Cluster Sets for Serious Strength, AND Size.

Cluster Sets for Serious Strength, AND Size.

Cluster sets are capable of giving you significant gains in size and strength in a short period of time.

When programming for my athletes in the Swole Town Program, I’m constantly looking for ways to make my training cycles as effective as possible.

I don’t want guys (or girls) following my program in the gym wasting time with 20 different Bicep curl variations.

I want them to be big, strong and functional beasts. I can’t have it any other way.

If you’re interested in getting stronger, this will be a great read for you.

At the end I’ll give you a full sample training day with cluster sets.

*Note: Heavy Cluster training is on the advanced side. Don’t attempt this method if you’re a beginner.

The “More is Better” Trap

Most people in the gym believe that more is better.

Work harder, spend more time, do more reps, and your results will improve, right? Not so fast..

Your body does not have endless energy to expend.

Training requires a lot of energy, and what people forget is that recovering from training also requires a massive amount of energy.

No matter what you do, there is only so much you can recover from.

If you cannot recover, your body does not adapt to the training.

That means you work hard and get little results, especially if you’re trying to get stronger and/or build muscle.

How Does The Body Get Stronger?

If you’re stronger today than you were a month ago.. Why is that?

What caused you to be able to exert more force?

Is it simply that working out builds muscle, and more muscle = more strength?

While it’s true that more muscle mass will generally correlate with greater strength, there are plenty of examples of people who you wouldn’t even know worked out who can lift superhuman amounts of weight.

My brother-in-law looks like a regular 170lb guy, and has more than once casually stepped into my gym and pressed 275lbs over his head, while I stand at a solid 240lbs and cannot perform that on my best day.

Is it not a fascinating question?

How can someone with less muscle exert more force than someone with considerably more? The answer lies in the nervous system.

The Nervous System Controls Strength

get strong get stronger with cluster sets.  build muscle

When you lift, you are not using all of the muscle available.

Your nervous system is much smarter than you, and its job is to protect the integrity of the structures within its control (among other things).

Trying to lift something very heavy could hurt you, and to protect you from injury, the nervous system will not allow you to recruit all of the muscle fibers at once.

An untrained person will be able to recruit only about 40-50% of the available muscle fibers at once.

A highly trained strength athlete can recruit well over 90%, and the strong guy in the gym is probably in the 70-80% category.

So How do you train the nervous system to allow you to recruit more muscle fibers and get stronger?

Strength is a Skill

I think it’s most useful to think of strength as a skill.

You have to view training as an opportunity to “teach” the body how to be stronger.

With that in mind, it becomes obvious that the way you set up your training is extremely important when your goal is to become stronger.

You cannot just go do your usual 3 sets of 10 on the bench press and expect to get dramatic results.

Unless you’re a new lifter, this simply will not work for very long.

If you’ve been training that way for a long time, your body has adapted already and has no need to take any further action.

Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are basically heavy singles performed on short rest periods, generally around 20 seconds long.

So, you hit one heavy rep, rest 20 seconds, and repeat for the prescribed number of reps.

The benefit here is that you’re lifting very heavy weight relative to your max.

If you’re able to get 5 reps normally with 225lbs, you can use clusters to get 6 or more reps in one set by spacing the reps out with very short rest periods.

How Cluster Sets Make You Stronger

get stronger faster and build muscle with cluster sets

When lifting loads at about 85% or higher relative to your max, you’re recruiting the maximum amount of muscle fibers that you’re capable of.

With lighter loads/higher reps, this is not the case until the end of the set when you’re fatigued.

Recruit the Highest Threshold Motor Units/Muscle Fibers

Heavy loads are forcing the nervous system to call upon the highest threshold muscle fibers.

The ones most capable of producing force.

As the load increases (relative to what you’re capable of), these high-power motor units must fire at a faster rate to keep up.

Thus, you’re teaching your nervous system to fire those high-impact muscle fibers faster by repetitively hitting them with heavy loads.

This alone will make you stronger. Every rep you hit in a cluster set is an impactful rep, from the first to the last.

Turn off The Governor

Like a governor on a vehicle that slows it down when it reaches a certain speed, your muscles contain organs called Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO’s) that are constantly monitoring tension.

The GTO’s will basically turn muscle fibers off when tension gets too high, in an effort to protect the structure.

The repetition of heavy loads can desensitize the nervous system, relaxing the GTO’s and allowing more force to be produced. Again, every rep in a cluster set is intense, and we’re training the nervous system to allow us to produce more force.

You Become Better at the Movement

When repeating heavy lifts on 20 seconds of rest, you don’t have time to overthink anything.

You simply grab the bar and perform the lift.

This type of training really forces you to be in the moment.

The heavy repetitions will make you more comfortable with the lift, and you will naturally get better at it.

It also alleviates some of the fear of moving heavy weight, as you’re doing it repeatedly.

Sample Training Session Using Cluster Sets

The training session below is directly from the Swole Town training cycle called “Intensity.”

Keep in mind that when using high intensity methods like these, it is imperative that you keep the overall volume low. (volume = the total amount of reps/sets, or “work” that you’re doing.)

You absolutely have to prioritize recovery, as you’re pushing the body/nervous system very hard with the heavy repetitions.

Too much volume and accessory work and you’ll burn yourself out.

Cluster Set Training Sample: Bench Press/Back

swole town

You want to get a solid warm up in, and I prefer a circuit style warm up here as it allows me to sneak in a little low-intensity volume, build work capacity, and prepare for the session.

The weight should be very light, this should not be a struggle.

A.) Prep Circuit:

Perform 2-3 sets, moving continuously with little rest.

