As a personal trainer in Schaumburg, I see a number of papers, books, and articles written on building muscle.  In fact, this is probably one of the most frequently discussed subjects within mainstream fitness.

However, a lot of these publications and discussions miss the boat on what actually needs to happen from an exercise-conditions standpoint.  And honestly, it is really not as complicated as some sources make it out to be.


The first exercise necessity for building muscle is to perform the exercise until you cannot do another rep1.  A wonderful experiment by Burd et al. (2010) demonstrates sets of exercise performed to momentary failure (i.e. until another rep cannot be performed) generate greater muscle protein synthesis than those that do not.

The second exercise necessity for building muscle is to perform each set for a minimum of 43 seconds1.  This is the second piece of information that can be interpreted from the Burd paper (2010).  Burd found that exercises that were performed for at least 43 seconds lead to great muscle protein synthesis than those that were performed for less time, regardless of the amount of weight used.

The third exercise necessity for building muscle is to directly challenge the muscles you want to grow2.  West et al. (2009) found that performing leg press followed by biceps curls did not generate any more muscle protein synthesis in the biceps than doing just biceps curls alone.  This brings up many possible discussions regarding different ways to challenge tissue (free weights, machines, etc.), but it would seem that the more you can focus on challenging fewer muscle groups during a single exercise, the greater the chance that those muscle groups will grow.

The fourth exercise necessity for building muscle is to focus on squeezing the muscles you are trying to use3.  Why this is important is because directing your focus towards squeezing the muscles you are trying to challenge instead of thinking about lifting the weight creates higher electrical activity within those groups of muscles, as measured by EMG (Vance et al. 2004).  An example would be focusing on squeezing your biceps during a curl instead of thinking about bringing the weight up towards your shoulders.

From a motor control standpoint, this is called having an internal focus of attention.  Using an internal focus of attention is often regarded as inefficient because it takes more effort to complete the same task.  However, from a muscle building standpoint, higher EMG readings should mean that more calcium is entering the muscle cell.  And, the more calcium that enters the cell, the more the muscle grows.

So, how should you exercise if building muscle is your goal?

  1. Do your sets to failure
  2. Perform sets that are a minimum of 43 seconds in length
  3. Directly challenge the tissue you are wanting to hypertrophy
  4. Utilize an internal focus of attention

In future posts, I will write about each of these four conditions individually, break down the mechanisms at play, and discuss why these mechanisms are important.  Stay tuned!

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  1. Burd N, West D, Staples A, Atherton P, Baker J, Moore D, Holwerda A, Parise G, Rennie M, Baker S, Phillips S. Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young MenPLOSone.  5(8): e12033, 2010.
  2. West D, Kujbida G, Moore D, Atherton P, Burd N, Padzik J, De Lisio M, Tang J, Parise G, Rennie M, Baker S, Phillips S. Resistance exercise-induced increases in putative anabolic hormones do not enhance muscle protein synthesis or intracellular signalling in young men. Journal of Physiology. 587(21):  5239-5247, 2009.
  3. Vance J, Wulf G, Tollner T, McNevin N, Mercer J. EMG Activity as a Function of the Performer’s Focus of Attention. Journal of Motor Behavior.  36(4): 450-459, 2004.

Charlie Cates

Charlie Cates is the leading consultant to high-level professional, college, & high school basketball players in the Chicagoland area for injury prevention, recovery, & muscle performance. As a certified Muscle Activation Techniques® MATRx practitioner & former college basketball player, he uses his personal experience & understanding of the game & player demands to create customized exercise options for his clients to recover faster & perform their best. Follow him on Instagram @CharlieCates!