September 1


Building Bigger Muscles: how to train for natural growth at the gym

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With the majority of FIFO guys I've worked with, there's one question on their lips. They want to know how to build bigger muscles at the gym. And most of them want to do it naturally. What's more, I know a lot of women who would also like to grow their muscle mass too. So that's what today's post is all about - training for natural muscle growth.

In an earlier article, we looked at protein requirements for building muscle and just how quickly you can expect muscle gains. However in this post, we're going to focus on gym workout ideas, and training hacks you might like to consider.

We'll look into some of what the research says and how we can apply the science. That way, we can have evidence-based gym protocols to help you build bigger muscles.

Workout variables you can adjust to make your muscle building gym program more effective

One of the reasons I love discussing people's workout programs is that there are so many ways you can customise them.

There are loads of variables and training aspects you can alter and adjust. As a result, there will be an effect on how your muscles respond.

For example, the length of rest you take between workout sets. Additionally, how you combine your sets into the workout itself. Furthermore, the actual weight you lift and the speed you lift it. These variables will all have an effect on the muscle building potential of your gym session.

Essentially, we can decide which variable we will change to give the best results.

Ultimately we are looking for the simplest changes we can make to our gym program that will allow us to build the biggest muscles.

Now naturally when you lift weights, you'll create an 'anabolic' environment. That is to say, resistance training stimulates you muscles to grow bigger and/or stronger.

To achieve this result, your body produces androgen hormones. More specifically, growth hormone and testosterone.

Research shows that certain types of gym workouts produce more muscle-building hormones than others.

How intensity affects muscle growth in the gym

A study in Finland looked at how workout intensity affects hormones. Researchers monitored hormonal responses and recovery in eight strength athletes and eight non-athletes.

Both groups of participants lifted heavy. All 16 participants performed 'forced' and 'maximum' repetition training protocols. These are both intense gym training methods.

The maximum protocol included 4 sets of 12RM squats, with 2 minutes' recovery between sets.

On the other hand, the forced rep protocol had a heaver initial weight. In this method, participants perform around 8 reps on their own along with a further 4 with assistance.

To check testosterone, cortisol, growth hormone and blood lactate levels, the research team analyses blood samples. They noticed differences between pre- and post-workout levels.

They found that hormone levels increased significantly with both styles of gym training. However, forced reps created a higher response than the maximum rep method.

Consequently, it appears forced reps produce greater muscle growth.


Adopting forced reps into your gym workouts may help you build bigger muscles due to the increased anabolic hormone response.

How training history and lifting experience affect your ability to build bigger muscles

Comparing the differences between the athletes and non-athletes gives us an idea of how experience matters.

Looking at testosterone levels specifically, the athletes had significantly higher levels after the forced reps method.

Generally speaking, athletes are better at pushing themselves both physically and mentally. By doing so, they are able to recruit more muscle fibre.

Being able to push your boundaries and adopting mindset you need to push past failure comes with experience.

Researchers believe that forced reps might be a better approach experienced gym enthusiasts to help them build bigger muscles.

It's clear that specific training allows you to lift heavier. If you train with a partner, use them to help you push past your last rep. Using forced reps gives a better result when it comes to muscle size and strength.

How specific gym lifts can help you build bigger muscles

What difference could power cleans have over squats when it comes to muscle growth?

Indian researchers looked at lactate responses in Olympic weight lifters. Blood lactate gives an accurate picture of how intense the gym session was. Basically, the higher the lactate levels, the greater the workout intensity.

The study looked at the differences between three separate workout sessions using:

  1. One repetition
  2. Multiple sets
  3. One set

Lactate levels remained low in the one set session. After all, the rest period between sets was effectively a full day.

With multiple set training, blood lactate peaks during sets with relatively high reps with a relatively heavy weight. Interestingly, intensity was measurably lower after shorter sets with heavier weight.

Did the actual lift make a difference?

Intensity-wise, the clean and jerk produced more blood lactate than the snatch. However, from a study this small it's difficult to conclude that the Olympic lifts are better for muscle growth than more traditional gym exercises. More on regular gym exercises later.

What is clear that the more intense the weight lifting session, the greater the muscle-building effect.


In effect, using medium to heavy weights (around 75% 1RM) over longer sets in your next gym workout will help you build bigger muscles.

Differences between exercises and their effects on intensity and muscle growth

It's easy to become stuck in a rut. Additionally, humans are creatures of habit and we like simplicity. Generally, we'll stick to a similar number or reps across all exercises in our gym program. (3 x 10-12 anyone?)

Is this effective though?

Research into back squats, bench press, and biceps curls shows interesting findings.

At the same percentage of our 1RM, we can perform more reps of squats before failure than the bench press. Similarly, we can perform more bench press reps than arm curls.

This means the amount of muscle recruited in an exercise determines how many reps we can perform.

This makes complete sense, right?

We can perform more reps of exercises where more muscles are used. This is true whether you're a beginner or experienced athlete.

put it in your program

To keep that all important muscle-building intensity up, do more reps on those gym exercises that use more muscle.

Paul Stokes Perth Personal Trainer Sports Nutritionist Group Fitness Instructor Massage Therapist

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs. He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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