In our previous blog post we talked about changing body composition and how fat loss and muscle building interact and under what conditions.  I wanted to go into a little more depth about how muscle building works, to bust some myths that are floating about out there, and to make things as simple as possible.

This post is for anyone that wants to build muscle or tone up.  If you are looking to build a ‘toned’ body then you have probably given a lot of thought to how much fat you would like to lose but you might not have thought about how much muscle you would have to build.  For a lot of people the body they are looking to obtain involves an extra 10lbs of muscle as a minimum.  Adding muscle increases metabolism.  Perhaps adding this muscle first is going to be a more efficient route to the body you are looking for?


At PinkPT we believe that all bodies are good bodies, and we deliver training and advice to people with any goal for themselves.  This post isn’t trying to push a certain type of body ideal on our clients and followers but simply an open reply to body composition questions about goals that a lot of our clients and followers have.

In the last post we touched upon the genetic factors that can affect hypertrophy (muscle building).  This time around we will be focusing on the things that we can actually have control over.  Namely what we can do with our training, our nutrition, and our recovery.

There are a great many fallacies out there, most of which are peddled by someone trying to sell you something (I myself am trying to sell Personal Training but I don’t think I need to lie or mislead you to be able to do that).  The main topics I want to cover are:

•Type of exercises

•Frequency of training


•Training techniques (Inc rep ranges)

•Protein requirements

•Fat requirements

•Carbohydrate requirements

•Calories and meal timing

•Rest (including sleep)

In the summary I also detail a hierarchy of importance for all of the advice imparted in the post.  I think this is key, every week I read articles about things like, dark chocolate inhibiting a mechanism that slows down hypertrophy, or debates on casein protein vs whey protein, and so on. All of which is meaningless if you haven’t got any of the fundamentals of hypertrophy down.


When it comes to exercise we are mostly going to talk about exercises that involve a low level of skill (specific to the individual), and that are safe to be pushed to failure or near failure (again there is subjectivity here).  We are also going to be talking about routines that expose the whole body to a training stimulus on a weekly basis.  It’s crucial to remember that hypertrophy can be achieved doing other types of exercise, and more or less frequently and adherence to a routine is linearly correlated with enjoyment.  We need to enjoy training in order to maintain it long enough to get results.  Whether enjoyment for you is getting a dopamine hit at the end of your work out, or learning and mastering new movements.  Some people like to lift heavy, and some people like to get a sweat on.  There’s no reason why that won’t work in building muscle, slow and steady beats going hard for a week or so then giving up.

Exercise skill level, and training to failure

In terms of training, exercise skill level and training intensity are probably the most important factors.  Using exercises that you can perform well (and therefore require a lower level of skill for the individual), performed to failure or close to failure are the backbone of an efficient hypertrophy program.  If an individual was brand new to lifting weights and wanted to see rapid results I would have them do 2 basic pushes and 2 basic pulls along with 2 basic leg exercises one for the posterior and one for the anterior (front and back) providing they can do all the exercises without pain and then find the maximum weight they can do for 8-12 reps and push them to get within 1-2 reps of that figure, and repeat for a few weeks adjusting the weight as the exercises get easier.  People with a higher skill level will have more exercises available to them to be used for hypertrophy, anyone at all can start working on mastering more exercises.  We can develop the skill for a few weeks and then push those to failure in a routine as well.