DB Incline Bench Press20
DB Bent Over Row20
Band Triceps Pressdown20
Ab Crunches20
*Weight should be LIGHT

B.) Cluster Sets: Bench Press

Take a few warm-up sets of 2-3 reps to build up to about 87-90% of your max on the bench press.

You’ll do 5 total reps per set, hitting one rep every 20 seconds. After 5 reps, rest 4:00 and repeat.

After 2 sets, assess how you feel and hit a 3rd set if you’re feeling good about it. If you’ve never done these, stop at 2 sets.

MovementSetsRepsRest b/w sets
Bench Press2-35 reps at 87-90% of max
20 seconds between reps

C.) Close Grip Floor Press

We’re choosing a movement complimentary to the bench press to get in some additional heavy volume. We’ll hit 3 heavy sets of 5. Heavy meaning you’re not sure if you’d have gotten another rep or two.

MovementSetsRepsRest b/w sets
Close Grip Floor Press353:00

D.) Bench Supported DB Row

Perform on an incline bench. These are to be performed as drop-sets, hitting 8-10 reps, then dropping to lighter dumbbells to get up to 20 reps per set, for 2 total sets.

MovementSetsRepsRest b/w Sets
Supported DB Row2203:00

E.) Decline DB Pullover

Same as the last block, perform 2 drop-sets, aiming for 8-10 reps, then dropping down to a lighter dumbbell and getting up to 20 total reps.

MovementSetsRepsRest b/w Sets
Decline DB Pullover2203:00

F.) Plank to Side Plank – 2:00

30 second front plank, 30 second side plank, 30 seconds back to front, then 30 seconds other side for 2 total minutes. These are used frequently for endurance throughout the core and to enhance core bracing.

Full Workout Table

I’ll put this session in one table if you’d like to try it out, feel free to screenshot.

MovementSetsRepsRest b/w Sets
Warm up Circuit3200
*Bench Press (Cluster)2-35 (cluster reps)
20 sec b/w reps
Close Grip Floor Press353:00
Bench Supported DB Rows220 (dropset)3:00
DB Decline Pullover220 (dropset)3:00
Plank to Side Plank12:00 holdn/a

Final Notes on Cluster Sets

As you can see, the overall volume in this session is pretty low. 9 total sets of lifting (warm up sets don’t count).

If we start throwing in all kinds of curls, triceps extensions, etc. we’ll be forcing the body to try and recover from more than it will likely be able to.

Recovery is everything when you’re training for strength and size.

If you’re going to try out training with cluster sets, devote a training block of 4-6 weeks with it.

Give your body some time to adapt and you’ll likely see some nice gains in strength and probably some new muscle to go along with it.

If you’d like to have your workouts programmed for you so you can hit the gym with a solid plan, check out Swole Town, available only the world’s best training app, TrainHeroic.

Thanks for reading! Any questions? Feel free to reach out.

Mike Richardson
Mike Richardson

ISSA Tactical Conditioning Specialist. Creator of Swole Town, Forged Female and Coach, Husband, Father, Brother, Friend.

Swole Town.  A Lifting Program to Pack on Slabs of Muscle.

Swole Town. A Lifting Program to Pack on Slabs of Muscle.

Want to look like an absolute beast? Swole Town is live, and residency is earned and paid for with effort. I want to give you a sample training week (scroll to the bottom), and explain why this lifting program is worth paying a visit to if you’re looking to build muscle, get stronger and scare children and small animals with your physique.

3 months on the Swole Town Program and you’ll be buying new t-shirts… and jeans, cuz we don’t skip leg day, and we sometimes do it twice.

Build Muscle Fast

Swole town is designed around 4 week training blocks. Every 4 weeks, we move into a new cycle. When this happens, the focus changes a bit, gradually moving from higher volume cycles full of high-rep supersets and metabolic stress-inducing protocols, to more intense methods such as cluster sets and myotatic reps.

The point of this is to keep your body in a constant state of evolution and adaptation, and to keep things fresh and exciting. When you look forward to your training, your results tend to be a lot better. Swole Town is exciting and you’ll find yourself wanting to know what’s coming next.

You’ll also be marveling at the huge traps and massive back you see staring back at you in the mirror. This isn’t about pretty boy beach muscles. We’re building beasts.

Swole Town Pin

Methods for Strength and Size

The program uses varying methods designed to pack on size and build strength. Proven strategies are taken from many different programs and methods. These are all built in to optimize gains.

You may see elements of 5 x 5, strongman training, and classic bodybuilding techniques all thrown into the mix in different cycles. If it works, I’m going find a way to use it. And this makes training more enjoyable, as you’re exposed to different methods.

Metabolic Stress and Mechanical Load

In the end, only 2 factors lead to hypertrophy…

Metabolic Stress

Metabolic stress is induced through high rep supersets and taking sets to failure at the right time. We also utilize newer methods, such as Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR), also known as occlusion training.

The physiological environment created within the muscle from this style of training is a huge stimulus for muscle growth. Metabolic stress is what causes the “pump” you feel (and see) when you train.

The current cycle we’re in, called “RAGE,” is full of metabolic stress-inducing methods. The pump is real.

Here’s just one example of extreme metabolic stress from a leg-day session. It’s simple. 100 reps on the zercher split squat without putting the bar down. Similar tactics are employed for upper body work as well.

Mechanical Load

Mechanical load simply refers to the load, or resistance placed on the muscle. Heavier weights cause a higher load to be placed on (and sensed by) the muscle, which leads to muscle growth and gains in strength. Your muscles are organs and can sense the tension being placed on them. The human body is truly amazing.

We take a balanced approach and attack each with specific methods.

