I get a lot of questions about protein, supplements, special training routines and the like when it comes to building strength and muscle. And as a long-time vegan, the inquiries are often multiplied, given the fact that I’ve continued to get all of my protein exclusively from plant-based, non-animal sources for well over 20 years now. I’ve also shied away from taking tons of “designer” supplements through the years, having studied about, and experimented with, enough to know what’s what.
But before we can talk about routines, supplements, how much protein you need, or anything else, let’s jump into a quick refresher here about how it all actually works.
1. Your muscles are comprised of two types of fiber; slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch has more of an endurance function, like for running, while fast-twitch has more of an explosive function, like for pushing heavy weights around at the gym. Slow-twitch development doesn’t usually mean bigger muscles, although endurance activities can burn fat, which can in turn create a more muscular or athletic appearance. Fast-twitch development does generally mean bigger muscles, but not always big, “bulky” muscles like you might see on a bodybuilder. (Think of an Olympic marathon runner’s legs vs. an Olympic sprinter’s legs. That’s the general difference between slow and fast-twitch development.)
2. If we’re talking more strength – as in the ability to lift heavier weights – and building more muscle tissue, we’re talking about your fast-twitch fiber. And the way to develop this is through consistent resistance training built around strategic, progressive increases in workload. Why is this so crucial? Because when you overload a muscle group through resistance training, you create what’s known as microtrauma in the tissue; the literal breaking down of the muscle fiber. And this is key because…
3. Your body’s natural response mechanism to microtrauma is to launch into a state called hypertrophy. And this is where the magic happens. Hypertrophy involves the recruitment of more muscle cells to the “traumatized” area and/or the enlarging of existing muscle cells. In either case, this creates a slightly bigger, stronger muscle in anticipation of the next thrashing it might receive.
4. As we gain strength and (depending on the style of training) size, we consider this progress in the land of fast-twitch fiber development. However, if we wish to continue to make these types of gains, we must continue to successfully engage hypertrophy. This is not an easy or an especially natural process, because the body is one hell of a survival machine… which means that it will develop an “immunity” to a particular workload rather quickly. This is what it’s wired to do and, in fact, what hypertrophy is really all about.
All this said, to successfully engage hypertrophy is not something that is usually spoken about in the broad, holistic manner that it actually takes. Because, as you’ll see in a moment – and contrary to what the supplement manufacturers might have you believe – there’s a lot more science involved with optimizing hypertrophy than just the popular notion of “drink this special protein shake and get bigger muscles.”
So if hypertrophy is basically the process of making “broken-down” or traumatized muscles bigger and stronger, how do we optimize this process? I’ve deconstructed this down to four major categories:
Training: This might be painfully obvious, but it’s clearly the single most critical step in the development of fast-twitch muscle fiber through hypertrophy. Simply put, if you don’t actually break the muscle fiber down through some intelligent, intense, strategic and consistent training, none of these other steps will matter much. I recommend that you cycle your training through various phases throughout the year so you can avoid injury and maximize your periods of intensity. Mainly, though, you will want to focus on free weights, vary your routine regularly, reach for the heavier weights, and always use impeccable technique in your lifts.
Rest and Recovery: There’s an old gym rat saying about how we actually do all of our growing away from the gym. This is true. Think of this phase in two parts. Rest is the amount of time you wait before blasting a muscle group again. It will be at least 48 hours, but sometimes an extra day or two might be required. The idea is, you want to allow the body to repair the damage you did last time before hitting it again. Recovery is about the quality of rest time between workouts. It’s about the optimal quality and quantity of sleep (which is likely when your body is doing the bulk of the repair work), proper stretching, icing any problem areas, and basically managing inflammation as best you can so you’ll be ready to blast again when the next workout rolls around.
Nutrition: When we talk about nutrition and as it relates to gaining strength and muscle, one key nutrient always goes front and center in the discussion: protein. And yes, it is a critical element to the hypertrophy process because this is the main nutrient the body utilizes in the actual reparation process. BUT – Protein isn’t the most important nutritional component to hypertrophy. Total caloric intake is actually most important.
Think about it: hypertrophy is about increasing lean muscle mass, which is ultimately about weight gain. And when we are talking about weight gain, the single most important factor is taking in more calories than you’re burning off. So the first thing you want to cover in the nutrition department is to make sure that you are taking in a surplus of calories. Without this, all the protein in the world won’t much matter. Additionally, you will want to stay properly hydrated, take in plenty of high-fiber carbohydrates to efficiently fuel all of your workouts, and get enough healthy fats and electrolytes in the diet.
Gear and Accessories: This category covers everything from the equipment you have access to at your gym, to any accessories you might use to give you an edge in your training. To be clear, a lot can be accomplished with a little. A simple free-weight set-up in a garage and little else has gone a long way for many. But, to the extent that you have access to an array of benches, heavy-ass dumbbells, various machines and other modern health club gear, it’s foreseeable that you will be able to optimize your efforts exponentially.
As for accessories, I’m talking about lifting belts (to stabilize the lower back for heavy lifts), wrist-straps (for heavy back work), wrist-wraps (for heavy chest presses), knee-wraps (for heavy leg day), etc. Can you get by without these things? Sure. But anything that assists you in reaching for heavier weight can only help.
Now that we have this basic foundation established, next time let’s delve a little deeper into protein, supps, and more specifics on getting your hypertrophy rockin’..