Q: I’ve been working out for one year, three or four days a week. I gained three kilograms of muscle and four kilograms of fat. I know I must restrict carbs and fats and cut junk foods. My training sessions are 45 minutes—only weight training. One of the trainers in my gym said that the numbers of sets and reps I do are not very important. He said that I can do about 10 sets for small muscle groups and 15 sets for the bigger ones—and that the important thing about reps is feeling the pump—so I do different reps in every session. For example, on one day I might do five sets of 15, 12, 10, 8, 6; and another day I might do 8, 6, 8, 10, 15 to build muscle. Is that useful, or should I do 5x8 regularly for a month and then change?
A: Building muscle is about progressive resistance and using the right amount of repetitions. It’s also about the diet, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s talk about how many reps to do to build muscle. The best range for increasing muscle mass, particularly for beginning and intermediate trainers, is six to eight. That will thicken the muscle fibers as well as build up the sarcoplasmic portion of the muscle cell, the area between the muscle fibers and the cell wall. This sarcoplasm contains water, nutrients and other cell-volumizing ingredients.
The muscles get bigger by working against a heavy resistance that forces them to fail after six to eight repetitions. By using increasingly more resistance at that rep range, you will force them to get stronger and, ultimately, bigger.
The trainer at your gym told you that feeling the pump is the important thing. While it’s true that you want to pump up the muscles with blood during a workout, that’s a side benefit of training with weights. Just training with a light resistance to pump blood into the muscles and feel them working is not enough to make them grow. You need to force the muscle fibers to thicken by subjecting them to increasing amounts of resistance. You accomplish that by doing more at each workout. You can do more reps or use more weight, but it always has to progress in order for the muscles to adapt to the new stress. Using the same weight and doing the same number of reps every time will not force the muscles to adapt to a new stress. They will remain complacent because they have adapted to that workload.
By slowly increasing the load, you will give the muscles no choice but to grow. Here’s an example of how to use progressive resistance on the bench press:
Workout 1: 130x8, 135x7, 140x6
Workout 2: 135x8, 140x7, 140x6
Workout 3: 135x8, 145x6, 145x6
Workout 4: 140x8, 145x7, 150x6
Of course, your individual weights may be different. The important point is that you’re always pushing yourself to do more weight and/or more reps. The more weight you can do for six to eight reps, the bigger your muscles will get.
Your sets are about right. The smaller muscle groups like the biceps, triceps, calves and abs need only six to 10 total sets, and the bigger muscle groups like the chest, back, legs and shoulders need more sets and exercises—maybe 12 to 15 total sets.
With only a year of training under your belt, you should split your muscle groups over three workouts to train your whole body; for example, training chest and back in one workout, abs and legs in the second workout and shoulders and arms in the third. After three days of training, take a day off to recuperate and then start the cycle again. That will give you four days of rest before training a muscle group again.
One thing that concerned me about your question was that while you gained three kilograms of muscle in a year, you also gained four kilograms of fat. If you can cut back or eliminate all the junk food from your diet, you will make much better gains in mass and get leaner at the same time.
You should eat six meals a day so you’re feeding your muscles the nutrients they need to grow. You want your body to be in an anabolic environment all day long so the muscles are growing and the metabolism stays active. Skipping meals gives your body a chance to slow down, accumulate more fat and slow muscle growth.
Every meal should contain some form of complete protein, like egg whites, tuna fish, chicken, turkey, fish or steak. You can use protein powders or drinks as a substitute for a meal as well. The protein will rebuild your muscle tissue and keep your blood sugar stable between meals.
You also need carbohydrates for energy, but make sure you stay away from simple sugars and junk food. Eat unprocessed, complex carbs with lots of fiber. Foods like oatmeal, oat bran, sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa and vegetables will provide your muscles with glycogen for energy, giving you the strength you need for your workouts and helping with recuperation afterward.
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