What’s the most significant driver of muscle growth? How often should you strength train? How can you make sure you cover all of the major muscle groups?
Michael Matthews promotes progressive tension overload—a workout approach that maximizes muscle growth. In his book Bigger Leaner Stronger, he teaches you how to apply this technique to your personal fitness goals and get strong and healthy fast.
Continue reading to understand the principles of the Bigger Leaner Stronger workout and to learn how to create a plan for yourself.
Mike Matthews’ Bigger Leaner Stronger Workout
Personal trainer Michael Matthews explains how to exercise effectively to get strong fast. He discusses the science behind progressive tension overload and shares steps on how to create your own Bigger Leaner Stronger workout plan.
The Science Behind Effective Exercise: Progressive Tension Overload
To maximize strength and muscle gain, you must use a technique called progressive tension overload, which means that you apply an increasing amount of stress to your body by incrementally using heavier weights. This method forces your body to adapt and bear heavier loads, which boosts your muscle gains, writes Matthews.
Progressive overload creates more mechanical tension, which is the most important driver of muscle growth. Mechanical tension is the force created when you increase the stress on your muscles (such as with weights) while they stretch or contract. The heavier the weight, the more stress you put on your muscles, which results in greater mechanical tension. Because of this, you build more muscle by lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions than by lifting lighter weights for more repetitions. We’ll look at how to apply progressive overload to your workouts in more detail in the following sections.
(Shortform note: Gravity is the reason why muscle growth is most affected by mechanical tension. Gravity exerts a constant force on your body, and your muscles have to contract and stretch against this force for you to move and function in your daily life. To do this properly, your muscle cells sense how much force they’re under and build themselves up enough to operate under gravity. When you use progressive tension overload, your muscles must handle a load beyond that which gravity exerts on you. Your muscle cells detect this extra pressure and stimulate more muscle growth. This also explains why astronauts in space experience muscle atrophy, as their cells sense less pressure without gravity, which then results in muscle loss.)
How to Create Your Strength Training Workout Plan
Now that you understand the science behind weight loss and muscle gain, let’s look at some of Matthews’s tips for creating your strength training plan.
Step 1: Create Your Weekly Schedule
According to Matthews, you should strength train three to five times per week. This arrangement allows you to recover adequately and avoid overtraining. Your muscles grow stronger during rest, not during your workout.
(Shortform note: It can take months or years to recover from overtraining, so it’s important to allow time for rest as Matthews suggests. To avoid overtraining, ask yourself a few questions before you start each workout: Did I sleep well the previous night, was my morning resting heart rate normal, and did I consume enough food and fluids today? If you answered “no” to any of these, consider toning down the intensity of your workout.)
Step 2: Choose Your Exercises
Once you’ve determined which days you plan to work out, you must decide what exercises to do. Matthews recommends you do exercises that target the muscles involved in pushing, pulling, and squatting, which ensures you train all of your major muscle groups.
(Shortform note: Matthews doesn’t specify what the major muscle groups are, choosing to group exercises based on whether they exercise your pushing, pulling, or squatting muscles, but other fitness experts consider there to be six major muscle groups: chest, back, arms, shoulders, abdominals, and legs. There’s no rule saying what muscle groups to exercise together, but you should exercise different muscle groups on different days so each muscle has time to rest.)
Matthews says there are two types of exercises you should use in your workouts: primary exercises and accessory exercises. Primary exercises train multiple muscle groups at a time and drive the majority of your muscle growth. However, since they don’t work all muscles adequately, you must also do accessory exercises, which are usually isolation exercises that focus on one specific muscle group. Some examples of primary exercises are pull-ups (pulling), dips (pushing), and barbell squats (squatting). Examples of accessory exercises include dumbbell curls (pulling), seated triceps presses (pushing), and dumbbell lunges (squatting).
(Shortform note: While primary exercises help you get the most strength and muscle gains out of your workout, most experts agree with Matthews that you should make time for accessory exercises. Many people have weaker muscles than others, not just from improper form, but also from how their bodies naturally move when carrying out normal daily activities. So, even if you feel confident in your workout technique, you’ll likely still have some muscles that are weaker than others. You’ll need to strengthen these with accessory exercises to achieve a balanced body and avoid injury and pain.)
