Read the complete guide on muscle hypertrophy. Muscle growth is the most coveted and desired aspect of bodybuilding practitioners and gym-goers alike.
This guide addresses the topic of muscle hypertrophy in a complete way, starting with defining what it is, how it happens, and what causes it.
We offer practical and concrete guidelines to be applied to increase muscle mass and maximize results.
What Is Muscle Hypertrophy?
Muscle hypertrophy is a biological and physiological adaptation that involves an increase in the volume of muscle fiber cells.
In general, there is an increase in the diameter of the cross-section of the entire muscle due to two factors:
- Thickening of contractile proteins;
- Growth of the various constituent elements of the muscle such as capillaries, connective tissue, number and volume of mitochondria, glycogen, etc.
Muscle Fibers And Hypertrophy
Skeletal muscles are composed of different types of muscle fibers: three to put it simply, type I, IIa, and IIx, each with different metabolic, mechanical, and neural characteristics.
The most hypertrophied ones are the white type II ones, which have a glycolytic metabolism, are among the strongest but at the same time also the most tiring and respond to mechanical stress by increasing protein synthesis.
Weight training involves the conversion of type IIx fibers into intermediate fibers IIa and this is compatible with what happens in practice in the gym, as it is true that heavy loads are lifted but at controlled and often slow speeds.
Energy Systems Involved
Muscle hypertrophy is stimulated through the involvement of anaerobic energy production mechanisms of the alactacid and lactacid types.
It refers to energy substrates suitable for guaranteeing intense muscle contractions and which, therefore, can expose the muscles of the fiber with high mechanical tension and high metabolic stress.
In the alactacid system, characteristic of efforts with a heavy load, there is a consistent intervention of muscle phosphocreatine while as you move towards lactacid efforts anaerobic glycolysis will intervene in a prevalent and massive way with consequent accumulation of lactate.
Benefits Of Muscle Hypertrophy
The benefits of training aimed at increasing muscle mass are different.
Although what most frequently pushes a subject to shape their muscles is the aesthetic reason it is not uncommon for this to lead to an improvement in the person’s self-esteem with positive repercussions on the psychological sphere.
However, even before the aesthetic purpose, the increase in muscle tissue is useful for the ability to express the strength of the subject among the various factors determining strength the most impacting in percentage is represented by the size of the cross-sectional area.
Strengthening deficient muscle groups guarantees in part, improvement in sports such as calisthenics, powerlifting, and any other sport where strength and power are required.
From a purely health and preventive point of view the impact on:
- The overall efficiency of the organism,
- Improvement in body composition, an ally against overweight and obesity and for weight loss,
- Less predisposition to metabolic pathologies,
- Better management and uptake of nutrients,
- Release of a number of beneficial chemical mediators.
In the field of rehabilitation and physiological physical decay caused by advancing age, it becomes essential to seek an increase/maintenance of optimal muscle tropism and consequently of functional autonomy.
Types Of Muscle Hypertrophy
As mentioned at the beginning, muscle hypertrophy concerns the increase in the volume of the entire muscle with the involvement of all its structures and internal components.
Depending on the nature of the training stimulus it is possible to place more emphasis on some elements than others, even if never in a completely exclusive way the stimulation of one component also affects the others, albeit according to different proportions.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy strictly concerns the contractile component ( myofibrils and myofilaments ) and is usually more present in powerlifters and in those who work very close to the maximum load.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy concerns the aqueous component: sarcoplasm and related elements such as water, non-contractile proteins, and stored energy reserves.
It affects the absolute increase in strength to a lesser extent and is typical of medium to high rep work, such as in the case of bodybuilders.
The Factors And Mechanisms Of Muscle Hypertrophy
Muscle hypertrophy occurs as a result of the application of stimuli (stress) increasing over time to the muscle through training with overloads which can be represented by dumbbells, barbells, machines but also by free body exercises.
Muscle tissue, therefore, adapts to the increased demand for work by triggering a series of chemical reactions and processes aimed at maximizing protein synthesis.
In order for everything to be made possible, it is essential to follow a suitable and functional diet for the goal: the anabolic processes of protein synthesis are made favorable to certain caloric conditions and in the presence of adequate quantities of proteins and carbohydrates.
The primary input, therefore, is given by the application of the progressive overload over time.
It must not be understood exclusively as an increase in the external load moved but mainly as an increase and improvement in training parameters and more generally in performance.
For example, if today you are able to bench press with 175 lbs x 8 reps x 3 sets, you will need to be able to complete a pattern of 175 lbs x 12 x 3 over time, and then gradually 185 lbs x 12 x 3 and etc.
Aim to complete the same amount of work but in less time by reducing recoveries between sets.
The improvement in form and technique of execution also contributes in this sense: for example, performing 175 lbs x 10 repetitions in the flat bench press in an impeccable way and without compensations, rebounds, or repetitions all different results in more muscle hypertrophy compared to 195 lbs x 10 performed in a completely different way.
