Is There A Secret To Building Muscle?

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People (most often guys) have been searching for the best way to build muscle since ancient times. Ancient Greece, China, India, and Egypt all have evidence of strength training. The more recent form of traditional bodybuilding became popular in the late 19th century. Since then, many men have been intrigued by the body's ability to gain size and strength. Can you blame them? No way, It's something I've fallen in love with too. It's something that empowers you, gives you confidence, and it looks pretty damn good.

A Very Brief History Lesson

The problem is that from the 19th century, till (arguably) about the 1950s, there was no scientific research on HOW to gain muscle. Let alone, the best way to gain muscle. This led people to trial and error, and when they found something that worked, they stuck with it. At the time, it may have been one of the better protocols, but nothing compared to new age science.

Some of the most ridiculous workouts and methodologies arose from early bodybuilding circles. For example, many of the bodybuilders would regularly perform full body workouts lasting about 2-5hrs, 7 days a week! That's an insane amount of volume! It also didn't take into consideration some important principles we know now such as Recovery Modalities and the "6 Principles of Program Design and Training" simply because it wasn't available at that time. Another confusing issue was that performance enhancing drugs were invented and popularized which also changed the way bodybuilders were able to train to achieve maximum muscle growth.

However, all this trial and error was not pointless. A great source for reading old nutrition, strength and bodybuilding methods is HERE. You'll find some really interesting articles and workouts from back in the day. You can see that many of those athletes had great physiques back then, and don't forget that anatomy has been a documented science since ancient times, so they weren't completely left in the dark. They were able to determine which muscles did what and which to work in order to achieve growth.

But the efficiency and science stops about there...

On the other hand, the quest for building the best physique (or the best way of building a physique in general) never ended. And although modern strength and muscle science began in the 20th Century (mostly 1950s in Eastern European countries), many bodybuilders and early trainers/coaches would make a living sharing their "secrets", and methods to achieving maximum muscle growth.

North America caught on with important research on muscle growth from the late 60s, 70s and onwards. Since then research has become more understood and refined and we actually have a pretty good idea on what triggers muscle growth in terms of exercise and nutrition. However, we still see countless articles filled with "muscle building secrets" and claims such as "BUY MY PROGRAM FOR THE ULTIMATE MUSCLE BUILDING WORKOUT"... Don't get me wrong, I'm not hating. Depending on the author, those may be very good programs for building muscle... or very bad... but I'm about to share with you the 3 most important factors in muscle growth...

There IS NO Secret To Building Muscle!

In 2010, hypertrophy specialist Brad Schoenfeld (world's leader in muscle growth research) produced a paper that outlined the factors necessary for building muscle and many proven methods on how to achieve it. This even includes some of the old school bodybuilding techniques that stood the test of time and have been scientifically proven to work. You probably didn't know that, and it's not your job to so don't worry. Any good trainer should know this. Unfortunately many don't, and that's why they're trying to get you jacked with their bro-science that may or may not work with your body type, experience level, muscle fiber make-up, etc. If you're frustrated because you're doing everything your trainer tells you, but aren't seeing the results you were promised, he/she should brush up on the current research. But again, I'm not hating, I'm about to share with you the 3 most important factors of muscle growth...

Brad's paper outlined the 3 factors that create exercise induced hypertrophy (Muscle Growth) from years of studies, and research. They are as follows:

  • Mechanical Tension
  • Metabolic Stress
  • Muscle Damage

Those were the "secrets" to building muscle, but secrets no more. We now know, that if any of those factors, preferably a combination of them, are present in your workout, you will set your body up for muscle growth. I know that's not the whole story, and now you're wondering "wtf does that even mean? And how do I get either of those in a workout?" The answer can be slightly more complicated because you must properly factor in things like exercise selection, tempo, rest, intensity, frequency, and the list goes on. But I'll give you a simple breakdown of each:

Mechanical Tension refers to the amount of tension (via resistance) applied on the muscle. An appropriate amount will trigger muscle growth.

Metabolic Stress (AKA "THE PUMP") refers to the type of exercise that will elicit a big metabolic effect by pumping blood and nutrients into the muscle, swelling it, and accumulating exercise induced waste such as lactate, hydrogen ions, and other metabolites. This puts a "danger" sign on the muscle cells because over-swelling can cause cell death, which promotes muscle growth.

Muscle Damage speaks for itself. When a muscle is damaged, muscle growth can occur. Be careful to not overdo it, or else it can negatively effect your body's ability to put on size.

We've Come A Long Way  

Brad's work not only influenced and assisted my own personal muscle growth, but most other world class trainers and bodybuilders such as John Meadows, and fellow Torontonian Ben Pakulski. Let me mention that I'm not a bodybuilder, but I have gained over 45lbs of muscle since I started working out. It was important for me to learn the best scientific approach because I once called myself a "hard gainer", and many trainers at commercial gyms would give me programs based off their made up "bro-science" that didn't work... I finally learned the proper way to help me gain muscle thanks to College and the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). Brad's work has been extremely helpful for my clients results too. I'm able to make an individual program for guys or girls looking to build muscle and applying the right variables is crucial for them to achieve it.

I know, I'm sorry, this still leaves you with questions. How do you achieve the right amount of either 3 factors? Which exercises are best for each? How many reps should I do? Do methods like drop sets work?

Well, that's a whole other thing on its own. In fact, this is where the art and science of muscle program design comes into play. But you can bet that following myself, John or Ben, will give you some great info on how to build muscle. Or better yet, contact me directly to discuss a program that will work for you if building muscle is on your list of goals!


Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

Tipton, C. M. (2014). History of exercise physiology. Human Kinetics.

Verkhoshansky, Y. V., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.