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How To Return To The Gym & Optimise Muscle Growth

Many moons ago, a young Louis walked into the gym world for his very first time. Excited, anxious, and curious, he set off for the one gym session he would never forget.

Like an excited puppy on its first day of puppy school, he was running around to every machine jumping on each one out of excitement before he ran to the next one to do the same.

Two hours later, tired out from all the excitement and all the exercise, he crashed and started walking home happy but in pieces.

I don't remember the exact things I had done in the gym that day, and not why I remember it.

What I do remember was the DOMS (muscle soreness), which I experienced immediately after, lasting for days!!

Don't be this Louis when gyms reopen tomorrow, please.

This Louis not only got too excited to be in the gym that he thought he could do everything but also thought that he had to feel this way to build muscle.

Do not do this when gyms open tomorrow and do not think this way.

Let me explain why:

Your muscles need to go through a certain amount of trauma (damage) to initiate repair and growth (adaption). If your muscles don't experience any pain and discomfort, they won't have any reason to adapt.

Therefore my logic (in my younger self wording) was to "fuck them up" because more damage meant more growth.

The poor naive, ill-informed younger me went through so much unnecessary pain for no benefit.

However, was I completely wrong? No!

Was what I thought taken out of context? Yes!

You see, he wasn't entirely wrong, just a little bit misguided. You 100% need to take your muscles out of their comfort zone and cause what's known as microtears. Propper resistance training will do this.

These microtears are detected by the body (similar to a cut), it then seeks to go in and not only repair them but fortify them, making them bigger and stronger.

That doesn't mean that more damage is better, as a study in 2011 by Kyle L Flann and his team discovered.

During the study, Kyle and his team divided their subjects into two separate groups. Noticeable muscle soreness was avoided in group A with a 3-week gradual ramp-up to training. Group B was exposed to noticeable muscle damage during the first week and also ramped up to keep apparent muscle damage throughout the course.

Each group was assigned to an 8-week ramp-up training plan three times per week.

The noticeable muscle damage Group (Group B) experienced signs of damage which were absent in Group A. Their plasma creatine kinase levels were five times higher than Group A, but there was no difference in muscle size after the eight weeks. (Creatine Kinase is a plasma released into the blood when there is muscle damage).

On top of this, strength increases were also identical in each group. Kyle and his team concluded that muscle soreness is not needed for muscle growth but progressive overload (continuous ramp-up) is.

I went through a lot of trial and error trying to build muscle, and I mean a lot which set me back years. This article will help you stop making the same mistakes that I did so you can optimise your muscle gain.

So let's jump into the next part:

The next downfall was my training split.

For years I did the typical Bro Split.

Chest Mondays, Back Tuesdays, Legs Wednesdays (not until two years in any way), Shoulders Thursdays's, Arms & Abs Fridays, totaling a whopping 20-24 sets per muscle group in one session 😱. No wonder I was in agony.

I did see progress in this split I'm not saying you can't because it did work but, is it optimal?

You're about to find out:

For your muscles to see optimal growth, they need certain fundamentals in place:

  • Volume,

  • Intensity,

  • Frequency.

Let's break these down further.

1. Volume - Training volume can be defined as the number of sets you perform weekly. Brad Shoenfeld a leader and top researcher in the industry on building muscle, recommends that 10+ sets per muscle group per week were much more favourable than -10 sets. No shit sherlock may run through your mind but, his research also found some people/muscles responded better to fewer sets. What I would recommend is starting with ten sets per week and adjusting accordingly. Muscles that you feel are lagging should have increased sets, muscles responding well should be kept the same until they plateau, and areas struggling to recover should do fewer.

2. Intensity - As mentioned earlier, your muscles need to feel challenged to grow. If they don't feel challenged, they won't see the need. Therefore, your intensity needs to be towards the higher end of the scale none of your training sessions should feel like a breeze unless you're in a deload. When it comes to assessing intensity in my sessions, I like to use a Reps In Reserve (RIR) scale developed by Eric Helms. Frequent failure isn't needed to achieve muscle growth now and again might be necessary but, not every week. By using an RIR scale, I can gauge my intensity without going to failure. By aiming for 3 Reps In Reserve during set 1, 2 RIR in set 2, and 1-2 RIR in set 3, you can be sure intensity is high without failure.

3. Frequency - Exposing your muscles to more frequency throughout the week is a sure way to help them respond. When stimulated and trained multiple times per week, your muscles are much more likely to adapt and grow. Think of it like this, who would learn Spanish faster? Person A that studies once per week, or person B that studies three times per week? Person B of course. However, there is a fine line between the right amount and too much. Muscles need to recover and repair before torn again training too frequently can inhibit this, just like trying to learn Spanish every day could leave you stressed and confused.

Knowing these three principles, we can start to understand why the bro-split or once-a-week muscle group training isn't going to be optimal. We know that 10+ sets are optimal for growth. The bro-split is a good 20 sets in one session so, half of the session is just junk volume.

How do your legs feel after the first five sets of intense training? Like jelly right! So how good quality and how much intensity can you apply to the other fifteen? Suboptimal hence the term junk volume. By splitting 10-15 sets across the week, you can ensure each set and rep is of the highest quality and intensity, optimising muscle growth.