Science has identified three possible mechanisms of action involved in stimulating and increasing muscle hypertrophy:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Cell damage
It is highly probable that mechanical tension is the most important and determining mechanism for hypertrophic purposes, skeletal muscle can only detect the intensity and duration of muscle contraction.
The mechanical load to which it is subjected is detected by means of special specific receptors from which the conversion of signals starts in a cascade of events that leads to the accumulation of muscle proteins.
During weight training, muscle fibers experience mechanical tension when:
- Undergo elongation forces,
- Through shortening, they counteract another “force” that acts in the opposite direction to that exerted by the muscle.
The degree of mechanical tension undergone by the muscle fibers are all the higher the more they shorten slowly.
Speed is not deliberately chosen but imposed by the displaced external load or by the high degree of fatigue achieved – that is, what you can observe when you are moving heavy loads or are in the vicinity of muscle failure.
Types Of Muscle Actions
There are three main muscular actions detected by mechanoreceptors:
- Concentric, weight lifting and muscle shortening phase;
- Eccentric, weight descent phase and muscle lengthening;
- Isometric, phase of maintenance of muscle contraction without approaching and moving away from the joint heads.
Each of these causes different responses and muscle morphological adaptations.
Eccentric contractions allow you to produce more force, especially when you use supra-maximal loads and try to counteract the stretch.
The increase in muscle volume is mostly given by the increase in the length of the muscle fascicles, or rather by the addition of sarcomeres in series with greater gain, therefore, in the distal part of the muscle belly.
Concentric contractions produce less force. The increase in muscle volume is given above all by the increase in the diameter of the cross-section of the muscle fibers, that is, by the addition of sarcomeres in parallel with a greater gain in the central part of the muscle belly.
Current research has failed to demonstrate the superiority of eccentric over concentric actions. Likewise, there is not enough research into the tangible and additive benefits of isometric actions.
Therefore, for maximum muscle hypertrophy training should include both concentric and eccentric muscle actions: both appear to complement each other maximizing the chances of growth.
Metabolic stress means the accumulation of metabolites in muscle fibers such as lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphates and is characteristic of training with:
- A moderate and high number of repetitions,
- Very short recovery times,
- Restriction of blood flow,
- Maintaining constant voltage.
Other elements that are able to amplify the effects may also be included, such as the strong production of myokines and free radicals or cell swelling.
It is not clear at the present stage of research whether metabolic stress and its effects are additive or redundant compared to those resulting from mechanical stress alone.
Both act simultaneously in conditions of strong accumulation of metabolites and transient ischemia, as cumulative fatigue exposes and predisposes the muscle fibers to the generation of high degrees of mechanical tension, also thanks to increased muscle recruitment.
Therefore, it can only be assumed that its effect is an adjuvant to mechanical stress.
By cellular damage, we mean the set of damages that occur following training to the muscle fibers, myofibrils, the cytoskeleton, the sarcolemma, the basal lamina, and the extracellular matrix.
The inflammatory response and the activation of satellite cells, which are involved in the processes of repair and regeneration, could therefore represent the processes necessary to lead to muscle hypertrophy.
In recent years this mechanism has been strongly questioned and its value reduced. The spasmodic pursuit of muscle damage is one of the staples of old school bodybuilding (” no pain, no gain “) but in reality it has been shown that the cascade of events that causes muscle restructuring and remodeling can occur regardless of any appreciable damage to the skeletal muscles.
A moderate amount of muscle damage appears to be positive while an excess can even be counterproductive and counteract hypertrophy.
How Long Does It Take For Muscles To Grow?
Physiologically, the synthesis of new contractile tissue takes time (months and years), especially in the case of subjects who do not use anabolic drugs. Cases of rapid gains of tens of pounds exist, although they are rare.
Examples are starting conditions characterized by severe malnutrition or subjects who had already acquired a certain amount of muscle mass in the past and then lost following a long stop.
In the first weeks/months the beginner does not immediately benefit from substantial increases in muscle mass but more likely from rapid increases in strength and nervous adaptations, functional to better management of the body, and greater efficiency in the recruitment of their muscle fibers.
After this phase, if you train and feed correctly the first 4-5 years will be the most profitable in terms of the amount of muscle mass gained.
After these, it is possible to continue synthesizing new muscle tissue but increasingly slowly as the window of adaptation determined by the genetic potential is reduced.
However, if you do not do things correctly right away, it could take up to 10 years and still be a beginner.
From this point of view, the more trainable you are, the greater the potential degree of improvement not yet expressed.
Although it is difficult and risky to give muscle growth times as they are strictly subjective and mainly dependent on age, sex and genetics, several authors have estimated approximate average gains of about 20 lbs.
