The secrets of rapid muscle gain
If you have read our previous articles such as our piece on gaining muscle mass, you should have a good handle by now on some of the key factors you need to take into account when it comes to building muscle quickly. Assuming you train correctly, eat right and take steps to ensure optimal rest and recovery, it is estimated that once you have been training for a few years you can look forward to gaining at a maximum rate of 1-2 kg of muscle mass PER YEAR!
To those new to building muscle that might seem like very little, but how many long-term bodybuilders consistently gain anything at all? If gaining muscle at an advanced level was easy everyone would be in great shape but unfortunately, unless you take prohormones or other compounds that can allow you to sidestep your basic biological machinery, muscle growth will slow down to a crawl. So assuming you are doing everything right, such as eating a good diet and training regularly, is there anything else you can do to build muscle faster?
The focus of this article will be on some relatively novel ways by which we can try to drive muscle growth forward and build muscle faster. The techniques discussed here are only suitable for advanced athletes, by which we mean those who, at a minimum, have been training for five years and can squat double their bodyweight, deadlift 2.5 x their bodyweight and bench press 1.75 x their bodyweight, ideally for more than just a single rep in good form.
For someone who hits these figures and is struggling to gain further, the techniques discussed may assist in eking out some extra muscle mass.
Secret #1: Rest-pause training
Rest-pause training is usually associated with high rep movements like a 20-rep squat, where the athlete rests for several seconds before the last few reps in order to try to get all 20 reps out. This is NOT what I am referring to, though. While rest-pause training in this manner has its benefits, the idea here is to employ them with heavier weights.
Let’s say you can normally bench press only five reps with a particular weight. A rest-pause set will mean getting a spotter to hand the bar off to you, repping it once and then racking it. Wait 15-20 secs and repeat, and continue to perform reps until you can no longer perform any more.
Having a rest between each rep gives the central nervous system just enough time to recuperate and allows you to do more reps for a given weight than before. Use this technique for just one exercise per workout for a few weeks and then, when you go back to regular training, you should find yourself better able to handle a heavy load for more reps.
Secret #2: Occlusion training
While you may have heard of rest-pause training many of you will be scratching your head at this one. Occlusion training is the practice of restricting blood flow to a body part when training. Given that we normally seek to force blood into our muscles when training this may seem counterintuitive at first. However, it is based on research, much of it conducted in Japan, which shows that the use of occlusion training can elicit training adaptations including increased muscle mass with much lower intensities (as low as 20%, in fact).
While the traditional way of building muscle mass is reliant on high-intensity weight training, this can be both mentally taxing and tough on the joints, so occlusion training is particularly well suited to those unable to perform at such intensities. It is theorised that occlusion training allows users to preferentially target fast-twitch muscle fibres and cause an increase in growth hormone (1) and anabolic signalling (2) in muscles.
How can you incorporate occlusion training into your workouts? Although the research with occlusion training used a specialised Kaatsu machine, this is not practical for the average gym user. Instead, you can use elasticated knee and elbow wraps.
To perform occlusion work on the biceps, for instance, you would fasten the wraps at the upper arm near the shoulder and at the forearm just below the elbow joint. This forces the blood to remain within the upper arm. For the legs you would use a similar approach, occluding the blood flow by strapping the wraps below the knees and on the uppermost reaches of your legs if training the quadriceps or hamstrings.
Practical guidelines: It is suggested that you use a weight between 20 and 50% of your 1 rep max when performing occlusion work and perform 3-4 sets of 15 reps with no more than 1 minute’s rest in between each. Field work conducted by Jeremy Loenneke (3) suggests that the wraps should be kept on the body throughout the exercise and even during the rest periods to maximise the growth hormone response to the occlusion work.
Do not occlude for more than 30 minutes at a time and start with just 1-2 sets, keeping the intensity no higher than 50% as going more intense would defeat the objective you are striving for. Do not fasten the wraps too tight as moderate occlusion is the goal, not complete absence of blood flow, which would raise serious health risks.
Secret #3: Using amino acid supplements to optimise muscle mass increases
As discussed in our interview with Layne Norton, research shows that the body adapts to a given amount of protein intake. While amino acids continue to be released into the digestive system, muscle protein synthesis falls back to baseline a couple of hours later. Getting more protein in your diet is not the solution as the problem is that even when amino acid levels are elevated, muscle protein synthesis quickly falls back down to baseline levels.
Some might recommend eating another meal at that point, but this is unlikely to work since there are already sufficient amino acids in the blood. If we are looking to boost the anabolic response, we need to introduce something that can rapidly raise blood levels while sidestepping the need for digestion.
The solution is free form amino acids, principally in the form of branched chain amino acid (BCAA) or essential amino acid (EAA) supplements. Assuming you eat every 4-6 hours, a dose of these halfway between meals can effectively raise muscle protein synthesis again. We suggest using 10-15 grams to elicit a rapid rise in muscle protein synthesis. See our BCAA/EAA category for some possible products you could use.