Lastly the bro-split or training muscles once per week doesn't allow for much frequency whereas, an upper-lower split, push-pull split, or full-body split will allow you to achieve all three of the above.

Here's what you need to know about nutrition to aid recovery.

I didn't address my nutrition for a good eighteen to twenty-four months into training, which showed. Now again, I still got results but, they were by far from optimal.

As mentioned, training is just tearing your muscles, causing them damage, and breaking them down. After this, we need to ensure that they fully recover and repair bigger and stronger. For your body to do this optimally, it must be supplied with the correct materials and the correct amount. (7-8 hours sleep is also needed, more on this in another article).

I got good at tearing them but, didn't have a scooby about how to optimally encourage their growth through nutrition.

Take building a house for example, a builder will need a certain number of bricks and cement to complete it. Not enough will lead to an unfinished job.

Whereas supplying him with the right amount will ensure he can build a big, strong, and impressive house.

The same goes for your body and building muscle. You need to supply it with enough material (protein and calories) to ensure it can complete the job successfully, growing your muscles.

How much do you need?

Firstly gaining fat is much faster and easier than gaining muscle, realistically you can build 0.5lb-1.5lb of muscle per month, PER MONTH yes, not per week. So you don't need to eat big to get big or dirty bulk unless you want to gain more fat than muscle. The amount will depend on your experience level beginners can see faster growth than more advanced lifters.

That means you're roughly looking at a surplus of 1,750-5250 kcal per month, 58kcal-175kcal per day.

Side note* Don't confuse scale weight with fat weight when massing you should expect to see an initial increase due to water retention and glycogen storage from increased food, not body fat.

So, how do you work out your calorie intake for muscle gain?

To work this out, I recommend using the formula below:

Women, x your body weight in kg by 22.

Men, x your body weight in kg by 24.

This gives you your BMR reading (aka coma calories) the number of calories your body needs to maintain its weight if you didn't move all day.

Next, assuming you're not in a coma and need more calories than if you were, you need to times this number by how active you are.

x by 1.1 if sedentary.

x by 1.3 if moderately active.

x by 1.5 if highly active.

or by any number in between.

This now gives you your actual maintenance calories if you wanted to maintain your weight this is the number of calories you need each day.

To determine your muscle gain calories take your maintenance calories and times that by 1.05-1.07 to put you in a 5-7% surplus this is your daily calorie target to gain muscle.

It should look something like this:

70kg x 24 = 1680 (Maintenace calories in a coma).

1680 x 1.5 = 2520 (Maintenace calories inlcuding activity.

2520 x 1.05 = 2646 (Muscle gain calories).

Alongside consuming enough calories, we know we need protein to ensure we're gaining mostly muscle and not body fat.

Research suggests consuming 1.6-2.4g per kg of body weight.


But wait, why is protein so important?


Protein is the building blocks of our body and creates everything including hair, skin, nails, cells, and of course, muscle tissue. Protein is the only nutrient than can be converted into muscle mass, if you're in a surplus with minimal protein intake then you'll be gaining body fat and not muscle.

The higher end of the scale can help to minimise fat gain further, for this reason, I recommend aiming for 2.0-2.4g per kg of bodyweight.

A man weighing 70kg would x his body weight by 2.0-2.4 = 140-168g of protein.

A female weighing 60kg would x her body weight by 2.0-2.4 = 120-144g of protein.

Key Take Homes For Gaining Muscle

You Don't Need To Feel Like You've Been Hit By A Bus To Gain Muscle

Although your muscles do need to experience a form of trauma to gain muscle, they don't need to be annihilated. Instead, give them a progressive ramp-up in intensity each week to ensure they have a reason to adapt. Bonus Tip Introduce a low-volume week every 10-12 weeks to allow optimal recovery and keep injuries away.

Give Your Muscles The Volume They Need

Start with ten sets on each muscle group each week, including compound lifts. I.e, you use your biceps to assist in pulling exercises so, you don't need to do ten sets of pure biceps each week, more like three to six. Adjust your sets accordingly, increase where you feel growth is lacking in comparison to other areas, and decrease areas struggling to recover.

Give Your Muscles the Intensity They Don't Want

Training shouldn't be easy, it has to feel like a challenge, and your muscles need to experience some discomfort. Use the RIR (Reps In Reserve) technique with a gun to your head mentality, think "if someone had a gun to my head could I get two more reps, or could I get four? If the answer is four, get two more. Set one = three RIR, Set two = two RIR, Set three = one/two RIR.

Frequency Over Junk Volume

Spend time with your muscles in the iron paradise more than once per week. Don't just equate volume for volume sake. Ensure that your muscles are stimulated enough each session but not past the point quality suffers. Look to train your muscles two to three times per week three to five sets per session.

Supply Your Muscles With Enough Material

Place yourself in a 5-7% percent surplus and aim for 2.0-2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight. Turning up to smash your muscles in the gym isn't going to elicit growth alone you must provide them with enough food to recover and repair. Bonus Tip, you can build your muscles in a maintenance phase alongside reducing body fat too, this is known as body recomposition, but it is a slower process.

And there you have it, how to not only enter the gyms this week without destroying your body but also how to optimise your muscle growth.

Thanks for reading, if you loved this and found it helpful, please share it with others.

P.s I have created a video teaching you how to workout out your calories and protein for fat loss and muscle growth, CLICK HERE to watch.

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