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When you’re set on a fitness goal, there are few feelings quite as frustrating as consistently hitting the gym and still not seeing results as quickly as you’d like to. If you feel as though you aren’t growing at the pace that you’d like — or if your progress has hit a wall completely — it might be time to “hack” your routines to optimize your growth. 

Read on for tips on maximizing your muscle growth with the right exercise, diet, and recovery strategies. 

The science of muscle growth 

Muscle growth (aka muscle hypertrophy) happens through a combination of exercise and diet. 

Resistance training is an incredible stimulus for muscle growth. When you lift challenging loads, as you do during weight training, you cause minuscule amounts of physical damage to your muscle tissues. However, when you’re eating the right diet — and to be most specific, when you eat plenty of protein —  your immune system launches a process called muscle protein synthesis that can heal that damage by building new muscle tissue

So, if you want to maximize your muscle growth, you’ll need to optimize both your exercise routine and your diet to give your muscles all of the tools they will need to grow. In addition, it’s also important to make room for your recovery period since this is when your body will actually get to act on all the metabolic adaptations necessary for muscle growth.  

Possible limitations to muscle growth 

Now, while exercise, diet, and recovery are crucial steps to muscle hypertrophy, it’s also important to acknowledge that muscle growth is dependent on a variety of factors. Unlike working out and eating right, some of these factors can’t be changed, which can somewhat limit your ability to grow muscle.  

Genetics is one such factor. While you can train and eat well, your muscle strength and power are still going to be somewhat influenced by your genetics

Age is another factor that may impact your muscle. After reaching a certain age, many people experience a gradual decline in muscle mass called sarcopenia. Some of this seems to be due to a natural slowdown of your body’s rate of muscle protein synthesis. However, some aging-related muscle loss also seems to be due to lifestyle changes, so making an effort to exercise can help with this. 

It’s also important to remember that, like any other fitness goal, muscle growth is a process. Things don’t happen overnight, and you need to be consistent in order to get the most out of your hypertrophy routine. However, despite all of these potential limitations, you can maximize your personal growth with the right training, diet, and recovery approaches. 

Training tips to maximize muscle growth 

Work the same muscles multiple times a week. 

Your current workout split might not be enough to maximize muscle growth, especially if you’re only working out muscle groups once a week. 

After reviewing data from several studies regarding resistance training frequency, researchers concluded that major muscle groups should be worked out at least twice a week to maximize growth versus just once a week. 

Making a workout schedule is a good strategy to ensure that you’re working out enough. Consider writing an in-depth training schedule that will cover your desired muscle groups enough times throughout the week, or at least assigning certain days of the week to specific muscle groups. 

Embrace the principle of “progressive overload.” 

You don’t necessarily need to do a ton of different lifts to challenge your muscles — you can effectively grow your muscles by doing the same exercises over and over as long as you’re using the principle of progressive overload. 

“Progressive overload” is simply the practice of gradually increasing the load of the weights that you’re working with throughout your training journey. For example, if you’re using 20-pound dumbbells for your bicep curls one week, you might consider moving up to 25-pound dumbbells once those 20’s become easier to lift. 

Some studies have also suggested that increasing the number of reps you do is also a good way to practice progressive overload and encourage muscle hypertrophy. In other words, if you get comfortable curling those 25-pound dumbbells for 10 repetitions (reps) per set, you can then increase to 15 repetitions per set. 

No matter how you choose to overload, working out this way continually challenges you, which means that your muscles have to work harder and harder even though you’re doing the same exercise. 

Focus on the eccentric movements 

That sore feeling you get after a big workout (aka delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS) happens as a result of damage that your muscles experience during the eccentric phase of your workout. During these movements, the muscle is lengthened. Some examples of eccentric exercises include lowering into a squat (which lengthens your glutes and quadriceps) or extending your arm during a bicep curl (which lengthens your bicep). 

“Damage” might sound bad. But when it comes to muscle growth, this is actually a good thing since your immune system repairs that muscle tissue and it grows back bigger and stronger.