In the first year up to a progressive reduction of the growth rate to 1 lb of muscle mass in the fourth year – but still, values remain to be taken with a grain of salt.
We have already mentioned the importance of the food aspect in allowing and facilitating the synthesis of new muscle tissue.
The diet will have to be functional to your goals and this means providing the body with adequate amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients, and water also to better face training in the gym.
To increase muscle mass it is necessary to have a caloric surplus on average between 300 and 500 kcal per day compared to the maintenance calorie intake.
In this phase, the accumulation of fat is also physiologically inevitable you cannot grow by always remaining defined. To learn more, read the article on the high-calorie diet.
To make the muscles visible after a bulking phase it is necessary to be in a calorie deficit for several months: on average equal to 300 kcal for women and 500 kcal for men compared to the daily maintenance calorie intake.
During this phase it is physiologically unlikely to synthesize new contractile tissue, therefore the goal will be primarily to preserve the acquired muscle mass.
There are some cases in which it is possible to witness an increase in muscle mass without varying the amount of fat tissue or even while losing weight.
This occurs only in the first months of training in the beginner subject, in those who re-train after a long period of stop, or in those who, despite having been training for many years, begin to do it in a much better way.
The body recomposition process is much more frequent and rapid, however, in those who abuse doping drugs.
The only supplement that has been shown to directly increase muscle mass is creatine through increased water retention within muscle cells. However, this is a little impacting effect in absolute terms.
The use of some supplements can improve muscle mass only indirectly (including creatine), that is, allowing you to resist fatigue more and thus exposing yourself to greater intensity and volumes.
But even in this case, it is absolutely not a key element or strictly necessary, especially if the diet is adequate.
Muscle Recruitment And Exhaustion
The recruitment of muscle fibers occurs in increasing order from the weakest ones (type I) to the strongest and most hypertrophied ones (type II) as the load lifted increases with respect to its maximum (1 RM).
In this regard, according to the Henneman size principle, all muscle fibers are recruited already with loads of about 80% (maximum 6-8 repetitions).
Going beyond these loads, therefore, is not absolutely necessary the further increase in strength will be given by the important intervention of the frequency of sending of nerve impulses by the nervous system.
Probably even the progressive increase in fatigue is able to recruit more and more muscle fibers.
In this regard, it is important to underline that for hypertrophy it is not enough to recruit, but it is also necessary that the muscle fibers are exhausted!
Performances that are not too explosive and with adequate times under tension, through the complete bond of the actin-myosin transverse bridges, allow to express the maximum production of force by each muscle fiber and thus to tire them.
External Load And Internal Load
The external load is equivalent to the pounds materially moved in an exercise. However, saying “I moved 200 lbs in the bench press” does not mean having generated an equivalent mechanical tension on the chest.
In fact, there is also the internal load, which is the one actually experienced and perceived by the muscle fibers.
In order to be a strong correspondence between the external load moved and that suffered by the muscle fibers, it is necessary to perform each repetition with suitable times under tension and above all without any type of alteration of the executive form typical of the average gymnast such as bounce on the chest.
All different repetitions, executions that are too fast or in the middle, cause the bar to collapse when descending out of control, etc.
High degrees of internal loading can also be achieved as fatigue builds up. In fact, if you look at the time under tension of the first repetition of a series with a heavy load, you will realize that it is substantially similar to what you find in the last repetitions with a light load close to failure, i.e. a performance that tends to slow down.
Let’s take another of the many exemplary practical examples: Subjects A and B both perform lateral raises with 20 lbs dumbbells for 12 repetitions to failure. Subject A has levers (arm + forearm) longer than subject B.
In this case, while moving the same weight, with the same fatigue and number of repetitions, subject A’s muscle fibers will undergo a higher internal load because more unfavorable levers will have to produce more force.
In summary, in order to obtain the greatest gains in muscle mass, it will be necessary to generate the best possible internal load over time at the same time as the progressive increase in the external load.
Proprioception And Mind-Muscle Connection
Proprioception is the ability to perceive the position and movement of the body and limbs in space and is strongly stimulated in complex motor patterns with free weights (squat, slow forward, deadlift, pull-ups, rowing, etc.).
The benefit of knowing how to coordinate joints and body segments in the best possible way will have a positive transfer in knowing how to direct the stimulus by keeping the body compact, dispersing as little tension as possible, and reducing the unwanted intervention of secondary or synergistic muscles.
The improvement of the perception of work inside the muscle and the feeling with muscle contraction leads us to another concept, namely the mind-muscle connection – the ability to focus and convey the internal attention to the muscle during an exercise.
In the scientific field, this idea taken from old school bodybuilding has been taken into consideration leading to confirm that an internal attentional focus can actually improve the ability to activate the muscle. However, whether this translates into more long-term hypertrophy is still unclear.
Is Strength Related To Hypertrophy?
