By Chris Redig, MovNat Master Trainer
Are you trying to build more muscle? Has your progress plateaued? Have you noticed that training hard doesn’t automatically build muscle?
When you start Natural Movement® training, amazing things happen. Not only do you start learning how to move with skilled efficiency, but you also start building tons of fitness capacity. Your mobility improves; you get stronger; and you become more enduring. As a consequence, many people experience amazing body transformations.
However, as you advance, your capacity to improve simultaneously in so many different domains declines. This can be particularly true of hypertrophy training, as it often requires specific programming to continue making progress.
For many movers, this doesn’t matter, because they’ve already achieved the transformation they wanted. However, some hit a frustrating plateau. Maybe they’ve always struggled to gain muscle. Or, maybe they want just a bit more mass for their next obstacle course race.
In either case, if that’s you, then here’s your article. It’s a deep dive into some foundational hypertrophy training principles, and includes five strength-training strategies you can use in your next Natural Movement training session to build even more muscle.
To build muscle, focus on getting stronger.
How do you build muscle? When you lift something heavy, you create tension among the fibers of your muscles. If you create enough tension often enough, your muscles adapt by getting bigger. This adaptation in response to mechanical loading is the primary cause of muscle growth. Moreover, as your muscles adapt and grow, you get stronger. Under most circumstances, the two go hand in hand.
Consequently, to get bigger, you want to focus on getting stronger. But here we run into a challenge. Just because an exercise is hard doesn’t mean you’re getting stronger. There are many different kinds of hard. The first time you try to do a Balancing Tripod Transition is an eye opening experience into hard. And we won’t get started on Swing Ups or Rail Walking. Yet, despite being hard, none of these movements are a particularly good muscle building exercise.
You can think about it in terms of the limiting factor. What is the limiting factor of an exercise? What makes it hard? For some exercises, the limiting factor is endurance and for others it might be balance. To get the most out of your hypertrophy training, you want the limiting factor to be muscular tension. Here are three ways to do just that.
1. Select Simple Strength-based MovNat Exercises
If maintaining your balance is the hardest part of a movement, then it probably does not stimulate much muscle growth. This is because it becomes too hard to create large amounts of mechanical tension.
For some movements, this just means you need to master the balance component before you can stimulate muscle growth. Single Leg Squats are a great example of this. Once you get the balance and mobility to perform Single Leg Squats, they become an outstanding strength training exercise.
Similarly, if you’re deadlifting rocks, the limiting factor might be your grip strength. So, rather than building your legs and glutes, you’re primarily building your forearms. Again, this is because your forearms give out before you’ve put enough mechanical tension on your glutes and legs.
The limiting factor stimulates the lion’s share of adaptation. It’s why bodybuilders do bicep curls, and it’s why you should focus on simple strength training exercises. But don’t worry, you don’t need a leg press machine to build muscle.
MovNat already contains many of the absolute best movements for building functional strength and muscle. Focus your efforts on climbing drills such as Pull Ups, Weighted Pull Ups, Vertical Press Ups, or Forearm Pull Ups; and lifting exercises such as the Deadlift, Overhead Press, and Squats.
Not only is mechanical tension the primary limiting factor, but exercises such as these offer some unique benefits.
- Closed kinetic chain exercises like pull-ups and squats create more muscular tension than open kinetic chain exercises like leg press machines or lat pull-downs. In other words, they build more muscle.
- Movements with full natural ranges of motion such as full squats build more muscle than “half” squats.
- In addition, natural movements such as pushups can build equal amounts of muscle compared to the bench press.
The point is that you can build all the muscle you want using the MovNat exercises you love.
Pro tip: Muscle growth is a local phenomenon. This is why some professional arm wrestlers look lopsided and some bodybuilders have chicken legs. Make sure you’re working your whole body.