Some studies have suggested that focusing on eccentric exercises may help spur on muscle damage, which some researchers believe may then spur on hypertrophy. 

On the other hand, some other evidence indicates that muscle damage on its own isn’t necessarily a deciding factor for muscle growth. Instead, a big reason that the eccentric phase is so important is because you can often lift heavier loads during the eccentric phase. This increase in exercise intensity during the eccentric phase of a workout can promote muscle growth more than the movements during concentric phases. 

Most lifting exercises include both concentric and eccentric phases. For example, the process of lowering down into a squat is the eccentric part of the movement, but standing back up is concentric. So to emphasize the eccentric phase of your workout, you can do things like pausing at the bottom of your squat or doing squat pulses in addition to completing the full range of motion.  

Incorporate some time-efficient workouts into your training schedule. 

If your goal is to save time during your workout rather than faster overall, you might benefit from adding more advanced workout techniques into your routine. 

For example, some athletes will add drop sets to their routine, in which they lift a heavy weight for a certain number of repetitions and then “drop” to a lower weight, performing those movements until failure. These challenging exercise strategies are thought to push your muscles to the limit more efficiently than traditional sets. While they don’t make you grow faster than traditional workout sets, per se, there is evidence that doing drop sets can lead to comparable hypertrophy results while being more time-efficient. In other words: drop sets are just as good for helping you grow muscle as traditional sets, but they take less time to perform. 

Diet tips for maximizing muscle growth 

Eat plenty of protein.  

Because protein plays such a critical role in muscle growth, one of the easiest diet “hacks” for muscle growth is to eat plenty of it to complement your resistance training. 

Some experts recommend eating between 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to maximize protein synthesis. Focus on eating plenty of complete protein sources in your diet like poultry, meat, and dairy. It’s also a good idea to eat a variety of plant-based protein sources like legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. 

In addition to food, protein supplements can help you meet your needs if you aren’t getting enough of it from your diet alone. However, it’s also important to note that just eating tons and tons of protein has its limits, so simply stuffing your diet with as much protein as you can isn’t the most effective route. Instead, aim to eat 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight per day for the most efficient growth routine. 

Try BCAAs.

Protein can be further broken down into smaller units called amino acids. Some athletes swear by supplementing specific amino acids to help further their muscle growth. 

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are particularly important amino acids because they are thought to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. However, it’s still more important to get your amino acids from whole protein sources first before supplementing. For example, beef, salmon, and eggs are all good sources of the BCAA leucine, but they’re also excellent sources of complete protein to help you with your overall goals. 

Recovery strategies for better muscle growth 

Get plenty of sleep. 

Recovery is often overlooked in the muscle-building formula, but it can significantly slow your progress down if you aren’t giving it enough attention. 

For example, your sleep quality is one major factor of muscle growth that you may not always consider. Sleep deprivation is thought to negatively impact your strength and performance in the gym, which may then impact your ability to build muscle. There’s also some evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation can affect hormones like testosterone and cortisol that play roles in your muscles’ abilities to grow. 

Don’t neglect your rest days.

Finally, while it’s important to put in the work to build muscle faster, it’s just as important to give yourself some time to rest. After all, letting yourself rest gives your immune system the energy necessary to repair and rebuild after those big workouts. 

In fact, too much training can put you at risk of overtraining syndrome, which has been linked to a variety of negative symptoms like weakness, inflammation, and muscle stress that can severely impact your ability to train effectively. 

While you’re planning your workout routine for the week, give yourself at least one or two days of active rest to dedicate to your recovery. You can always do more moderate physical activity during these days if you want to keep moving, like yoga or walking. The important thing is to take a break from those intense and heavy workouts so that your muscles are allowed to grow to their full potential. 

Conclusion 

Muscle hypertrophy is a long process, and it requires plenty of dedication and consistency. However, with a challenging weightlifting routine, plenty of high-quality protein, and proper rest and recovery, you can optimize your body’s ability to build muscle and reach your health and fitness goals.

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