Hypertrophy in muscles is one of the biggest goals within bodybuilding, sports and athletic performance. This guide dives into detail on what exactly hypertrophy is, what causes it, and how to maximise muscle hypertrophy through training. We’ll cover:
- Hypertrophy Muscle Definition
- Is bodybuilding the same as hypertrophy?
- What Causes Muscle Hypertrophy?
- Looking for a Reliable Hypertrophy Programme?
- How to Achieve Muscle Hypertrophy
- Hypertrophy Training Specifics
- Hypertrophy Training Plans
- Muscle Hypertrophy vs Strength
- Muscle Hypertrophy FAQ’s
- Next Steps
Hypertrophy Muscle Definition
Within physiology, hypertrophy is the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells.
So when we’re talking about muscle hypertrophy, we’re talking about muscles getting bigger due to the size of muscle cells increasing.
Or, in other words, getting jacked.
Is bodybuilding the same as hypertrophy?
Bodybuilding is the name given to a broad range of training approaches designed to maximise muscle hypertrophy.
hyperplasia vs hypertrophy
Hypertrophy is all about cells increasing in size
Hyperplasia is all about cells increasing in number
As it stands at the time of writing (2022) there is very little evidence supporting training-induced hyperplasia as part of muscle building. So it seems that getting jacked is all about hypertrophy.
Sarcoplasmic vs Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to an increase in the amount of sarcoplasm, which is the fluid mixture of adenosine triphosphate, glycogen, creatine phosphate and water that surrounds your myofibrils within the muscle.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to when the number of myofibrils within your muscle increases. Essentially, hundreds of myofibrils make up a muscle fibre, so more myofibrils means a bigger muscle fibre.
Can you train for one type over the other?
Suggestions have been made that higher repetition lighter work favours sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, whereas lower rep heavier work favours myofibrillar hypertrophy. However, research doesn’t really support this as of yet. Instead it appears that both forms of hypertrophy go hand in hand.
What Causes Muscle Hypertrophy?
Muscle hypertrophy has multiple causes, and the exercise-induced causes are best outlined by research conducted by Brad Schoenfeld.
- Mechanical Tension: Which is produced through force generation at muscles.
- Muscle Damage: Localised damage to muscle tissue
- Metabolic Stress: Metabolite (e.g. lactate, hydrogen ion, inorganic phosphate, creatine) build-up in muscle tissues
These three factors can be considered to work hand-in-hand on most occasions.
What triggers muscle growth? A Practical example:
A leg press puts mechanical tension through your quadriceps.
If you do enough leg presses, you’ll create some degree of muscle damage, which you’ll perceive as soreness the next day or two.
If you do higher rep leg presses, say for sets of 20-30, or you use drop sets or myo-sets, then you’ll also accumulate metabolites (Get a sick pump/burn) which adds metabolic stress.
Looking for a Reliable Hypertrophy Programme?
I’ve put together a 17-week hypertrophy programme.
The programme is evidence-based and is designed with 3 distinct blocks of training that use different set and rep schemes, as well as different exercises, to maximise your muscle building.
It’s also designed with specific guidance so that you can adjust your amount of training to suit your recovery.
You can find out more about the programme here.
How to Achieve Muscle Hypertrophy
The big question at the heart of every true gym bro (myself included) is “How to build muscle and increase muscle size?”
And the shortest answer is this:
“To achieve muscle hypertrophy, consistently subject your muscles to a cycle of overloading resistance stimulus followed by adequate rest and recovery”
But you’re probably wanting the details and specifics, so let’s jump into them.
Hypertrophy Training Specifics
How often does a person need to work out to build muscle?
My best recommendation is to work out 2-6 times per week in order to maximise muscle building.
Once per week will still work, but progress will be slower
7+ times per week will still work, but it becomes MUCH harder to recover
Muscle Hypertrophy Exercises
A really wide range of exercises can effectively produce muscle hypertrophy, and the best exercises will actually vary from person to person based on a concept called SFR, or stimulus to fatigue ratio (The concept was created by Dr Mike Israetel, so I’ve linked to his explanation)
The TLDR is that certain exercises will give you the best pump and best disruption in your targeted muscles, with the lowest general or systemic fatigue. These are the best exercises for you.
With that said, if you want to narrow down your search somewhat, here are some good exercises for you to try.
Hypertrophy Exercise Starting Points:
- Chest: Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Flyes
- Back: Pull-ups, Lat-pulldowns, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows
- Front delts: Any pressing chest movement, Overhead presses
- Side delts: DB Lateral raises, Cable lateral raises, Upright rows
- Rear delts: DB incline bench reverse flyes, Face-pulls
- Biceps: Barbell curls, Dumbbell curls, Cable curls
- Triceps: Cable pushdowns, (Assisted) Dips, Skullcrushers
- Quads: High Bar back squats, Leg Press, Leg Extensions
- Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlifts, Seated Ham Curls, Lying Ham Curls
- Glutes: Glute bridges, Hip thrusts, Walking Lunges
- Calves: Calf raises off a step, Smith machine calf-raises
Muscle Hypertrophy Rep Range
Muscle hypertrophy has been shown to occur at 5-30 reps, with both low reps/high weights and high reps/low weight proving effective.
