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I've been strength training 4 days a week for about 8 months. My goal is to increase mass. The usual recommendation for this is to do three sets of 8-12 repetitions for most exercises, and that's what I'm doing. I try to pick a weight so that I reach failure within 8-12 repetitions for each of the three sets, and if I can do 12-10 on each set, I increase the weight. I made great progress in both strength and mass when I was starting out, but lately I seem to be plateauing: on each workout I can only struggle out 0-2 more reps per set than the workout before, and it takes me several workouts to increase weights now.

My question is if continuing like this will efficiently build muscle mass, even though I seem to make very modest strength gains, or do I need to change my workout? (It of course sounds obvious that you need to get stronger in order to encourage the body to build muscle, but maybe it is enough for muscle growth to continually challenge the muscles, and not necessarily get much stronger?)

Some possibilities for change I am considering: changing my routine (I've been doing the same exercises for many months now, mostly isolation exercises); do sets of 6-8 repetitions instead so that I can increase in strength.

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Many of the answers are suggesting compound lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses) and a novice progression. It seems to me that if you haven't yet done a linear progression using the compound lifts, you should do so, then return to hypertrophy training. Is that the case? –  Dave Liepmann Aug 22 '11 at 14:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The answer is that yes, you can gain muscle without gaining significant strength. While there is some correlation due to leverage, size is a physiological phenomenon whereas strength is more neurological and depends on the efficiency with which your nervous system coordinates the firing of motor units. The keys to growing muscle regardless of what your strength might be are:

Mechanical load - you must increase load from workout to workout, on average, to achieve hypertrophy Chronic progression - you should consistently apply a similar load and not change too frequently or your body will be forced to deal with mechanical and neurological adaptation rather than physiological Strategic deconditioning - per Bryan Haycock "At this point, it is necessary to either increase the load (Progressive load), or decrease the degree of conditioning to the load (Strategic Deconditioning). The muscle is sensitive not only to the absolute load, but also to the change in load (up or down). Therefore, you can get a hypertrophic effect from increasing the load from a previous load, even if the absolute load is not maximum, assuming conditioning (resistance to exercise induced micro-damage) is not to extensive. There is a limit to the number of increments you can add to increase the load. You simply reach your maximum voluntary strength eventually. This is why Strategic Deconditioning is required for continued growth once growth has stopped (all things remaining equal)."

To summarize, you don't want to change workouts too frequently but eventually you'll have to, and load is king so a training methodology where you can consistently increase load is going to work the best. That means perhaps starting at higher reps, lighter load and progressing to fewer reps, heavy load and then starting over again in what is known as "stair stepping" or "pyramid", i.e. for bench I do 200, 220, 240, 260, then fall back and do 205, 225, 245, 265, etc. to progress.

I know some people want the science so if you really do go out and read the journals, here's a boat load of references Bryan Haycock gave me in an interview many years ago (he developed Hypertrophy Specific Training/HST which is a method based specifically on the science behind hypertrophy or muscle building)

1: Nosaka K, Newton M. Repeated Eccentric Exercise Bouts Do Not Exacerbate Muscle Damage and Repair. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Feb;16(1):117-122.

2: Nosaka K, Newton M. Concentric or eccentric training effect on eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Jan;34(1):63-9.

3: Proske U, Morgan DL. Muscle damage from eccentric exercise: mechanism, mechanical signs, adaptation and clinical applications. J Physiol. 2001 Dec 1;537(Pt 2):333-45.

4: Nosaka K, Newton M, Sacco P. Responses of human elbow flexor muscles to electrically stimulated forced lengthening exercise. Acta Physiol Scand. 2002 Feb;174(2):137-45.

5: Allen DG. Eccentric muscle damage: mechanisms of early reduction of force. Acta Physiol Scand. 2001 Mar;171(3):311-9.

6: Clarkson PM. Eccentric exercise and muscle damage. Int J Sports Med. 1997 Oct;18 Suppl 4:S314-7.

7: Paddon-Jones D, Abernethy PJ. Acute adaptation to low volume eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jul;33(7):1213-9.

8: Nosaka K, Sakamoto K, Newton M, Sacco P. How long does the protective effect on eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage last? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Sep;33(9):1490-5.

9: McHugh MP, Connolly DA, Eston RG, Gleim GW. Exercise-induced muscle damage and potential mechanisms for the repeated bout effect. Sports Med. 1999 Mar;27(3):157-70.

