What dawns on you as Luke Tulloch lays bare his muscle-building methodology is how much of your own training may be a waste of effort. You could be doing a lot of things right – lifting with intent, using strict form, never working out in bike shorts or a bandana – and still have no hope of creating the kind of physique that is possible. Theoretically, anyway.
“Absolutely,” says Tulloch, when asked if most guys train like boneheads. “And all the effort in the world won’t compensate for a haphazard approach.”
Pumping iron at his workplace – the Lift Performance Centre, just south of Sydney’s CBD – Tulloch at first glance could be your typical gym monster: cartoonish chest; veins on his arms that resemble small snakes.
But look closer. His upper body sits atop equally well-developed legs. Above the neck, neither scissors nor razor has touched his hair or beard in months, suggesting a thinker too preoccupied with higher-order concerns to be bothered with the orthodoxies of grooming.
Indeed, what makes Tulloch an authority worth heeding is that his gym-floor heroics are underpinned by comprehensive theoretical knowledge. The untamed locks suit a man whose spare time is spent poring over the latest muscle-related research. With a degree in neuroscience and a boffin’s grasp of anatomy and biochemistry, Thor-lookalike Tulloch uses his brain to stack on brawn. “I do what works, not what’s typical or expected,” says Tulloch, whose first transformation project was himself: as an adult, he upsized from 82kg to 96, while retaining single-digit body fat.
“Building muscle is a blend of science and art,” he says between sets of weighted pull-ups. “The science is crucial. It gives you an understanding of why certain things work and others don’t. But it also has its limitations.” Ultimately, he says, you have to turn what you know into a regimen that works for your physiology and lifestyle – then execute it with controlled ferocity.
Here’s your crash course in the science of getting jacked.
FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Your days of mindless lifting end now.
“The most recent research shows there are three broad ways to trigger muscle growth,” says Tulloch, nowadays a director of Lucid Health Coaching but once a chubby kid whose first foray into training occurred under a history teacher in high school.
Chemical soup The first method is to create acid accumulation in targeted muscles – better known in gym circles as an insane pump!
“When you experience a pump, what you’re feeling is a strong chemical signal to the muscle to grow,” explains Tulloch. “You’re telling the muscle it needs to enlarge in order to withstand the colossal metabolic stress you’re putting it under.”
Pump-induced muscle growth – or what lab-coats call sarcoplasmic hypertrophy – happens quicker and is more noticeable to attractive females than is myofibrillar growth, which we’ll get to. Think of your biceps as a water-filled balloon; sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is like pumping in extra water: you’re swelling existing muscle cells rather than creating new ones.
There are multiple ways to get a pump on. Three of the best are to use high reps (12-15; twice that for legs), doing lots of sets and cutting rest periods to a masochistic minimum, as brief as 15 seconds.
Heavy metal Your second technique is to lift big, to channel The Rock. “Shifting challenging weights forces you to recruit a massive number of motor units, which work to coordinate muscular contractions,” says Tulloch.
And that’s good? You bet. It brings on a type of muscle growth called myofibrillar hypertrophy, which is an increase in actual muscles fibres. This shows up more as gains in strength than size, but it does make your muscles look dense rather than puffed up – think gymnast as opposed to WWF blowhard. “There’s no dodging some heavy lifting,” says Tulloch. “And by that I mean working in the 5-7 rep range.”
Growing Pains Your final expansion method is to include moves that inflict untold muscular damage. These are exercises that stretch the muscle by putting it through the limits of its range. Example: the dumbbell fly: done right, flys will make your pectorals come up sorer than a geezer in a queue. That soreness indicates a ransacking, which correct nutrition will repair – plus some.
You can target most body parts with these types of moves, says Tulloch. For those stubbornly spindly calves, “hold the stretch position when doing calf raises during rest periods. It’s excruciating, but the takeout from research is that guys who use the between-set stretch get bigger calves than those who don’t.”
To the same end, slow down the eccentric (lowering phase) of movements to up the level of carnage.
