What is it and How to Train for Hypertrophy

What is it and How to Train for Hypertrophy

Key Takeaways

  1. Muscle hypertrophy refers to an increase in the size of your muscle cells, and hypertrophy training refers to strength training in a way that maximizes muscle hypertrophy.
  2. The single best way to stimulate muscle hypertrophy as a natural weightlifter is to get as strong as possible.
  3. Keep reading to learn the best exercises, workout routines, and dietary techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy.

Muscle hypertrophy is a confusing subject.

Heck, it’s a confusing word. How do you even say it?

(Hi-PUR-trophy).

And what does it mean, exactly?

It’s the technical term for muscle growth.

And what’s the best way to train for muscle hypertrophy? 

Some people say it’s to use different rep ranges to develop different kinds of muscle fibers.

Others claim there are different kinds of muscle hypertrophy—”myofibrillar” and “sarcoplasmic”—and if you aren’t emphasizing both in your training then you’re leaving gains on the table. 

If you want bigger muscles, you’re told, you want to maximize sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and you do that by training with light weights and high reps, supersets, and so forth.

And if you want stronger muscles, you want to maximize myofibrillar hypertrophy, and you do that by training with heavy weights and low reps.

Then, others say that muscle hypertrophy is almost entirely genetic. They say your DNA determines whether you can build a lot of muscle or not, and how you train isn’t going to make much of a difference one way or another.

And there you are in the middle of all of this, feeling like . . . 

. . . and I understand. I was in your shoes at one point, too.

When I started working out, I was your average tall, skinny dude, and for the first one and a half years, I followed run-of-the-mill bodybuilding magazine workouts.

It kinda worked. By the end of this period I was, uh, a little less skinny? (I won’t even Photoshop the zit out):

Mike Before

Fast forward about five and a half years, and while I had gained a fair amount of muscle along the way, it wasn’t exactly what I would have expected for seven years of dedicated weightlifting:

Mike Before 2

Soon after that picture was taken, though, I decided to educate myself on the real science of hypertrophy training (and eating) and implement what I had learned, and here’s where it got me:

And in this article, I’m going to share with you the key lessons I’ve learned so you can follow in my footsteps.

Let’s get to it.

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What Is Muscle Hypertrophy?

Muscle hypertrophy is the scientific term for an increase in muscle size.

Hyper means “over or more,” and trophy means “growth,” so muscle hypertrophy literally means the growth of muscle cells.

To understand what causes muscle hypertrophy and how it works, you first need to understand what muscles are composed of.

Muscle tissue is a complex structure, with bundles of long strands of muscle cells sheathed in a thick band of connective tissue known as the perimysium

Here’s how it looks:


structure-of-a-skeletal-muscle


The three main components of muscle tissue are:

  1. Water, which makes up about 60 to 80% of muscle tissue by weight. (Want to be creeped out? Read how they figured this out.)
  2. Glycogen, which is a form of stored carbohydrate that can make up anywhere from ~0 to 5% of muscle tissue by weight.
  3. Protein, which makes up about 20% of muscle tissue by weight.

Read: What Every Weightlifter Should Know About Glycogen

When people say “muscle hypertrophy,” though, they’re generally referring to an increase in the amount of protein in the muscle.

This is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy, which refers to an increase in the amount of protein contained in individual muscle cells (myo means “muscle,” and a fibril is a threadlike cellular structure).

You’ve also probably heard that there’s another kind of muscle hypertrophy known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Sarco means “flesh” and plasmic refers to plasma, which is a gel-like material in a cell containing various important particles for life.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, then, is an increase in the volume of the fluid and non-contractile components of the muscle (glycogen, water, minerals, etc.). 

Here’s a simple visual of how it works:


sarcoplasmic-and-myofibrillar-hypertrophy


Bodybuilders have been debating for years whether or sarcoplasmic or myofibrillar hypertrophy is more important for getting jacked and what training methods work best for achieving each goal, but the long story short is this: 

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy probably does play a small, indirect role in promoting muscle growth, but this is more of a side effect of proper strength training, and not worth pursuing as an end in and of itself. 

In other words, as you achieve myofibrillar hypertrophy, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will take care of itself. 

