Muscle Hypertrophy to put simply is the ability to build and gain muscle mass. It’s probably the reason you started going to the gym. Well that and losing some body fat.
There are lots of different voices out there sometimes spreading opposing viewpoints on the best way to achieve muscle hypertrophy.
- Some people say lifting heavy is the key to building the most muscle.
- Others say your muscles don’t know weight they only know time under tension.
- While another trainer will say you need to trick your muscles with different workouts each session to keep your muscles guessing.
I don’t blame you if you’re scratching your head a little.
Muscle hypertrophy is a complicated subject but in this article we are going to break down the fundamentals that make muscles grow.
So if you are looking to build bigger muscles then keep reading.
What is Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy is the fancy term for muscle growth. Without it you can not grow muscle size or strength. So whether you’re looking to get bigger or stronger you need to be focusing on hypertrophy.
There are two types of hypertrophy:
– Myofibrillar hypertrophy, which focuses more on increased myofibril number and size.
The “myo” stands for muscle and the “fibril” is a threadlike cellular structure.
Myofibrils are made up of proteins and are what allow us to contract our muscles.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the number and size of myofibrils in your muscle fibres.
This increase in myofibrils increases the force at which you can contract your muscles.
– Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which focuses more on expansion of the sarcoplasm inside the muscle.
Sarco stands for “flesh and plasmic refers to plasma.
Sarcoplasm is the plasmic parts of muscles cells that include proteins, glycogen, water, collagen and other substances.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in the volume of the fluid in the muscle.
This picture shows the difference between the two types of hypertrophy.
These both sound daunting and will be revisited later, but they basically refer to strength gain and size gain.
There is a lot of conjecture about whether or not sarcoplasmic hypertrophy actually happens and wether you can directly target it with specific exercises. Various studies have been done but none have really been conclusive enough to confirm one way or another. If you would like to see a breakdown of the studies you should check out this article by Stronger by Science.
The big argument for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy comes about when comparing bodybuilders to powerlifters. How is it that a 280lb bodybuilder get out squatted by a 180lb strength trainer.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is usually used to explain this. The bodybuilder simply has more non functional sarcoplasmic hypertrophy making his muscles bigger but not stronger as it is the myofibrils that are responsible for contraction of the muscle.
That sounds like a fair explanation right?
The argument against that is that strength training requires a large skill component like any sport. Strength athletes are squatting heavier loads more often than a bodybuilder and therefore are more skilled at that performing that lift. In fact a lot of bodybuilders that switch to powerlifting can rapidly increase there numbers in all of there lifts.
So that leaves thing up in the air a little bit.
As there are two types of hypertrophy both definitions will be looked at here.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is what most people will think of when it comes to the idea of hypertrophy, this is where the size of the muscle increases and not necessarily with an increase in performance or strength.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is where the muscle’s myofibrils increase in size and number which is responsible for the contraction of the muscle (strength.)
You might think that someone training for size would only need sarcoplasmic, whereas someone training for strength would only need myofibrillar.
However, a bigger muscle has far more potential to gain strength whereas a stronger muscle can deal with more volume (which we’ll look at later) which then means that size gains can come more easily.
So, you can see how they work in together.
Any kind of strength training plan will include some kind of hypertrophy, whether that be in a specified block, usually lasting 3-8 weeks, a specific day, often seen during undulating periodisation, or the plan could almost purely based around hypertrophy (such as in bodybuilding or muscle gaining plans).
The accepted consensus is that sets comprised of repetitions of 1-6 are for strength, whereas sets of 6-12 would be more for hypertrophy – as well as the repetition range being adjusted, you would also find the intensity or the weight itself being adjusted in order to fit in to this scheme or range.
However, it has been shown that strength work can lead to as much muscle growth as bodybuilding hypertrophy work – which then leaves some of the traditional thinking around resistance training up in the air.
Sets of 8 is a very simplistic way of looking at hypertrophy as you could easily do 8 sets of 3 (rather than 3 sets of 8) and still end up with the same volume, however the intensity would be vastly different. This would make a phase like this more of an intensity block than a hypertrophy one.
Clearly this needs more explaining, so let’s take a look at the factors involved in programming, and programming hypertrophy specifically.
These factors will include:-
- Fatigue, and
- Your overall goal.
Volume (Progressive Overload).
Volume and progressive overload has been proven to be one of the largest factors when it comes to gaining strength or size.
The really simple way to determine volume is to figure out the weight lifted throughout a training session and it is simply:
The weight x sets x reps = total weight or volume.
So, if you were to do 3 sets of 8 with 100kg your total volume would be 2400kg. if you were to go with a simple progressive overload, your next session might simply be 3 sets of 8 with 102.5kg, taking your volume to 2460kg. You can see how the volume can easily be built up in this manner.
Intensity is the qualitative aspect to training, whereas volume is the quantitative one. The intensity depends on the following:
- Speed of performance
- Variation of rest between sets/reps.
In terms of strength and size training the main point here will be the first one – the load or weight that you are using.
You now know that your sessions should be within the 40-70 repetition range. The intensity range is going to be dependent upon your goals, a strength athlete should have 66% – 75% of their training in the 1-6 rep max range.
Whereas a hypertrophy athlete should be 66% – 75% in the 6-12 rep max range.
The frequency is where the training can differ the most between individuals. Not everyone has the same goals or the same time available, and what works for you as an individual now might not work for you 6 months down the line. Meaning that your training may need overhauling at various points.
