Increasing muscle growth is a common fitness goal across varying populations.
For the general population and athletes, increased lean muscle mass has been correlated with improved sport performance, health, and reduced injury rates.
For elderly populations, increases in lean mass may improve functional capacity and provide independence and the ability to complete activities of daily living.
For most, adding more muscle or ‘toning’ up should be a top goal.
The fitness industry is awash with workout and nutrition tips that claim to help you pack on size; however, often these claims are based on personal experience and not on research-backed methods.
While personal experience is important, to optimize your adaptations it is essential that you apply tips that are also supported by research.
Here are 6 workout/nutrition tips that are both gym- and research-proven to help you optimize lean muscle growth!
1. Volume Load
Volume load is arguably one of the most important training variables with regard to muscle growth.
Volume load can be quantified by multiplying your Sets x Reps x Weight lifted.
Research suggests that there is a dose response relationship between volume load and muscular growth. Basically, this indicates that the more volume you lift (i.e. sets per muscle group) in a given week the more you’re going to grow.
Recently, a meta-analysis was conducted analyzing the effects of volume load on muscular growth. These researchers determined that 10 sets per muscle group per week appears to be optimal1.
However, it is also important to address that there is a lack of research addressing high volume loads that bodybuilders often use. As you become more advanced, it’s highly likely that you will need more than 10 sets per muscle group per week, especially in the larger muscle groups such as legs.
It is also important to note that you should not drastically increase your volume, for example going from 6 sets per week to 20, as spikes in workload have been shown to increase injury rates2.
Therefore, one way to utilize volume load to optimize your lean muscle gains is to start tracking it. See what your current volume load is per week and try to increase this by 10% to ensure you’re constantly overloading your muscles and forcing them to adapt.
Lastly, it is important to periodize your volume. After you’ve done 4-8 weeks of high volume training, reduce your volume for 1-2 weeks to ensure proper recovery and to optimize your adaptations.
2. Rest Intervals
Rest intervals refers to the amount of time you take in-between sets. Rest time can have a huge impact on the intensity and overall outcome of your workouts.
Short rest intervals (< 30s) are theorized to increase metabolic stress and the acute production of muscle building hormones such as hormone, IGF-1 and Testosterone3.
However, recently the benefits of short rest intervals has been up for debate as evidence shows that the acute rise of hormones may not be the only key factor in muscle growth4.
In contrast, long rest intervals (>90s) may allow you to recover adequately in between sets and maintain a higher total training volume throughout the session. As a result, several researchers are now recommending long rest or a mix of both short and long rest intervals between sets as this may optimize your total volume for a workout5.
In conclusion short rest intervals are not bad, in fact they may save time and have been shown to illicit similar adaptations compared to long rest intervals. However, a mix of the two, some shorter and longer rest intervals, will help you reap the benefits of both rep schemes6.
3. Rep Ranges
Most people have heard that the 8-12 rep range is the muscle building range. While this is true, do not be afraid to explore outside these boundaries.
In fact, research has shown muscular hypertrophy after rep ranges as low as 4 and as high as 30. By switching your rep ranges frequently, you can keep your body adapting by working different muscle fiber types and stimulate growth via different mechanisms.
One study in particular investigated the effects of varied rep ranges compared to constant. These researchers showed that individuals who trained with rep ranges of 2-4RM, 8-12RM, and 20-30RM in the same week saw slightly greater increases in muscle thickness compared to those who did not vary their rep ranges in a given week7.
Varying your rep ranges on a weekly basis has also been shown to decrease boredom in a training protocol which may increase adherence and effort8.
Although you may still primarily stay within that 8-12 rep range, advanced trainees may require some very heavy or lighter work at different rep ranges and utilizing other advanced movements such as cluster sets (for heavy, low rep work) and dropsets or supersets (for higher rep work).
Creatine monohydrate is the most extensively researched supplement on the market. It has been proven to be a safe and effective method to increase muscular strength and size more than any other natural supplement available.
When taking supplementation the extra creatine gets stored within the muscle. In turn, this provides your body with extra ATP to fuel high intensity exercise.
One group of researchers assessed the effects of creatine supplementation on muscle growth, these researchers noted double the gains in muscle mass for the creatine group compared to the control group after a 12-week resistance training protocol9.
One review compiled several studies that looked at the effects of creatine + resistance training on lean muscle mass gains and found average lean body mass increases of 4.4lbs10. Finally, unlike other supplements, creatine has over 200+ studies showing it to be very safe and effective. If you lift weights or exercise, ensure creatine is a staple supplement in your regime.
You can take 5g of creatine per day pre or post workout. You can also load with 4x 5g doses for the first 5 days to increase your cells’ stores quickly and reap the benefits in just one week.