What’s a Day in Swole Town Look Like?

Here’s a week from the current cycle, “RAGE.” This is just an example, but if you like what you see, come check out the program and try a free week to get a closer look.

In the app, every movement has a video demo and you have access to a coach as well.

Click on the date to see different days for this week of training.

Your Move

I already know you can get bigger and stronger with Swole Town. I’ve been using this programming for a long time and have trained many people using the same strategies. When you’re ready, come take a tour of the town and let the gainz begin.

Try Swole Town now for free for a week, no questions asked.


Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach, Trainer. Coach/Creator of Swole Town and Currently a federal agent, formerly 11b Infantry in the US Army Reserves. Training and coaching are my passions.

Chest and Arm Workout For Explosive Hypertrophy.

Chest and Arm Workout For Explosive Hypertrophy.

The gyms will be open soon, and you better believe that first day is going to be national chest day. But that’s okay. You’ll be prepared. This chest and arm workout will mark your glorious return to the gym, and you’ll walk out with a massive pump. Let the hypertrophy begin.

Note: This training is taken from my Swole Town program, available through TrainHeroic; the world’s best training app. If you like this workout, come train with the team and get swole af.

Chest and Arms Go Together Like…

Peas and carrots, coffee and cream, alcohol and bad decisions.. You get the idea.

Chest and arms are a natural combination. All pressing movements, like the bench press, dumbell bench press and push ups already work the triceps pretty hard. So, it’s both efficient and productive to work the triceps alongside your chest exercises.

We’re going to work the biceps as well for this workout. And no, it won’t screw up tomorrow’s back day. I’ll show you how, just stay with me.

Chest and Tricep Anatomy

A little anatomy never hurt anyone. If your goal is to build muscle, then your chest and arm workout (and all your workouts) would benefit from having a deeper understanding of how to target specific muscles to get the most out of your training.

Chest Muscles

chest and arm workout hypertrophy

The Chest is actually made up of 4 separate muscles. The Pectoralis Major and Pectoralis Minor make up the vast majority of your chest muscle.

To work the Pectoralis minor, we can use dips and decline presses. Any movement where the body is leaning forward with the arms pressing at a downward angle.

Incline bench presses work the Pectoralis major, focusing on the Clavicular head of the muscle (the upper chest).

The pectoralis major is by far the largest and most dominant muscle in the chest. It spans across your chest from your shoulder to your sternum. It is responsible for moving the humerus (arm), and is worked during just about every chest exercise you’ll do.

With just a little variety we can easily hit all the muscles of the chest.

The Triceps

chest and arms workout triceps muscle

The triceps muscle is a little more interesting. It’s made up of 3 separate muscles. The lateral head, medial head and the long head.

To get the “horseshoe,” we need to specifically focus on the long head of the triceps. The long head can be isolated using movements like skull crushers, lying dumbell extensions, overhead triceps extensions and my favorite.. dips.

Well hit them all in our chest and arm workout, so don’t worry.

BFR Bands and Resistance Bands for Explosive Hypertrophy

For this workout, we’re going to use Blood Flow Restriction Bands (BFR) and Resistance Bands. These tools can take your workouts to the next level. You can take it from me, or read the research for yourself.

Occlusion Training with BFR Bands

chest and arm workout bfr

Blood flow restriction training, also known as “occlusion training” has been around for a long time. Bodybuilders have used it for years.

BFR bands are kind of like a tourniquet placed on your arms. Blood flow is restricted, limiting oxygen and blood to the working muscle.

They are meant to be used for high reps (15-30) with lighter loads (50% of your max or less). Normally, the slow twitch muscle fibers would be handling that type of work.

However, with restricted blood and oxygen, the slow twitch fibers cannot keep up. As a result, the fast twitch muscle fibers have to take over.

Finishing your workout with 10 minutes of fast paced BFR lifting will give you the biggest pump you’ve ever had in your arms. That pump is caused by cellular swelling, and is a precursor to increased testosterone and growth hormone release, and increased hypertrophy.

You can get a set of BFR Bands for around $30 on Amazon. I use these, and they’ve lasted me almost two years already. You’ll thank me later.

Resistance Bands

resistance bands build muscle from home

Resistance bands are a great tool to compliment your lifting.

I like to use them primarily because I can get a ton of volume in with them without the joint stress I’d get from using dumbells, barbells or cables.

Resistance bands offer ascending resistance, meaning the resistance increases as the band stretches, towards the end of the movement.

Since people tend to be weak at the end range of motion, this can be very beneficial. (Think about that last few inches of the bench press when you can’t lock out your arms.)

With bands, we can safely throw in a ton of volume for arm training that we otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to get in.

You can get a whole set of bands here at a really good price.

Chest and Arm Workout for Hypertrophy

School’s over, and it’s time to get down to business. This chest and arm workout is probably different from what you’ve done before.

I don’t like copy and paste workouts or workout programs. There have been a lot of advancements in our understanding of how to build muscle and get stronger. This workout uses concepts that might be new to you, but if you want to grow, you’ve got to…. grow!

Here’s the workout. Scroll down for videos and explanations for each exercise and for specifics.

A1 – Floor Flyes310-12
A2 – Single Arm Bench Press31090 sec
B1 – Depth Push ups4-53
B2 – Close Grip Bench Press4-552 mins
C – Dips410-1290 sec
D – Incline Dmbl Bench Press38-1090 sec
E – BFR CIRCUIT10 mins30-15minimal
E1 – Dmbl Hex Press///
E2 – Plate Curls///
E3 – Banded Triceps Ext///
E4 – Reverse Curls///
A and B performed as Supersets

1. Warm Up: Floor Flyes/Single Arm Press

Get a good warm up in by doing 3 sets of 10 reps for each. Perform these as a superset, resting 90 seconds between sets. Go light, it’s a warm up.

