How to build Muscle Strength and Size: Key principles

By Allison-mhangoh | Health nuggets | 30 Apr 2021

There seems to be a lot of hearsay when it comes to exercising for strength and body building. Everyone seems to have their own version of the story, primarily because of their experience, or what they’ve heard from their “fitness role models”. There is a clear need for some objectivity, thus warranting a brief outlook on what current research evidence suggests.

Key questions include:

  • How exactly should one get started when it comes to weight lifting for strength and body building?
  • Which approaches produce the best results?
  • How does one turn the recommendations from research into practice?

Key concepts and terms

There are a few concepts related to body building and strength training which one needs to be aware of in order to fully understand the recommendations. The terminology can be a bit intimidating, but there’s nothing like rocket science for anyone who’s committed to learning and practicing. These are simple concepts that anyone can apply in practical situations.

  • Repetitions: This describes the number of times a particular weight/load is lifted in a single exercise set.
  • Set: A group of successive repetitions.
  • Load: The amount of weight being lifted in a particular set.
  • Repetition Maximum (RM): The maximum amount of weight that can be lifted given a certain number of repetitions. For instance, 12 Repetition Maximum (12RM) refers to the amount of weight that cannot be lifted beyond 12 repetitions. This is an important concept to understand because it plays a key role in setting exercise intensities and assessment of overall progress.
  • Rest interval/period: The amount of time spent between two successive sets.
  • Eccentric exercise: Exercise that involves active lengthening of a group of muscles given a particular load. For instance, when someone is lowering the weight in a Biceps Curl, the Biceps get into a state of active lengthening as they are applying tension to control the descent of the weight.
  • Concentric exercise: Exercises involving active shortening of a group of muscles as the weight is being lifted through range. The lifting phase of a Bicep Curl involves active shortening of the Biceps muscle as the weight is being lifted towards the shoulders.
  • Single joint exercise: Exercises involving movement of a single joint. Biceps curls also provide a good example.
  • Multi-joint exercise: Exercise involving multiple joints. These include classics such as the Bench Press and Squats.

General Recommendations: How exactly to go about it….


The Principle of Progressive Overload



Exercise should be progressive to ensure sustainable gains throughout the exercise program. This is because muscles can only adapt/change when they are exposed to load demands that are greater than the loads they are accustomed to. This means the initial loads should be adjusted depending on current gains.




The Real Question is…How?

Well, standard guidelines from the ACSM and research suggest 2-10% increments if one is able to handle 1-2 repetitions above the target reps per load. For instance, if one’s initial 12RM maximum was 10kgs, and they are able to add 2 more repetitions after 1 week of consistent training, the load should be adjusted to around 11/12 kgs.

Loading Strategy: How to get started and make progress

When it comes to the actual amount of weight, there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. Individuals differ markedly in terms of fitness levels and experience, thus necessitating careful consideration when setting initial loading levels. Starters shouldn’t be forced to handle the same loads as advanced weight lifters.


In this context, the term novice refers to someone with no prior experience with resistance/weight training methods. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends an 8-12 RM for this population. In this case, each exercise should target loads which can be handled to a maximum of 8-12 repetitions before visible fatigue or diminished form sets in. 3-4 sets are enough for each muscle group per session.

In terms of weekly frequency, 2-3 times/session are usually sufficient to trigger initial gains. Whole-body workouts per session are usually ideal. However, the frequency can be tweaked in such a way that one alternates upper and lower body workouts between days.

This is also highly effective provided that the frequency is altered to 4-5 times a week to ensure sufficient training of each muscle group.

Intermediate and advanced lifters

Intermediate lifters are considered as those with prior resistance training of up to 6 months, whereas advanced lifters are those with 6 months-years of consistent resistance training. Recommendations relating to the two groups are quite similar.

In terms of loading strategy, the target range should be 1-6 RM. That is, the involved exercises should target heavier loads/weights, which can be lifted to a maximum of 1-6 repetitions for each muscle group. To maintain consistency in performance, 2-3 minute rest intervals should be observed between sets.

Another common question relates to the appropriate speed at which the reps should be performed. Standard guidelines identify a moderate velocity/speed of 1-2 seconds per stroke as good enough to preserve form and proper muscular contraction.


Exercise sequencing

One of the consistent recommendations across available literature is that large muscle groups should be exercised before the smaller muscle groups. In other words, exercises which involve large muscles and multiple joints should precede those involving smaller muscles and single joints. For instance, the Bench Press should precede the more focused Triceps Pull-downs in a typical upper body strength and body building session.


How About Training for Muscle Size?


In most cases, muscle building comes in as a primary interest for most people involved in resistance or weight training. In general terms, the same processes that take place within a muscle in order to enhance strength also lead to enhancement of the actual size of the muscle. Therefore, the same recommendations for strength enhancement also apply to bulking up.

Special Recommendations for Intermediate and Advanced Participants for Maximal Strength and Muscle Bulk Gains


Over the years, a number of approaches to maximize strength gains and athletic performance have been discovered by various researchers. One of the well-researched approaches is what’s known as Periodization. For simplicity’s sake, this article will only look at the basic recommendations associated with this approach.

In periodization training, the exercise intensity is deliberately altered over a certain period of time to allow for maximal muscle adaptation resulting in maximal gains, especially in athletic performance.

The exercise program targets loads within the 1-12RM range, with special focus on the 1-6RM range. The program shifts from low-load and high-repetition sets, to high-load and low-repetition sets per session after several weeks of training.

In this case, the individual moves from the 12RM range towards the 1RM range as the number of sets are reduced from 4-6 to around 1-2 of each exercise per session. 1-2 minute rest intervals should be observed within the 6RM range.

The 1RM (the amount of weight that can be lifted for only 1 repetition) can also be used as an effective way of establishing the baseline load for each exercise. ACSM recommendations acknowledge that lighter loads in relation to the 1RM can be used effectively for substantial strength gains.

For exercises involving the lower body, 60% of the 1RM can be used as the baseline load, while as the upper body can start off at lower loads of about 30-60% of the 1RM. Since the loads are relatively lower for most intermediate and advanced participants, these should be performed at a relatively fast speed with a higher number of sets (3-5).

3-5 minute rest intervals should also be observed to avoid undue fatigue. As mentioned earlier, exercises involving multiple joints should precede those involving single-joints and muscle groups.

Training for Muscular Endurance


Muscle endurance refers to the ability of a muscle to sustain multiple contractions over an extended period of time. It is a huge factor when it comes to one’s ability to sustain a certain physical activity, such as long distance running.

While muscle strength directly relates to the ability of a muscle to generate force per contraction, endurance relates to its ability to use energy efficiently in order to generate multiple contractions.

This means that training for endurance should be different from training for strength. In other words, a typical weight training program for a marathon athlete should be different from a training program for a professional weight lifter. Standard guidelines recommend low loads, and high repetition for exercise programs focused on enhancing muscular endurance. An intensity of 40-60% of 1RM, with a higher volume of up to 15 reps per set is sufficient.


A word of caution


These figures shouldn’t be treated as hard rules which strictly apply to everyone. Modifications can be made depending on a number of factors such as individual medical history, fitness levels, and a variety of social factors. Prudence should always be exercised.


Get stronger, get fit, stay healthy, and stay productive!

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