What does it take for muscles to grow? It takes good nutrition and a lot of work! That work comes in the form of muscle overload. You give your muscles the stimulus they need to grow through resistance training and supply them with the building blocks they need through good nutrition.
Muscles have a remarkable ability to adapt to the stress that’s placed on them. Likewise, don’t use them for a while and they’ll atrophy and become smaller in size. What is this thing called overload and how can you use it to your advantage?
Types of Muscle Overload
Overload is placing your muscles under greater stress than they’re accustomed to. As a result, your muscles adapt so they can handle the added stress. This involves the synthesis of new myofibrils, the contractile elements that make up a muscle fiber and cause it to contract. Muscle myofibrils increase in both size and number in response to training. By progressively overloading your muscles through weight training you subject them to incremental increases in stress. As a result, they become larger and stronger.
The most obvious way to overload a muscle is to use a heavier weight while maintaining the same number of reps and training volume. This type of muscle overload is called absolute overload. It’s one of the most effective ways to stimulate muscle growth – but it’s not the only one.
There’s another form of muscle overload called relative overload. Rather than increasing the weight, with relative overload, you increase your training volume, i.e. the number of reps or sets you do without increasing the resistance. Doing an increased volume of work stimulates muscle growth too, although it’s less effective for building strength and mass than absolute overload.
One advantage of relative muscle overload is that doing a higher number of repetitions improves muscles endurance. This can help your muscles handle more repetitions when you’re using heavier weights.
Absolute Overload vs. Relative Overload
When you’re trying to build strength and mass, focus more on increasing absolute overload. This will help you best achieve your goal. On the other hand, having days where you focus on relative overload by increasing the number of reps or the number of sets without increasing the weight works your muscles differently and helps you avoid plateaus. Plus, it helps to prevent overtraining. It’s not necessary or healthy to train to failure using heavy weights every time you work out.
Other Ways to Increase Muscle Overload
One way to keep your muscles growing is to challenge them in new ways. You can do this by changing the exercises you do, shortening or lengthening the rest time between sets or by changing the exercise sequence.
An example of changing exercise sequence and rest time is to do supersets. With supersets, you perform two different exercises involving the same muscle group or an opposing muscle group back to back with no rest time in between. An example would be a set of weighted squats followed by weighted deadlifts without pausing to rest. An example of supersetting opposing muscle groups could be biceps curls and triceps extensions back to back.
Another way to overload your muscles in a different manner to promote growth is to do drop sets. To do drop sets, perform the first set to failure. After putting the weight down, pick up a weight that’s 20% to a third lighter and do another set. Once you can no longer do another rep, grab another lighter weight and do a third set. By this time, your muscles should be thoroughly fatigued. It’s a way to push your muscles a little harder once they’ve reached failure. This can help you break through a training plateau.
Super-slow sets can also stimulate new muscle growth by increasing the amount of tension your muscles are forced to sustain for a given workload. To do slow sets, slow down the rate of that you shorten and relax the weight. Rather than devoting 2 seconds to the concentric or shortening phase and 4 seconds to the eccentric or relaxation phase, slow the concentric portion to 10 seconds and the eccentric to 5 seconds. Using this technique helps you use better form too by eliminating momentum.
There are really six different ways to increase muscle overload:
Increase the amount of weight or resistance
Increase the number of repetitions
Increase the number of sets you perform
Reduce rest time between sets
Increase the number of exercises you do for that muscle
Increase how often you work a muscle group (can lead to overtraining)
You can incorporate all of these techniques into your training in some fashion.
Other Ways to Overload Your Muscles and Stimulate New Growth
Change is good for maintaining growth and it’s a necessity if you’ve reached a plateau and are “stuck” to the point you aren’t making further gains. Even small changes like hand and foot positioning when you’re doing upper and lower body exercises and switching from barbells to dumbbells introduces enough change to restart the growth process.
Think of all the variations on squats, lunges and curls and push-ups you can do. How many of them are you doing? Why not drop the weights entirely and use resistance bands for a change? Resistance bands have some advantages over dumbbells and barbells because they allow you to work your muscles in a variety of planes rather than just the vertical plane. This recruits more muscle fibers. Plus, you’re challenging your muscles differently.
Overload, Nutrition and Rest
The perfect triad for building lean body mass – progressive muscle overload, good nutrition and rest. Make sure you’re getting enough protein and calories and aren’t overdoing the cardio and restricting calories to the point you’re in a catabolic state. The old saying about muscles are built in the kitchen is true.
Rest is part of the equation too. Muscles repair and grow during the recovery phase when you’re not lifting. Your job is to give them a reason to grow AND a chance to recover. Overtraining can interfere with muscle growth. One way to avoid overtraining is to do microcycles with heavy resistance and lifting to near failure alternating with training using lighter weights and more reps.
The Bottom Line
Progressive muscle overload is what makes your muscles grow and there are various ways to achieve it. Increasing resistance is only one way. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Keep your muscles guessing.
International Journal of Sports Medicine (Impact Factor: 2.27). 11/2010; 31(11):810-7. DOI:10.1055/s-0030-1262808.
“How Do Muscles Grow?” Young sub-Kwon, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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