When your training emphasises heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
The general rule of thumb is:
The heavier the reps, the less you can do each week.
Makes sense right.
Heavier weights require more recovery. This means that you will be doing less reps and sets than you would be with a lighter weight program.
Fatigue is basically the amount of tiredness you build up both within a session and within a training programme. The more work you do, the less energy you will have to do it, and obviously this means that if fatigue builds up you will have little energy to actually train.
The idea of intra-session fatigue dispersing is generally correct. However, this is only in relation to acute fatigue – i.e. fatigue built up over a short period of time and work.
The other, nastier, type of fatigue is chronic fatigue, this builds up and lasts over a period of days, weeks, and sometimes even, months.
To avoid the negative side effects of chronic fatigue you can utilise a deload week ever 4-6 weeks or as you feel necessary.
Acute fatigue will not always dissipate in between sessions, particularly if you train with a good amount of frequency.
A failure to manage fatigue will result in a drop in performance and adaptation and will also likely increase your risk of injury.
The volume recommendations above are within a large range, and each person will be able to deal with volume differently, when it comes to finding your correct volume you will need to figure out the maximum recoverable volume (MRV) for you as an individual. Once you have figured out your own MRV you will be in a good stead for the rest of your training.
If you do find that you are becoming more and more fatigued then you can do a number of things, such as :-
- Altering the type of lifts – more machine work than free weights would be less fatiguing.
- Improve technique – making the movement smoother will limit the amount of energy expended
Studies had shown that of each of these factors of hypertrophy progressive overload is the most important for muscle growth.
So if you want to build muscle as quickly as possible you’ll want to make sure you are continually getting stronger.
I should also mention that in order to build muscle you have to be eating enough of the right foods. Performing a clean bulk is becoming a popular to eat enough calories to support hypertrophy while not putting on loads of fat
As you can see above, there are different considerations for whether your goal is more strength gain or size gain. So you would need to adjust these factors in the way it says in order to suit you as an individual in terms of your goal, training level and the length of time with which you want to achieve it.
If your goal goes beyond just “get bigger,” or “get stronger,” then you will still need to incorporate these considerations.
If you are a beginner, it is probably worth going for some size initially for a couple of reasons –
- Again, a bigger muscle has more potential for strength.
- The higher repetition range literally means more practice for you to put yourself through.
This idea of practicing the movement is often forgotten as most people don’t think of the lifts as skills within themselves. Remember that improving technique leads to a less fatiguing workout, also.
If you’re someone who has been training for a while and are looking to lose weight while also maintaining your strength then you would be best to focus more upon strength training – but you had better keep in mind that the more severe your weight loss goal the less likely you are to gain strength rather than simply maintain it.
In some cases such as if you were overweight then following a more size type of plan could be more beneficial to you. This would encourage more muscle mass to grow and also increase your chances of fat loss due to an improved metabolism.
This section will cover progression – what it is, how to implement it and how to monitor it.
The most commonly known term in this area is ‘progressive overload.’ Which is where you will slowly increase your volume, or intensity (depending upon what phase of training you are in), in order to gradually improve your size or strength over a long period of time.
The simplest way to do this is to imagine you’re doing a strength routine where on week 1 you are doing 5×5 with 100kg – as you’ll know from above – the volume equates to 2500kg of volume. If you add 2.5kg to this each week for 4 weeks by the end you will be at 5×5 with 110kg which equals 2750kg of volume. In theory this would mean that you have added 10% to your volume and therefore also to your strength.
The above progression example would be beneficial for a beginner lifter, however, a more experienced lifter may find that they can not make these gains in such a linear fashion.
This is where varying the type of training you do may come in.
The example in the last section was a classic iteration of linear periodisation (increasing the weight the same amount week after week). If you find this stops being effective for yourself you may decide to try undulating periodisation.
This means that the volume and intensity is manipulated session to session, with an eye on the overall volume and intensity throughout the phase, in order to keep pushing the volume up and get the strength levels higher.
An example of this might be if you were benching three times a week. One day you could be doing 4 x 8 with 100kg, the second day might be 5×6 with 105kg, and the third maybe 6 x 4 with 110kg.
You can imagine that trying to do 8 reps with 110kg would be far more difficult than getting it for 4 reps, so to get around this you can do more sets of a smaller rep range.
Monitoring your progression.
The value of volume has been mentioned various times throughout this article so you can probably guess where this is going – a good way to measure your progress is to see how much volume you are doing at one point compared to an earlier one.
If you’re focusing more upon hypertrophy as a goal to get stronger then a simple way to test is to see if your 1 rep maximum has increased – or even just if you’re working weights have increased or feel easier. A 1 rep max test can be quite taxing on the body so make sure you appropriately programme yourself to do one.
If you’re training for hypertrophy for size you could measure to see if your muscles are getting bigger with a tape measure, visual reference or even your own bodyweight.
You could even programme in some AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) sets, this is where you have one set where you go to just before failure – that is do as many reps as you can without failing or your form giving in.
If one week, or phase, you can do more than the last then you are definitely improving.
Hypertrophy is massive part of training and just human life in general. Without hypertrophy we wouldn’t get stronger, we wouldn’t get bigger and we’d always be weak. Learning how to manipulate and use it in order to reach your goals is always worth doing.
What do you think about muscle hypertrophy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Scientific Principles of Strength Training – Mike Israetel, Chad Wesley Smith, James Hoffman
The Muscle and Strength Pyramid Training – Eric Helms