Training for muscle growth and strength

Over time our bodies adapt to the stimuli that we expose them to. These stimuli can be environmental, physiological or psychological. The adaptations that occur in response to stimuli are predictable and muscle building is not an exception to the rules of the general adaptation syndrome proposed by Hans Selye. If you have experienced slow gains in strength, or increasing muscle mass, then if may be that proper recovery or proper nutrition is the issue, or perhaps it is lack of specificity in training.

The training principles of specificity, overload, adaptation and reversibility all impact muscle growth and strength increases. The principle of specificity states that adaptations are specific to the stimulus provided.

So if an individual repeatedly lifts heavy weights, gets adequate nutrition and recovery, they will gain in strength, whereas if a person over time lifts lighter weights for many repetitions and has adequate nutrition and recovery periods, that individual will gain in muscular endurance.

Therefore, the training sessions should reflect the desired outcome.

As well as number of repetitions and heaviness of weight, the speed of contractions and exercise selection must be considered when planning a workout session. To develop stability, for example, in pushing, chest exercises might be performed on a stability ball in a slow controlled manner, whereas to develop higher levels of strength, exercises would be performed on a stable bench with heavier loads to place more emphasis on the larger prime mover muscles rather the stabilizers.

Likewise, if training the chest for explosive power, light weight high velocity training such as throwing a medicine ball in a plyometric manner would be most specific.

The principle of overload states that in order for a tissue (bone, muscle tendon, ligament) to adapt to a demand, it must be progressively overloaded.

To avoid injury, adaptive programs must include carefully planned periodization cycles through different stages which allows for rest and recuperation.

The principle of adaptation simply states that the human body will adapt physiologically to the demands placed upon it. If you have started a workout program and it seemed very intense at first and in just a few weeks it seemed like you could do more, then you have experienced the principle of adaptation. This is why it is important to progress the sessions and not keep doing the same old routine that you’ve been doing for the last couple of years.

You’ll never increase your fitness level keeping the routine the same. The principle of reversibility is that any gains — be they strength, more muscle mass, less fat, better cardio, better balance or flexibility will be progressively lost when training ceases. I always tell my clients they get a body back guarantee. They stop training, they will get their old body back, guaranteed.

It is peculiar to me that we do so many other activities in our daily lives in order to stay healthy and look good, such as bathing, brushing our teeth, washing and brushing our hair and we wouldn’t think of going a day or two without doing so. Exercise is exactly the same. We do it to be healthy and to look good.

Muscle growth or hypertrophy is an adaptation to exercise characterized by an increase in the cross-sectional diameter of muscle fibers. It is also a function of protein balance and proper recovery. The best way to train for increased muscle size is to use low to intermediate repetition ranges of eight to 12 reps, usually three sets of reps performed three days per week in order to allow for adequate rest.

Strength is the ability to produce internal tension in the muscles and connective tissue that pull on the bones in order to overcome an external force. Resistance training programs that focus on developing maximal strength in individual muscles emphasize one plane of motion.

However, strength cannot be thought of in isolation, it is built on a foundation of stabilization, and because all muscles function eccentrically, isometrically and concentrically in all three planes of motion, at different speeds, training programs should be planned using a progressive approach that emphasizes not just appropriate exercises but also all muscle actions and speeds.

Resistance training has many health benefits besides improved muscle mass and strength development. It also raises one’s metabolism, lowers body fat, increases good cholesterol, enhances bone density, and shapes the muscles and body. It is clearly not, however, simply a matter of hoisting around some weights.


Jane Riley is a certified nutritional adviser and certified behavior change specialist (National Academy of Sports Medicine). She can be reached at, (808) 212-8119


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