If you use the right hypertrophy training methods, that is. Keep reading to learn what this entails.

Summary: Muscle hypertrophy is the scientific term for an increase in muscle size, which occurs when the protein, water, or glycogen content of your muscles increases. 

Hypertrophy Training vs. Strength Training

Snoop around the fitness world long enough, you’ll learn that most people usually divide weightlifting into two broad categories: 

  1. “Hypertrophy training,” which typically involves higher reps, lighter weights, shorter rest periods, and often incorporates “special” training methods like drop sets, supersets, rest-pause sets, and so forth. 
  2. “Strength training,” which typically involves lower reps, heavier weights, longer rest periods, and revolves around a handful of compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift

Many people believe that hypertrophy training is better for building bigger muscles (hence the name), while strength training is good for increasing muscle strength but not size. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

Hypertrophy Training 

The single best way to stimulate muscle hypertrophy as a natural weightlifter is to get as strong as possible. 

In other words, strength training is generally better at stimulating muscle growth than “hypertrophy” training, despite its name. 

To understand why this is, you need to understand the three primary “triggers” or “pathways” for muscle growth:

  1. Mechanical tension
  2. Muscle damage
  3. Cellular fatigue

Mechanical tension refers to the amount of force produced in muscle fibers. 

When you lift weights, you produce two types of mechanical tension in your muscles: “passive” and “active” tension. Passive tension occurs when your muscles are stretching, and active tension occurs when they’re contracting.

Muscle damage refers to microscopic damage caused to the muscle fibers by high levels of tension. 

This damage requires repair, and if the body is provided with proper nutrition and rest, it’ll make the muscle fibers larger and stronger to better deal with future bouts of tension.

(It’s still not entirely clear whether muscle damage directly stimulates muscle growth or whether it’s just a side effect of mechanical tension, but as of now, it deserves a place on the list.)

Cellular fatigue refers to a host of chemical changes that occur inside and outside muscle fibers when they contract repeatedly. When you repeat the same movement over and over again to the point of near muscular failure, this causes high amounts of cellular fatigue.

Of these three muscle hypertrophy “triggers,” mechanical tension is by far the most important. 

Or, more specifically, increasing the amount of mechanical tension your muscle fibers produce over time, which is referred to as progressive tension overload

If I could go back in time and share just one bit of workout advice with 17-year-old me, it would be this: whatever you do, make sure you progressively overload your muscles.

And I would have gotten bigger muscles a lot faster (*single tear*).

Read: Is Getting Stronger Really the Best Way to Gain Muscle?

Strength Training

So, given what you just learned, which style of training do you think generally results in more muscle gain?

That’s right—strength training, because it allows for more progressive tension overload than most flavors of hypertrophy training. 

You can find plenty of evidence of this in the scientific literature. 

For example, in a study conducted at the University of Central Florida, scientists separated 33 physically active, resistance-trained men into two groups:

  1. A hypertrophy training group that did four high-volume, moderate-intensity workouts per week consisting of four sets per exercise in the 10-to-12-rep range (70% of 1RM).
  2. A strength training group that did four moderate-volume, high-intensity workouts per week consisting of four sets per exercise in the 3-to-5-rep range (90% of 1RM). 

Both groups did the same exercises, which included the bench press, barbell squat, deadlift, and seated shoulder press, and both were instructed to maintain their normal eating habits.

After eight weeks of training, researchers found that the second group gained significantly more muscle and strength than the first group. 

The scientists suggested two main reasons for why the heavier training beat out the lighter in not only strength gain (not surprising) but muscle gain as well:

1. Higher amounts of mechanical tension in the muscles

The lighter training, on the other hand, caused higher amounts of cellular fatigue.

2. Greater activation of muscle fibers

And this results in greater muscle growth across a larger percentage of the muscle tissue.

Another study published in 2020 by scientists at the University of Campinas found much the same thing—heavy, lower-rep strength training was more effective for promoting muscle hypertrophy than light, low-rep hypertrophy training.

This isn’t to say that lighter, higher-rep training has no place in your workout routine, but it should always play second fiddle to heavier, lower-rep training. 