The main components of a hypertrophy training program are mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.  Each exercise should provide one or more of these components (optimally all 3).  Mechanical tension is just the load that you place on a muscle.  High levels of mechanical tension are achieved when doing reps of 3-5 at a weight that you would find it near impossible to do 6 reps of.  Muscle damage happens as you approach failure in any rep range, as you begin to fail micro-tears happen to the muscle and when these are repaired they (under the right nutrition and recovery) repair and the muscle grows bigger with it.  Metabolic stress is broadly speaking overall fatigue.  It will accumulate as you train.  You can maximise the metabolic stress of an exercise by doing higher reps, however you will still achieve a good level of metabolic stress across lower reps as long as your workout contains a number of exercises for each body part and enough total sets.  In summary, some of your lifting should be quite heavy, and most of it should be within a few reps of failure.  A good way to think about it is that only the 5 reps close to failure count at all.  So if I was to pick up a weight and lift it 8 times, then on reflection I think I could have managed 13 reps in total, then I can consider that set completely worthless.  These reps are often called ‘Junk reps’ for obvious reasons.  When going close to failure in a lot of sets you need to consider fatigue, if you take on too much too early in a work out then you’ll find your work out fizzles out very quickly, it’s wise to hold a few reps in the tank and not push every single set to failure.  I find this is a very subjective factor though.  I personally find that heavy reps done to failure on big compound movements (namely squat, deadlift and bench press) absolutely flour me (do you mean floor you?).  My central nervous system powers down and my body itself feels heavy and I feel fatigued, not much changes cardiovascularly, I’m not out of breath, but it’s incredibly hard to do many more exercises after going heavy and to failure on the big compounds.  Some people can go hard on those lifts and their work outs don’t suffer so much.  As a general rule the more muscle you have the more you suffer from that type of fatigue but it’s not a hard and fast rule, and there are outliers both sides.

A few other considerations

Is the muscle (or muscles) you are trying to work the one(s) actually working.

When talking about failure or fatigue, we are talking about a specific muscle or group of muscles.  We need to make sure the ones we are aiming to work are the ones we actually are working.  If you have pushed yourself to failure on a bent over row and the reason you have failed is because your grip gave out then it’s the muscles in the forearms that have got a really good work out and not the back and arms.  That’s fine if you want to build bigger forearms but if the aim was to work your back and arms then you might need to look at your exercise selection and your grip style (or gloves etc).  Similarly if you fail at squatting because your calves give up then you are mostly building calves and you won’t get a big bum so much.

Training frequency

The research seems to suggest that major muscle groups should be trained twice a week to maximize muscle growth.  That is that twice is better than once and there isn’t much evidence you can say that three times is better than twice.  There are of course outliers with this as well.  For some people twice is too much, and for some three times is better.  You can of course still build muscle training just once or twice per week, but we are talking about optimal hypertrophy.  Now if you are training every day you can hit those 2 sessions per body part in many different ways.  But most people who are looking to build muscle train 2-4 times a week.  This can be done by training half the body or the whole body each session and you’ve hit the target.  The old fashion body builder split – when you isolate each body part and train it on its own, has been shown in a few studies to be less effective at building muscle (unless you have a lot of muscle already or you are taking steroids) than combining 2 body parts or more in a session.  This is why I prefer whole body or half body sessions as a general rule for most clients, but again if someone enjoys training one body part at a time then that’s fine too, enjoyment is important.

Total work out volume

The magic numbers here appear to be 6-8 hard sets in total.  If you are training your whole body you are doing Shoulders, Chest, Back, Legs (and maybe arms and abs) this only means 1-2 hard sets per body part.  In that model 2 exercises for each body part probably works and the last set of each exercise you could go all the way to failure (but I would still want to get within 5 reps of failure on the others, unless you have determined that that is too much for you personally).  If you are splitting your body up a little more you might just train 2 body parts each session and that would mean going hard in 3-4 sets per body part (but much longer rest before you train that body part again).  Either works, and other variations do too.


Find some enjoyment in your training, and create a routine that fits your schedule.  You don’t need to be ‘optimal’ for all of the hypertrophy factors.  Slow and steady can win the race.

Train hard (within 5 reps of failure) on the exercises you are good at.  Find those exercise that you can do well: your form doesn’t falter much as you reach failure, and the muscles you want to work are the ones working.

Aim for 6-8 hard sets per work out

Training a muscle group twice a week is ‘optimal’ but progress can be made with less (or more).

For medium and long term goals take some of time to master the technique on new movements that you will use for hypertrophy in the future, but know that they won’t contribute much to muscle building in the short term.

If you need any further help with building muscle or any other fitness goal, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page of this website or by emailing info@pinkpt.co.uk