If you’ve been lifting for long enough, even in isolation, you’ve probably come across people talking about hypertrophy.
If you haven’t googled it by now, hypertrophy is simply the increase of size of skeletal muscle through the growth of the component cells of muscle. Specifically, myofibrils and/or sarcomeres.
How Hypertrophy occurs is a much more in depth topic, that I will cover in future articles. For now, head to youtube and check out Shredded Sports Science. James Linker has a great series on hypertrophy/muscle growth and walks through all of the science in detail. For this article, I’ll assume you simply want to learn how to achieve hypertrophy through your training, and need to understand how to program your workouts to achieve maximal hypertrophy.
There’s a few topics we’ll want to cover, including recovery, nutrition, exercise selection, intensity, volume, and frequency. Lets kick things off with Recovery.
No matter your goals in the gym, recovery is going to be essential. Working yourself into the ground will never get you anywhere. I’m going to group a few things together in this section, and touch on sleep, stress, and nutrition.
Sleep & Stress:
Two of the primary hormones that assist in the building of molecules (anabolism) in your body are testosterone, and IGF-1. Insufficient sleep is proven to reduce the levels of these two vital hormones in your body.
Testosterone is especially important in the function of hypertrophy, as it binds directly to your androgen receptors, eventually increasing protein synthesis. This is a bit simplified, but you get the idea. I don’t think it will be a surprise to most people that testosterone is important in building muscle.
IFG-1 is probably unknown to many of you, but it is involved in pulling in those satellite cells (floating around your muscles) to add more nuclei to your muscle fibers. More nuclei means more potential for additional cells to be created.
But wait! It keeps getting worse. Testosterone also impacts the effects of myostatin. I’ve mentioned this before, but myostatin blocks satellite cell proliferation which has the opposite effect of IFG-1.
Insufficient sleep also increases cortisol within your body. Small increases in cortisol is totally normal, and how your body responds to small stressors throughout the day. However, increased levels of cortisol over longer periods of time cases all sorts of a mess with your bodies ability to create muscle. Essentially, cortisol prevents protein synthesis from taking place in order to preserve energy. The way we think about stress from work, or life functions the same way. Long term exposure to stress just wreaks havoc on the body. Think about the “fight or flight” response. If you’re being chased by a lion, building muscle is probably not your biggest priority.
If you don’t have your nutrition dialed in, you really don’t have much of a chance of building muscle. Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is the process that your body goes through in order to build muscle. It’s estimated that your body uses about 2,300 – 25,000 calories in order to build one pound of muscle. That means, over whatever period of time, you need an EXCESS of about 2,500 calories. If you don’t have excess calories, your body most likely won’t be using calories for vital bodily functions on building muscle. There are some exceptions. If you’re a newbie, muscle building will come fairly easily, and it won’t take much to push your body to build muscle. Another option is very widespread as well, and I’ll steal a term from James Linker as I’ve already referenced his channel. If you’re taking those “juicy vitamins” it’s possible to build muscle in a calorie deficit.
You also need to ensure you’re getting enough protein. If you don’t have enough protein, you can’t expect muscle PROTEIN synthesis to work. Check out my article on how to calculate macros if you don’t know how much protein you should be eating.
First things first, we need to talk about range of motion (ROM). As long as you can take your movement through the full ROM without pain, you should be. I realize you may get a great pump with those half curls, but you’re not going to get as good of results compared to a full bicep curl. A pump is not necessary to promote hypertrophy.
If your trying to build big quads, and you pick squats, you’ll want to pay attention to which muscle group is actually fatiguing the fastest. This holds true with all compound movements. If you’re back is the weak part in the squat, your back will respond the fastest. It’s not a bad thing, but if you want to work a specific muscle with compound movements, just be careful what is being worked the most.
For those that enjoy compound movements like myself, they may work as well as isolation work without as much time needed to recover. This is only one study, but the results are promising. Especially if you’re a beginner, work on mostly compound lifts. You may want to add in isolation movements for muscle groups that you can’t seem to feel that well during compound exercises.
Variety in your exercise selection is important for hypertrophy, but not too much. You want to keep up with the same set of movements to secure the movement pattern in your nervous system. If you move on before this process ends, you’re not going to be lifting as heavy as your muscles really could be and not giving them as much of an impulse to grow. However, giving your muscles new stimuli will prompt muscle growth to occur. The general recommendation is to hang on to an exercise for 6-8 weeks and then switch it out with a new movement that targets the same muscle group or groups.
Intensity has a couple different definitions, but here I’m not talking about the Bro version. Bro intensity is essentially how hard was the set. This would mean drop sets are pretty intense, as you fatigue the crap out of your muscles. The actual (or scientific) definition of intensity in this instance is the percent of your 1rm. Using this definition, we can actually measure the intensity of a lift.
The higher the intensity, the more motor unit recruitment. This is basically the definition of Henneman’s Size Principle. The heavier the load, the more force is required to move that load, thus, the more motor units that are recruited in that muscle.
If you’re asking what % of 1rm is best for hypertrophy, I’d say it depends on you. You should try to train in a wide variety, but keep a good amount of your work in the 60% – 80% range. You should have some than is lighter, and some that’s heavier. In this case, what works best for you is related your individual mix of type 1 and type 2 fibers. Everyone is different, so you may have to do some self-experimentation here to find out what works best for you.
Volume is the number of weekly “hard sets”. There are a few studies that show that per muscle group, 5 is better than 3, and 10 is better than 5. There are a few new studies that show that the amount of growth starts to slow after 10. Essentially that means if you want to maximize your growth, more is better until the point that you can’t recover from your workouts. If fatigue is continuously increasing, you need to pull back on your volume.
A similar philosophy applies to frequency as well. 2-3 workouts per week is better than 1, but much more past 3 doesn’t seem to really help. The goal here is to split up your weekly volume into manageable workouts in order to reduce fatigue and maximize recovery.
In terms of splits, check out my article on training splits. Essentially, it’s up to you and most splits are viable options. Just keep in mind that you won’t want to have very heavy compound lift days back to back. Give yourself time to recover.