Listen: Research Review: What’s the Best Rep Range for Building Muscle? 

This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger, and especially on key compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.

In other words, the more weight you can push, pull, and squat, the more muscular you’re generally going to be.

That’s why my Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women) programs focus on heavy, compound weightlifting, and that’s one of the reasons those programs are so effective.

Summary: Heavier, lower-rep strength training is generally superior to lighter, higher-rep “hypertrophy” training for building muscle. If you want to get as jacked as possible, get as strong as possible.

The 5 Best Ways to Stimulate Muscle Hypertrophy


Muscular Hypertrophy


While muscle hypertrophy is tremendously complex and scientists are still investigating its many nooks and crannies (and will be for a long time), we know enough to say this:

If you do the following five things, you can gain plenty of muscle and strength:

  1. Do lots of heavy, compound strength training.
  2. Maintain a slight calorie surplus of 5 to 10%.
  3. Do a small amount of cardio.
  4. Follow a high-protein, high-carb diet.
  5. Take supplements proven to accelerate muscle gain.

Let’s go over each step in turn.

Step 1: Do lots of heavy, compound strength training.

There are many ways to train your muscles, and when the goal is gaining size and strength as quickly as possible, nothing beats heavy compound weightlifting.

It’s better than workout machines, “pump” classes, home workouts, bodyweight exercises, Yoga, Pilates, and everything else you can do to develop muscle definition.

What do I mean by “heavy compound” lifting, though?

By “heavy,” I mean that you should work primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), which includes weights that you can do 6 to 10 reps with before failing.

And by “compound,” I mean that you should focus your efforts on exercises that train several major muscle groups, like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press.

There are a lot of strength training programs that check off these boxes, but I recommend you start with a proven classic like the push pull legs (PPL) routine.

Or, you can follow one of the programs in my books for men and women.

Read: The Definitive Guide to the “Push Pull Legs” Routine 

Step 2: Maintain a slight calorie surplus of 5 to 10%.

This is enough to maximize muscle growth without having to deal with unnecessary fat gain.

This should allow you to gain 0.5 to 1 pound per week, which is your goal if you’re a man. Women should shoot for half of that.

If you’re new to weightlifting, you can easily double those numbers for your first three to six months, but you should see them settle into this range.

If you have trouble eating enough calories to build muscle, you may also want to consider taking a “mass gainer” supplement, like Atlas.

Not sure how many calories you should eat to achieve a 5 to 10% calorie surplus? Check out this article . . . 

Read: How Many Calories You Should Eat (with a Calculator)

Step 3: Do a small amount of cardio.


muscle-hypertrophy-causes (1)


You don’t need to do cardio when lean bulking, but including small amounts can benefit your recovery, health, and body composition.

Personally, when I’m lean bulking, I do this:

  • I walk my dog 4 to 5 times per week for about 15 minutes per walk (he’s a little guy).
  • I do two 25-minute cycling sessions on an upright bike in my basement.
  • I participate in other hobbies that keep me active, like golf, hiking, and exploring museums.

If you aren’t sure what kind or how much cardio you want to do, start with two hours of walking per week.

That’s all it takes to get the benefits of cardio without interfering with muscle growth.

Read: Should You Do Cardio If You Lift Weights? Science Says Yes, and Here’s Why 

Step 4: Follow a high-protein and high-carb diet.

Aside from water, the main component of muscle tissue is protein.

Therefore, for muscle hypertrophy to occur, you need to provide enough of the raw material (protein) for your muscles to grow larger and stronger.

How much exactly, though?

One gram per pound of body weight per day is what most research shows is optimal for most people in most circumstances.

Despite what you might have heard in the gym locker room or read in the bodybuilding magazines, there’s no need to eat more than this while lean bulking.

After protein intake, your next priority when trying to build muscle as quickly as possible is your carbohydrate intake.

You can read this article to learn why, but the bottom line is you’re going to have a much easier time gaining muscle and strength on a high-carb diet than a moderate- or low-carb one.

That’s why I recommend you start with two grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day when bulking, and work up from there if (when) you need to increase your calories to continue gaining weight and size.

