There are thousands of articles out there describing the best ways to gain muscle in the biceps, triceps and calves. They speak about the best exercises to use, the methods and volume that work best, what to eat before, after and in between these workouts, and how to recover to promote growth. I don’t disagree with the majority of these recommendations and incorporate many of them into both my training and the training of my clients. However, in my opinion, they are leaving a major part of the puzzle out of the discussion when it comes to muscle growth: the hormonal system.
The hormonal, or endocrine, system controls all of the growth (and degradation) of the body’s cells. It uses chemical messengers produced by endocrine glands to target specific cells in the body in order to regulate their number, size and function. Stresses such as temperature, emotions and exercise, to name just a few, are what trigger these endocrine glands to release hormones. Therefore, we can influence the stresses we place on our body in order to optimize the release of our muscle building hormones (also known as anabolic hormones) such as testosterone and growth hormone and minimize the release of muscle degrading hormones (also known as catabolic hormones) such as cortisol to necessary levels for muscle restructuring and rebuilding.
One of the biggest stresses that we can manipulate to increase muscle mass in our smaller muscle groups is workout structure. Testosterone and growth hormone release is highly influenced by the amount of muscle stressed during a training session. This is why large muscle group, multi-joint exercises such as squats and deadlifts will always be king when it comes to increasing overall muscle mass and splitting the body into too many areas simply won’t work for some individuals. When the six day split was first introduced, it was utilized by lifters who were getting some hormonal help allowing those training small muscle groups on a certain day to not have to worry about the availability of anabolic hormones to promote muscle groups. This is not to say that this type of split won’t work for some natural lifters, it has for me at points in my career and others I know, but a significant portion of the population will not have the hormonal response necessary to increase muscle mass during “arm day”.
Another reason to switch from multiple day splits to full body training days or even a simple two-day split with large muscle group, multi-joint exercises performed early in the session and single joint, small muscle group exercises performed later, is that even though intense training provides an increase in anabolic hormone release immediately after, this is followed by a decrease for the next day or two. Again, the natural hormonal state varies greatly between individuals indicating that this temporary drop may not be significant enough to affect some lifters while leaving others’ second day training virtually useless from a hormonal perspective.
Other training factors important to optimizing anabolic hormone release are maximizing time under tension through high repetitions or tempo, taking short rest periods (one minute or less) between multiple sets, keeping the training session shorter (an hour or less) and intense rather than long and drawn out and replenishing carbohydrate and protein stores within an hour of completing the session. Outside of training, habits like eating whole foods with lots of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, sleeping seven to nine hours per night, keeping life stresses in check and limiting (not necessarily eliminating) alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other drugs will optimize the hormonal environment for muscle gain.
In order to gain muscle, the most important variables are nutrition, training methods and recovery. These variables are often written about, however, the underlying regulation of muscle growth through the hormonal system and how these variables affect this system is rarely discussed. Understanding your general hormonal makeup and how your body responds to training can unlock your personal “secret” to muscle mass and turn you from a hard gainer to, simply a gainer.