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Hypertrophy Training for Muscle Growth: What it is and How to Do It Right

So you want to build muscle. How much do you need to lift and how often should you train? Some trainers say three days a week, others say five. The question of “how often should I lift weights to build muscle” is a hotly-contested one in the fitness world. To be honest, it doesn’t have an exact answer. It all depends on where you’re starting. 

If you’re new to weight training and looking for that aesthetic appeal, the first thing you should know is that training for size is a patience game. Enter hypertrophy.

To talk about the different stages of lifting weights, volume, strength, physical adaptation, and how often you should be participating in resistance training, we tapped Ben Walker, personal trainer and conditioning coach at Anywhere Fitness in Dublin

Let's take look at how you can help you achieve muscle growth.

What Types of Muscle Can You Build? 

Before we begin talking about hypertrophy training, let's take a look at muscle and what it is. To accomplish hypertrophy, you'll want to have a base level understanding of the tissues and how they function.

Sara Sigmundsdottir Back

When you are training to increase the size of your muscles it's important to know what muscles are and how they work. They're connective tissues throughout our body. There are three types of muscle (1):

  • Skeletal
  • Smooth
  • Cardiac

Skeletal

The skeletal muscle is exactly as it sounds. This type of muscle covers our bones and helps us move. For one muscle that's on the right side of our body, we have an exact copy on the left side. These are the muscles that move because we are consciously choosing to move a part of our body. 

Smooth

Unlike skeletal muscles, smooth muscles are involuntary. These are the muscles that help our organs and body function. For example, these muscles help the body do things like digesting food or pumping blood throughout our body.

Cardiac

Similar to smooth muscle, cardiac muscles also move without conscious action. Just like it's name, these are the muscles which contract the heart. 

Large vs. Small 

Our bodies also have different sized muscle groups known as large muscles and small muscles. The Larger muscle groups include areas like your upper legs, back, and chest. Your smaller muscles would be the arms, shoulders, and calves.

Knowing this difference will help on your training journey because larger muscle are easier to see the affects of hypertrophy. This group of muscles tend to be provide more foundation and support full body training and lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench pressing.

Strength Training vs Hypertrophy Training

When it comes to targeting your muscles, there are two main types of weight training: strength training and hypertrophy training. And while there are tremendous fitness benefits to both types, the goals of each training method differ greatly.

What is Strength Training?

Strength training is training with the intent to improve strength. 

When you are training to improve your strength, then the goal is simply that - being able to efficiently move more weight. You'll be focused on improving your movement patterns under tension rather than the growth of a particular muscle or muscle group. 

Brian Shaw Flipping Tire

Think of someone who is working to have a heavier bench press or deadlift. Their goal is to lift more weight - not to necessarily see muscle growth.

Strength training can definitely help you build and sculpt your body into a different look. This type of training will make you stronger and help you to pick up loads more easily. Think powerlifters and their goal. They are working to be able to physically lift heavier objects more efficiently. 

What is Hypertrophy Training?

Hypertrophy training is training with the intent to increase muscle size, or to gain additional muscle mass. 

Likely a familiar term to longtime lifters or bodybuilders, hypertrophy is muscle growth spurred on by muscles overcoming external force.

In exercise, that force typically takes the form of weights. Whether it’s dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, machines—exercising a muscle under tension will bring growth.

Exercise selection is an important piece of the training puzzle, but there are other factors that go into achieving increased muscle size. 

Cass Martin Bicep Curl

How the Methods Differ

While strength training can sometimes lead to muscle growth or gains, that is not always the case. 

For beginners, you can gain muscle with just about any strength program, even bodyweight exercises. In the beginning you likely saw incredible results! This is because your body was adapting to new forms of working under tension with resistance training. But as you become a more seasoned or advanced lifter, your gains require a more strategic approach - aka hypertrophy training.

Additionally, while you may see increased strength, the goal of hypertrophy training isn't raw strength. Think of bodybuilders - they are training for an aesthetic purpose of larger, more defined muscles, not for a heavier one rep max.  

Training for strength and training for muscle growth share similarities but ultimately their goals differ.