Read: The Best Way to Gain Muscle Without Getting Fat 

Step 5: Take supplements proven to accelerate muscle gain.

I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.

You see, supplements don’t build great physiques—dedication to proper training and nutrition does.

That said, although supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat (and many are a complete waste of money), the right ones can help.

Let’s quickly review the supplements that are going to help you build muscle as quickly as possible.

Creatine

Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements—the subject of hundreds of studies—and the consensus is very clear:

Supplementation with creatine helps . . .

You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.

If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.

In terms of specific products, I recommend Legion Recharge.

Recharge is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:

  • 5 grams of micronized creatine monohydrate
  • 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
  • 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid

This gives you the proven strength, size, and recovery benefits of creatine monohydrate plus the muscle repair and insulin sensitivity benefits of L-carnitine L-tartrate and corosolic acid.

So if you want to gain muscle and strength faster and recover better from your workouts, you want to try Recharge today.

Whey Protein Powder

You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.

Whey protein is by far the most popular type of protein supplement out there, because you get a lot of protein per dollar spent, it tastes good, and its amino acid profile is uniquely suited to muscle building.

You can take whey protein any time, but it’s particularly effective as a post-workout source of protein because it’s rapidly digested, which causes a dramatic spike in amino acids in the blood.

And if you want an all-natural, delicious whey protein powder, you want to try Whey+.

Whey+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.

I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find. What’s more, you can choose from over a dozen different flavors of Whey+, including French Vanilla, Mocha Cappuccino, and Cinnamon Cereal.

Casein Protein Powder

Casein digests slightly slower than whey, providing a steady stream of amino acids to the muscles for growth and repair, which some experts believe may make it a better choice for building muscle.

Most scientific research shows both whey and casein are more or less comparable when it comes to building muscle, so which one you choose largely boils down to personal preference. In terms of which protein powder to choose, you can’t go wrong either way.

And if you want a great-tasting, all-natural casein protein powder, you want to try Casein+.

Casein+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored casein isolate also made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland.

Plant-Based Protein Powder

If you don’t eat animal products or want to take a break from whey and casein, you can also get comparable results by taking a plant-based protein powder.

Plant+ is a high-quality blend of pea and rice protein that contains 25 grams of protein per serving. It’s also nutritionally enhanced with 10 added nutrients that vegan and vegetarian diets tend to lack, including vitamin D, beta-alanine, and creatine, as well as 4 digestive enzymes to help you better process and absorb every scoop.

So, if you want a delicious, low-calorie, plant-based protein powder, you want to check out Plant+.

Pre-Workout Drink

There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.

Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.

Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.

Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,” which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.

Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.

The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.

And that’s why we sell our own pre-workout supplement. It’s called Pulse and it contains clinically effective doses of six of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:

  • Caffeine
  • Theanine
  • Beta-alanine
  • Citrulline malate
  • Betaine
  • Alpha-GPC

The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like and want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver, you want to try Pulse.

The Bottom Line on Muscle Hypertrophy


muscle-growth-training


You can spend hundreds of hours studying muscle hypertrophy and barely scratch the surface.

It’s an extremely complex process that involves scores of physiological functions and adaptations.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a scientist to have a working understanding of the research, and to use it to build muscle quickly and efficiently.

Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Muscle hypertrophy is the scientific term for an increase in muscle size, which occurs when the protein, water, or glycogen content of your muscles increases. 
  2. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy probably does play a small, indirect role in promoting muscle growth, but this is more of a side effect of proper strength training, and not worth pursuing as an end in and of itself. 
  3. Ironically, heavier, lower-rep strength training is generally superior to lighter, higher-rep “hypertrophy” training for building muscle—if you want to get as jacked as possible, get as strong as possible.

And here’s the 5-step plan you need to follow to build as much muscle as possible: 

  1. Do lots of heavy, compound strength training.
  2. Maintain a slight calorie surplus of 5 to 10%.
  3. Do a small amount of cardio.
  4. Follow a high-protein and high-carb diet.
  5. Take supplements proven to accelerate muscle gain.

Do that, and you’ll have no trouble building muscle like clockwork.

Happy (lean) bulking!

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What’s your take on muscle hypertrophy? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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