift winds up being best for biceps growth?
Then we need to consider that our muscles grow best when they’re challenged in a stretched position (meta-analysis). So the next thing to compare is the strength curve of both chin-ups and biceps curls. How challenging are they at different parts of the range of motion?
Finally, what’s the best way to min-max both chin-ups and biceps curls for even better biceps growth? What variations and grip positions should we be using? What rep ranges should we be lifting in? What should our training volume be?
In this article, we’ll compare the chin-up against the curl for biceps growth, and then talk about how to build a biceps bulking routine around them.
Sleep is the foundation of a good bulking routine. It gives us the drive to challenge ourselves in the gym, the appetite to eat a big bulking diet, and the willpower to implement new habits. But for the sake of giving sleep the credit it deserves, let’s put aside that it improves our willpower, motivation, compliance, exertion, and all of the other (super important) secondary benefits. Here’s how sleep can directly increase muscle hypertrophy and strength gains (study):
- More testosterone: getting enough sleep boosts our circulating levels of testosterone, improving our ability to gain muscle quickly and leanly.
- More insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1): getting enough sleep will also raise our IGF-1 levels, allowing us to better recruit satellite cells into our muscle fibres, which is critical for overcoming size and strength plateaus.
- Less cortisol: getting enough sleep reduces chronic cortisol levels, reducing muscle breakdown and increasing muscle growth.
- Less Inflammation: getting better sleep reduces chronic inflammation, speeding up muscle repair, reducing our risk of injury, and improving our general health.
- Better nutrient partitioning: getting enough sleep makes our bodies prefer getting stored energy from fat instead of muscle, allowing for leaner muscle gains.
- More muscle growth. As we’ll cover in the introduction, optimizing our sleep has been shown to increase gains in lean mass by around 30% (while simultaneously reducing fat gain).
Given how powerful sleep is while bulking, it pays to approach our bedtime routines with the same fervour that we approach our lifting routines. If we give it a high priority in our lives, it won’t just improve our gains, it will improve everything.