If you want to know how to build muscle, whether it’s for your six pack or anywhere else, you’re probably confused by the weight of conflicting information that’s out there. And while no workout is perfect because every body is different, there are some core basics that are proven to be most effective. Just a relatively small change to your workout can make a big difference to your results and whether or not you build muscle and get a six pack.
The usual mistake people make when trying to build muscle (and by people I mean guys) is to concentrate on lifting the biggest weight possible, as quickly as possible, with little range of motion. Although far from the ideal way to train for strength this is where they’re heading, and as strength training and muscle building are two different things they don’t get the results they’re looking for. There are many reasons why, but there are a few main ones.
One of the biggest challenges I have when trying to help people build muscle is getting them out of the mindset that the bigger the weight the better. If you’re training for strength yes, obviously the heavier you lift the stronger you’ll get, but training for strength isn’t the same as training to build muscle. Strength training is about neural recruitment of muscle fibres; muscle building is about actually increasing the amount of muscle cells. Strength training means sets of 1-2 reps; to build muscle it’s more like 8-10 reps. This is all to do with Time Under Tension.
Time Under Tension is, as it suggests, the amount of time your muscle are tense for each set. You might think that however long your set lasts is the time under tension but unfortunately, due to poor technique (most often caused by trying to lift too much weight), this is far from the case. A set lasting 40 seconds should have 100% tension which is therefore 40 seconds, but in every gym you’ll find plenty of people getting 50% tension or less giving at best 20 seconds. Given that time under tension is a key part of how to build muscle, and that each set should be 40 – 70 seconds, that means every single set is wasting the potential to grow.
That leads me nicely into the speed of your reps. Look around the gym next time you’re there and you’ll see, almost without exception, reps that last a second at best. Even if the weight isn’t too big and they get to 10 reps that’s only 10 seconds work, which is a long way short of the 40 seconds of time under tension recommended to build muscle. So if you’re aiming to do 8-10 reps the answer is, obviously, slow your reps down. Specifically, slow down the concentric part of your rep.
Concentric is, if I use the bench press as an example, the phase of the rep where you are lowering the bar towards your chest. While the phase where you push the bar away is eccentric.
Make the concentric phase last for about 4 seconds, then explode during the eccentric phase, so the total for the rep is 5 seconds. Repeat that for 8 reps and there’s your 40 seconds of time under tension.
When I have my clients do this it obviously mean they have to use lighter, and more suitable, weights. A benefit of this is that their (generally) poor Range Of Movement becomes more obvious now it is no longer hidden by fast sets.
If I use the bench press as an example again, this means lowering the bar until it’s just above the chest and then raising it until arms are straight, without locking elbows. The bottom and top part of this exercise, like any other, is where the muscles are at their weakest. This is why you commonly see oversized weights being bounced through the midrange of the exercise.
It’s easier. But it’s also a far less effective way to build muscle.
Training with full range of motion and more time under tension you’ll find you need more rest between sets. You’ll definitely deserve it. Unfortunately what you deserve even more is to build muscle and get a ripped six pack. So instead of 2 minutes rest, or resting until you get your breath back, or just rest periods based on how interesting the conversation you’re having with your training partner is, you’re going to rest for 30 seconds. No that isn’t a typo. Your rest period between sets, and as much as possible between exercises, is just 30 seconds.
You’re muscles will hate it, your lungs will hate it, and you probably won’t like it much either, but if you’re serious about training to build muscle and get a six pack it’s exactly what you need to do.
Now if you’re thinking that 40 seconds work and 30 seconds rest doesn’t sound that bad, I like you’re thinking, but there’s more. Since you build muscle by fatiguing it you’ll realise, if you haven’t already, that while you might not able to do another set with the 30kg dumbbells you’ve just used you could do another with 25kg. So on the last set of each exercise that’s what you’re going to do.
Commonly known as drop sets, they involve lowering the weight you’re using by about 20% and continuing with the set. You’ll probably manage about 4 more reps before you hit failure and when you do… drop them again! And again. And again. By which point your 30kg has become 10kg and your muscles will be burning with lactic acid and so pumped they’ll feel like they’re going to explode.
But that’s exactly what you want because that’s exactly what causes you to build muscle!
So with all that information in mind, a good way to do each of your exercises looks like this:
Do 4 sets of 8 reps, with each rep lasting 5 seconds. That means a 4 second eccentric phase and an explosive concentric phase, so that the time under tension is 40 seconds. The fourth set is followed immediately by 4 drop sets. Your rest time between sets is 30 seconds and at all times you will concentrate on full range of movement.
Obviously there are other ways to use the information, but as with everything I write I do so from experience, so I know that this particular method is so very effective. It’s also hard on the body and nervous system so it should only be done for an absolute maximum of 6 weeks at a time. After this you should take a break and then switch to a different way of training to recover.
As always, leave a comment if you’ve any questions or feedback.