2. Depth Push ups to Close Grip Bench Press

Research shows that barbell work hits the triceps much harder than dumbells or cables. So I want to make the most of that.

Studies also show that performing explosive push-ups before a heavy bench press can improve your performance. I want to fully activate and stimulate the explosive fast twitch muscle fibers.

Perform 3 explosive depth push ups, then go immediately to the bench and hit 5 reps of close grip bench presses. Work up to the heaviest set of 5 you can get. Try to get there within 5 sets.

3. Dips

Dips are one of my favorite upper body exercises. I’d argue you can build more muscle with dips than with the bench press.

You’re looking for 10-12 reps. If you can get more than that, add weight with a Dip Belt or a dumbell between your legs. . Hit 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.

To protect your shoulders, you can come down until your arms form a 90 degree angle, then push back up.

4. Incline Dumbell Bench Press

Nothing fancy here. We want to hit the upper portion of the chest. 3-4 sets of 8 reps. Be explosive when you press the weight up.

5. BFR Chest and Arms Circuit.

Strap your BFR Bands on and get your mind right.

Peform the circuit for 10 minutes. Rest as little as possible. Get in as many reps as you can. Go from one exercise to the next.

On the first set, aim for 20-30 reps. Each set after that, your goal is 15 reps. Remember, with BFR Bands, you want to use lighter weight and get in a ton of reps.

All that volume will lead to big gains, and a massive pump. Crush it.

1. Hex Press:

Squeeze the dumbells together the whole set.

2. Plate Curls:

Grab a plate and curl it until your arms feel like they’re going to fall off. Get a good squeeze at the top.

3. Banded Triceps Extensions:

Keep tension on the triceps by trying not to pause or allow the band to come up too high. Constant movement. If you don’t have them, Invest in some Strength bands!

4. Reverse Curls

Grab an empty barbell, palms facing down and bang out some reverse curls. These really make for an insane forearm pump.

Remove the BFR Bands and marvel at the pump.

Maximize Your Gains

If you’re going to be putting in this kind of work, you might as well reap as much benefit from it as possible. Here’s a few things you should definitely be doing to make sure you maximize hypertrophy and recovery.

If you’re looking for some badass back workouts, check this article out

1. Use the Right Supplements

You don’t need to go crazy on the supplements. There are a few that can give you an edge that I’d recommend.

  • Creatine increased power output, strength, recovery
  • L-Citrulline – Found in many pre-workouts, it is converted to nitric oxide in the body and improves blood flow. i.e, gives you a massive pump. Which of course, leads to more hypertrophy
  • Protein – If you aren’t getting at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight from food, then use a supplement.
  • L-Carnitine – Improved fat burning and increased androgen receptors (better use of testosterone = more muscle).

I recommend getting supplements from Bulk Supplements. It’s cheaper, you get way more, and it’s high quality, pure ingredients vs. the mixtures you get in pre-made supplement formulas. Your results will be better when you know exactly what you’re taking and how much.

Get 5% off your order from Bulk Supplements

2. Eat Before Your Workout

Eating before your workout has been shown by research to have just as much impact on muscle building and protein synthesis as eating after.

During a workout like this chest and arm workout, you want to make sure you’ve got plenty of amino acids and carbohydrate in your body. This tells your body not to burn up muscle, and sends a stronger signal for muscle growth.

It also leads to better recovery after your workout. So, try to get in 20-30 grams of protein and some complex carbs 1-2 hours before your workout.

3. Take Rest Days Seriously

More is not always better. 4-5 workouts a week like this chest and arm workout is more than enough to stimulate massive hypertrophy. If you’re new to working out, 3 days might even be enough.

Prioritize rest and recovery. That’s when you actually build muscle, when you’re resting. Watch a movie, take a nap. Relax. You’ll come back feeling stronger and will build muscle faster.

4. Eat Enough to Build Muscle

You have to eat a surplus of calories to build muscle. There’s no way around it, unless you’re pumping yourself full of anabolic steroids.

Eat more. Get enough protein. Studies show 0.7 grams per pound of body weight of protein is adequate for most people.

Don’t lift like a beast then eat like a squirrel. Your body won’t build muscle that way, and you’ll be wasting a lot of effort.


I hope you actually put this workout to the test. I’d be excited to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments, or by email at

Here are a couple other articles you might find helpful:

As always, I hope this article helped you get a little closer to that best version of YOU!

Mike (Supastrong)
Mike (Supastrong)

Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach and personal trainer. I’ve run boot camps and served as the wellness coordinator for a fortune 500 company. Currently a Federal Agent in San Diego, CA, and an Infantryman in the Army Reserve.

How to Build Muscle.  The Full Guide to Gains.

How to Build Muscle. The Full Guide to Gains.

People use the internet to find answers. When it comes to information on how to build muscle, the web is full of misinformation.

My goal is to lay it all out so you have a full understanding of:

  • How the body builds muscle
  • Why the body builds muscle
  • Which exercises and workout methods build the most muscle
  • How to eat and what supplements to take to build muscle

Note: This article contains affiliate links. Only products we’ve deemed valuable are listed, and are at no additional cost to you.

How Does the Body Build Muscle?

Muscle Fibers

There are about 650 skeletal muscles in the human body. Muscles are made up of tubular muscle cells called muscle fibers. These in turn are made up of myofibrils and sarcomeres. Filaments within the sarcomeres slide against each other, contracting the muscle and pulling our bones, which we would commonly call “movement.”