2. Beware the Concurrent Training Effect
Fatigue is another major limiting factor. MovNat combos and trail running both cause general fatigue. There are two problems here. First, it’s just plain hard to do the same amount of work fatigued as when fresh. For example, there is no way to set a personal record on Pull Ups after running 5 miles. No matter how mentally tough you are, you could have done more fresh. Consequently, you’re less likely to produce enough mechanical tension to stimulate muscle growth if you’re too tired.
Second, strength training and endurance training don’t mix well. They seem to compete with one another, and typically, the endurance adaptation wins. This is known as the Concurrent Training Effect, and it includes anything that keeps your heart rate up for an extended period. So, if you’re running, swimming laps or doing a hardcore MovNat combo, you’re more likely to improve your endurance than build muscle. This is particularly true if you’re more advanced in your practice.
Fortunately, the solution here is simple. In most situations, you can simply separate your strength training from your endurance training by 24 hours. In other words, just do them on separate days. In this way, you can continue to progress in both domains.
Pro tip: In life, endurance and strength are rarely separate. Once you’ve achieved your hypertrophy goals, it’s a good idea to start training your endurance and strength simultaneously.
3. Make Use of Mini-combos
Right about now, you might be panicking. You’re picturing an extremely boring training session full of simple movements you’ve already mastered. You’re thinking, I might as well buy a pec deck machine and be done with it. Don’t worry. I hear you.
The magic of MovNat is it’s breadth and depth. You’re constantly learning new movements and working muscles, skills and capacities that most people never train. In any given workout, you might practice balancing, jumping, climbing, vaulting, etc.
So, how can you achieve your strength training goals while improving as a Natural Mover?
Here’s what I suggest. Break your training into mini-combos. Each mini-combo might be 2-3 exercises. There should be 1-2 simple strength exercises and 1-2 general MovNat exercises in each mini-combo. This will allow you to manage your strength training while practicing your movement. In a single training session, I might program three mini-combos.
Here are some examples.
- Pair a heavy lift with some balance work. For example, you could do a circuit of deadlifts and balance walks.
- Pair some climbing work with some ground movement. For example, you could do a circuit of pull-ups and deep knee bends.
- Perform some lifts and climbing while practicing a new airborne movement. For example, you could do a circuit of overhead presses, forearm pull-ups and a front vault progression.
As you build your workouts, watch out for the limiting factor of each exercise, and look out for how that limit might affect the other exercises in the combo. The idea is to separate the limiting factors, so you can give the strength training exercises everything you have.
For example, something as simple as a single max Dead Hang can potentially limit your Pull Ups if it crushes your grip. That Dead Hang can create a limit for the Pull Up, and they probably shouldn’t be paired together.
Pro tip: Rest up before each strength training set. Ideally, your breathing and heart rate should return to baseline, and you should be mentally prepared to give it your best.
To get stronger, focus on making measurable progress.
As your muscles grow bigger, the heavy things you’re lifting stop being heavy enough. This is similar to the notion of limit discussed above. It may feel heavy enough. You probably don’t enjoy lifting it. It may even feel like work. But for your muscles, it has stopped being a reason to get bigger. It stopped providing sufficient muscular tension.
In other words, if you lift the same weight for the same number of reps week after week and month after month, you are not building muscle, and you’re not getting stronger. As I said before, strength and muscle often go hand in hand.
So, to get stronger you need measurable progress. Traditionally, this would mean lifting weights in a gym, and you would measure your progress by tracking your reps and weights. This works great for building muscle and has some advantages.
But as you might have guessed, this isn’t that kind of article. Instead, let’s look at how you can achieve your goals while lifting rocks and kettlebells, climbing, and moving your body weight. Besides, if you’re like me, all the gyms in your area are currently closed anyway.
4. Abandon the hypertrophy zone myth
First, let’s take a look at the myth of the hypertrophy range. Supposedly, you want to do 6-12 repetitions in order to build muscle. If you’re below that range (1-5 reps) you’re primarily building strength, and if you’re above that range (13-30), you’re primarily building endurance.
Well, that’s the myth. Here’s the science. In study after study, low rep ranges have been found to build as much muscle as higher rep ranges. And there are now several studies demonstrating that high rep work builds muscle just as well as medium ranges.