Step 3: Use Double Progression for Effective Workouts
Now that you have your weekly schedule and exercises planned, how many reps and sets should you do during your workouts? A repetition (or “rep”) is a single movement (like one pull-up). A set is a group of reps you do in succession (like 10 pull-ups).
According to Matthews, you need to do nine to 12 hard sets for each major muscle group per week for optimal gains. He recommends doing nine to 12 hard sets per session (with each session focusing on one muscle group) to achieve this. For example, you might do three sets of four different pushing exercises in one workout. He suggests this because there’s an upper limit to the number of sets you can do to maximize muscle growth per workout.
Determine what a “hard set” is for you by using a method called double progression, which is a way of applying progressive tension overload. Double progression requires you to do exercises within a range of reps to determine when to add more weight to your exercise. If you reach the upper limit of your repetition range, you add 10 pounds.
- For primary exercises, your range should be four to six reps.
- For accessory exercises, your range should be six to eight reps.
For instance, if you can reach the upper limit of your primary exercise rep range (six), add 10 pounds. Then, continue doing sets in your rep range until you can hit the upper limit again using the heavier weight. If you can’t reach the minimum of the rep range (four) with the heavier weight, reduce the weight by five pounds and try again. If you still can’t reach the minimum, work with your original weight until you can complete the upper limit of reps for two to three sets.
Step 4: Prevent Injury During Your Workouts
To prevent injury while optimizing strength gain, Matthews provides several tips:
Tip #1: Warm up by doing easier reps of the exercises you plan to do—for example, by using lighter weights. This prepares your muscles and helps you get into proper form.
(Shortform note: Working out without properly warming up your muscles can cause sprains, cramps, joint pain, and other overuse injuries because cold muscles don’t stretch easily. A good warm-up helps increase your body temperature, your heart rate, and the blood flow to your muscles.)
Tip #2: Finish most of your hard sets close to but not at muscle failure, the point at which you can’t physically complete another rep. Stop while you’re still able to do one to three good sets to prevent injury.
(Shortform note: Muscular failure occurs when your muscles use up all available energy before they can be supplied with more. Some studies show that exercising to muscle failure leads to slightly greater strength and muscle mass gain than stopping before failure. However, many experts agree with Matthews and suggest you avoid training to failure because this approach can lead to poor technique, overtraining, and reduced muscle growth in the long term.)
Tip #3: Rest for two to four minutes between sets. This gives your muscles enough time to recover and perform better during your workouts.
(Shortform note: This length of rest works best if you’re looking to increase strength and power. But if you’re looking to improve muscle growth or endurance, other rest lengths may be more beneficial. To increase muscle growth, rest for 30 to 90 seconds between sets. To increase muscle endurance, rest for 30 seconds or less.)
Step 5: Plan for a Deloading Phase
After eight weeks of training, Matthews suggests you take a deload—or reduce the volume or intensity of your workouts for a week—to give your body time to recover and grow stronger. It’s better to reduce volume (in other words, do fewer sets and reps) than reduce intensity (use lighter weights), Matthews argues. Deloading volume lessens joint, tendon, and ligament strain, lowers the risk of injury, and reduces psychological stress. It also maintains your fitness better when you resume training.
(Shortform note: Sometimes, your body might need a deload week before you’ve finished eight weeks of training. You may need to do an early deload if you notice any of these signs: low energy, poor workout performance, increased discomfort during your workouts, bad sleep, low motivation, or reduced appetite.)
Exercise: Prepare for a Successful Progressive Overload Workout Program
Prepare for your progressive overload workout program to get maximum strength gains efficiently and effectively.
- Reflect on your current lifestyle and schedule. Matthews recommends you train at least three times a week. What are some ways you can make time for these workout sessions?
- Write down one potential obstacle that may make it hard for you to stick with your workout program. How might you find ways to overcome this obstacle? For example, if you don’t live near a gym, you might consider buying some basic equipment.
- Write down some pushing, pulling, and squatting exercises you plan on trying.
- Now, decide on the date you want to start your workout program. What’s one action you can take this week to start preparing for it? For example, you could find a workout buddy or set up your home gym.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Bigger Leaner Stronger summary:
- How to get the physique you want without trendy diets or brutal workouts
- A simple and scientific approach to nutrition and exercise
- How to plan a workout program based on progressive overload