Do one quick Google search on how to train for muscle growth and you’ll get a massive amount of different answers. Although muscle growth is indeed a bit complicated, it essentially can be boiled down to one single key principle: Progressive Overload. In this article, I’ll explain why progressive overload is an important component of your training if you want to get bigger and stronger.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload refers to training your muscles beyond their present capacity. In other words, being able to lift more weight or perform more volume (like an extra rep or set) than before. There is research indicating this is a key driver of muscle growth.
Progressive overload has a greater impact on muscle growth than any muscle building ”secret”
The training you perform in the gym is considered a stress that forces an adaptive response. Your body adapts to training by building bigger and stronger muscles so that it can deal more efficiently with the provided training stress in the near future. So for consistent muscle growth to occur, you need to constantly challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity
This means that you need to program your training in such a fashion that it allows you to train with heavier weights and more volume over multiple training periods.
But a stronger muscle isn’t always a bigger one, right?
That’s true, research shows that your body recognizes movement patterns and becomes more efficient in them after repetitive practice. This enables you to lift more weight (get stronger) without actually having bigger muscles. This is known as Neuromuscular Adaptations.
But after a certain point, your training becomes very efficient and an increase in strength can at least partially be attributed to an increase in muscle size, which allows for more force to be produced.
Training For Muscle Growth
Even though it’s to a lesser degree, research shows that next to progressive overload (or more specifically, increased mechanical tension), there are two other primary ways muscle growth can be achieved.
- Muscle damage:
Damaging the muscle fibers, so they can grow back bigger and stronger. This naturally occurs with resistance training and trying to maximize it doesn’t seem to positively affect the amount of muscle you build. So training specifically for muscle damage is not necessary.
- Metabolic fatigue:
Training the muscle to failure. Making the muscle fatigue, like in high rep ”pump style” training.
The issue with training specifically for metabolic fatigue or muscle damage is that it’s counterproductive to the goal of progressively overloading your muscles. Research shows that training with high reps, short rest-intervals, and lighter weights does build muscle, but it’s at the cost of another important variable: external load.
Think about it, training with very high volume and short rest-intervals limits the amount of weight you can lift. This results in less overload in exchange for more metabolic fatigue. As said earlier, progressively overloading your muscles has been suggested to be more important for gaining muscle
Unfortunately, training for progressive overload isn’t a concept many follow. When you look at the average ”bro” in the gym, you’ll see them perform random drop sets, supersets and taking 30-60 seconds rest in between sets without even thinking about long-term progress.
This is something we have adopted from the world of bodybuilding, and it works very well for them. But that’s probably because the big bodybuilding stars are all on performance-enhancing drugs. Because of this, they react differently to training.
There’s even a study that shows non-training steroid users build more muscle than resistance-training natural individuals. In case you didn’t get the message, the steroid-users built more muscle, without any form of exercise.
So just because you see fitness celebrities build massive amounts of muscle by doing drop sets, supersets, mega-sets or whatever, doesn’t mean you should mimic them. As a natural lifter, you’re way better of lifting heavy and making awesome progress in the gym.
Learn More In My New eBook
If you are interested in learning more about maximizing your muscular potential, check out my new eBook “The Art & Science of Muscle Growth. This book translates the currently available scientific data on muscle growth in “simple English”, so everyone can start implementing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition.
So is the solution a combination of both angles (progressive overload and metabolic fatigue)?
Some high-rep work to induce metabolic fatigue is beneficial, yes. But the main focus should always be on progressive overload, being able to put more tension on the muscle overtime by increasing weight and/or reps performed :).