There are three main mechanisms that drive muscle growth (hypertrophy) in the body.
Mechanical Tension – This concept is created by placing heavy loads on a muscle and moving that muscle through a full range of motion. Time plays a role here as well, the more time the muscle is under tension, the more mechanical tension is created in that muscle.
Muscle Damage – Our goal when resistance training is indirectly to build muscle, but to do this we must first break down muscle tissue to allow the body to build itself back up bigger and stronger than before. Muscle damage is created when lifting weights in a variety of ways, but largely occurs during the eccentric (lowering) portion of lifts. The soreness we experience (D.O.M.S – delayed onset muscle soreness) is a result of muscle damage that occurred during a previous workout.
The topic of today’s article will focus on this third hypertrophic mechanism.
Metabolic Stress – Also known as ‘The Pump’. Many things are happening as you approach the end of a hard set. Blood pools in the muscle creating a swelling effect in its cells. This in turn leads to a large build up of metabolites in the cells of the muscle which has been shown to have an anabolic (muscle building) effect on the muscle/muscle cells.
Metabolic stress is mainly accessed as a muscle approaches failure, and there are some techniques we can use to enhance these effects and take muscles past failure in a sense, potentially tapping into the effects even further. These techniques can add an additional challenge or level of intensity to your workouts that you may not be use to, so introduce them slowly and progressively and not on every movement off the get go.
Partner Assisted Reps: This technique is fairly self explanatory. Perform a set to or close to complete failure, then have a partner give you just enough assistance to complete a few more reps. The amount of assistance can increase the more extra reps you do, but if it gets to a point where your partner is doing most of the work, call the set there.
Dropsets: Start at a weight that you can likely do 10-15 reps with. Perform as many reps as you can, then drop the weight 20-30% and immediately complete another set of as many reps as possible, repeat the process 2-4 times.
Myo Reps (Rest Pause): Start with a weight you can perform 12-20 reps with. Perform as many reps as you can then rest for 5-10 sec and repeat the same weight for as many reps as possible again. Repeat this process 2-4 times. You should be aiming to do approximately 1/3 of the reps you completed on the first set in the subsequent sets after the short rest periods.
Widow Maker Sets: These are quite similar to myo reps sets except you start with a fairly high number of reps prescribed (usually 30). You are to choose a weight you can do approximately half of the reps with. Do as many reps as you can, then take a 5-10 sec break, then perform as many reps as you can again before another 5-10 sec break. Continue this process until you get to the prescribed number of reps.
Double Sets: This concept is used when working one arm or leg at a time. You would perform a set to failure on one arm/leg then do the same on the other arm/leg. Once done the second limb, immediately switch back to the first limb and repeat the process. Your only rest period in the double set is the time it takes to do the other arm/leg.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it should add a couple tools to your toolbox to help make training a bit more intense and exciting for the time being. Although these are great techniques, nothing beats high quality, voluminous workouts that create a lot of mechanical tension and muscle damage when seeking muscle size and strength gains. Metabolic stress should be viewed as the icing on the cake in your training program.