First thing’s first: If you want to build muscle, you have to do some damage.
When you lift weights, you inevitably injure your muscle fibers. Once injured, the muscle will work to repair itself by sending an SOS for more cells. In response, satellite cells—key cells involved in growing and regenerating skeletal muscle cells—rush in to help, ultimately increasing the size and length of the damaged muscles. This is also known as the overload principle, which says the muscle only adapts and grows when it encounters greater stress than it’s accustomed to.
After you train, your muscles are swollen—aka, “swole”—because they continue to fire in an effort to cool the body down, Melinda Sothern, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and professor at LSU Health New Orleans, tells SELF. They’re also injured, which signals the rush of fluid to coat and soothe the muscles to keep them from getting even more damaged. Sothern explains that once your muscles repair and adapt, they get better at staying contracted longer.
Ready for your gains? It’s time to focus on training for muscle hypertrophy—the growth and increase of the size of your muscle cells. Whether you’ve been lifting weights for a while or you’re just starting, incorporating these simple hypertrophy-specific changes into your routine will make you look like the strong woman you are.
1. Switch things up.
Change is the name of the gain game. Whether you vary the number of sets and reps or add new exercise variations, you’ll stimulate more muscle fibers. “And the more muscle fibers you recruit, the better the results,” Sothern says.
When it comes to building muscle, the sweet spot is in the eight- to twelve-rep range. According to Sothern, it’s within this range that you’ll be able to hit both the fast-twitch (power and strength) and slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibers. While the fast-twitch fibers have greater size capacity, the slow-twitch, or endurance fibers, will allow you to lift that weight repeatedly. Play within this range to hit as many muscle fibers as possible.
Another easy way to make sure you’re keeping your muscles guessing—while giving them a chance to adapt and grow—is to progressively increase your work volume over time. (This process is known as progressive overload, which is basically the same thing as the overload principle.)
There are endless ways to sneak in more volume without feeling like you live at the gym. Start by making incremental increases, like adding an extra set to bigger, compound lifts like squats, shoulder presses, and deadlifts. Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S., says she likes to incorporate changes over a two- to three-week period to get clients used to the increase before adding more.
How you incorporate volume can also be determined by your goals. For example, if sleeve-busting arms are a must-have, you could add in an entirely new exercise variation like preacher curls to your arm workout. If your shoulders are your weakness, consider adding in an entire training session dedicated to building them up.