Getting stronger doesn’t directly mean having more muscle mass. The maximum dynamic strength, that is the ability to lift the maximum possible load with a single repetition is a conditional capacity only partially positively influenced by more muscle hypertrophy as other factors of a nervous, technical and structural.
On the contrary, muscle hypertrophy is not directly influenced by the absolute increase in strength (1 RM) but mostly by the increase in the capacity of resistance to force, that is to resist as long as possible to high demands for strength.
Basically, this is what happens when you move a weight for 6-15 repetitions. By improving over time in this range of load and repetitions you ensure the increase in muscle mass.
How To Make A Workout Plan For Muscle Hypertrophy
Knowing how to adapt a training plan as best as possible based on needs, peculiarities, recovery capacity and skill level is of fundamental importance.
Each card should be structured in such a way as to guarantee a logical consequentiality of the stimuli that can stimulate the muscles on a broad spectrum and efficiently:
- It starts from purely mechanical stimuli with heavy weights and low repetitions,
- Going through moderate loads and medium repetitions,
- Closing with high repetition and light loads.
What Exercises To Do For Hypertrophy?
Much of the attention in the first years of training and up to the achievement of loads of certain importance must be given to the choice of multi-joint exercises in which as many joints and muscle masses as possible are involved, such as:
- Bench press and incline bench presses,
- Dip at parallels,
- Overhead stretches (slow forward),
- Thigh press,
- Various forms of deadlifts,
- Lat machine,
- Various rowers.
This category of exercises allows you to move increasing amounts of weight over time which in itself exposes more to significant mechanical stimuli.
It also can educate the nervous system in the acquisition of complex motor patterns by improving neuromuscular activation capacity, intermuscular coordination, and the ability to progressively use a greater number of muscle fibers.
These skills can be exploited to optimize muscle gains through the more targeted use of single-joint or isolation exercises, especially when the absolute potential in terms of strength is reduced.
They are characterized by simpler motor patterns and the involvement of a single joint.
The mono-articular improve the perception and feeling of muscle contraction, but above all, they allow to work on the deficient points and on the muscle bundles that are difficult to involve with multi-joint exercises according to stress, resistance profiles, and more comfortable working methods.
Among them are all forms and variants of:
- Bicep curl,
- Triceps from the cable,
- French press,
- Side raises,
- Crosses for the chest,
- Rear openings,
- Leg extension,
- Leg curl,
- Exercises for the buttocks.
The right combination of these categories of exercises within the card is necessary to fully stimulate all the muscles by operating on various angles and work surfaces.
Naturally, the selection must be made in full compliance with one’s own biomechanical uniqueness regarding joint mobility, length, proportions of the various body segments, and any previous problems.
Some exercises or executive modalities can adapt less or better to a person, in fact influencing hypertrophy.
A classic example is the barbell squat in which those who feel the predominance of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) at the expense of the quadriceps intervention could opt for variants (front squat) or more suitable methods such as lifting under the heels or using shoes with heels.
Corners And Work Plans, Lines Of Action
Make sure you include at least one exercise on the card:
- Horizontal push (bench press),
- Vertical thrust (slow forward),
- Horizontal pull (a form of rowing),
- Vertical traction (pull-ups or lat machines),
- Squat (squat or press),
- A dominant form of hip extension (deadlifts or lunges).
The remaining angles and planes of work or movement can be covered through trajectories, handle widths, inclinations, and various isolation exercises.
In order to efficiently direct and optimize the stress towards the muscle, it is essential to adopt a few basic concepts of biomechanics such as the resistance line and the traction line.
The line of resistance is the direction in which the weight “pulls”. For example, chest crosses made with dumbbells or cables have different resistance lines: downward in the first case, outward in the second.
The line of traction is approximately the trajectory that leads to shortening the muscle by bringing the insertion and origin closer together.
For example, in chest crosses, if the line of traction of the arm goes towards the center of the chest the pectoralis major will be involved while if it goes towards the collarbone mainly the upper chest bundles will be involved.
Range Of Motion And Fiber Length
A larger range of motion is associated with greater muscle mass gains. This is true as long as the muscle fibers work within an optimal length range, neither too elongated nor too shortened, and compatibly with a greater capacity for force expression.
For example, a rear-arm bicep curl on an incline bench more predisposes the brachial bicep to produce more force, as the muscle is placed at an optimal initial degree of stretch, compared to a Scott bench curl in which the bicep is pre-shortened.
To impart various types of stress it is suggested to work at different muscle lengths.
For example, in the barbell bench press, you work in an intermediate range of muscle fiber length while in pushes or crosses with dumbbells there is more emphasis in the stretch phase.
In the cable/machine crosses, on the other hand, there is also an emphasis on shortening.
During the ROM of an exercise, the resistance can vary according to its profile.
