Muscle hypertrophy refers to an increase in size of skeletal muscle achieved through an increase in size of its component cells. According to the classic review article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning titled “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training”, to signal hypertrophy, you must manage three crucial mechanisms: mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.
Shortly put, to build some muscle you have to include at least one of them in your training regime, while in order to build your body up to its potential, you should equally emphasize all three by gaining strength through progressive overload, rotating lifts and making sure to utilize low, medium and high rep ranges.
The first and primary stimulus for muscle growth, however, is mechanical tension – there can simply be no hypertrophy without a high level of mechanical tension throughout the entire range of motion. Mechanical tension equates to muscular force and is achieved by contracting the muscle under a load. Does this mean that maximum loads are best able to create maximum tension and produce the most growth?
Not necessarily, otherwise powerlifters would be more muscular than bodybuilders, which is not the case. On the other hand, by simply perfecting your form and deepening your mind-muscle connection, you can increases the tension placed on the targeted muscle.
But to maximize mechanical tension, you will need a bit more than that – namely, you’ll have to optimize your entire training strategy. This article has set out to help you do exactly that, so read on!
The Basics of Mechanical Tension
First of all, it’s important to note that the more compound movements you perform, the more overall gains you get. Think bench press, weighted dips, military press, weighted chins, barbell rows, squats and deadlifts. Then come the exercises which can help you fully develop all regions of a certain muscle by targeting its functional subdivisions, such as rear-delt raises, incline presses and leg curls.
Since increasing mechanical tension means working with heavier loads, progressive overload is the way to go for more muscle. Pyramid sets are a great way to achieve high volume and longer time under tension, while set extenders can help you maintain a high level of tension for a long time and throughout the entire range of motion.
To maximize muscular growth, the mechanical tension has to be high (meaning that the weight has to be heavy), long in duration and consistent. Many of exercises produce high tension only at specific points of their ranges of motion due to joint angles. Some exercises produce a low level of tension throughout much of their range of motion with the exception of a certain point where the time the muscle spends under high tension is too short to stimulate significant hypertrophy. Other exercises which fail to create high mechanical tension also limit the weight that you can use, such as the triceps kickback, thereby preventing you from making any noteworthy gains even further.
So to induce the most muscular hypertrophy possible in the shortest amount of time, instead of practically wasting your time with less-than-optimally efficient movements you have to choose exercises that create high muscular tension for a long duration and throughout the entire range of motion or at least throughout much of it.
The Strength Curve
The truth is that very few exercises can naturally maintain high tension on a muscle throughout its entire range of motion – most of them have something that can be graphically represented as a strength curve. Like we said above, joint angles prevent the exercise from producing constant at each point of the movement and these variations can be depicted by a curved line for better understanding.
But what if there was a way to extend the mechanical tension during an exercise so that it stays more or less equally intense at all specific points of the range of motion? The brilliant technique that can help you achieve this is performing strength-curve set extenders.
Set extenders allow you to hit a certain muscle group with a series of two or more exercises done in consecutive order with little to no rest, and they can be divided in three groups:
- Compound sets: 2 exercises
- Tri-sets: 3 exercises
- Giant sets: 4+ exercises
The great thing about set extenders is that they let you combine different exercises that stress different parts of the strength curve in one brutal package and thereby help you maximize hypertrophy by achieving a full range of mechanical tension.
Let’s take bicep training as an example. You must have noticed that when you perform preacher curls, the bottom range of the movement offers the greatest level of resistance and is the hardest portion to power through. In the case of barbell curls that applies for the midrange, while when performing spider curls you face the greatest tension at the top portion of the movement.
Since these three exercises have complementary strength curves, by grouping them (or any other three exercises which offer high tension at different parts of the range of motion) in a bicep tri-set, you will enable maximum tension throughout the entire range of motion, activate all available muscle fibers and get a truly incredible pump.
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