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How To Build Muscle And Stop Wasting Time In The Gym

If you are trying to build muscle there are a couple of important concepts you'll need to learn so that you can make sure to integrate them into your plan. The first one is how to stimulate muscle growth within a given workout. The second concept, progressive overload, focuses more on the long term, i.e. how to structure your workouts over the weeks, months, and even years to ensure continued progress.

Both are very important. Without proper stimulus, your body will have no reason to initiate a growth response from your workouts. But, even if you have the muscle stimulation part down, that does not guarantee success. This is because if you are not creating an overload on your muscles over time, there will be no reason for your body to adapt and grow bigger.

Man Lifting Weights

Muscle Growth Stimulation

Muscle growth is stimulated from three primary drivers: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. Priority should be given to the former of the three, mechanical tension, as research indicates that it is the most important. Mechanical tension is the stress or weight put on the muscle by the external load. Muscle damage is tiny little tears in the muscle created through the contractions that happen during workouts and is the actual cause of soreness (not lactic acid). Metabolic stress is a combination of cell swelling, blood pooling, and a buildup of metabolites. It is 'the pump' and the burn you feel when lifting. To create tension you can increase the external load or the time that the muscle stays under that load. I recommend focusing on increasing the load, because this method is simple and has the least room for error.

To create muscle damage, you want strong contractions (think, squeezing the muscle when you work them), particularly eccentric contractions that stretch the muscle (like lunges or deep squats). Engaging or squeezing the muscles you are focusing on will also increase activation, which ensures you are stimulating the targeted muscle groups. Do not go overboard with this though, as too much squeezing can fatigue the muscle sooner and reduce the amount of load you can use.

Metabolic stress comes from high reps with little or no rest. When you do several sets of curls and several sets of triceps pushdowns all in a row and your arms are burning and feel like they are about to explode, you know you’ve created some metabolic stress.

While working out to create muscle damage and metabolic stress is good, it is important not to get carried away with them and lose focus on the first driver of muscle growth, tension. It is the main driver of growth and should be prioritized. In fact, recent data presented by renowned muscle building researcher Menno Henselmans ( indicates that metabolic stress and muscle damage may actually be more or less byproducts of muscle growth, rather than primary drivers behind it. While I’m not ready to abandon damage or stress yet, it does go to show that the focus should be on tension.

Important Steps in Building Muscle

So, if your muscle building workouts consist of ONLY chasing a pump or burn, or getting yourself as sore as possible, muscle gains are certainly being left on the table.

The second concept, progressive overload, takes place over weeks, months, and even years. To create it and thus see growth, your muscular system must do more work than it is currently doing.

The most common way to achieve this is by increasing resistance or load. ⁠Notice that if you increase mechanical tension over time, you've got progressive overload. It can also be done by increasing sets, reps, range of motion, improving your form, decreasing rest times, and increasing your training frequency.

The best way to do it for people that are very new to resistance training is form improvement. Until technique is on point, you shouldn't be focused on much else, because getting injured is a surefire way to avoid ANY progress.⁠ Fortunately, this part doesn’t take too long, especially if you have a good personal trainer. Once that's taken care of, increasing weight and reps is usually the most feasible and practical way to level up your muscle gains. These two methods of progressive overload can take you very far, all the way from beginner to intermediate and even into fairly advanced stages of resistance training. Once you get strong enough that adding reps or weight is no longer possible on a weekly basis, you’ll need to start leaning more on variables like frequency and set number.

Woman Lifting Weights

In conclusion, to make sure your workouts are effective for building muscle be sure that you stimulate growth by using methods that create mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. Next, make sure that you steadily increase the load on your muscles over the weeks, months, and years to ensure progressive overload occurs. Don’t get complacent. PUSH yourself and plan out your workouts to ensure you are making gradual improvements. Otherwise, you will be scratching your head wondering why you don’t have much to show for the work you put in.

You should now be armed with the basics of how muscles grow. If you have any questions feel free to send us a message. If you would like help building muscle from a professional personal trainer, right here in Austin, then give us a call or book a free Transformation session. At that session you will do a detailed consultation with a professional trainer, a short workout, and then your trainer will put together a plan for you to achieve your goals. Click here to book that session and get started!

CTA with Woman Lifting Weights


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