December 4, 2023

Do you prefer to live experiences or to be told about them? Getting up from a chair, going up the stairs of your house, walking, exploring each and every corner of an unknown city to which you travel, climbing a mountain, doing the Camino de Santiago, jumping on the mats with your child… There are people who would like to do all those actions and find it impossible, since they lack good neuromuscular conditioning. Gaining muscle mass is life insurance; If he succeeds, he will achieve health, independence and autonomy, he will avoid fragility. The mistake is being incapable of seeing beyond the aesthetics and neglecting the function. What is not used is lost. This is how your neuromuscular system works.

Muscle hypertrophy is the term that refers to the growth of muscle tissue, which can manifest itself in a variety of structural and metabolic adaptations. The maintenance of muscle mass requires a higher caloric expenditure. If you stop training, your body will notice that you are not using these tissues and will understand it as a waste of energy. As a consequence, it will initiate certain mechanisms with the aim of getting rid of that excess; the result can be loss of muscle mass.

Strength training is the means to prevent this from happening and, furthermore, to optimize the functioning of our entire neuromuscular system. Why is it important to maintain and gain muscle mass? According to studies, lacking it or having low levels is associated with an increase in various cardiovascular diseases and cardio-metabolic risk, as well as type II diabetes in middle-aged adults and loss of functionality in older adults.

After reading the phrase “iron became my savior”, in The MAX Muscle Plan, the latest book by researcher Brad Schoenfeld, number one in hypertrophy, I thought that not everyone knows what really works if you want to achieve the goal of gaining muscle mass.

The myth of infinite repetitions and low weight

There are different factors that affect the development of muscle mass. Schoenfeld’s most recent work points out that there is no specific number of repetitions to gain muscle mass and explains that different ranges and intensities can lead to similar levels of hypertrophy. I remember that many years ago, it was believed that you had to work with infinite series of many repetitions, with a very high volume and little weight. That has been left behind and has been defeated, once again, by scientific knowledge. Therefore, after reading this book, I decided to coordinate schedules and chat with the teacher.

The three key factors for gaining muscle mass, according to the expert, are:

1. Mechanical stress. This is the stress exerted on each muscle in an exercise. The higher the mechanical stress, the closer you get to muscle failure. Could staying close to it be the most important thing? “Right,” she confirms. “Similar hypertrophy can be achieved over a wide spectrum of load ranges (up to 30 or more reps per set). The key is that the training is carried out with a high degree of effort, in which the last repetitions present a considerable challenge for the muscles, ”he admits. Of the three variables, Schoenfeld recognizes that “the most decisive is the mechanical tension. If we don’t generate enough, the other mechanisms have a limited effect.”

From theory to practice: muscle growth is very similar, regardless of the repetitions you do, as long as (and here comes the nuance) that the series are performed with a high degree of effort. That would imply, in practical terms, getting to complete the last repetitions costing us more. It would be key to apply the overload principle (train by subjecting your body to stress or intensity greater than what you are used to). When designing a workout, you should be clear that you are going to gain muscle mass by performing series of 3 to 5 repetitions, also with 8 to 12, with more than 15… The determining factor would be the high degree of effort.

The other two points to take into account when gaining muscle mass would be:

2. Metabolic stress. Generate metabolites, achieve muscle congestion (pump or pumping). According to Schoenfeld in his book, metabolic stress is “perhaps the most fascinating factor associated with muscle development. It is possible that the proposed hypertrophic effects of metabolic stress can be attributed to the production of metabolic by-products called metabolites. These molecular fragments (including lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphate, among others) are thought to indirectly mediate cell signaling. Metabolic stress increases when you train with moderate to high reps; if you ever felt burning when pumping out a set of 15 reps, it is due to the buildup of local metabolites (i.e. lactic acid).” Some research has shown that cellular inflammation stimulates protein synthesis while reducing protein breakdown. Schoenfeld clarifies in his work: “It is not clear exactly why cellular inflammation causes an anabolic effect, but the prevailing theory suggests that it is due to a self-preservation mechanism. That is, the increased water inside the cell presses against the cell wall, much like overinflating a rubber tire. The cell then perceives this as a threat to its integrity and responds by sending anabolic signals that initiate the strengthening of its ultrastructure.”

3. Muscle damage. When training, have you been able to notice sensations of discomfort after an intense session? This can mimic the acute inflammatory response to infection. Once the body perceives the damage, certain cells of the immune system migrate to the damaged tissue to eliminate waste in order to preserve healthy muscle fiber tissue. The pain (the famous shoelaces) should not be an indication that you are doing better. When we train in a sustained (usual) way, adaptations are generated and the muscles become more efficient. The key is in individualization. find the dose optimal for each one, in which that damage provide a challenge that benefits you, rather than an excessive overload that hurts you.

Many mistakes can be made when it comes to gaining muscle mass. “The most common is to follow the program of a bodybuilder or fashionable actor; what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. The design of the program must be individualized to optimize the results”, recommends Schoenfeld.

We found magazines, different sources of information (social networks, TikTok, Instagram) that could lead you to imitate that training plan proposed by a influencers. He it works for me It is not effective when training. Remember: no two people are the same, nor are two workouts.

Warming up is a crucial part of the exercise program.
Warming up is a crucial part of the exercise program. Skynesher (Getty Images)

Programming should be similar in men and women

Hypertrophy should be a goal for all women. According to the magazine The Lancet, they tend to have more frequent and serious problems such as sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass, strength and function), frailty and disability. As Schoenfeld stresses, “generally speaking, programming for both sexes should be similar. Women tend to have a better recovery capacity on average, so they may benefit from slightly shorter rest periods and may be able to train more frequently. However, this is a very individual matter.”

The selection of exercises can be a variable to take into account when organizing the training. Multi-joint and single-joint movements are synergistic in a hypertrophy-oriented program. “A combination of both types of moves is beneficial for maximum gains. The key is to appreciate the biomechanical implications of each movement along with the applied anatomy, and then make decisions based on which exercises are most appropriate and, more importantly, which exercises feel well to a determined individual”, clarifies the researcher.

Warm-up, activation… That is the question

Move well, then make it more intense. Many users want to train more effectively and efficiently, which often translates into saving time, but… Is anything worth it? When should we work on mobility? Only when we notice stiffness in a joint? Would it be enough to use the first set of each exercise as a warm-up? “This would be specific to a specific individual, with her own situation. My advice is to take a self-regulatory approach: assess how you feel after a warm-up set, and if you think you need one or two more sets, go for it,” says the professor.

After so many years of research, Schoenfeld sums up the key to training and gaining muscle like this: “Without a doubt, consistency is the most important thing to gain muscle. Proper manipulation of program design variables, individual considerations, progressive overload, and other issues are extremely relevant, but without consistency the desired results cannot be achieved.

We agree, the best exercise is the one that is done. Living involves moving, living involves training, using muscle to avoid losing it.

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