5. Whey Protein Post Workout
In order to increase muscle mass, your rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) must be greater than the rate of muscle protein break down (MPB). One of the best ways to increase muscle protein synthesis is through the consumption of whey protein post workout. Whey protein is beneficial due to its high leucine content and fast digestion rates11.
Leucine is one of the most important essential amino acids that drives muscle growth, and fast absorption rates lead to quick spikes in muscle protein synthesis post-workout12. On average supplementing with protein+ resistance training has been shown to increase lean body mass on average by 2.2lbs13.
Take 1-2 scoops of whey within 30-60 minutes of the workout. If you are intolerant to whey other high quality sources include egg, beef or chicken protein.
6. Casein Protein Before Bed
Casein is a derivative of milk protein that is often recommended for individuals who are trying to increase muscle growth. Casein is referred to as the slow-digesting protein and in theory, if taken before bed, the prolonged breakdown overnight will keep you anabolic and increase recovery.
One group of researchers provided 16 healthy young males with an intense workout protocol and monitored the anabolic response throughout the day. These researchers then provided one group with 40g of casein protein before bed and the other 40g of placebo.
The results showed that the group who consumed casein before bed elicited muscle protein synthesis rates 22% greater compared to control14.
Interestingly, other research has even shown that casein before bed can increase fat loss over the long term. Try consuming around 30-40g of casein before bed; this can be obtained from sources such as cottage cheese, high protein Greek yogurt or casein protein powder.
Wrapping it up
By applying these 6 research-backed techniques you can improve your ability to recovery, improve performance, and ultimately build more muscle. Here’s a summary:
- Start by tracking your training volume load and progress weekly or monthly.
- Optimize training volume per session and experiment with longer rest intervals.
- Try to vary your rep ranges on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.
- Start taking 5g of creatine monohydrate to increase muscular strength and size.
- Take whey protein post workout to immediately increase muscle protein synthesis and help reduce the catabolic nature of the workout.
- Take casein protein before bed to increase your total daily protein intake and optimize recovery throughout the night.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-10.
- Gabbett, T. J., Hulin, B. T., Blanch, P., & Whiteley, R. (2016). High training workloads alone do not cause sports injuries: how you get there is the real issue.
- Goto, K. A. Z. U. S. H. I. G. E., Ishii, N. A. O. K. A. T. A., Kizuka, T. O. M. O. H. I. R. O., & Takamatsu, K. A. O. R. U. (2005). The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 37(6), 955-63.
- Morton, R., Oikawa, S., Mazara, N., Wavell, C., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. (2016). Resistance Training-induced Muscle Hypertrophy Is Not Determined By Repetition-load In Resistance-trained Men: 3542 Board# 8 June 4, 9: 00 AM-11: 00 AM. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(5S), 980.
- Buresh, R., Berg, K., & French, J. (2009). The effect of resistive exercise rest interval on hormonal response, strength, and hypertrophy with training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 62-71.
- Fink, J. E., Schoenfeld, B. J., Kikuchi, N., & Nakazato, K. (2016). Acute and Long-term Responses to Different Rest Intervals in Low-load Resistance Training. International Journal of Sports Medicine.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Ogborn, D., Galpin, A., Krieger, J., & Sonmez, G. T. (2016). Effects of Varied Versus Constant Loading Zones on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. International journal of sports medicine, 37(06), 442-447.
- Monteiro, A. G., Aoki, M. S., Evangelista, A. L., Alveno, D. A., Monteiro, G. A., da Cruz Piçarro, I., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2009). Nonlinear periodization maximizes strength gains in split resistance training routines. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(4), 1321-1326.
- Volek, J. S., Duncan, N. D., Mazzetti, S. A., Staron, R. S., Putukian, M. A. R. G. O. T., GÓmez, A. L., ... & Kraemer, W. J. (1999). Performance and muscle fiber adaptations to creatine supplementation and heavy resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 31, 1147-1156.
- Kreider, R. B. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Molecular and cellular biochemistry, 244(1-2), 89-94.
- Tang, J. E., Moore, D. R., Kujbida, G. W., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2009). Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of applied physiology, 107(3), 987-992.
- Norton, L. E., Wilson, G. J., Layman, D. K., Moulton, C. J., & Garlick, P. J. (2012). Leucine content of dietary proteins is a determinant of postprandial skeletal muscle protein synthesis in adult rats. Nutrition & metabolism, 9(1), 67
- Cermak, N. M., de Groot, L. C., Saris, W. H., & van Loon, L. J. (2012). Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(6), 1454-1464.
- Groen, B., Pennings, B. A. R. T., Beelen, M., Wallis, G. A., Gijsen, A. P., Senden, J. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2012). Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 44(8), 1560-1569.