There is not exact rule for sets, reps, load or a secret (TUT) time under tension in order to build muscle mass but what we know is that there are three muscle growth mechanisms. Mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.
You can have all three in a single session, or cycle between one and the other. They are all interrelated. It will depend on you and your set goals on which one you focus the most.
Mechanical tension is the amount of force generated by using substantial loads and moving within a full range of motion, usually within a short range of reps. Whereas, metabolic stress is generated by using, let’s say a moderate load and therefore it allows you to produce a higher number of reps, it’s best known as the “pump“.
Muscle damage basically is to create more eccentric contractions, or what many people know as “negatives”, high tension in the stretched position of the muscle, and it can also be caused by low energy status and training under fatigue conditions. Having said that, remember to be smart and seek optimal damage and avoid excessive damage. You can tell when excessive damage occurs when you have a training session and on following days it’s very painful or impossible to move the muscle groups your trained on that day, that’s not the most ideal scenario.
To have some context, see below:
Powerlifters/ Mechanical tension:
- 80 – 90% 1RM / 3-8 sets / 3-8 reps
Bodybuilders/ Metabolic Stress:
- 60 – 70 % 1RM / 3 -4 sets / 12 – 20 + reps
CrossFit athletes/ Muscle damage:
- 70 – 80 % 1RM / 2 – 5 sets / 8 -12 reps
All these athletes look muscular if you look at them, yes their body proportions or composition might look different, but they all have noticeable muscle mass. What does that mean? All three methods work for muscle development.
These three methods are in some way all interrelated because one can lead to the other, for example, heavy loads and constant tension within a moderate range of reps create great metabolic stress, and tension is also great in damaging muscle fibres. Therefore, if you train in a smart manner, after a heavy load session you might feel a bit sore at the next day (optimal muscle damage), but not so sore that you are not able to move (excessive muscle damage), or you might feel just some discomfort but nothing that will affect your recovery and movement, or in the best scenario you might not feel anything.
Because they are all interrelated, make sure you add variety to your workouts, lifts and also work within different rep ranges. Muscle responds to all of the three mechanisms mentioned above, how much of each? It will vary on each individual and goals. My opinion, don’t seek for pain and soreness, but mostly for tension (mechanical tension) and the pump (metabolic stress), optimal muscle damage and muscle growth will be outcomes o it. An ideal rep range can be anything between 8-12 reps or an amount of reps that allows you to manage a heavy or moderate weight to create enough intensity that allows you to create enough tension.
You might want to integrate all three mechanisms in your workout. Why? Why not enjoy the best of all worlds? I mean, the most recommendable thing is to incline more towards mechanical tension, but you can absolutely integrate all methods. A well rounded athlete touches all three.
For successfully achieving muscle growth, something you should avoid is training to failure (it creates excessive muscle damage) in every single session, it can interfere with your performance, it’s not the ideal state to be, it can lead to slower recovery and it can also affect your training frequency, which can affect your progress and muscle development in the long term.
There are many other factors that influence hypertrophy, like food, sleep and recovery. All of them have the same importance as your training. You will grow if you eat the right amount of food and the right type in order to preserve your health, you will be able to manage your training frequency, volume and intensity if you recover properly, which involves sleeping and any other recovery techniques you might have in your routine.
Lastly, my best recommendation for you is to focus on getting stronger, lift heavy with proper technique and find the suit spot between heavy work and different rep ranges in order to achieve your ideal body. Often, the level of strength can be directly proportional to the amount of muscle mass if you train in the right manner and know how to use your strength in your favor. Basically, the more you lift the more muscle, the more muscle the more you lift. Just find the right formula for you and your body. Each body is a different mystery, you can solve yours but if you struggle doing so, you can always seek for professional guidance.
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The Effect of Resistance Training in Women on Dynamic Strength and Muscular Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2019 Dec 9. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01247-x.
Effects of a 12-Week Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy—A Pilot Study. Daniel A. Hackett,* Theban Amirthalingam, Lachlan Mitchell, Yorgi Mavros, Guy C. Wilson, and Mark Halaki. Published online 2018 Jan 29. doi: 10.3390/sports6010007
Maria is a qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor, nutrition coach, Chef and athlete. Her philosophy is, basically, based on transforming body and mindset simultaneously to achieve the best results from inside out. Boosting energy levels and improving overall health are her main keys to help you out have the body you have always dreamed of. Her methods are 100% natural and healthy.