10: Nosaka K, Sakamoto K, Newton M, Sacco P. The repeated bout effect of reduced-load eccentric exercise on elbow flexor muscle damage. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2001 Jul;85(1-2):34-40.

11: Rennie MJ. How muscles know how to adapt. J Physiol. 2001 Aug 15;535(Pt 1):1.

  1. Nosaka K, Sakamoto K. Effect of elbow joint angle on the magnitude of muscle damage to the elbow flexors. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jan;33(1):22-9.

13: Lieber RL, Friden J. Morphologic and mechanical basis of delayed-onset muscle soreness. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2002 Jan-Feb;10(1):67-73.

14: Nosaka K, Clarkson PM. Influence of previous concentric exercise on eccentric exercise-induced muscledamage. J Sports Sci. 1997 Oct;15(5):477-83.

15: Carson JA. The regulation of gene expression in hypertrophying skeletal muscle. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1997;25:301-20.

16:. Lieber RL, Friden J. Mechanisms of muscle injury after eccentric contraction. J Sci Med Sport. 1999 Oct;2(3):253-65.

17: Nosaka K, Clarkson PM. Muscle damage following repeated bouts of high force eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 Sep;27(9):1263-9.

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This is precisely what I wanted to know! That "stair stepping" method sounds interesting, and I think I will employ it. –  user677 Apr 6 '11 at 21:03

Always be changing up your routine at least every couple months. Muscles tend to adapt to the training that you give it, so you must do what's called 'muscle confusion' by using different exercises in different ways. This can mean changing from flat bench press to incline bench press, increasing/decreasing rep range or number of sets, or even trying things like super sets or drop sets.

You've probably been experiencing some really great progress partially due to what we call 'noob gains'. When people first start working out, they'll be able to gain strength and mass at a much higher rate than after a couple months or years. Going forward, your progress may be slower than what you're used to, but keep at it - you're still improving as long as you're trying to increase strength. And when you hit plateau's, just switch things up. The key is to be increasing strength - lifting heavy (with good form, of course) is a sure way to pack on the muscle.

EDIT: I noticed you mentioned you've been concentrating on isolation - don't do this. If you really want to increase mass, you should be doing compound workouts. Here are some exercise suggestions:

  • Squats
  • Bench press w/ barbell (flat, incline, decline)
  • Deadlifts
  • Bent over row w/ barbell
  • Pull-ups
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+1 for compound movements –  Phil Quinn Apr 5 '11 at 14:47
    
I don't think this answers my bolded question. Apparently people can be strong without being large, but can the converse hold? Can you build muscle efficiently despite not gaining strength quickly? (Regarding compound exercises: that's a question for another thread, but I'm already doing most of the exercises you listed.) –  user677 Apr 5 '11 at 16:13
    
A key word in that sentence is 'efficiently'. If you want to gain muscle efficiently, you need to constantly be challenging your muscles. So to answer your question more definitively - Yes, you do need to change your workout. –  Nick Apr 5 '11 at 16:17
    
As I mentioned in the original answer, your strength gains slow down a lot after you pass your 'noob gains'. You can't rapidly increase strength forever. The stronger you get, the harder you have to work for each incremental gain. However, my answer still stands - you need to change your workout. Your muscles have likely adapted to your current routine and you'd gain muscle more efficiently if you change it up every couple of months. –  Nick Apr 5 '11 at 17:36
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@Nick just a note, use a space after the - when you try to make bullet points ;-) –  Ivo Flipse Apr 7 '11 at 13:32

As @Nick mentioned, there are a couple of changes to suggest. Switch up your workout, with a focus on compound lifts. Stick with a tried and true workout if you don't feel comfortable making your own. I suggest Starting Strength or Stronglifts 5x5.

I would also suggest lowering your reps to 5. Five seems achieve the maximum effect for training (From the starting strength wiki).

Repetitions

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Neither of those programs are geared toward hypertrophy though. And your chart clearly states that hypertrophy lies in the interval around 10 repetitions. –  user677 Apr 5 '11 at 16:15
    
@Samuel The chart wouls seem to suggest that you should alternate between the 1-3 rep range for myobilrillar hypertrophy and the 20 rep range for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. –  Steven Gubkin Jul 21 at 18:25

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