Ok crossfitters, why aren’t you bodybuilding? I mean, you already spend all your time in the gym, and are obsessed about what you eat, so you might as well go full tilt. There are several great reasons why you’ll want to complete a bodybuilding cycle: improved strength, improved body composition, and scary biceps.
This article will look at over 200 research articles on hypertrophy and muscle development, and I will tell you how much muscle you can actually gain per day, and what that means for your crossfit performance. I will also give you a free 8 week plan to get jacked and tan, based off of these scientific studies.
Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating that you quit crossfit. I’m advocating dedicating a portion of your training time to muscle building. There are some obvious benefits to this, i.e looking really jacked, but there are also some benefits that are not so obvious.
The first reasons we want to body build is to ultimately increase our strength. There are only two mechanisms, that an athlete can control, that affect their absolute strength: hypertrophy, and neural learning factors. Said more plainly, one way you can get stronger is by practicing a movement until your muscle fibers learn to fire more quickly and efficiently for that movement.
The second method, hypertrophy, is hugely important for overall strength development. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle generally. If you walk into a gym and find the most muscular guy, you’ve probably also found the strongest. Not always, as a smaller guy could be more neurally efficient, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence. He might also have different leverages based on tendon insertions, but that’s not something anyone can change.
There are also ton’s of secondary benefits such as: increased metabolism, increased injury resistance, and greater muscular endurance. Still not sure about hypertrophy training? Well check out this article where I compare top level crossfitter’s to natural bodybuilding champs in the pre-steroid era. Spoiler alert, crossfitters are just as muscular as the champs.
So it’s pretty clear that there are some really good reasons to add some muscle mass on our frame, but how do we go about doing it?
Muscle Building Research
When I’m contemplating a new training method, I always like to consult the relevant research articles. The best kind of research article for this is called a meta-analysis or research review.
Basically, a bunch of researchers spend months pouring over every piece of relevant research so you don’t have to. The goal is to find some trends and commonalities. Wouldn’t you know it, I have just such a research review.
Researchers from Sweden went over 200 hypertrophy, and muscle building studies in order to find out what methods were best for increasing muscle size. They specified that the studies included in their review must have looked at either the quadriceps or biceps muscle size, and it must have been measured by MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound. These are the most accurate methods of verifying increase in size; by measuring the cross sectional area of actual muscle fibers.
Needless to say the article is very good, and delivers some great insights into building muscle. They chose the quadriceps and biceps muscle because they are the most easily measured muscles in the body, but it’s safe to say that their findings will probably generalize to all types of muscles in your body.
Muscle Building Findings
The researches mainly focused their review on a set of common variables known to cause hypertrophy like: intensity relative to 1RM, eccentric/concentric training, total volume, length of training. Without further adieu, here are the findings
Based upon all studies they viewed, they found that the mean training period was 79 days with an average increase in muscle cross sectional area (CSA) of .12% per day. That means that on average if you trained for nine days you would have increased your quadriceps size by 1 percent.
They further found that the ideal intensity for hypertrophy was 66%-73% of 1RM. The ideal training frequency was twice per week, with a negligible increase for three times per week training. The ideal per session volume was 40-60 reps.
If you’re a research nerd like me you’ll find that there are some expected findings, and some very unexpected findings in these results. The intensity range is pretty common for most hypertrophy training; however, only 40-60 reps with moderate intensity seems like pretty low volume, even if it is twice per week.
Most standard bodybuilding programs are generally three exercises per muscle group with a 4 x 10 per exercise. That’s twelve total sets of 120 reps, or twice the volume.
Normally I’d say that’s beginner gains, but this study included advanced trainee’s as well. This highlights an important concept in training, more is not always better. You need enough volume and intensity to stimulate growth, but not so much that you cannot recover from it.
There was also another important finding that we haven’t discussed yet, and it’s very relevant to crossfitters. The researches also found an increase in CSA for programs that had endurance training (run, row, cycling) and hypertrophy training was only slightly lower than pure hypertrophy training. They reported .10% increase in CSA for the combined group compared to .12%
This is great news for crossfitters. It shows that you can still increase muscle size to nearly the same amount while including endurance training. So don’t skip that WOD!
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The average length for for the biceps studies was 90 days. The average increase in CSA was .20% per day. You are looking at a 1 percent increase every 5 days. They found that 3 training sessions a week was ideal for biceps training, with intensities around 72% and a volume of 42-66 reps per session.
We can see that biceps can be trained with greater frequency than our quads. This is likely because there are more slow twitch fibers in your biceps, which are much quicker to recover than power fibers.
We can also see that they are quicker to hypertrophy as a result of increased training volume. This is important for crossfitters because biceps are in constant use in almost every movement.
Obviously, they are key for pull ups and rows, but they are also important in deadlifts and olympic lifting. If we’re honest with ourselves, they are also important for looking sweet in photos as well.
Debunking Garbage Hypertrophy Claims
Now we’ve got some solid data that can give us a realistic timeline to put on appreciable muscle mass. This is crucial because many trainee’s will find some plans that promises to put an inch on their arms in a week, or gain 20lbs of muscle in a month. These things just aren’t possible.
Let’s do the math. If you have 14 in arms and want to have 15 in arms, you will need to increase your arm size by 6.7%. Assuming you are training your triceps and biceps, and they respond at the same .20% increase in CSA each day, it would take you a minimum of 34 training days, or 10 total weeks.
I can tell you though that as your arms get bigger, and you get closer and closer to you natural muscular limit, any increase will be much harder even though the math will seem to indicate that it would be easier, since one inch is a smaller percentage increase for a bigger arm.
There are also numerous other factors that will affect your personal rate of gain. The researchers noted the average increase in CSA, but each study had a different value. Some were as high as .32% and many were lower.
Likewise, each study averages the gains of each participant. It is a well known fact that there is huge variability in training response. Some will double the average gains, and some will actually lose muscle. I tell you this because I want you to understand that you are not a math problem, your a person with many factors that will affect your ability to gain muscle. Let’s get onto the plan.
Muscle Gain Plan for Crossfitters
The following plan is design based upon the scientific recommendations above. In this plan you will be completing a lot of work, but I still expect you to do a few wods a week. They shouldn’t be killer wods, but you still need to get your heart rate up, and maintain your conditioning.
The first month is mainly compound movements, with a few isolation moves thrown in there. You’ll see most muscle groups are getting hit twice a week in the 40-60 rep range. The only exception is low back, as it takes longer to recover in my experience. I’ve also heavily emphasized pressing because I think crossfitters are weak there.
The colors are coded towards each muscle group. So orange days are shoulders, black is chest etc. This will quickly allow you to see the frequency with which each muscle group will be trained.
This month increases total volume, staying in the same rep and intensity ranges. It should be said that you need to select weights that allow you to complete the prescribed reps, but still leaves a little gas in the tank. You shouldn’t be going to failure in any set.
This plan will cover two months. This is enough time for you to see some appreciable gains in your muscle mass. I always find that after a month, other people will be able to see some changes, and after two you should be able to notice the difference.
You will also need to ensure that you are recovering enough from this volume. That means sleep and food. Read this article to learn how to eat like an athlete.
The bottom line is you will need to be in a caloric surplus to gain muscle, and yes, you will gain some body fat. If you follow the guide above, you will keep that to a minimum, and you will be able to maximize your muscle growth.
Keep in mind the ultimate goal of this is to gain some muscle mass which can ultimately be converted in to strength gains, which as we know, are key for crossfit performance. Give the plan a shot, and let us know how it goes in the comments below.