In the barbell row or in the lateral raises with dumbbells at the lowest point, the resistance is low to zero, while at the end of the shortening phase it is higher, and much more effort is made. Exactly the opposite happens, however, in the deadlifts.
This means that some modalities or certain exercises can stimulate hypertrophy better or worse on the basis of the resistance behavior and the force expressed by the muscle fibers at a given length.
How Many Reps To Do For Hypertrophy?
The question in this paragraph is undoubtedly the one that more than any other is asked above all by novice subjects.
We must always start from the assumption that any number without being interpreted adequately, with particular reference to the intensity selected and applied, remains only a mere number without value and meaning that says nothing about the effective effectiveness of the work done.
Having made this necessary premise to fully and deeply stimulate each muscle group it is possible to choose a fairly large number of repetitions ranging from 1 to well over 20.
Much of the work must fall within the range of 6-12 maximum repetitions with moderate loads, between about 70-85% of the maximum load, provided that they are carried out reaching an adequate level of fatigue – that is to muscle failure or in any case near it with a margin of 2-3 repetitions.
This can be explained because these numbers allow the most powerful and efficient compromise between mechanical tension and time under tension to be reached within the series, quantitative and qualitative aspects are thus fully satisfied.
The remainder of the work must be spread over a low repetition range ( 1-5 repetitions maximum ) with heavy loads (about 85-100% of the maximum) while another part can include work with repetitions equal to or well above 15 with light loads equal to or less than 65% of the ceiling.
In the first case, it is not necessary and it is also not recommended to achieve muscle failure due to a high risk on safety as well as on nervous fatigue.
In the second case, however, it is advisable and desirable to experience maximum muscle fatigue. In both situations described there is the full recruitment of muscle fibers.
Generally, the more complex an exercise is at the coordination level and allows you to move important loads the more it adapts better to jobs with low/medium repetitions.
A simpler motor-level exercise in which you tend to work more in isolation can most benefit from a higher number of repetitions.
The fact remains that during the year you cannot vary and cycle the various work ranges as you see fit, also to provide stimuli to which the muscle could respond in a sensitive way.
It is possible to deduce that hypertrophy is reachable in any loading zone. Obviously, heavier loads have a greater impact on the increase in strength while lighter loads have a greater impact on local muscle resistance.
How Many Exercises To Do For Muscle Hypertrophy?
The training volume represents the total of repetitions or the product of repetitions × series, carried out by muscle group in the single training session and over the course of the week.
It is considered the most impacting variable for muscle hypertrophy (there is a direct relationship between dose and response), therefore it is undoubtedly very important to provide an adequate stimulus.
However, we must not fall into the error of thinking that doing more is better because the body has limited recovery capacities, however trainable, and you risk extending recovery times, reducing the focus in training due to accumulation of peripheral/systemic fatigue or worse of ending up in overtraining.
There is certainly a minimum amount of volume needed in the single training session and in the week as well as a maximum amount to be supplied, below or above which you must not go.
Beyond that, you risk running into the so-called “junk” volume, that is, of low quality and effectiveness.
Assuming that there is a significant subjective variability on the optimal and bearable volume for each person, variable based on experience, age, sex, programming period, nutritional status, and more we can recommend staying on average between 15 and 25 weekly series for a muscle group.
To understand if the selected volume is adequate, it is sufficient to monitor the progress of performance in the gym and the recovery capacity; based on the integration of this information you can adjust everything to the best.
Of course, you can decide to distribute this volume more productively by spreading it over a higher weekly training frequency, for example, 18 total series per week for the bibs distributed in 2 workouts of 9 series each.
Finally, each muscle group may need more or less series depending on subjective differences, therefore it is advisable to choose a number of exercises per muscle group ranging from a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 4.
Larger, stronger, and more resistant muscle groups (e.g. back and thighs) usually require a lot of exercises, while others that are smaller or quickly exhausted require few exercises (such as the arms).
How Much Recovery To Do?
The belief that reduced recoveries in the classic 60-90 seconds are superior in promoting hypertrophy has long been disproved.
The research has shown in general that this is even counterproductive, showing, instead, how wider recoveries allow you to better face the next series ensuring the maintenance of adequate intensity, focus, and amount of work.
Here too some practical indications are suggested:
- In complex motor exercises that involve the use of heavy loads and low repetitions about 3-5 minutes may be required;
- In isolation exercises or in the range of 6-12 repetitions it is possible to orient yourself around 2-3 minutes;
- There are ways of working that deliberately provide for short recoveries (about 1 minute) and that are perfectly suited to the improvement of the local density parameter, useful for placing emphasis on metabolic stress and muscle congestion.
How Long Should A Training Session Last?
The belief that a training session should not exceed one hour otherwise cortisol rises to levels that disintegrate muscle mass is obviously false. If that had been the case, we would have long since become extinct.
The duration of your workout depends on many factors, including the amount of time you can devote to it.
