Building lean mass. Getting bigger. Two very common goals of people that come in our gym. But, it is a very hard task for the majority of people. It is not as simple as eat more food and workout hard. Here’s why you might not be able to gain lean mass… yet.

In order for us to build more muscle, two things must happen: Muscle fibers need to break down, and your muscle must be able to recover. The majority of people have issues with the first of those two reasons. To be clear, you don’t need more muscle mass to become stronger. So you might still experience some change in your numbers for your lifts, but not see any differences in your body.

To be able to break down muscle, you need to go through 3 stages:

Stage 1- Motor Control

You won’t gain lean mass if you are learning how to do certain movements. You won’t gain lean mass if you are not somewhat efficient in your lifts. First, people need to practice and get many repetitions in. Let’s take the squat for example. If, for most part of the exercise, you are worrying and thinking about the movement, and how you should do it, you won’t be able to express enough power that would cause muscle breakdown.

The first stage is about preparing us to be able to get under heavy loads. It is about building a foundation, upon which we will use to increase strength, power and eventually, lean mass. The reps in this stage don’t need to be specific. So, if you want to increase your deadlift, practice kettlebell swings, cleans and good mornings.

Stage 2- Time Under Tension

Now that you are familiar with the movement patterns and exercises needed to create muscle breakdown, we need to have you spend time under tension. That means build up to higher percentages and control the movement (tempo reps). Many people don’t know, but the most important part of each movement, when it comes to breaking down muscle, is the eccentric part (i.e. CONTROL YOUR REPS!)

The second stage will challenge your ability to control and move heavy loads. This is what we usually see in strength training sessions. The reps in this stage are usually specific to the movement pattern you are trying to build on.

Stage 3- CNS Training

Now that your muscles are able to efficiently move heavier loads, you can move on to training your Central Nervous System. That means doing very heavy sets, or interval heavy sets, or high volume sets, supersets, dropsets. This is where intensity comes in. Doing heavy squats every other minute might be only stage 2, if you’re not able to actually tap into your CNS.

This final stage combines everything you need to break down your muscle fibers. But it is very important that you build from one stage to another, without trying to skip straight into stage 3. Most people have not yet mastered all 3 stages, making it really hard for them to gain muscle mass. Until you can express all of those requisites, you will not be able to successfully break down muscle tissue.

Not everybody that comes in the gym is at the same stage, though. That’s why it might seem easier for some people to build on lean mass than for others. Their background and history matters when it comes to exercise. If you played sports at a higher level you might be accustomed to such movement patterns and to intensity, so what you need is to spend some time under tension.

The second part of this equation is recovery. Even if you can successfully breakdown muscle, you must be able to let them recover and repair to gain muscle mass. As you can see, gaining lean muscle is very complex and complicated.

Obviously there are other factors that influence lean muscle mass growth, like lifestyle, hormones and genetics. If you have any questions on how to build muscle mass, what your next steps should be or how we, at Celebration CrossFit, can help YOU, let one of your coaches know and we will be happy to help.


by Coach Matt