In other words, it’s possible to build muscle, lifting at anywhere from 3 to 30 reps, so long as you’re working hard enough and doing enough total work every week (note: more about that below).
Practically speaking, a range of 5-30 reps is probably best. So, if you have a rock that you can lift 5 times, and you progress until you can lift it 20 times, you are building strength and muscle. It isn’t as precise, controlled or measurable as traditional lifting, but it’s still there.
This requires more patience. You may not see consistent linear progress in the same way you would training with traditional weights. And it may not lead to results as quickly as lifting in a gym, but you’ll be building muscle while also building practical adaptable strength.
5. Train hard, but not too hard
Are you training hard enough, if you lift a rock 20 times? It depends. If you can lift the rock 30 times, probably not.
Are you training too hard? Again it depends. If you annihilate your muscles, you won’t be able to train often enough to make progress.
The goal is to train hard, but not too hard. To find the right balance, you want to build your awareness of muscle failure.
Muscle failure is the point where you cannot do another repetition of a given exercise. For example, if you are doing Pull Ups, failure is when you cannot do another Pull Up. It isn’t the point when you don’t want to do another Pull Up. It’s the point when you are physically incapable of doing another Pull Up.
You know when you are at muscle failure in one of three ways. First, you know it when you hit it. When you hit true failure, there isn’t any real question about doing another repetition. That’s that. You’re done for that set.
Most people don’t hit true failure unless they’ve been training for a while. It takes a lot of motivation and is easily influenced by your beliefs. If you’re relatively new to training, keep this in mind. You can probably progress faster and lift more than you think.
Second, with experience you can feel failure coming. For example, you may be on your eighth Pull Up and you can tell you only have two or three more Pull Ups left in you. You know the feeling, because you’ve failed enough times in the past.
A good sign that you’re close to failure is slowing down. You become less explosive. It takes longer to do each rep.
Third, as you approach failure your technique will start to break down. Again, Pull Ups provide an obvious example. Ideally, a good Pull Up should end with your chest at the bar. As fatigue sets in, you’ll struggle to reach the same range of motion. There’s a temptation to cheat and keep going, but technically, you started failing reps the moment you stopped touching the bar with your chest.
SO WHEN SHOULD YOU STOP?
Hitting failure is not ideal. It’s OK once in a while. In fact, it’s probably necessary once in a while just so you know where failure is. Will you hit failure at 10 reps or is it 15? You need to have a pretty good idea. But as a rule, you don’t want to constantly hit failure.
When you hit true failure, it induces a ton of fatigue. Hitting failure sucks, and it takes a long time to recover. And yet, it only induces a tiny bit of extra growth. If you avoid constantly hitting true failure, you can train more. Ultimately, that last brutal rep is almost all fatigue and barely any growth. It’s a bad trade.
Of course, there is another side to the story. If you are more than 5 reps from failure, that’s no good either. If you can do 20 pushups before you hit failure, but you only do 14, you’re not building much strength or muscle.
In other words, those last two or three uncomfortable reps are gold. That’s the sweet spot where all the growth is.
Consequently, the best place to stop seems to be between 1 and 3 reps from failing. You want to finish a set of movements with 1-3 reps left in the tank. So if you’re doing an exercise, stop each set when you can only do 1-3 more lifts.
Building and maintaining muscle correlates with strength and athletic performance. It can increase your speed over shorter distances. And it’s an important component of health and longevity.
Moreover, it’s much easier to maintain muscle than to build it. Consequently, once you’ve achieved your goals, you can use your time, energy and focus for other aspects of your MovNat practice.
Thanks for reading!
About the Author
Chris Redig is an online fitness and nutrition coach with a passion for helping adventure-lovers get strong, move confidently and eat well. He’s a MovNat Master Trainer, Henselmans Personal Trainer, and Precision Nutrition Coach. You can connect with him at Adventure Driven Fitness. Chris currently lives in Denmark with his wife and two kids.
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