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Lifting to Look Good: Hypertrophy

Why do the majority of us start lifting? I would be willing to bet that looking better is high up there on the list. I know that is a big reason why I started lifting. Over the years, I have found that while just the act of lifting will give results, to achieve what I was actually looking for, I would have to use hypertrophy focused training styles. You’re probably wondering, “Jesse, what the hell is a hypertrophy?” Which is a very valid question. I did not know what it was when I first started using this style of training, but luckily for you, you are about to learn! 

What is Hypertrophy?

In regards to exercise, hypertrophy is synonymous with training to increase the size of muscles. For men, this is a typical desired result from spending time at the gym. Women typically have a negative bias towards lifting to increase muscle size because they have a fear of looking bulky. Good news though ladies, I argue that the toned look that you want actually comes from an hypertrophy focus, since the bulky appearance you are trying to avoid is not actually possible naturally.  I go into more depth on that HERE.

As an average gym-goer, I believe that at least part of your typical training should be focused on hypertrophy. The reason for this is two fold. For one, muscle is metabolically active, meaning that the more muscle mass we carry on our bodies, the more calories our body burns daily just existing. Burning more calories without having to do anything extra? The lazy person in me loves that idea.

The second reason is that the more muscle mass we have, the more surface area that our body fat is distributed across. So, while you may still have the same amount of body fat, you will appear to have less. While lowering your body fat percentage is the ultimate way to look toned/shredded, I, for one, will take all the help I can get achieving that appearance. 

Hopefully this quick blurb has enticed you to learn more about lifting for hypertrophy, because we are about to get into the 20,000’ overview of how to go about doing so. Or if you want to skip the reading altogether, reach out to me here and I can design a custom program for you to accomplish it without all the pesky reading.

Time Under Tension

When training for hypertrophy, time under tension is key. Time under tension is how long the muscle is under stress during a workout. To maximize muscle gain, the golden range is right around 40 seconds per set. This means that each working set of an exercise should take about 40 seconds to complete all the reps. This is most likely slower than you are used to lifting, but by taking time to control your reps, you are applying the maximal stress to the muscle, stimulating the best growth. 

As for each rep in the set, it is typically better to spend twice as much time on the eccentric phase of the exercise as the concentric phase. For example, with a bicep curl, if it takes you one second to curl the weight up, take two seconds to lower the weight down.The reasoning behind this is we are typically 20-30% stronger on the eccentric portion of a lift than the concentric portion. So for the bicep curl example, this means that we are capable of lowering 20-30% more weight than we can curl up. Now, weight is usually the same for the concentric and eccentric phases of a lift, but, by spending more time on the eccentric phase of the lift, we are able to add a larger volume of stress to the muscle, which leads to a higher potential for growth.

Sets x Reps x Weight = Volume

With considerations for time under tension, correctly setting the set and reps will help to maximize the volume of weight lifted. When training for hypertrophy, you want to maximize volume to achieve peak muscle growth. There is an upper limit for volume that varies from person to person and anything above that range will no longer stimulate muscle growth, and may even hinder progress. However, by following a proper set and rep limit, you should not have an issue with overloading on volume.

Typically, a hypertrophy focused workout will use 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps per exercise. The reason we will typically not go above 15 reps is because it can be rough on the body and take longer to recover from. Below eight reps, and you will have to do more sets to achieve a sweet spot of volume or spend more time performing each rep. More sets will cause the workout to drag on longer and longer reps can be mentally taxing due to how much control you have to apply to the weight during the long rep. 

Moreover, weight should be used that allows for the controlled, slow reps that allow you to reap the rewards of time under tension. This weight should also bring you within 0-4 reps of  muscle failure for the last set or two of each lift. Failure means you cannot safely execute the lift anymore with proper form. Cheating up a weight you cannot handle puts you at a higher risk for injury.