But what if you only ever use one, maybe two, of these strategies to build brawn rather than all three?
“Then you wouldn’t be maximising what you could achieve,” says Tulloch.
Not every chest workout has to feature heavy bench (load), high-rep dumbbell press (pump) and flys (stretch), although that would be one splendid way of lifting like a braniac. Another would be to periodise your training so each hypertrophic method is used for four weeks in a brilliant 12-week program that could win you the Nobel Prize for Weight Training, if there was one.
THE ERROR OF YOUR WAYS
Even Einstein made blunders – he reckoned the universe was static rather than ever expanding (like your muscles, hopefully). So it shouldn’t surprise that most guys who lift mess up somehow in virtually every session they do. Eliminate these cock-ups and the body you want gets closer, argues Tulloch.
A Dangerous Method The most common mistakes occur in exercise selection. The first rule of training is not to injure yourself. “But I’ll see guys going super-heavy on a dumbbell press, which is inherently unstable,” says Tulloch. “You want to go heavy? Then bench-press. Benching, I’ve got a 160kg one-rep max. But there’s no way I’d do a dumbbell press with 80kg in each hand. For a start, unless you’re being spotted, you need to get those weights off the floor, which puts your lumbar spine in a treacherous position.”
Maths Problem Most lifters, Tulloch laments, wouldn’t have a clue about their training volume, calculated by multiplying sets, reps and weight (S x R x W). And if you don’t know how much you’re lifting, how can you make – with any degree of precision – the incremental adjustments to your workload that will lead to gains?
Foundation Principles Similarly, Tulloch can’t fathom why guys subject themselves to one terrifying leg session each week that leaves them walking like ranchers, rather than spreading the load.
Tulloch used to do four exercises in one session for his quads, but by the time he got to the fourth exercise, he was cooked. Then he had his Eureka! moment. “I worked out that if I do only two quad exercises on Monday, come Thursday I’m fresh for the task of doing two more quad exercises. I can use more weight or do more reps, so my total volume goes up. Mentally, too, it’s refreshing because I’m not going, “Oh fuck, it’s Monday – I have to do this gargantuan leg session.”
THE FOOD FACTOR
Guys also routinely screw up their diet, says Tulloch – and never mind scientific grey areas like the duration of the post-workout window or whey v. casein. A lot of lifters make the mistake of simply not eating enough – the ultimate limiting factor.
“If there’s insufficient energy coming in, then from a molecular standpoint you cannot build muscle,” says Tulloch. “When people say kilojoules don’t really matter it riles me up, because if you understood the biochemical pathways you would understand you need to be in energy surplus to grow.”
Eating up, he explains, switches on something called mTOR, or mammalian target of rapamycin, which sounds like a B-grade sci-fi flick but in fact is a protein crucial in your quest to fill out.
“Basically, mTOR tells your body to synthesise protein and build muscle,” says Tulloch. You activate mTOR with resistance exercise – that’s part of it – but as important is nailing your nutrition.
An enzyme called AMPk monitors how much available energy there is in your body, says Tulloch. “If it finds there’s not enough, then it effectively says, ‘Inhibit mTOR and put the brakes on protein synthesis because we just don’t have the energy stores’.”
When trying to bulk up, you need to consume about 2000 additional kilojoules daily than you would for maintenance. In addition, says Tulloch, you require adequate amounts of protein (a minimum of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight), and specifically the branched-chain amino acid leucine, which gets mTOR firing like no other BCAA.
Meat, eggs and dairy are your richest sources of leucine, says Tulloch, for whom a typical breakfast is 4-5 eggs with cottage cheese. There’s about 50 grams of protein right there, says Tulloch, who shoots for 200 grams a day. Don’t be scared of protein, he urges: the latest research shows it’s safe even in quantities exceeding four grams per kilo of body weight.
Once you’ve put everything together – lifting that exploits the trifecta of growth strategies, combined with eating like a smart cookie – you’ll graduate with honours from the Academy of Muscle. What a triumph!