The body is believed to be able to build muscle 2 ways:

1. Muscle Hypertrophy

Hypertrophy is the increase in size of the muscle fibers. This can happen by increasing the diameter of the muscle fiber, or the length of the sarcomeres.

What Causes Muscle Hypertrophy?

  1. Mechanical Tension: Lifting weights creates tension within the muscle tissue. This tension is detected by sensors within the muscle, triggering events that lead to increased protein synthesis.
  2. Metabolic Stress: Think of the burning sensation you feel when you do a set of high reps. This is metabolic stress, caused by the accumulation of lactate and other metabolites in the muscle. The environment created by metabolic stress signals increased protein synthesis (and tends to give you a “pump.”)
  3. Muscle Damage: It has not been conclusively shown that muscles grow due to damage incurred during a workout. In theory at least, muscle fibers damaged from an intense workout would signal increased protein synthesis. They would then be rebuilt bigger and stronger. Studies have not shown this to be true.

Hypertrophy is an increase in size of the muscle fibers you already have. It does not mean you’ve added new muscle fibers.

2. Muscle Hyperplasia

Hyperplasia means the addition of new muscle fibers. Whether or not this is even possible in humans is a subject of great debate. There are conflicting studies and no conclusive evidence that we can actually create new muscle fibers as a result of physical training. (without drugs).

Even if it is possible, it is not the primary way we build muscle from exercise and weight lifting. When we work out in a specific way, we trigger a series of events that lead to increased protein synthesis, causing hypertrophy of our muscle tissue.


Why Does the Body Build Muscle?

build muscle biceps

Our bodies do not build muscle so that we can look good at the beach. Bigger, stronger muscles are built gradually in response to repeated stress being placed on the body.

Bigger muscles are essentially an adaptation to stress. In order to continue building muscle, new and more challenging forms of stress (exercise) must continuously be applied. This can mean heavier weight, more reps or new exercises.

In short, our body will build muscle when it is forced to do so by the repeated demands placed on it, and when it has the extra resources to do so. It takes a lot of energy (calories) to maintain and especially to build new muscle. For this reason, a caloric surplus is necessary.

Now we need to get into more practical topics and how you can apply this knowledge to your own workouts to build muscle.

Related: How to Get Bigger Arms: Supastrong Big Arms Program

What Causes the Muscle to Grow?

lift weights for fat loss

It’s important to understand that it is the environment within the muscle that signals increased protein synthesis (muscle growth). When we work out in a specific way, we purposefully create an intramuscular environment that will allow us to build that muscle.

Remember we said that muscle hypertrophy is caused by mechanical tension and/or metabolic stress. (we’re leaving out “muscle damage” as it is not clear that this actually causes hypertrophy.)

Mechanical Tension

When we lift weights, we create tension within the muscle as it contracts and stretches. Think of a biceps curl. The biceps contracts, pulling the load up, then stretches as you lower the weight back to the starting position.

There are 2 important points to understand about tension as it relates to building muscle:

1. Greater tension results in more muscle growth

When we lift heavier weight, we lift it more slowly. This causes more high-threshold motor units (muscle fibers) to be recruited. The same phenomenon can be seen during the eccentric phase of a lift. Slowly lowering the weight in a biceps curl causes much greater tension in the muscle than the concentric portion of the lift.

This is why bodybuilders have always focused a lot on the eccentric portion of their lifts.

Practically, this means 2 things:

  1. Lifting heavier weights, in the 1-5 rep range, will cause greater tension than lighter weights. You’ll recruit more high threshold motor units.
  2. Focusing on the eccentric portion of the lift will cause more tension, again recruiting more muscle fibers. Take note that this also causes a lot of additional stress to the body, and can quickly lead to overtraining and fatigue. It’s a tool, not something you have to do all the time. It’s also not necessary for growth. Again, just a tool.

2. Fatigue and muscle growth

When you perform multiple sets, the muscle will become fatigued. When the muscle is fatigued, the muscle fibers being recruited will not be able to keep up. As a result, additional muscle fibers will be used to continue lifting the weight.

For this reason, programs using schemes like 5 sets of 5 reps are very effective. They create a high amount of tension using relatively heavy weight, and also involve fatigue as you get to the 4th and 5th sets.

Metabolic Stress

front squat metabolic stress

Imagine doing a set of high rep squats, let’s say 20 reps with moderately heavy weight. At the end of that set, your legs (and entire body) would be begging for mercy. That feeling is caused by metabolic stress.

Lactate and other metabolites have accumulated in the blood and within the muscle, causing an acidic environment and making muscular contractions more difficult.

You’d also likely have a pretty good “pump,” in your legs caused by blood and plasma being shuttled into the muscle and volumizing (expanding) cells.

This environment caused by metabolic stress sends a powerful signal for muscle growth, given the load being used is adequate, generally at least 60% of your 1 rep max or greater. Anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone are increased, as is protein synthesis.

Which Workout Methods are Best to Build Muscle?

shoulder press Back

We’ve already discussed that the type of workout you perform places specific stress on the body, forcing it to adapt by building muscle.

More specifically, we learned that the type of workout we do creates a specific environment within the body and muscle, which signals increased protein synthesis and muscle growth.

So what type of workout is optimal for building muscle?

High Reps (12-15)

Training with high reps (more than 12) has been shown to be less effective at building muscle than lower rep ranges.

This is probably because the lighter weight used simply cannot recruit the highest threshold (most powerful) motor units. Using less than 60% of your max does not create adequate tension in the muscle to signal growth.

Using these rep ranges will lead to muscle endurance and possibly a small amount of growth due to metabolic stress.

Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR)

An exception to this would be if you’re using occlusion training, which involves using bands around your arms or legs to restrict blood flow.

BFR training has been scientifically shown to increase muscle growth and strength when using high-rep/light weight training.

Here’s a set of BFR Bands that are high quality and affordable from Amazon

Low Rep/Heavy Weight (1-5 reps)

There’s no disputing that using a low rep/heavy weight strategy can build muscle. 5 x 5 and other similar programs have been used by some of the best bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reg Park.

Generally, lower reps and heavy weight lifting is optimal for gains in strength. By lifting heavy weights in the 1-5 rep range, you’re training the nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers, making you stronger.

What’s somewhat lacking in the lower rep ranges is the metabolic stress necessary for optimal muscle growth. With low reps, the body relies almost entirely on stored energy (phosphocreatine) to complete the lifts.

This causes you to need longer rest periods (2-5 minutes) in order for your body to replenish that energy, which results in less metabolic stress in the muscle. You cannot shorten your rest period without limiting your performance.

The Optimal Muscle Building Range

Biceps Curl Front

Research has shown that the 6-12 rep range with moderately heavy weights is the optimal style for building muscle.

Training in the 6-12 rep range forces the body to rely on anaerobic glycolysis for energy. This means the body must use glucose, which is then converted into lactate. This causes the buildup of lactate and other metabolites in the muscle. You’ll remember that we defined this as metabolic stress, which causes muscle hypertrophy.

The result of this increased metabolic stress is increased testosterone and growth hormone production and increased protein synthesis post-workout. Not to mention a huge pump, which is also thought to promote muscle growth.

Training in the 6-12 rep range with moderately heavy weight and relatively short rest (1-2 minutes) results in the most anabolic environment in the body. This means it will send the strongest signal to increase protein synthesis and build muscle.

Which Exercises are Best to Build Muscle?

Female Squat strength

It is widely accepted that for muscle growth, the big, compound exercises are superior for building muscle. While people still debate this, there is really no question about it.

Big, compound movements like the deadlift, squat and overhead press use several different muscle groups in unison. This results in:

  • Moving more weight
  • Using more total muscle
  • A greater anabolic response:
  • Greater testosterone and growth hormone production

Most bodybuilders and powerlifters would tell you that big, compound movements are superior for both size and strength. These lifts include:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Standing Overhead Press
  • Bench Press
  • Pull up/Chin up
  • Barbell Rows

Workouts should generally start with big lifts, and end with isolation type lifts. Prioritize the most important and beneficial exercises at the beginning, when you have the most strength and energy.

Related: The 3 Best Program for Size and Strength

The Importance of Getting Stronger

bench press

People often don’t prioritize getting stronger. The problem with that is that you’ll eventually plateau and your body will require heavier weight in order to grow. At that point, if you don’t get stronger, you’re probably not getting any bigger.

Remember why the body builds muscle. It’s an adaptation to stress. You have to continue increasing that stress over time in order to continue growing.

If you increase your bench press by 30 pounds, you can then perform every rep of your workout with heavier weight. This would result in additional (new) stress on the muscle, which would result in growth.

Periodizing Your Training

Since strength is so important, it is critical that you switch up your training periodically to focus on getting stronger. Just because the 6-12 rep range is optimal for building muscle, that doesn’t mean you should work out ONLY in that range.

It’d be far more productive to do something like this:

10 Weeks
Hypertrophy focus
6 Weeks
Strength Focus
6-12 rep range
High volume
5 x 5 (or similar)

Periodizing your training doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon gaining muscle in order to get stronger. You simply need to shift your focus a bit to keep the body responding and adapting. 6 weeks of strength training can allow you to come back into another hypertrophy cycle stronger.


muscle building nutrition

Your nutrition strategy is paramount when trying to build muscle. One of the most basic tenets of building mass is that you must maintain a positive energy balance. This means eating calories in excess of what you need to maintain your current size.

Without extra resources, your body cannot and will not build muscle. Building and maintaining muscle requires a lot of resources, and our bodies will place those resources elsewhere unless we maintain a surplus.

How Many Calories Do You Need To Build Muscle?

This varies from person to person. It’s helpful to know your body, and you will in time by trial and error. A simple equation to get a rough idea of how many calories/day you’ll need to build muscle and gain size is:

  • Multiply your weight in pounds by 18.1
  • Multiply your weight in kg by 40

So, if I weigh 220 pounds, I’d need around 4,000 calories/day to gain weight.

How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?

If you’re working out and creating an anabolic environment in the body, it’s crucial to have enough protein available throughout the day to allow your body to build muscle.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, unless you’re taking anabolic steroids. Multiple studies have found no additional benefit to consuming more than 0.7 grams/pound of body weight. Several studies showed that even less than this is adequate to build muscle.

It’s also a myth that the body can only digest 30g of protein from each meal. When eaten along with other macronutrients like carbs and fats, it can take a lot longer to digest protein. Therefore, more than 30g can be utilized over several hours from a big meal.

Generally, as long as you’re getting an adequate amount each day spread out over 4-6 meals, you should be fine.


Pre Workout Nutrition

Eating a meal high in carbohydrate and protein 60-90 minutes before your workout can have a positive impact on muscle growth and workout recovery. Studies have shown that pre-workout consumption of protein can have the same effect on muscle growth as post workout consumption.

Consuming carbohydrate and protein before a workout can result in faster glycogen replenishing and increased protein synthesis, speeding up recovery and helping to build muscle.


