Building muscle, how does it actually work?
Building muscle mass (hypertrophy) is a fascinating process that has fascinated science for decades. When it comes to building muscle mass, three different (scientifically proven!) methods are distinguished: mechanical stress, metabolic stress and micro trauma. While it’s not necessary to modify your workouts to focus on one of these three ways, it can be helpful to understand exactly how these methods work. We explain it below!
Muscle building is done according to these 3 methods:
Mechanical tension is the effect that occurs during weight lifting, for example. In doing so, you strain your muscles to the point that enough tension is created to trigger cellular and molecular responses – leading to more muscle mass. Building muscle mass through mechanical tension is also the basis of the progressive overload principle (more reps, more sets or more weight to ensure that you can handle more over time).
You know that burning sensation when you’re in the middle of the final push-up or sit-up of your last set? That is the result of metabolic stress. Waste products that build up in your muscle tissue during exercise, such as lactic acid, in turn trigger all kinds of cellular and hormonal responses – including the growth of muscle mass. Those acidified muscles can therefore be a sign that your muscle mass is increasing.
Microtrauma is the phenomenon where very small tears appear in your muscle tissue. This can happen with strength training, resistance training, dancing… and very often with new exercises that you have not done before or that you are not used to at all. When your body starts to repair that muscle damage, it starts to overcompensate: it not only repairs the damaged muscle cells but also makes some new ones – which also leads to an increase in muscle mass.
If at some point your workout routine starts to feel (just too) easy, it’s very likely that you’re building less muscle mass than when you first started that workout routine. That’s a good time to switch to another routine or add a little more variety. Because regardless of the ways you train, in the end it’s all about challenging your muscles (and yourself). That is still the best method of building muscle mass!