In addition to situations of this type that obviously require you to adapt everything according to them, the duration of a workout is primarily determined by the frequency with which you train which will be strongly dependent on the amount of work done.
The latter, in turn, is influenced by the subjective recovery capacity which is trainable, and by the period: for example, in the high-calorie phase, you can train for longer.
Generally speaking, workouts lasting 90-120 minutes are a good compromise that allows you to generate an adequate amount of work without losing concentration, strength and risking generating empty volume.
In some cases, it is possible to go even further, especially in athletes who have progressively adapted to high volumes of work or who, moving very heavy loads, require a lot of time and a series of approaches to express themselves at 100%.
Buffer or Failure?
Muscle failure is certainly a very interesting variable for hypertrophic purposes. In this regard, there is the eternal diatribe as to whether or not to apply it to maximize muscle gains.
First of all, it occurs when due to progressive fatigue the point of momentary muscular inability is reached which determines the interruption of the series. In contrast to it, there is the possibility of training in the buffer.
For example, if you perform 8 repetitions within the series with a load that would have allowed you to do 10 on failure, it means that you have adopted a margin (buffer) equal to 2.
The yielding is applied indiscriminately and in an exasperated way among the average practitioners of the gym while the buffer is customary in the world of sport to maximize pure performance without degrading the execution technique.
Which of the two is better? As often happens, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Physiologically, in order for a series to be stimulating and expose the muscle fibers to adequate degrees of mechanical tension, it is necessary to arrive at least in the vicinity of muscle failure.
A buffer of 2-3 repetitions can represent a good compromise, especially because in this situation you are able to accumulate more work while maintaining the quality of the same and of the execution technique intact with the double advantage of correctly conveying the tension on the muscles and reducing the risk of injury.
Finally, it must be clarified that there are various types of failure: concentric, muscular, mental, eccentric, etc. Not all are productive and indicated alike:
In complex exercises on a coordinative level or with heavy loads it is not necessary to achieve failure as there is already complete recruitment of all the muscle fibers and it is, therefore, better to work in the buffer.
With moderate loads (6-12 RM) a technical failure is indicated as the maximum limit, that is to stop the series shortly before the technique is strongly compromised due to incorrect posture and compensatory movements such as alteration of trajectory, impulses, and rebounds;
In more experienced and highly aware athletes it is possible and advisable to cross this threshold in particular in exercises considered safer and more suitable, such as single-joint and isolation ones.
How to do the repetitions?
If your goal is to maximize the hypertrophic stimulus it is necessary to standardize every single repetition of each series: only in this way can you actually quantify the workload done.
In other words, it means making each repetition, from the first to the last, perfectly similar in form to the previous one, even and above all under great effort.
This presupposes an impeccable executive technique in every exercise without cheating with any type of compensation that would disperse the tension towards passive structures, exposing you to injury, or secondary/synergistic muscles.
Furthermore, if the form of execution of the repetitions is always the same, you will really know over time if and how much you are improving.
This is impossible, for example, if in a squat you perform repetitions with different squat depths, trajectories, barbell position, and dynamics in each workout between them.
Too high speeds or uncontrolled executions quickly lead to a stall and do not guarantee an effective stimulus as the internal load is not optimal.
In fact, in order for each muscle fiber to express the best degree of mechanical tension, it is necessary that the execution time is sufficient to allow the binding of all the transverse bridges of actin and myosin, the contractile proteins of myofibrils.
Performing the concentric phase in 1-2 seconds is an adequate time for the purpose, while the eccentric phase can be carried out in about 1-3 seconds.
The important thing is to carry out the repetitions in a controlled and fluid way without excessively exploiting the spring back from the stretch phase.
With high loads or in the last repetitions of a failure set the lifting speed will necessarily be slower but this is not a problem at all.
In some exercises it may be useful to stop for 1-2 seconds before the concentric phase or an isometric phase at certain points of the ROM – useful, for example, to emphasize maximum shortening and muscle stretch.
Deliberately slow executions, with a concentric phase from 4 seconds upwards, were neither superior nor efficient for hypertrophy.
However, this does not mean that these cannot be used in particular contexts such as for some learning or to emphasize metabolic stress with the use of lightweights.
Order Of Exercises And Priorities
As already mentioned when talking about the logical consequentiality of the stimuli the choice of the order of the exercises must be strategically efficient and effective.
Starting with heavy loads and then finishing the training with moderate and light ones allows you to exploit the full potential of the strongest but easily fatiguing muscle fibers at the beginning and only at the end go to exhaust the remaining muscle fibers more resistant to fatigue.
If the order were reversed the strong initial lactate production would largely compromise the recruitment and stimulation potential of type II fibers.
The order of the exercises can also be manipulated according to one’s own muscular, proprioceptive or technical deficiencies.
