How do our muscles grow?? When we hit the gym hard we put a lot of stress on our body. Our body handles that stress in a particular way which can be described using the Hans Selye model of general adaptation (graph below). There are three main stages – Alarm reaction, Stage of resistance, and Stage of exhaustion. I’ll describe each stage and how they relate to muscle growth.
Alarm Reaction Phase
The second you start beating yourself up at the gym your body goes into the Alarm Reaction Phase. This is where your muscle fibers are breaking down and your muscles are in distress (fight or flight). It is critical to understand that adaptation cannot occur if you do not enter into this stage. And in order to enter into this stage, you must provide a training stimulus that is brand new or novel.
For example, say you generally squat with a wide stance and the bar is low on your back. If that is what you are accustomed to you will need to change this to a high bar squat with a close stance in order to re-enter into the alarm reaction stage. Key variables to manipulate during this stage include:
2) Exercise order
3) Exercise selection
4) Repetition speed
(and a host of other advanced training variables such as supersets and giant sets)
Stage of Resistance
The next stage, the Stage of Resistance, is where our body rebounds from that stress and attempts to reinforce itself to prepare for another hardcore gym session. Our muscles are going through growth and repair to become larger and stronger. The critical aspect of this stage is to ensure that you have the proper nutrients and sleep to recover. Key variables include proper protein intake, adequate calories, healthy fats, and quality carbohydrates.
Stage of Exhaustion
Unfortunately, over time we will eventually hit a plateau. This is the Stage of Exhaustion. Gains slow down and muscle growth is harder to achieve. There are generally two reasons for why this occurs. The first is that you did not provide proper nutrition, sleep or recovery time between training sessions during the stage of resistance. The second reason is that you simply don’t change up your routine enough in order to enter into stage one (Alarm Reaction). If either of these is the case then you’ll stay at the plateau or possibly overreach/overtrain and go backward.
Changing your routine/including variety and getting sufficient rest is very important to blast through your plateau so you can continue making gains! Programmed change and rest in order to achieve your physical goals are called periodization! We will discuss periodization techniques in depth in several articles to come!
In summary, athletes should know that they enter three stages each critical or counter to growth. The goal is to switch back and forth between the alarm reaction (novel training stimulus) and resistance stages while avoiding the stage of exhaustion. To do this we need to periodize. That is to say, we need to carefully switch it up and keep things fresh, but to also balance between training demands and rest demands!