Also, the movements and equipment such as the use of barbells and dumbbells are similar between the two types of training, but volume separates them. 

In strength programs, you'll do less reps and sets per week but the load will be heavier. For example if you're training for strength, you'll do 2-6 sets of 6 reps or fewer.

In training for size, you'll have more reps and sets in the program thus volume. The more reps and sets you do, then you'll move from training for pure strength to muscular gains.

Strength Training vs HypertrophyTraining

Types of Muscle Growth

Simply put, hypertrophy training is the golden method designed to stimulated growth in the cells of your muscles.

There's two types of training for hypertrophy:

  • Sarcoplasmic
  • Myofibrillar 

Sarcoplasmic 

Have you heard of "the pump"? If so, then you're familiar with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This happens when fluid causes the muscles to swell and increase in volume. 

Think of bodybuilders before they step on stage for a show. Backstage, they will workout to make appear larger before they step out for judging. While this is a form of hypertrophy it's a temporary form of growth. 

Myofibrillar 

Now, if you're reading this article, you're probably looking for long-term aesthetic growth. As someone who is looking to increase their muscle size, you're looking to do more myofibrillar training. This type of hypertrophy looks to increase the physical size of the muscular cells. 

This form of hypertrophy takes consistency, time, and patience to achieve. 

How do to Hypertrophy Training Right

Steve Cook Back Squatting

Here's your go-to starter guide for achieving muscle growth or gains using hypertrophy training: 

Beginner Lifters

For the beginner lifter, hypertrophy is more difficult to achieve. In the early stages of training, the body is making neural adaptations. But as you progress in your training program, you'll be able to focus on muscular growth.

Time Under Tension (Volume)

Volume is a key component when you're training to increase the size of your muscles. In training, volume is the amount of reps and sets you complete of an exercise. 

When you're first starting to train, the volume of the program may seem light. This is to allow for your body to adapt. As the training program progresses, so will your volume.

Unlike other programs, volume is more important than increasing strength or the intensity of your movements. Volume allows for you to increase the amount of metabolic stress put on your body. Training with with volume in mind means there's more potential for growth of your muscle fibers.

Hypertrophy = volume over intensity! 

In an aggregated study by the University of New Mexico, they discovered that volume is a contributing factor towards building muscle size. They reviewed the Journal of Applied Physiology where a 2019 study found the participants with high-volume training showed greater increase in muscle size compared to those with lower volume training. (2) 

So when you're in the process of creating your training program, be sure to include increased training volume over time. You'll be on your way to hypertrophy specific training (hst) in no time!

Another thing you’ll want to take into account is the tempo of your reps during your training sessions. You’ve probably heard the term time under tension (TUT) in the context of bodybuilding, and there’s good reason for it.

Taking reps at a controlled pace—a few seconds on the way down, pause, and a few seconds on the way up—puts more stress on muscles to help them grow and builds stability in your connective tissues.

It’s a win-win. 

How Much Should You Lift?

This is a natural question to ask as you're beginning the journey to size. As there's no blanket answer for everyone.

In the beginning, start with about 75% of your one rep max for a particular movement. As your strength increases, then your max lifts will also increase. Over time, start adding more a little more weight to ensure you're staying within 75-85% of your one rep max.

Since bodybuilders have been trying to get huge since the dawn of strength sports, plenty of research has been done to pinpoint the magic numbers of sets and reps to achieve hypertrophy.

Again, everyone’s different, but in general, training to get big entails working in moderate rep ranges (6-12 reps) at about 75 to 85 percent of your one-rep max. Don’t know your one-rep max? You’re best off if you either test it or estimate it. 

How Often Should You Lift?

Now let's talk about how often you should lift. A major contributor to this training is how often you work various muscle groups. The more often you're able to work various groups under tension, then the closer you'll get to reaching your goal. 

Once you are out of the adaptation phase, you should try to train a muscle group every 48 hours.

How Often Should You Rest?

An overlooked but equally important ingredient to proper training is rest. That goes for both rest periods within your workouts and the rest you take between workouts. Even the best athletes have a rest days programmed into their training.

