An honest guide to hypertrophy

A large number of people want to hit the gym to increase your muscle size and strength. Although you may think size and strength go hand in hand when training, they can be trained differently. What?! Think of a powerlifter versus body builder, for example. Now they are both strong, but powerlifters can be stronger without their muscles looking as defined – they tend to hold a little more body fat.

hypertrophy men

‘Mid-2011, these guys are the owners of the world’s strongest squat and powerlifting total, strongest bench press, and strongest deadlift, respectively’ (Contreras and Schoenfeld, T-nation)

Ronnie Coleman

Ronnie Coleman These pictures were taken from an article written by Brett Contreas and Brad Schoenfeld on T-nation titled – Why bodybuilders are more jacked than powerlifters

Hypertrophy is an increase in the size of a tissue or organ due to growth of individual cells without an increase in the number of cells. (Kent, 2006)

Hyperplasia is an increase in the number of cells. The number of muscle fibres within a particular muscle may increase by longitudinal splitting as a result of regular resistance training: this may contribute to an increase in muscle size. (Kent, 2006)

Muscle pumping – a temporary increase in muscle size during a single bout of exercise in which comparatively light weights are lifted any time in succession. The size increase results mainly from fluid accumulation in the interstitial and intracellular spaces of muscles. (Kent, 2006). This is what many guys like to do before going out on a Friday or Saturday night.

Chronic hypertrophy is what many regular trainers aim for. It refers to a relatively permanent increase in muscle size, in contrast to temporary increases (transient hypertrophy) due, for example, to muscle pumping. Chronic hypertrophy results from resistance training that is repeated over a long period. (Kent, 2006).

Ok, before you get excited about how we can help you to get permanently pumped, this is Honest Fitness, I do have to be truthful. Your potential to build muscle will depend on your muscle fibre density, genetics, training history, age, testosterone, growth hormone, nutrition, recovery and training. The usual talk regarding hypertrophy is around the variables intensity, volume, rest intervals, muscle failure and speed of movement. All of these factors manipulated into a strategically well balanced training plan contribute to the primary factors of hypertrophy, which are mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. The following paragraphs look at the variables mentioned and how you should adhere to them in your training.

Intensity – usually expressed as the percentage of 1 repetition maximum (1RM). The intensity should be set so you only complete between 6-12 repetitions (85%-67% 1RM). The use of moderate repetition ranges (6-12) have been shown to be inferior to in eliciting muscle hypertrophy when compared to Low (1-5 reps) and high (15+ reps). The moderate repetition range is more beneficial due to its effects on the chemical makeup of the muscles – ATP, creatine phosphate, glycogen, testosterone and growth hormone. The moderate repetition range also meets a greater time under tension, compared to low repetition, resulting in microtraumas and fatiguing all muscle fibres (fast and slow twitch).

1 Rep Max table

Volume – a set is defined as the number of repetitions (lifts) performed without rest. The volume looks at the number of repetitions x load x sets. So, 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 50kg would mean a volume of 10 repetitions x 50 = 500 x 3 sets = 1500kg for that one exercise. Why multiple sets? Simply high volume; multiple sets have consistently been reported to be superior to single sets for hypertrophy. This is because they allow for a greater volume. Lifting a light weight for many repetitions is not good as the muscle fibre either fires completely or not at all (this is known as the all or nothing theory). So to pick up a pen for 1000 reps would mean that 1% of your muscle fibres are firing completely at one time, the first 1% tire and pass on to the next 1%, who past to the next 1%. So by the time you have all the muscle fibres in the muscle worked, the first 1% is completely recovered and can go again. Hypertrophy looks to recruit all the muscle fibres and fatigue them between 6-12 repetitions.

Generally, body building programs will generate significant effect on glycolytic and testosterone responses than lower volume. The volume of a routine would generally follow a periodised plan and gradually increase over the weeks, with a slightly reduced volume week built in to aid recovery.

Examples of how to increase your weekly volume.

Increase Volume table

**Exercises – I have not prescribed exercises as I do not know your training level, if you have any movement issues or injury history. Generally, set your own exercises as compound exercises and then your assistance exercises as either isolation or injury prevention.

I always write set x repetitions. With this plan, build up carefully and if you are a novice start with less volume. Gradually look to increase the volume of your sessions over the weeks. This plan template structure was taken from T-nation.

I have tried the following with a client of mine and it worked for him, but this does not necessarily mean it will work for you. The volume is less in the example below than the one above. We started with the principle from Jim Wendlers 5 / 3 / 1 routine. And then the main exercises target hypertrophy.

5 3 1 TABLE

Wendlers 5 / 3 / 1 program can be found at:

Rest Intervals – this is the time taken between sets, to rest. It can either be short (0-30s), moderate (60-90s) or long (3 minutes plus). The optimal range for hypertrophy is 60-90s, this is because it allows for the majority of a person’s strength capacity to be recovered – which improves consistently, the more you train with less rest – allowing you to lift at a higher percentage of your 1RM throughout your training. Resting longer (3 minutes plus) is ideal for strength trainers or powerlifters as full recovery occurs and short rest (0-30s) is not sufficient enough for recovery, but may be used for rest in a cluster set.

Muscle Failure – this is seen as a point in a set at which you can no longer complete the full range of movement – I see muscle failure a when someone assists you lifting the weight. It is reported that training to failure does gain hypertrophy benefits. The problem with training this way is the increased potential to over-train and psychological burnout. This is where you look to increase the volume and intensity over a period of say 4 weeks, in a periodised format. This type of training allows for high volume overarching with a lower volume taper to allow for super compensation.

Speed of Movement – this may also be referred to as ‘time under tension’ and you may see it written as 1 2 1 2. This would mean 1 second at the top, 2 seconds lowering (eccentric) the weight, 1 second pause, 2 seconds lifting the weight (concentric). Research has shown that the concentric (primary effort) part of the lift can be the faster part of the repetition – and still provide hypertrophy benefits. The speed of movement is far more important for the eccentric portion of the lift – eccentric actions are proven to have the best effect on muscle hypertrophy. So when lowering your weights, have more control. We are stronger in the eccentric phase of a lift than we are concentrically, so you have no excuses not to keep the movement controlled. That means, for example, that when you are bench pressing, you should not power the lift up and then drop it back to your chest – control it all the way.

Recommendations for hypertrophy – record, record, record! Whether through a note pad and pen or a flashy Excel spreadsheet. This way you can see how you are manipulating your volume and track your progress. This prevents getting stuck and lifting the same weight every session – because you can’t remember how may sets and reps or even the weight from the week before. By recording your sessions, you know what you achieved previously, and where you need to start this session. Below is an example of a record sheet, which shows your sets, repetitions, and load, which is your volume for those exercises. This way you can see if you are following one of the basic principle of training which allow for progression – overload.



Contreras, B. and Schofeild, B., (2011). Accessed Saturday 1 March 2014 –
Kent, M., (2006). Oxford Dictionary Of Sports Science and Medicine. Third Ed. Oxford University Press.
McGuff, D., and Little, J. (2009). Body by Science. A research-based program for strength training, body building, and complete fitness in 12 minutes a week. McGraw-Hill.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanism of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24 (10) : pp2857-2872.

Mark Beresford

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