In this way, it is possible to give the right priority to the muscle groups that need more attention and concentration or to motor patterns to be improved in conditions of better predisposition under the nervous profile. Some examples:
- In case you have a poor perceptual feeling with the pectoral in the flat bench you can adopt a pre-activation by first carrying out a few series of crosses on the cables;
- If you have deficient calves and you usually train them at the end of the session with little energy and insufficient amounts of work, it could be an excellent idea to train them at the beginning of the session;
- If you have difficulty learning the barbell or dumbbell row and usually do it after squat and slow forward standing it would be a good idea to position it as your first exercise.
The Training Parameters
Over time, ensuring the improvement of the various training parameters will undoubtedly increase hypertrophy. What are the main ones?
- Volume: The total number of reps performed in an exercise (reps x sets) per muscle group or week. It is a progression that can be applied in most contexts according to needs such as learning, lacking group specialization, greater frequency. Not to be exasperated in exercises with heavy loads, under penalty of severe systemic and joint stress.
- Load Intensity: External weight moved, indicated as a percentage of maximal load or as RM (maximal repetitions). Mostly preferable and feasible progression in multi-joint exercises.
- Perceived intensity: degree of muscle fatigue perceived in terms of proximity or distance in relation to muscle failure. Most suitable progression from 8 repetitions up with medium and light loads in complement and isolation exercises, but also when the use of machines and intensity techniques is required.
- Local density: increase in the volume of work for the same amount of time or reduction in the time spent carrying out a given volume. It is the most suitable progression to work with light loads, high repetitions, and isolation exercises or machines.
How Many Times To Train A Week For Muscle Hypertrophy?
As already fully explained in the paragraph on training duration, there are various factors that influence the “how much” to train. Doing it with a frequency of 4-5 times a week can represent a generally valid indication.
Extreme cases in one sense (2 days) or the other (7 workouts and beyond) exist but are characteristic of those with reduced availability in terms of time or some competitive athletes.
Basically, the ideal training frequency is the one that allows you to progress over time (progressive overload) without excessively affecting your recovery capacity, otherwise, you often have to resort to short periods of unloading.
How Many Times A Week Should You Train A Muscle To Make It Grow?
Even the diatribe between single-frequency (train the same muscle every 7 days) and multi-frequency (train it several times a week) will never end as there will always be people who have grown up in one way or another.
We must start from the premise that mono frequency in an absolute sense does not exist: for example, when you do pull-ups, the pectoral and triceps are also involved, as well as hamstrings and buttocks when you do a deadlift, etc.
So mono frequency is more of a concept to simplify a certain way of distributing stimuli to the muscles.
In the past, it was thought that to make a muscle grow, it was enough to hit it once and then let it rest for a week before training it again.
In reality, science has already shown for some time that, following a workout, muscle protein synthesis returns to baseline values within a maximum of 72 hours and therefore there is no real need to wait 7 days. This situation seems to be more linked to an accepted social convention.
Despite this, if an athlete is particularly experienced and skilled in generating intensity and significant amounts of work within a single session, he may prefer this kind in practice.
On the other hand, especially in recent years and of sport-centric derivation, frequency has become an interesting parameter to better distribute the various stimuli and redistribute the volume of work more efficiently.
At some point, the classic workouts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are tight on their ability to work.
Furthermore, especially until the motor gesture is learned correctly in the beginner or a certain experience is gained in the intermediate, it is advisable to maintain a higher frequency.
Finally, there is a big difference between training a muscle and training a movement in which that same muscle is involved.
If you are skilled in generating high levels of intensity, 2 dedicated workouts per week might be enough, while in the second case, if you have to work away from high levels of systemic and peripheral fatigue, you can easily push yourself to higher frequencies.
Thanks to Total Body functional training you can reach your goals, that is to strengthen the body, keep it healthy and lean, improve movement and balance, posture and flexibility.
Intensity techniques are methods that can be useful for:
- Intermediate/advanced who wants to focus on the variable of perceived intensity by reaching or overcoming muscle failure;
- Those who aim to carry out more volume of work in the unit of time;
- Beginner/intermediate, only when well-dosed to experience greater degrees of perceived fatigue.
It should be noted that they are not strictly necessary to maximize muscle growth: research has shown that they are not superior to classic series systems.
Therefore, they should not represent exclusive or predominant choices within programming, especially in the beginner who has much more important priorities.