Secret #4: Expand the fascia
We are all familiar with that debilitating soreness that we experience when we train for the first time, especially if we train very hard. Over time, soreness becomes predominantly less pronounced. One of the reasons for this is an adaptive response by the body’s muscles to protect themselves from future damage.
In essence, the muscles are sheathed in a layer of connective tissue, which some believe restrict the potential for future muscle growth. Connective tissue by its very nature is relatively tough and unyielding, which makes it difficult to break down.
While there have been a few proponents of extreme stretching methods, including John Parillo and Dante Trudel, it is important to understand that this type of stretch-induced muscle growth is based on real world research showing a substantial increase in muscle mass from loaded stretching (4). To employ it in the gym, we suggest that you follow the following protocol:
- Consume a supplement designed to maximise muscle pumps. iForce Nutrition’s Hemavol is a great choice. Make sure you consume a LOT of water with Hemavol.
- Perform your regular workout.
- At the end of your workout, place the muscles under an extreme stretch for 30-60 seconds. For instance, you could hold heavy dumbbells in the bottom position for a set of flyes. This particular method was used by Arnold Schwarzenegger to help build his famously well shaped chest.
- Rest and recover. We recommend that you’re very careful with loaded stretching as with many of the techniques suggested here, it can potentially cause a lot of muscle soreness.
Secret #5: Optimise anabolic processes
So far we have discussed how amino acid supplements can be used to build muscle faster and how certain training techniques can boost muscle mass. However, the biggest impediment to muscle growth comes from a lack of natural anabolic hormones in the body and poor receptivity to those same hormones.
If you take a couple of untrained men and provide both with expert tuition, their rate of progress will depend largely on their genetics, with key factors including testosterone levels, responsiveness to hormones such as insulin, and ability to mobilise and oxidise fat cells efficiently. Positively increasing muscle mass without gaining fat is the most difficult challenge that advanced bodybuilders will encounter.
While prohormones offer the fastest route to accelerating muscle gain, this article aims to address the needs of those who would prefer to boost muscle mass by more natural means without the use of any hormonal manipulation whatsoever (including natural testosterone boosters).
In short, by utilising a carefully selected range of supplements that are proven to help build muscle mass and increase performance, we can ensure that we optimise our rate of muscle gain above and beyond what could be achieved through training and diet alone.
Secret #6: Prime your body for muscle growth
Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is a neat little trick you can use to help boost muscle strength and in turn, your rate of muscle gain. PAP is a technique where a single high-intensity effort is performed then followed by a long period of rest (around 7-12 minutes is recommended).
To utilise this technique in the gym you would warm up thoroughly, perform a one rep maximum then rest for the prescribed time period. Upon completion of the rest phase you would then perform multiple reps with your target weight (usually around 80-85% of your 1RM).
In a recent study, a group who started their routine with a 1RM managed to perform a greater number of repetitions than controls who did not perform a 1RM before hitting the same weights (5). The theory behind this is that the heavy single rep primes the nervous system for subsequent activity, which consequently feels easier than it would have done if you had not first performed that initial heavy rep.
A similar principle explains why powerlifters will sometimes stand up with a weight greater than their 1RM - namely to familiarise the body with the heavier weight.
A word of warning
We hope you find these muscle building secrets useful and that they help you reach your goals sooner. Be sure to employ them sparingly and do not go mad and use them all at the same time, as this could result in injury, putting you out of action for some time. However, with careful use, these techniques can help you build muscle faster than ever before.
Author: Reggie Johal
Reggie Johal is a former Great Britain American Football player with a background in strength and fitness coaching with articles published in many leading online and print magazines including Muscle and Fitness. Reggie is the founder of Predator Nutrition.
- Takarada, Y., Nakamura, Y., Aruga, S., Onda, T., Miyazaki, S., & Ishii, N. (2000). Rapid increase in plasma growth hormone after low-intensity resistance exercise with vascular occlusion.
- Fujita, S., Abe, T., Drummond, M., Cadenas, J., Dreyer, H., Sato, Y., et al. (2007). Blood flow restriction during low-intensity resistance exercise increases S6K1 phosphorylation and muscle protein synthesis.
- Loenneke, Jeremy (2009). The use of occlusion training to product muscle hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal Vol 31 (3) pp 77-84.
- Antonio, J & Gonyea W.J. (1993). Progressive stretch overload of skeletal muscle results in hypertrophy before hyperplasia. Journal of Applied Physiology Vol 75 (3) pp1263 - 1271.
- Ferreira SL et.al (2012). Postactivation potentiation: effect of various recovery intervals on bench press power performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol 26 (3) pp739-744.