Whey protein

While supplements can definitely help build muscle, the majority of them are nothing more than placebo-pills. There are a handful of supplements that have been shown to have measurable effects on muscle building:

  • Creatine: Creatine is basically stored energy in your cells used for high intensity effort like a heavy lift or a short sprint. Supplementing creatine saturates the muscle, potentially allowing you to get extra reps with heavy weight.
  • L-Citrulline: Converts to nitric oxide in the body. Increases blood flow by dilating blood vessels. Increases “pump.” 6 grams is necessary for the full benefit.
  • L-Carnitine: Controversial fat-loss benefits, can also increase androgen receptors, which bind to testosterone.. helping build muscle.
  • BCAA’s: If your pre and post workout nutrition are on point, you have no need to use BCAA supplements. In the absence of a pre- workout meal, use 5-10 grams of BCAA’s during your workout.

Getting Calories From the Blender

It can be hard to get enough calories to build muscle every day from your diet. For this reason, the blender can be your best friend. Using whey protein, fruit, peanut butter and whatever else you like, you can get a huge amount of calories and protein quickly.

Here’s one smoothie I’ve used for years:

how to build muscle smoothie


muscle building cardio

Prioritizing recovery is just as important as any training or diet consideration. We don’t build muscles while we’re at the gym, we build them when we’re resting and sleeping.

Muscle growth occurs when we’re not training. That means on days away from the gym. Spending too much time at the gym or doing too much high intensity training can flood your body with catabolic stress hormones like cortisol. This results in many undesirable effects, including muscle wasting.

Make sure to prioritize days away from the gym. Getting a massage has been shown by research to speed up recovery. Other activities like playing a video game, watching a movie, or anything relaxing can also have a beneficial impact on allowing your body to recover and regenerate (and build more muscle).

Limit Conditioning and Cardio

Too many people out there are trying to achieve multiple goals at the same time. They want to get bigger, get stronger, lose weight, get leaner, get faster… I digress.

Attempting to build muscle, then going and performing an hour of intense cardio will cause interference. You’re giving your body mixed signals based on the the environment you’re creating in your body.

In order to build muscle, you must maintain a caloric surplus and create the most anabolic environment possible. Excessive cardio will pull energy away from building muscle, spending it instead on your cardio sessions and especially on recovering from them.

Will that 5 mile run hurt your muscle gains? Yes. Is it worth it? That’s really up to you and your priorities.

In short, don’t ignore your cardiovascular training and health. Just don’t overdo it. If your priority is building muscle, then focus on building muscle. You can’t do it all at the same time. The human body just isn’t designed that way and you’ll only hurt your gains.

Better Cardio Options For Muscle Building

There are some forms of cardio that are complimentary for those trying to get bigger and stronger. Here are a few examples below. You want to limit activities with a strong eccentric component. This will make them easier to recover from. Here are some activities you can hit fast and hard.

  • Sled push/pull: Push a prowler/sled. Rest. Repeat.
  • Hill Sprints. Sprint 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds. Repeat desired reps. Go home with tail between legs.
  • Assault bike intervals. Max effort for 15 seconds, slow effort for 45 seconds. Repeat for 10-20 minutes.

It’s important to include some cardio in your weekly split. Aerobic fitness can help you recover faster, and has too many health benefits for me to list here. In short, do some cardio, but stick to methods that are complimentary to your primary goals, and keep it fast and furious.

Related: 10 Ways to Boost Your Recovery


Building muscle can be a lot of work. But if it was easy, everyone would do it!

To build muscle, you need to maintain a caloric surplus and apply stress to the body that increases over time (progressive overload). To maximize muscle gain, we should use compound movements to elicit the greatest anabolic response from the body.

We should aim for the 6-12 rep range using moderately heavy weight, which gives us the most balance between mechanical tension and metabolic stress, creating the best possible environment for muscle growth.

You should always have en eye on getting stronger, and should make sure you’re getting adequate calories and protein to keep the body building muscle all day long.

Lastly, we have to make sure we prioritize recovery. Muscle is built while we’re resting. Relax, play some video games. Watch some netflix.

I hope this article was helpful, and as always, I hope it helped in some way to get you a little closer to that best version of you!

Mike (Supastrong)
Mike (Supastrong)

Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach and personal trainer. I’ve run boot camps and served as the wellness coordinator for a fortune 500 company. Currently a Federal Agent in San Diego, CA, and an Infantryman in the Army Reserve.

16 Bodybuilding Gym Exercises Using Resistance Bands.

16 Bodybuilding Gym Exercises Using Resistance Bands.

Just because you’re without the gym doesn’t mean you can’t get a solid workout in. And I’m not talking Pilates. I’m talking the same exercises you use in the gym. We’re just swapping out iron for some latex rubber resistance bands. These 16 resistance band exercises can help keep you big and strong while you’re out of the gym.

Studies have shown that adding resistance band exercises to your regular weight training routine can increase your strength more than weight lifting alone. So, incorporating some of these movements now can help you add them later when you return to the gym. You’ll have a new weapon in your arsenal for strength and size.

The Big Lifts… With Resistance Bands

We’ll start with the big lifts, which of course are:

  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Squat

I’m certainly not suggesting that you abandon these lifts in exchange for using resistance bands. But, you are activating the same muscles with both forms of resistance. You have the same range of motion and ability to use variable speed in the movement. That said, there’s no doubt these can be effective at getting you bigger and stronger.

Disclaimer: 1. Check with your doctor before performing any exercise routine. 2. This article may contain affiliate links.


Banded Deadlifts mimic a trap bar deadlift, with hands at your side

The Deadlift is rightfully known as the king of all lifts. It uses the entire body in unison, forcing the legs, lower back, lats and traps to work hard to pull the body into an upright position against resistance.

