Building muscle

Ever wonder how to gain muscle? How to get bigger arms? Or better yet, how muscles grow? To build lean muscle, first, we need to understand what happens when we build muscle, then once we have a baseline understanding, we can structure our workouts around these parameters! But why do we need to build muscle? Is building muscle only for athletes, the teenage boy, or is it for everybody (hint: it’s the latter)?

Why Should We Build Muscle?

Building muscle is for ​everybody!​ Just about all humans on this plant can benefit from more muscle on their skeletons. One of the first reasons is an increase in NEAT (neat, huh?). NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Because muscle tissue is metabolically active, it burns calories throughout the day just by existing on our body (as opposed to fat, which is inert). This means that no matter what we’re doing, the muscle we have is burning calories for us. But that muscle doesn’t stay there forever, and unless we use it by continually resistance training, we will lose it. That’s why it is increasingly important to continue to resistance train in some capacity as we age. The loss of muscle mass as we age is known as ​Sarcopenia.​ This loss of muscle mass can make our daily tasks increasingly more difficult, and cause us to need assistance at an earlier age.​ ​It has been theorized that there are three main drivers of hypertrophy (growth of muscle tissue):

  1. Mechanical Tension
  2. Muscular Damage
  3. Metabolic Stress

If none of these three phenomena are occurring, odds are that you aren’t building any muscle. First, we’ll dive into mechanical tension.

Mechanical Tension

Mechanical tension essentially means the amount of force that the muscle has to produce to overcome some resistance (the weight on the bar). ​This is possibly the most important of the three factors when trying to build muscle​. More weight on the bar, for a longer period of time (time under tension), correlates with more muscle mass. Increasing our time under tension does not mean performing a 15-second bench press if our 1rm is 315lbs, or performing a 10-second bicep curl. Sacrificing weight on the bar to increase the length of the rep misses the point and is counterproductive. The same goes for performing half reps because we think we’re keeping tension on the muscle. Some parameters:

  1. Keep the load between 50%-85% 1rm.
  2. Use a controlled tempo, a 2-second eccentric portion, and a 1-second pause at the bottom should suffice.
  3. Move through a complete and full range of motion, no half reps.

Muscular Damage

The soreness we feel the next few days after a bout of exercise is known as exercise-induced muscular damage (EIMD). This is caused by the damage to the muscle fibers after heavy training. This localized damage causes an immune response that is then followed by muscle

growth. This phenomenon is very much dose-dependent and can be deleterious if 1 of 2 things occur:

  1. Soreness is so excessive that we cannot perform another bout of exercise. If we’re so beat up from our last training session that we can’t get to the gym for our next workout, then that’s another stimulus for growth that we missed out on.
  2. Soreness is so excessive that ALL our adaptive capabilities go to recovery, and not building muscle. The building of muscle occurs after we have recovered from our previous session. If the damage is excessive, all of our adaptation goes to recovering and we won’t have any growth sauce left for building our biceps.

Soreness should be used to indicate that our previous training session caused muscle growth. If we squatted on Monday, and Tuesday we wake up and have no tenderness, soreness, or fatigue, then our previous workout probably wasn’t hard enough to cause any muscle growth. Conversely, if we wake up Tuesday and not only our legs, but our soul is sore and we can’t get out of bed, it’s safe to say we probably did too much. The sweet spot in the middle is where we’re going to grow the fastest.

Metabolic Stress


Arguably the best part about training (in my humble opinion). The accumulation of metabolites and swelling of the muscle cells is what causes the “pump”. This, along with the burning sensation that comes with high rep sets, causes hypertrophy to some degree. One way to maximize this is by using Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR). Cuffing a limb at the point closest to your body will cause the accumulation of metabolites. The restricted blood flow through the tissue will not allow the metabolites to clear until the cuff is released. This could be useful for somebody trying to retain/build muscle but not able to lift weights in the 50%-85% load range. Note: It is important to cuff the limb PROXIMAL to the body. I.e the upper arm near the shoulder and the upper thigh near the pelvis.

Putting it All Together

Trying to solely maximize any one variable will come at the expense of the other two. That means that if we only use BFR, we will not be able to maximize weight on the bar. If we only focus on the weight on the bar and never get a pump in the gym, we are leaving gains on the table. A combination of all 3 in your training is the most effective route.

Put simply:​ To build the most muscle in the most time-efficient manner, for 10 weeks lift moderately heavyweights in the 5-12 rep range 3 days a week. Add 5-10lbs to the bar every 1-2 weeks. After 10 weeks, take 2 weeks to lift lighter weights in the 20-30 rep range. Then, take a week of rest and repeat!

Coach Jon

Sports Performance Coach


“Coach Jon, Irvine Strength and Conditioning Coach who is an athlete himself is someone I recommend to my patients. He knows what he is doing and his attention is on the proper form and injury prevention is what I love about him.”- Dr. Shakib, your Irvine Chiropractor