Achieving muscle growth seems like a simple process, as it requires you to eat, exercise, rest/sleep, and grow the muscles. However, it is more complex when it comes to the science behind it. The process of muscular hypertrophy (increase in size through the enlargement of the constituent cells) involves three primary mechanisms: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. These three act as the greatest stimulants for muscle growth.
You achieve muscular tension by using a considerable amount of weight and doing exercises through a full range of motion for a certain duration. The length of time you spend results in the mechanical tension in the muscle, so the more substantial the time, the more significant the muscular tension. However, tension must be accompanied by a full range of motion to induce a substantial hypertrophic response. Optimal muscle growth is a product of strength. In all exercises, greater strength yields greater mechanical tension. It seems a vicious cycle, but the basic idea is that you should do heavy weights at a gradual pace through a full range of motion to encourage muscle development.
When you target a muscle by performing several reps in a row, the feelings that you get—the burning sensation and the swelling (the pumping)—are under the blanket of metabolic stress. The hard workout you do produces the pumping effect, which occurs due to the production and accumulation of lactate, hydrogen ions, and other metabolites. In addition, blood is prevented from escaping. The metabolic stress is a sign of muscles adapting.
A day or two after an intense workout, your muscle soreness may be at its peak. Muscle soreness is an indicator of muscle damage. Soreness is not all bad, since the muscle tissue damage results in a short-term inflammatory response and triggers the signals that are required for muscle growth. The more the damage, the higher the need for repair and delivery of nutrients to the damaged muscles, which enables them to come back stronger and ready to react to future stimuli. Some level of soreness is good, but too much of it may hamper training frequency, interfering with maximum muscle hypertrophy.
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The interrelationship of the three mechanisms
The three mechanisms are interrelated and they indicate muscle growth via a number of ways. A good case in point of the interrelationship is that a high level of active tension over longer muscle lengths results in the greatest muscle damage. Additionally, a great tension through a full range of motion produces significant metabolic stress, thanks to the extended muscle contractions, whose effect is occlusion of the veins, which prevents blood from getting out of the veins. There are, of course, more ways in which the three are interrelated.
The application of the mechanisms
The interaction of the three mechanisms is crucial for your muscle growth goals. None of them alone can offer the needed stimulus for muscle development, but all must be involved for maximum growth. You need to find a workout that involves lifting something heavy, and lift it with a sufficient frequency during an adequate length of time to produce mechanical tension, cause muscular damage, and increase metabolic stress. A good example is the Romanian deadlift, which happens to be a high-tension exercise; if you perform it with reasonable weight, reps, or both, it will yield the three mechanisms necessary for hypertrophy.