6 Minute Science On How To Get That Beach Body

Here’s how building muscle works.

Image by Jakob Owens from Unsplash

So you’ve been lifting weights and pushing it hard in the gym for some time. Day by day, you look in the mirror and see those skeletal arms slowly taking the shape of a chicken drumstick. You’re proud, I know it.

Or you could be just starting out.

You wanted to build muscle to lose fat or you just want to add some lean mass to your frame. No matter what reasons they are, I welcome you to this simplified guide to building muscle.

Why Are Our Ancestors Ripped Compared To Us?

Have you ever wondered why our ancestors look better and have more muscles on their bodies? This is because they needed the muscles to perform feats such as hunting, climbing around, and building their homes.

If you think about our lifestyle now, most people live a more sedentary life. We use machines for most of the labor-intensive work so we don’t really need too much muscle for our normal lives.

Muscle growth can only happen when you introduce a stimulus that challenges the limit of your muscles’ capacity.

This is the reason we lift weights and attend gym classes. To voluntarily introduce external stimulus to our body so that it loses fat and builds muscle.

So How Does Our Muscle Grow?

I will explain from the viewpoint of building muscle mainly for aesthetics. Building muscle for performance should adopt another method.

Our muscle will start growing when it has a sufficient amount of stress and rest. Here’s the formula for optimal muscle growth:

Stress + Rest = Growth

Speak to any gym junkie and they will tell you some kind of variation of the above equation.

There are mainly 2 types of stress that can effectively stimulate muscle growth:

  1. Mechanical Stress — Lifting heavy or more repetitions for growth.
  2. Metabolic Stress — “The burn” feeling from lifting moderate weights.

Mechanical Stress

The key idea of inducing mechanical stress is by consistently lifting heavier or adding more repetitions than your previous sessions. We commonly know this process as progressive overload.

This usually takes place in the first exercise of the workout which is a compound exercise, when you are still fresh in the gym.

This ensures that you’re pushing your muscles’ limits so that they are adapting to the new stimuli, resulting in more strength and muscle growth.

There is a general rep range that bodybuilders stick to for muscle growth: failing between 6 to 12 reps with an appropriate weight. Choosing the right weight for your workouts can be tricky if you’re new to lifting.

For a rep range of 6 to 12 reps, most people will use a weight that is 80% of their one-rep max weight. One-rep max means the weight that you can perform only ONE rep and you can’t do any more reps.

Here’s an example of how I introduce mechanical stress in my workouts:

Say right now I can do 8 reps of flat dumbbell bench press with 25kg weights before I reach the point that I can’t do any more reps.

I prefer to add reps to my current weight (25kg) in each training session until I reach a point when I’m strong enough to complete 12 reps (the upper limit of rep range) without tiring myself out.

I will then switch to a heavier weight for the next session, putting my rep count low again (maybe 8 because now I’m using a heavier weight) and work my way up to 12 reps again. Rinse and repeat.

Metabolic Stress

This is what we commonly know as chasing the “pump”.

Contrary to mechanical stress, the goal of metabolic stress is to use a lighter weight that allows for more reps (between 15 — 20) which you’ll feel your muscles screaming in the last couple of reps.

Here’s the simplified version of what happens during metabolic stress. Your first 10 reps cause the muscles to swell from the constant contracting. This restricts oxygenated blood flow to the muscle which leads to metabolite accumulation, signaling the body for muscle growth.

People normally practice this as the last exercise of the workout, when they have exhausted themselves from lifting heavy weights. Plus, using a lighter weight at the end of the workout will help to prevent injuries as well.

Below are the ways how I practice this in an actual workout:

  • Rest-pause: Choose a weight that you would ideally fail at 12 reps. Once we’re at 12, rest for 15 — 20 seconds and continue banging out as many reps as you can handle until. Repeat until you hit 20 reps.
  • Drop sets: You can use the same weight as above. Instead of resting, you will pick up a lighter weight and continue banging out as many reps until you can’t do anymore. This is one drop set. Some people choose to do two or even three drop sets to challenge themselves.
  • Partner drop sets: Instead of using a lighter weight, your workout buddy can help you reduce the load on your drop set by slightly lifting the weights for you. You’re using the same weight but it’ll be a lesser load on your muscles since you have your partner’s help to push for another few extra reps.

Use Slower Tempo

Regardless of the exercise you do, controlling the tempo is important if you want to pursue fitness as a lifestyle. When I say slower tempo, this means it should take at least 1 second of concentric and 1 second of eccentric motion to complete one repetition.

There are two major reasons you should use a slower tempo for your exercises:

  1. Safety: If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re just starting out and the worst thing you can do to your self-esteem is to be out of the game because you have a torn muscle or joint pain. The faster you are doing your exercises, the more you are putting your joints and muscle at the risk of injury.
  2. Building mind-muscle connection: Slowing down your tempo helps to activate your muscle fibers better because you have more control. At this point of the game, you’ll probably still have a problem with “feeling” the mind-muscle connection so the best way to build this is to slow down.
  3. Eliminate momentum: Doing your exercises fast means you’re introducing a lot of momentum into the movement. Momentum has a place for powerlifters, the ones you see in the Olympics with enormous weights but not for building muscle. The less momentum you use, the more work your muscles have to do, translating to more muscle stimulation and growth.

Let’s Talk About Rest

Remember resting being a big part of building muscle? Well, most people tend to overlook this part of fitness.

You tear your muscles (in a good way) in the gym and resting is when your muscles are building themselves to be stronger and bigger.

There are 3 components to optimizing the way you rest:

  1. Nutrition — Stick to unprocessed food and bum up the protein content in your meals. If you’re new, might be a good idea to check out my quick guide to nutrition here. Consume ~1.6 g — 2.2g/kg of protein per day to maximize your muscle growth.
  2. Sleep The quality of your sleep matters. Our body releases human growth hormones that promote muscle growth during deep sleep so having 7.5–9 hours of sleep is crucial if you want to put on some lean mass.
  3. Workout volume — One problem with not getting enough rest is overtraining. This happens when workouts are not spaced out long enough for your muscles to recover, which might lead to strain and injury. Planning your workout volume per week by body parts will help. A general rule of thumb is not to exceed 20 sets per body part in a week. There are different kinds of workout splits such as the Bro-split, Push-Pull-Legs, Full Body. There’s no holy grail for workout splits. Just search for one on google that you find interesting, Run the split for a month and review if you need any adjustments.

In Summary:

Again, remember the formula:

Stress + Rest = Growth

Getting that beach body is just the start. Your lifestyle will determine if you can maintain that in the long run. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint.

Keep learning, keep growing.

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Nick Wong

Nick Wong

A minimalist writer, fitness enthusiast, and a geek in Psychology. Feel free to reach out to me via https://bit.ly/3ayjSV3