The main intensification techniques are:
- Supersets: execution in quick succession of two exercises for antagonistic muscle groups – for example, barbell curl followed by French press on the bench;
- Compound sets: execution in rapid succession of two or more exercises on the same muscle group – for example crosses with dumbbells on an inclined bench + flat bench presses with a barbell;
- Cheating (series with trick): once you reach the technical failure, you perform further additional repetitions to prolong the series through the help that can be represented by the execution in a less correct way thanks to impulses or other muscle groups. Due to the high damaging potential that would be encountered, this technique is suitable for advanced subjects with a high degree of competence;
- Pre-fatigue and post-fatigue: execution of two recovery exercises with the involvement of the same muscle group (monoarticular + multiarticular or vice versa);
- Negative repetitions: with a supramaximal load, an attempt is made to counteract the eccentric phase by generating force in the opposite direction, and in some cases, the assistance of a spotter is required;
- Forced repetitions: at the end of the maximum number of repetitions that one is able to perform autonomously, one goes beyond being assisted in further repetitions;
- Burning repetitions (or partial repetitions): execution, once you reach the technical failure within a series of work, of further partial repetitions of the movement until complete exhaustion;
- Stripping or drop set: perform all the repetitions with a given load and then reduce it for one or two consecutive times to continue the series of work with further repetitions;
- Rest pause: as many repetitions as possible with a given load, resting for a short period of time (for example 10 + 5 + 3 + 1 every 15-20 seconds).
Hormone Production For Muscle Mass Gain
The action of anabolic hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor to increase strength, hypertrophy, and protein synthesis is known.
It is often believed that the hormonal elevation that occurs post-workout is an important key to the development of muscle mass.
However, these hormones can only have a significant impact at supra-physiological levels as is the case with doping which keeps levels chronically high.
These hormones are acute only for a very short period during and after training and their release is primarily dictated by a functional request to the activity you are carrying out: testosterone is a powerful neural activator that increases the expression of strength, GH facilitates the mobilization of energy substrates, etc.
Adopting reduced recovery times, strong muscle congestion and metabolic stress to increase GH levels, as well as moving heavy loads to produce more testosterone, thinking of exploiting them as the main promoters of muscle hypertrophy, even in muscle areas not directly stimulated has no sense.
Is Muscle Pain Related To Hypertrophy?
Delayed onset muscle pain which is experienced several hours after a workout causes pain sensitivity and muscle stiffness.
The primary triggering mechanism is currently not known, although it is hypothesized that it involves a combination of the following factors:
- Muscle and connective tissue damage;
- Muscle and connective tissue inflammation and consequent edema;
- Oxidative stress;
- Damage to the intrafusal fibers of the neuromuscular spindles.
What we do know in practice is that they arise as a result of:
- Neuromuscular stresses of an unusual entity;
- Intense eccentric workouts.
Aside from that, there is no direct correlation between muscle pain and muscle gains. Therefore, to think that the stronger the muscle pain and the better the stimulus given in the gym is completely misleading!
When they are imperceptible or last for a few days they can represent a positive sign but are not a necessary condition.
On the contrary, when they stretch for several days, evidently the stimulus provided was excessive and this will only dilate the recovery times, preventing you from training more frequently.
Program Or Self-Regulate For Maximum Hypertrophy?
If the goal is to optimize muscle gains what is better between planning a workout in the gym and self-regulation?
Starting from solid basic programming is of fundamental help because you will know precisely the type of exercises, schemes, and stimuli to apply.
It allows you to accurately quantify and measure your journey to get a clearer picture of your performance trend.
For this reason, it would be unthinkable to rely completely on self-regulation and doing what you want in every workout.
However, a minimum degree of freedom of maneuver can certainly be a positive and motivating element. In fact, in some situations staying fossilized on fixed schemes and stakes can be highly limiting and counterproductive.
For example, if in a day you feel particularly fit and you want to do 1 or 2 more sets than the predetermined ones, it would certainly be a welcome and productive addition at the same time.
Conversely, removing a set or exercise on bad days can help keep the quality of your workout high by avoiding generating low-effective volume.
Ultimately, let’s take home a few fundamental points on which to orient yourself for maximum muscle growth:
- Apply progressive overload over time: this requires and presupposes patience and perseverance. The muscle must adapt to the increased demand for work by synthesizing more and more elements that make it up.
- Before focusing on quantity by increasing lb on the bar, frequency, series, and exercises make sure to give priority to the quality of the work.
- Organize the training or sessions in order to guarantee a logical consequentiality of the stimuli. You start with heavy loads and low repetitions (5-8 RM) in complex multi-joint exercises (such as bench press, slow forward, dips, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups) without achieving muscle failure.
- Use recovery times between sets that are compatible with the type of stimulus/fatigue and with the set goal. With heavy loads or in multi-joint exercises brought to failure, times of 3-5 minutes allow you to maintain adequate levels of strength and concentration, thus generating more quality work. In complement and isolation exercises 2-3 minutes are on average valid. “Classic” recoveries of 60-90 seconds have not proved superior but, on the contrary, often counterproductive.
- To understand if you are improving and if the training program is working it is essential to measure. Periodically monitor performance trends and other indices such as body weight, photos, perception of fatigue, feeling with the load, circumferences, and folds. Through the integration and correct interpretation of this data, you will be able to understand if and how to act to continue to grow muscles.