There are a bazillion methods out there to increase muscle size. No matter which one you choose, you need to increase resistance as your body gets stronger. This is called “accommodation.” If training volume or intensity does not increase, you will plateau.
Here’s why: Muscle fibers are classified as either fast- or slow-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are more endurance- or aerobic-based. They can do work for long periods and are called upon to work first. Fast-twitch fibers are called upon as needed for heavy and explosive exercises.
Light loads lifted easily don’t call upon all your muscle fibers to do the work. So if you have a max Bicep Curl of 100 pounds and curl 30 pounds for a short time, you wouldn’t activate all your muscle fibers.
Fatigue, on the other hand, causes your body to recruit more muscle fibers. So if you curled 30 pounds until fatigue set in, you would work most of your muscle fibers.
To build muscle, you need to work both fiber types and activate as much muscle as possible. Here are three loading schemes that will help you accomplish this goal.
1. Heavy Resistance Training
The jury’s still out on whether a minimal training intensity is needed for muscle growth, but one thing’s for sure: lifting heavy weights is an effective way to put on muscle. If the weight is heavy enough, you will recruit plenty of muscle fibers
Heavy resistance training looks like this:
Back Squat: 90% of 1RM for 3 sets of 3 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets.
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2. Bodybuilding-Style Training
Moderate weight with lots of sets and reps is the classic bodybuilding routine. Focus on a muscle group or groups and work until fatigue sets in with minimal rest periods. Training volume (frequency x sets x reps) may be the most important factor for increasing muscle size. Moderate weight with lots of sets and reps and minimal rest periods may be the most efficient way to do this.
Classical bodybuilding training looks like this:
Back Squat: 70% of 1RM for 4 sets of 10 reps with 1 minute rest between sets.
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3. Light Weight Until Muscular Failure
There is some evidence that training with light loads until failure may induce hypertrophy of slow-twitch muscle fibers. This may work by putting constant load on the slow-twitch fibers for extended periods of time.
Light weight training until muscular failure looks like this:
Leg Extensions: 30% of 1RM for 3 sets until failure with 1 minute rest between sets.
To maximize muscle hypertrophy, training variability is a must. This means you should not always train at the same intensity. Instead, train at 90%, 80%, 70% and 60% of your 1-Rep Max. For one week, lift heavy on the Squat. The next, do a bodybuilding loading scheme. On the third week, train light until concentric failure for a set.
It is possible to utilize all of these training loads within a session. That may look something like this:
- Heavy Back Squats: 90%, 3×3
- Rear-Leg-Elevated Squats: 70%, 4×10
- Leg Extensions: 40%, 3 sets to concentric failure