4 thoughts on muscle growth (pt. 1)

written by Philip Stefanov  |  DECEMBER 6, 2022

I still remember my first day at the gym. I weighed about 230 pounds, could barely curl the 15-pound dumbbells, and had no idea what I was doing.

I knew lifting weights would help me build muscle but not much else.

Over the years, I’ve picked up many nuggets of wisdom related to muscle growth. Let’s discuss some of them below.

1. Strength And Hypertrophy Aren’t Always Connected

Strength and muscle gain often go hand in hand, but not always. Building strength doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gaining muscle; muscle growth doesn’t ensure you’re about to get stronger.

For one, strength is a component of numerous factors, and muscle size is one of them. It depends on:

  • Neural efficiency - our ability to use the muscle we currently have to produce force
  • Skill - how good we are at lifting weights through a particular range of motion
  • Muscle mass - how many motor units you have available to exert force
  • Anatomy and leverages - leverages and moment arms play a significant role in our ability to exert force
  • Fatigue - the more tired and stressed out you are, the weaker you will be

Excitability is also a factor. The more excited we are, the more force we tend to produce, which is one reason why many people set personal records in competitions.

With that said, having strength-focused blocks where you solely work on getting stronger can later translate to more effective hypertrophy training. Using heavier weights would lead to greater mechanical tension, leading to superior muscle growth.

2. All Repetition Ranges Build Muscle

Go to any fitness-related forum, and you’re bound to find people asking questions like, “What's the best repetition range for growth?"

Here's the thing:

All repetition ranges build muscle. Doing fewer than six reps per set builds muscle, and doing upward of 30 also builds muscle. Research shows that various loads produce growth if you push close enough to failure (1, 2, 3).

For example, doing 10 sets of 3 reps and 3 sets of 10 reps builds roughly the same muscle mass, but the former builds more strength. The problem is, if you only do heavy sets, your workouts will end up being way too long and demanding.

On the other hand, you can do sets of 20 reps on most exercises, but would that be a great idea? Aside from the sheer effort that would take, you must use incredibly light weights.

Plus, doing high-repetition work on complex exercises like squats increases the risk of technique breakdown. This training style is also not ideal because there is little mechanical tension, and you end up doing tons of junk volume that doesn't produce any results.

The question shouldn't be about the best range but what is most practical in the specific context. For most people, a moderate approach works best: doing fewer reps on complex exercises and leaving their high repetition work on movements that are better suited for it (bicep curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions, etc.).

3. Being a 'Hardgainer' Is a State of Mind (For Most People)

When I started training, nobody would say that I was anything special or that I had some incredible potential to become a world-class powerlifter or bodybuilder. I was a big guy (around 6'2" and 230 pounds), but I was weak and had almost no muscle on my frame.

Despite this, I never saw myself as a 'hardgainer' or someone who couldn't build muscle. Why? Mostly because I didn't know about 'hardgainers' back then.

Many guys and girls set arbitrary limits upon themselves and never get anywhere precisely because they don't believe in themselves. Apart from a small percentage of people, the average healthy person can build muscle, lose fat, and improve the way they look, feel, and function.

If you carry self-limiting beliefs like, "I’m a hardgainer.” ask yourself this: Is this true, and do you have proof of that? Or are you basing your beliefs on the fact that you’ve been training for a month and don’t look like Ronnie Coleman yet?

4. More Isn’t Always Better

Prevailing wisdom suggests that more is better. If some training volume produces good results, then more work will deliver even better results.

The idea is accurate, but only to a point. Doing more work appears to produce greater muscle growth (4). Unfortunately, there comes the point where more work (more sets, exercises, weekly workouts, etc.) doesn’t deliver better results but instead leads to regression.

The body has a limited capacity for recovery, and going overboard increases the risk of overtraining. Workouts become more challenging, we become weaker, and muscle growth stalls.

Researchers and experts suggest that we should do more than ten sets per muscle group per week for optimal growth. Typically, I recommend between 12 and 16 weekly sets for larger muscle groups like the chest, back, and quads and 6 to 10 for the smaller ones: biceps, triceps, shoulders, and calves.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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