Alessandra Pichelli Resting Between Hypertrophy Training Sets

During workouts, you generally don’t want to rest for more than 60 seconds between sets. This will allow for your muscles to regain some, but not all, of their energy stores before the next set.

How to Create Your Ultimate Training Plan

Starting from zero, you'll want to be aware of the phases of building muscular definition before drawing your action plan.

The phases of training are the adaption, hypertrophy specific training (hst) and maintenance stages.

Each training stage has nearly the same ideal quantity of days you should be weight training per week.

The slight adjustment in frequency and what you should be doing within each phase is vital to building your muscle tissue.

Now that we've reviewed the science behind muscle growth, the difference between strength focused training, and the importance of volume, let's get to putting all the pieces in action!

The Muscle Adaptation Phase (4-6 Weeks)

If the plan is to bulk up, your body will need to first adapt to lifting heavy weights for several repetitions. Your joints and muscles need to be conditioned for hypertrophy training so each movement can be performed safely through its full range of motion.

Movement Matters

When you're first starting your training phase, it's important to focus on how your body moves through each motion. As your strength and volume increase, pay close attention to how your body moves under tension. 

Are you completing the reps and set with good form? It's easy to sacrifice form in order to "complete" the set. However, this does not work the muscles appropriately. You will not only sacrifice gains for that particular muscle or muscle group but you also open yourself to everyone's least favorite word: injury. 

Monitoring your movements will prepare and enhance your long-term performance while reducing the risk of injury. If you're injured then you won't be able to workout and no one wants that.

Practice Patience

During the adaptation phase, you should be participating in weight training roughly 3-4 times per week. This stage lasts 4-6 weeks and can be mentally challenging. 

Be prepared to experience soreness. While adapting to this form of exercise, your body's physiological response can be quite painful. Your body will likely be feeling sore and achy for days as it gets used to muscle fibers breaking down and repairing. This is a normal feeling during this phase. 

The adaptation phase requires the most patience. The goal is to gain strength and recover. Yes, you read that correctly. 

As we said earlier, before you see growth, you need to adapt to regularly training under tension. 

A lot of people find this hard to accept and we get it. That's why it's best to know this stage exists. Now you can be prepared to tackle it face-on. Remember, this is what every athlete before you has done.

Adaptation first. Hypertrophy next.

How to Maximize the Adaptation Stage

To successfully perform, recover, and transition through this phase, practice doing 15-20 reps of every exercise and give yourself plenty of rest time (60-90 seconds in between sets). This will give your energy stores plenty of times to regenerate before your next set.

Choose easy, single movement exercises instead of compound movements. Pick 2-3 different isolated exercises that target specific muscles within each muscle group.

For example, you could start with doing a few sets of bicep curls. After you've completed the reps and set, move to tricep extensions. Your body will need 48-72 hours to recover. If you don’t feel any pain within two days, begin hitting the heavy iron. If your body needs that extra day to rest, then give it an additional 24 hours before you workout again. 

During the adaptation phase, the goal is to reduce the number of reps you’re performing and increase the weight, while simultaneously reducing the rest times. This is the method of transitioning into the hypertrophy phase (muscle building stage). 

The secondary objective is to eventually train each muscle group within a 48-hour window as your body starts to handle the recovery process better. Accompanied by a good diet and adequate sleep, the muscle fibers should now be able to train and lift to their full potential.

Recommended Training Plan:

For the first-half of the adaptation phase (1-3 weeks of training), try the following.   

  • 3-4 workouts per week with light weight. 
  • Train each muscle group 48-72 hours apart. 
  • Do 20 reps of an exercise, with 90 seconds of rest in between each set. Aim for 2-3 sets.
  • Log how many sets per week you've done of each exercise to have a baseline for your progress.

To finish out the adaptation phase (week 3-6 of training), try the following.   

  • 4-5 workouts per week with moderate weight. 
  • Train each muscle group 48 hours apart. 
  • Do 15 reps of an exercise, with 60 seconds rest in between each set.
  • Aim for 3 sets.

