At this point, there’s a great deal of literature on building muscle, or hypertrophy development; however, I don’t know of a definitive guide specifically for athletes—people who are determined to pack on slabs of raw muscle mass and have to take into consideration a host of other training factors, which could possibly interfere with their progress, both from an aesthetic and athletic performance standpoint.
In this article I provide all of the pertinent information I have gathered over the years during thousands of practical training hours working in the trenches with athletes who had the muscle building objective.
Several factors play distinct roles in growing muscle, and I will cover them in detail specific to athletes. At the end, I will supply you with a sample training program that we have used with great success and that will reinforce everything I cover in the article to help lead you on your way if you are a coach or athlete.
5 Muscle Building Essentials
1. Training Frequency
The first topic I want to tackle is the optimal training frequency for an athlete looking to get bigger and stronger. Frequency can vary depending on the population you are working with, training status, etc. What’s interesting and unique to athletes is that they naturally encounter many competing demands (e.g., sprinting, agility work, plyometrics, conditioning, sport-specific skill work, practice, travel, and competition), which must be taken into account when designing a program to build quality muscle mass fast. A wealth of evidence supports a time spectrum of 48-72 hours for complete neuromuscular regeneration. Furthermore, I’ve heard some very credible authorities state that specific muscle building genes express better when training a muscle group/movement pattern twice per week. Last but not least, 2008 research indicated that the upper body has an increased recovery capacity relative to the lower body, and when you factor in how much most athletes tend to rely predominantly upon their lower bodies in athletics, the suggested aforementioned frequency makes even more sense.
2. Exercise Selection
Over a decade ago, I was in my initial stages working with different athletes. I needed answers fast or I would be out of a job, plain and simple. Fortunately, I happened to stumble across a 14-page training manual written by a guy named Jim Wendler. You may have heard of him. Based on everything I had read and learned up until that point, I assumed I was embarking on some revolutionary and elaborate training prescription that was going to give me an edge over my local competition. Instead, it was the most refreshing, straightforward, and simple training manual I had ever seen. It’s timeless and still one of my personal favorites to this day. Jim is a bonafide badass, and his book cuts through all of the nonsense and gets down to the basics.
Like many other experts, Jim advocates the classic “Big 6” compound exercises, which are all you need as an athlete, along with supplemental lifts to get the job done. Squats, Deads, Chins/Pulls, Military, Bench and Rows are and always will be the ticket to high quantities of size and strength. They are the most intense and challenging exercises you can perform, and they will help you develop intangible qualities like mental toughness and confidence, which many modern day athletes seem to lack. What’s also great about the compound movements is that you can perform numerous variations to help keep you as an athlete or coach engaged over the long term.
I located three separate studies, one recently, that showed no additional benefit for strength and size by adding isolation exercises to the compound movements. Also, despite direct attempts to isolate a target muscle, the reports suggested no increased motor unit recruitment of the target muscle compared to its contribution in a multi-joint movement.
The studies were moderate in length, they analyzed the upper body only and they pertained to limited training populations. But if isolation work does indeed stimulate a little more growth than compound movements alone, that’s perfectly fine and you could integrate them as a finisher. Many jacked bodybuilders use them, so I’m sure they work to some degree; but most athletes don’t need specific “touch up” work, since they haven’t mastered the basics and gained all the benefits that compound movement training have to offer. The scientifically confirmed transfer that compound movements have on athletic ability such as running, jumping, sprinting, cutting, etc., and the high neural and hormonal response initiated by this type of strength training, unarguably classifies them as the cornerstone in any athlete’s strength training program. If you are struggling with one of them, assess exactly what you are doing and fix any weak link so you can stimulate progress and reap high rewards.
3. Rest Intervals
Rest interval periods are one of the most underrated training concepts for muscle building in athletes. Conditioning has a special place in training programs, but when the mission is to build muscle and strength in the weight room, you will compromise your results if you limit your recovery. Solid research supports anywhere from 1- to 3-minute rest intervals during high intensity weight training. A lot depends on the level and experience of the athlete. Stronger athletes need more time to recuperate their alactic/lactic systems to maintain their strength. Also, the stronger an athlete becomes over time, the greater the conditioning effect due to a naturally higher energy demand on the local muscles and metabolism. It’s definitely not uncommon to see athletes nauseated, puking, or going flatback after their strength work, but the focus has to be on getting strong first. The rest will come.
I researched a wide array of rep and total volume ranges for muscle growth. Back in 2010, Brad Schoenfeld published a prominent study, the best of its kind, that identified the three primary factors for muscle growth.