As a beginner, it is not necessary to get this close to failure and similar gains can be achieved without it. It is usually considered better practice for beginners to not train to failure, as it can place you at a greater risk for injury and the risk to reward ratio is not favorable. However, as you get more advanced, it can become more necessary to train closer to failure. More advanced lifters will also look to use different techniques, such as a drop set, negative reps, or rest-pause sets, to place extra volume of stress on the muscles they are trying to work to get the most out of their workout. These techniques are to be used sparingly to not overtrain the body. I will post a more detailed article about these advanced techniques in the future.

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is probably one of the most important terms to know when training. Basically, as we train more, our bodies become adapted and weight that was once hard is now easier. This means that we have to increase the difficulty so that our body can keep progressing to new stresses as we will otherwise plateau and stop seeing improvements. This is typically done by adding more weight, more reps, or more sets to each lift. As the muscles adapt to the current level of training, gains to strength and muscle size will plateau. Therefore, it is necessary to add additional stress to the muscle to continue progressing.

As a beginner, adding more weight, more reps, more sets, or a combination of all three is plenty of stimulus to continue growing. As you become more advanced, you may notice that you reach a point where you cannot keep adding more weight, sets, or reps. Once you reach this point, it is time to start playing around with more advanced techniques or different exercise selections.  This can be done by changing how long each rep takes, focusing on eccentric movements, or any number of other techniques. 

Mind Muscle Connection

My boy Arnold Schwarzenegger was where I first heard this concept. He understood that the key to developing a muscle was having a strong mental connection with it. This means that you focus on squeezing and using the muscle you want to target to complete the movement of the exercise. For example, if you are doing a bicep curl, Arnold’s favorite, you would focus on squeezing the bicep to curl up the weight. This squeezing sensation is usually a similar feeling to trying to flex the muscle. 

There are certain thought queues that you can use for each lift that helps you accomplish this connection with the working muscle. If you are interested in these, each one of my custom programs includes tips on how to do this for each exercise. 

By focusing on a strong mind muscle connection, you ensure that the muscle that you are trying to work is actually the one being worked. This can help you break through a plateau if you have not previously been using this technique. However, this is more important for accessory movements instead of compound movements, like the deadlift, bench, or squat. Studies have found that a strong mind muscle connection has minimal effects on muscular gains when done for a compound movement. However, when done on accessory movements, it does make a noticeable difference in progress. 

Play around with this and see how it feels. You may have to use less weight than you typically would and that is okay. You are still loading up the target muscle more than you typically would. This is because the target muscle will be more responsible for each movement. When we do not use a mind-muscle connection, we typically use other surrounding muscles to assist in the lift more than we realize, leaching the muscle growing stimulus from the target muscle

Frequency

When training for hypertrophy, research has been showing that it is more effective to hit a muscle multiple times a week instead of just once. This means that you should distribute the 10-25 sets per muscle group per week to multiple days to maximize the muscle gains. Twice a week for each muscle group is a good place to start and still allows for adequate recovery of 48-72 hours between each time hitting one muscle group. As you become more advanced, you may find you want to hit a muscle even more than twice a week to break through a plateau. However, once you start hitting a muscle group 3+ times per week, it is important to structure your program in a way that allows for adequate recovery and does not cause overtraining, as this can stunt progress and lead to injury. 

Exercise Selection

Some exercises are better equipped for hypertrophy training than others. For instance, Olympic lifts are great for power and strength, but they are not an ideal exercise for muscle mass. Typically, exercises that allow for a safe movement in the eccentric portion of a lift lend themselves well to hypertrophy training. This is because the eccentric portion of a lift is key to maximizing volume and time under tension. Hypertrophy can be accomplished with strictly concentric movements, however, it is not the most efficient way. Aim for exercises that you can really feel the burn of a slow rep on.  

Conclusion 

As you train, your muscles will grow regardless of if you follow these tips or not. However, that growth may be severely stunted by not using these techniques. If you really want to get the most out of every minute at the gym, following these simple methods will help you reach that goal. If you have any questions about anything in this article. Feel free to send me your questions HERE. If you want an efficient program that is custom built to fit your goals and schedule, reach out HERE.