This month exercise scientists have offered a little mouth-watering treat for the die-hard gym buffs, as we get technical and talk about some of the finer points of inducing maximal muscle growth.

Let us have a look at some of the most recent scientific findings that can help us in our quests to slap on those strategically placed mounds of muscle and develop exquisitely sculpted figures and physiques more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

We already know that the correct dose of resistance training can place a sufficient stress on physiological components of muscle, and cause an overcompensatory effect on the myofibrils housed within muscle cells. Myofibrils are the contractile elements of muscle cells that ultimately contract and relax, thus producing movement. After bouts of intense tissue-tearing resistance training activities like lifting weights, muscles cells go through a process of healing, and subsequent creation of new myofibrils.

To help us achieve this, exercise scientists have conducted much research over the years to determine the most efficient systems and methods. Traditional wisdom arising from such research tells us that there is an optimal range of repetitions to be performed in each resistance training set and an optimal amount of rest between those sets.

If we can get all the recommendations working correctly in our programmes, then we can rest assured we are investing our time and effort into effective interventions that will give back due dividends from such investment. For muscle growth to occur, we are often told to lift weights we can handle in good form for a maximum amount of repetitions with the eight to 12 range, while resting approximately one minute between sets.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham this month, however, have just announced the results of a fascinating study they performed to investigate whether the recommended one minute of rest between sets is actually the best way to go after all. Through a series of muscle biopsies, they were able to determine that groups of adult males who rested for two to three minutes between sets exhibited twice the localised response in the targeted muscles than those who rested only one minute.

Get in the gym, hit it hard and get out again within around 45 minutes to allow plenty of time for optimal recovery

These results are surprising, since short rest periods have always been the defining characteristic of bodybuilding training when compared to other forms of strength training for other goals other than pure muscle growth. Have we been getting it all wrong? Not exactly, because the effects the UK researchers noted were localised to specific muscles and the result of exercises intended to specifically target those muscles.

The benefits of shorter rest periods are known, on the other hand, to be hormonal, meaning that a generalised effect on muscle growth throughout the whole body can still be achieved by resting for only a minute. In other words, short rest periods are known to stimulate more growth hormone release during a given training session, which affects not only one individual muscle but any muscles you might train for as long as those hormones are elevated in the blood stream. If it all sounds a little confusing, then the simple question follows: so which is it to be? One minute or two to three?

Here’s at least one way of putting all the research to date into practice. We know that some exercises are particularly suited for that all-over generalised growth, while others are more suited towards developing those smaller individualised muscles we want to specifically target.

It would make sense therefore, in light of the seemingly conflicting research findings, to begin with the larger compound movements associated with hormonal response and overall growth like squats and bench presses and rest only one minute for those, followed by the smaller, more localised exercises and shifting to resting two to three minutes. This way we can get the best of both worlds. In short, pick the big compound movements and do them first, resting only one minute between sets, and follow up with smaller isolation movements and rest longer.

Meanwhile, more research is surfacing about repetition ranges and it looks like the standard eight-to-12 recommendation will be the next nugget of conventional wisdom placed in the firing line. Canadian researchers at McMaster University have already claimed that exact repetition ranges are not in themselves as important as the idea of training to a point of momentary muscular failure or, in other words, until we cannot lift a weight in good form, however hard we try. They experimented with higher ranges and found the results to be identical.

So if you thought resistance training programmes had to be complicated, think again. Train to that point of momentary muscular failure in each set, limit rest between performances of the big moves and take a little more time between the smaller ones.

Talking about hormonal responses, now would be a good time to mention stress hormones. These are the hormones we want to avoid like the plague, and they become elevated in the blood stream about 50 minutes into the session if it is relatively intensive.

So get in the gym, hit it hard and get out again within around 45 minutes to allow plenty of time for optimal recovery and growth of new shape-shifting myofibrils.

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