Mechanical tension, muscle damage, and fatigue/metabolic stress were the primary governors of growth according to Schoenfeld. A researcher by the name of Goldspink initially made mention of tension way back when, and then Schoenfeld took it up a few levels and gave us the full story.
So how does an athlete go about satisfying all of this with a training volume approach?
The general consensus seems to be that the 6- to 15-rep range performed throughout your mesocycle is the best way. Three or four work sets will suffice. But as athletes adapt and become ready for higher workloads by becoming bigger, stronger, and more structurally resilient, they can add more sets. Just be careful not to overtrain and get in recovery debt.
I want to highlight the idea of tension as it relates to athleticism. One of the biggest deficiencies I witness in my athletes is the inability to generate extremely high levels of muscular tension throughout their kinetic chain. This skill is imperative for athletic success and injury prevention. I see athletes incapable of displaying tension when they land and collapse during the eccentric phase, which alters alignment and leads to slower countermovement responses. Some athletes rotate their torsos and cervical spines too much during sprinting because they lack tension. Others sway and leak energy as they rotate excessively after they plant and attempt to re-accelerate in a new direction—and the list goes on. Fortunately, lifting heavy and generating lots of tension not only helps grow muscle but addresses and cures many movement problems that occur as a natural by-product.
As a general rule of thumb, the intensity range should be between 70-85% to ensure that athletes train close to or right at volitional failure. A recent study showed greater muscle gains by training to failure. Although this could eventually lead to overtraining, it shouldn’t be much of a concern for novice to intermediate level lifters who are athletes, since they aren’t imposing enough stress on their bodies yet, and this approach will ensure faster progress and motivation.
Below is a basic 3-day training template that reflects everything I shared with you up until now.
Monday or Tuesday – Lower Body Dominant
- Warm-up/Prep Phase — 10-15 minutes SETS/REPS/REST
- A1. Max Effort Lower: Squat or Deadlift — 2-3/5-8/ 3-4 minutes
- B1.Bent Knee Hip Extension: Barbell Hip Thrust — 3-4/6-12/1-2 minutes
- B2.Unilateral Movement: High Box Step-Up — 3-4/6-12 each/1-2 minutes
- C1.Straight Knee Calf Exercise: Donkey Calf Raise — 3-4/12-15/1 minute
- C2.Core Exercise: Landmine Press — 3-4/12-15/1-2 minutes
Wednesday or Thursday – Upper-Body Dominant
- Warm-up/Prep Phase — 10-15 Minutes SETS/REPS/REST
- A1. Max Effort Upper: Bench Press — 2-3/5-8/3-4 minutes
- B1.Vertical Pull: Chin-Ups — 3-4/6-12/1-2 minutes
- B2.Vertical Press: Dumbell Bilateral Military Press — 3-4/6-12/1-2 minutes
- C1.Scap: Bent Over Rear Delt Raises — 3-4/12-15/1-2 minutes
- C2.Bicep: Alternating Dumbell Curls — 3-4/12-15/1-2 minutes
Friday or Saturday – Total Body
- Warm-up/Prep Phase — 10-15 minutes SETS/REPS/REST
- A1. Dynamic Effort Upper: Plyometric Push-Ups — 2-3/5-8/2 minutes
- A2.Dynamic Effort Lower: Hex Bar Jump Squat — 3-4/5-8/2 minutes
- B1.Horizontal Press: Dumbell Flat Bench Press — 3-4/6-12/1-2 minutes
- B2.Horizontal Row: 3-part Dumbell Row — 3-4/6-12 each/1-2 minutes
- C1.Quad Dominant: Front Squat — 3-4/6-12/2-3 minutes
- C2.Straight Knee Hip Extension: Single-Leg RDLs — 3-4/6-12 each/2-3 minutes
- D2.Bench Knee Calf Exercise: Seated Calf Machine — 3-4/12-15/2 minutes
- If progress stalls, replace the total body workout on day 3 with a rotating microcycle split of either lower-upper-lower or upper-lower-upper.
- Maintain controlled tempo of 2-3 seconds on the lowering phase of the lift (eccentric) with an explosive lifting phase (concentric), especially if you are a beginner.
- Keep your workouts limited to 35-45 minutes to keep testosterone levels high.
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- Rogers, R.A. “The effect of supplemental isolated weight-training exercises on upper-arm size and upper-body strength.” NSCA Conference. pp. 369.
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- Schoenfeld, B. “Longer inter-set rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2015.
- Schoenfeld, B. “The mechanism of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24: 2857-2872, 2010.