The Hypertrophy Phase (2-6 Months)

Overcoming the adaptation phase, you'll feel minimal pain and aches after working each muscle group, if any. Say hello to volume! Get ready to lift heavier, reduce your reps and lower your rest times. You'll increase your sets per week during this stage and possibly increase the weight you're using as you lift.

This is the muscle-building stage, and it's called hypertrophy. 

Hypertrophy is the process in which we cause microscopic tears in our muscle fibers from repetitive contraction of the muscle group.

This phase is best achieved when performing 8-12 reps of the maximum weight within your capability from a single weight training exercise. 

When the muscle is torn and broken down, it repairs and grows with sleep and proper nutrition. It roughly takes 2-6 months of lifting heavy weight to develop and grow muscle within this stage.

The length of time really depends on the extent of your muscle-building goals. Targeting muscle groups within this rep range, you'll want to master three sets at the current volume you’re lifting before increasing small increments of weight.

Making progressions with this training protocol, you'll first notice your muscles developing and your body composition improving. This is how your body typically responds to hypertrophy within 4-8 weeks.

Changes to Your Body

During this time, you'll want to focus on performing 1-4 heavy lifting exercises on each muscle group. Every week there should be slight variations made to these exercises. 

This tricks the muscle fibers into breaking down more effectively so they can continue to grow and repair. Remember when we mentioned the importance of volume? This is where it picks up.

Every muscle group needs to be trained within 48 hours to grow to its best ability.

Training should take place 5-6 times per week. 

Rest times between each exercise should be 1-minute max. If you're training four times per week, then you'll want to be training every muscle group within each session to ensure that you're keeping within the 48-hour window.

Splitting Muscle Groups

If you're training five times or more per week, you can afford to split workouts. 

This can help achieve your muscle-building goals by focusing on specific muscle groups one day, then others the next day. For example, chest and back on Monday, legs and shoulders on Tuesday, back to the same routine Wednesday and Thursday. Between 8-16 weeks, you will start to notice better aesthetic growth of your body.

Recommended Training Plan:

When starting out on your muscle building phase (month 2-4 of training), try the following.   

  • 5-6 workouts per week with moderate-to-heavy weight training.
  • Train each muscle group 48 hours apart. 
  • Do 8-12 reps of an exercise, resting for 60 seconds in between sets.
  • Aim for 3 sets. 

To finish out your muscle building phase (month 4-6 of training), try the following.   

  • 5-6 workouts per week with heavy weight.
  • Train each muscle group 48 hours apart. 
  • Do 8-12 reps of an exercise, resting for 60 seconds in between sets.
  • Aim for 3 sets 

Note: Make sure to keep introducing new sets of movements while increasing load.

The Maintenance Phase (6+ Months)  

In the maintenance stage, we're looking to keep that bulk and lean up. Perhaps take a little edge off the build, be a little more compact, and see more definition from further improving our body composition. 

There are a few effective ways of doing this without depleting our gains. First of all, you'll want to stay away from too much steady state or long aerobic activity. Too much of this activity depletes our muscle tissue.  

At the same time, you'll need to keep lifting roughly the same weight on each muscle group to maintain your growth. The best solution is to start incorporating sets of compound movements, some high muscular endurance exercises, and some high intensity cardio drills.

Compound movements work two muscle groups at once. Adding a few sets of these movements will help keep your workouts efficient and not interfere with your gains.

This keeps the muscle tissue active while burning excess calories. Bodyweight exercise sets will also cause the same effect. HIIT cardio drills are very effective for rapidly burning energy and engaging your core without depleting your muscle gains.

Recommended Training Plan:

In order to maintain your hard earned muscle mass, try the following.

  • 4-6 workouts per week with heavy weight.
  • Train each muscle group 48 hours apart. 
  • Do 8-12 reps of an exercise, resting for 60 seconds in between sets. Aim for three sets. Work on isolated exercises.
  • 2-4 workouts per week with heavy weight.
  • Train each muscle group 48 hours apart. 
  • Do 8-15 reps of an exercise, resting for 60 seconds in between sets. Aim for three sets. Work on compound exercises.
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Note:  Add the following at the end of each workout - HIIT Drills  (High Knees, Mountain Climbers, Sprints Etc.)