Remember to keep a flat back. Flex your abs and push through the floor, just like you would picking up a barbell.

Here’s a great set of Resistance Bands at a reasonable price

Bench Press

While you probably could rig a resistance band to press similar to a bench press, it’s easier and just as effective to utilize a push up movement instead.

Wrapping the band behind your back, you’ll be pushing up against the resistance of the band. Control your descent and push up explosively, activating the most motor units (muscle fibers). Keep your body in a straight line. This version places more emphasis on the core than a traditional bench press.

Overhead Press

The overhead press is the best exercise to build your shoulders.

Using resistance bands, you can overhead press two ways. You can do it standing, with the band under your feet. Or you can perform it kneeling.

With either version, keep your abs tight and flex your glutes. This keeps your core tight and protects your back. Press up explosively, or do slower tempo style reps without any pauses.

Standard Press

Behind the Neck Press


If there’s a contender for the “king” of all lifts, it is definitely the squat.

Arguably the best overall muscle building exercise, the squat is one movement you definitely want to include in your training.

Place the band under your feet, in the middle of the foot. Then bend down and wrap the band around the back of your neck. Stand up, then sit back into the squat position. Keep a flat back, abs tight (as with all big lifts).

Traditional Squat

Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is a little more challenging. It’s easier with bands than with a barbell, so it could be a good way to practice the movement with some resistance.

Bent Over Rows

Rows essentially work your entire back. When you perform the row, try to hold and squeeze for a quick second, then lower the bands.

Sit back slightly until you feel like you’re activating your hamstrings. This establishes a strong athletic position so you can lean forward without putting too much stress on your lower back.

When you perform the row, try to turn your hands in so your palms are facing up (like a reverse grip row). This will allow more activation of the back muscles and the biceps.

Shoulders – Banded Front, Lateral and Rear Delt Raises

Along with the overhead press, you can also use resistance bands to target the shoulders with front and lateral raises. Both are great options to build strength and size in the shoulders.

Lateral Raises

Lateral raises primarily work the lateral deltoid, along with the traps. They are great for building wider, broader shoulders.

Front Raises

Front raises focus on the anterior deltoids. The anterior delts are responsible for raising the arm forward. This part of the shoulder usually takes a beating with all the pressing movements people do, but isolating it can help strengthen and build the muscle.

Rear Delt Flyes

Most people overwork the front (anterior) delts with all the pressing they do in the gym. This can result in imbalances in the shoulder, and can lead to injury.

Strengthening to rear delts is essential for shoulder health, and for getting stronger. They also make your back look good when you build them up. Hold a one second squeeze on each rep.

These can be an excellent movement to incorporate into a warm up for your pressing days in the gym, or as a finisher to any upper body workout.

Chest Flyes

Chest flyes get a good “squeeze” of the pectoral muscles. They are a great way to isolate the chest. Using bands, we can perform a low chest fly. As in previous exercises, hold the top position for a one second squeeze on every rep.

Good Mornings

Banded good mornings are a really amazing way to hit the low back and hamstrings. These are an excellent option as a warm up for squatting or deadlifting, or for getting some lower impact volume in for the back and hamstrings. Do these for 15-20 reps and you won’t be disappointed!

Keep a flat back with a slight bend in the knees and lean forward until you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings before returning to the upright position.


You can definitely build your arms up with resistance bands. They allow you to get a really good squeeze of the muscle, and you can really perform a good amount of volume (reps) without the same stress you’d incur using weights.

Hitting these for high reps will give you a huge pump, and you know that’s never a bad thing.


You can perform these as regular curls, turning your hand in at the top, or as hammer curls with a neutral grip. Both are great and I recommend mixing it up.

Triceps Extensions

These are performed as overhead extensions. If you have something to hand the resistance band from, you can also do regular extensions similar to the cable pulldowns at the gym. Both are great.

Try to keep your elbows high (pointed at the ceiling), and try not to swing your arms.

Split Squat

The split squat does a great job of isolating the quad muscles. Try to perform these in a rhythm, with no pause at the top or bottom, for 15-20 reps per leg.


Last but not least, shrugs. Traps are one muscle that all strong people seem to have.

While I prefer to hit the traps with high pulls, farmer carries and deadlifts, the shrug is always a good option to build them up, and we can still get it done without weights.

Hold the top of the shrug for a one second squeeze, and don’t rest at the bottom. Keep the muscle under constant tension.

Some tips on using resistance bands

If you’re going to use resistance bands to work out, there are a few things you can do to make your workouts more effective.

  • Try to focus on each rep and get a good squeeze.
  • Shoot for higher rep ranges (15-30). You can build up a lot of volume this way and stimulate some muscle growth.
  • Shoot for short rest periods (30sec – 1min).
  • Perform the workouts in a circuit. Choose 3-5 exercises and follow the above rep and rest period guidelines.
  • If it feels too easy, use a heavier band. If it feels hard, use a lighter one. Seems obvious, but worth mentioning. Lose the ego.


A lot of people view resistance bands as inferior, but most of those people have never worked out with them. You can build muscle and strength with bands. Research has proven that, and incorporating them along with traditional resistance training can improve your gains.

Try some of these exercises out. Make the most of your time away from the gym.

I hope you liked this article. Leave a comment, or shoot me an email and I’ll respond as soon as I can. Thanks for reading, and as always, I hope this helped you in some way to get a little bit closer to that best version of you!

Mike (Supastrong)
Mike (Supastrong)

Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach and personal trainer. I’ve run boot camps and served as the wellness coordinator for a fortune 500 company. Currently a Federal Agent in San Diego, CA, and an Infantryman in the Army Reserve.