So you don’t just have to stick to 8-12 reps as has previously been taken as ‘common knowledge.’ For more info on sets and reps, check out my article on hypertrophy sets and reps
Reps for muscle hypertrophy and specific exercises
With that 5-30 range in mind, certain exercises lend themselves better to certain numbers of reps.
For example, squats tend to work best in the 5-10 rep range. Mainly because sets of 20-30 squats would be limited by your lungs and breathing WAY before they were limited by your leg muscles.
On the other hand, small muscles like the biceps or side delts tend to do best with higher reps. Heavier sets of 5-10 reps just tend to cause joint aggravation or feel awkward for most people.
Volume for Hypertrophy
Generally speaking, more training volume (i.e. more total sets) is going to result in more hypertrophy, so long as you can recover from that amount of training.
Is 2 sets enough for hypertrophy?
2 sets per workout for a muscle group might just about be enough for larger muscle groups, provided that you are training that muscle group multiple times per week.
It’s a very general rule, and it will vary a lot per person, but I like to think that 6 sets per muscle group per week is pretty much the minimum threshold for effective hypertrophy training.
For more info on sets, reps, MEV and MRV, check out my other article here.
How Much Should You Lift for Hypertrophy?
Weights from 30-80% of 1 rep max can be effective for hypertrophy. Lower loads would be used for higher rep sets, whilst higher loads would be used for lower rep sets.
Practically speaking, since you won’t know your 1 rep max for every single exercise that you do (nor should you) I recommend using reps in reserve (RIR) to decide your weights.
In other words, pick a weight and do as many reps as it takes to get to 3 or fewer reps from failure. So long as the number of reps that you do falls in the 5-30 range, you’re good. After that, it’s just a matter of experimenting to find the weights and rep ranges that give you the best pump.
Hypertrophy Training Plans
I’ve written a selection of mass gain workouts that you can read right here.
They’ve got specific exercises, sets and reps, so I’m not going to repeat myself here, instead, I’m going to give you some general rules for assembling your training.
Beginner hypertrophy guidelines:
Frequency: 2-3 Times per week
Sets: 2-4 per session / 6-10 per week
Exercise Selection: Mainly compound basics (squat, bench, rows etc)
Intermediate hypertrophy guidelines:
Frequency: 3-5 Times per week
Sets: 2-6 per session / 6-18 per week
Exercise Selection: Mixture of compounds plus isolation exercises, decided based on SFR.
What does a hypertrophy workout look like?
A hypertrophy workout typically includes 3-7 exercises for 2-5 sets. It can be based around a full-body workout or split into body part focuses. For example, a chest and triceps focused workout might look like:
- Bench Press: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets of 10-20
- Tricep Dips: 3 sets of 5-10 reps
- Tricep Pushdowns: 2 sets of 20-30 reps
*Remember, this is just an example, your workouts should be based on your own volume tolerances and responses to training.
Muscle Hypertrophy vs Strength
Hypertrophy training and strength training are both based around resistance training, but there are key differences to be aware of:
- Strength training is aimed at increasing the maximal amount of weight you can lift
- Strength training typically uses lower rep schemes, mainly 1 to 5 reps, with a few sets in the 5-10 rep range
- Muscle size is a big part of strength, but other factors such as neural drive and technique also play a significant role
Should a beginner train for strength or hypertrophy?
A beginner should train towards whatever their goals are. If they’re more interested in muscle size, that should be their focus. If they’re more interested in muscle strength, that should be their focus.
With that said, since beginners training for hypertrophy often do best using compound exercises in the 8-12 rep range, they will often find that they also see significant strength increases alongside their new muscle growth.
Muscle Hypertrophy FAQ’s
Can hypertrophy be reversed?
Yes, absolutely. Reversibility is a key principle of training. Over time, gains made in both size and strength will start to drop off if they are not trained.
Luckily, it takes FAR less work to maintain size and strength than it does to build it.
Myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy syndrome?
This is a rare genetic disorder in which someone holds almost twice as much skeletal muscle as normal as has a naturally low body fat. It is caused by a mutation of the MSTN gene. As far as we know, there are no known side effects, you’ll just be naturally jacked.
How to maximise adaptation to hypertrophy training?
For maximal hypertrophy to occur recovery is essential. This means getting adequate sleep, as well as decent amounts of high quality healthy foods. It can also be beneficial to try and reduce life and work stress.
Is hypertrophy good for athletes?
For most athletes, hypertrophy is very beneficial. Being bigger is largely linked to being stronger, which is useful in many sports. With that said, athletes competing in weight classed sports need to make sure that they don’t get too heavy for their desired competitive class.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time to put things into action…
1) Get in the gym and start implementing the hypertrophy principles we’ve discussed. Moderate to high volume training using multiple sets of 5-30 reps, with exercises chosen based on Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio (SFR)
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.