Muscle Hypertrophy: An Introduction
Not knowing what stimulates muscle growth; otherwise known as muscle hypertrophy, is what I see holding back a lot of men. I’ve seen them train, spoken to them about their diet, and they all do this one thing in the gym that holds them back. What exactly is that one thing? But first, let’s talk about muscle hypertrophy and why it’s so important.
So what exactly is muscle hypertrophy? This is the working definition: “Hypertrophy is an increase and growth of muscle cells. Hypertrophy refers to an increase in muscular size achieved through exercise”. So basically bodybuilding style training: an emphasis on growing muscles instead of increasing the numbers on the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift.
How I Coach my Clients
And that’s what I truly believe in myself as a Personal Trainer, and Online Fitness Coach. I coach my clients and train them like a holistic bodybuilder so they can build the most amount of muscle mass to help them regulate their hormones and move against gravity with efficiency and ease, and ultimately shred that body fat so they can look at themselves in the mirror with confidence.
So when it comes to training like a holistic bodybuilder, knowing what stimulates muscle growth is a basic first principle. And what I mean by stimulating muscle growth is by putting your body into a catabolic state, the breakdown of muscle tissue, in the gym. Muscle growth itself comes from proper diet, sleep, and overall recovery which will be a topic for another day.
Volume vs. Intensity in muscle hypertrophy
So when it comes to stimulating muscle growth, there are often two schools of thought: Intensity vs. Volume. Let’s go ahead and break those two down.
German Volume Training
When it comes to Volume, the best example I can give would be of German Volume Training. This style of training is 10×10 with every exercise that you do. It doesn’t matter if this is Deadlifts or Biceps Curls. You’re doing 10×10 no matter what.
This sounds great in theory, so let’s look at the pros and cons: For starters, you’re spending a lot of time in the gym. If you’re rest 1.5-2 minutes per set, one exercise can take you upwards of 20 minutes to complete. Secondly, and what I’ve noticed is that trainees don’t put in their max effort when it comes to every set because they know they have 7, 8, 9 sets to go. They “save themselves” until the last 2-3 sets where they ramp up their intensity. It took them 7-8 sets to get where they actually wanted to be training. Thirdly, it can be tough on your joints. Going for 10×10 on every exercise is no easy feat and depending on your joint health, form, and mood that day you might just hurt yourself if you’re not careful.
This style of training is also very taxing mentally. It’s a lot of volume, so not only are your muscles tired and sore, but so is your mind. Don’t get me wrong, German Volume Training can be great for hypertrophy if your exercise selection, diet, and recovery match the training stimulus.
On the other end of the camp, we have the Intensity. And the best way to sum this up would be getting high as possible on the RPE scale for a given set. This will vary to each person, but if you push through a set without leaving any gains on the table, then you’d have effectively hit high intensity for that given set.
An example of maximum intensity training would be any program that’s heavy on Rest-Pause sets. Take a larger set and break it into 2-3 cluster sets with heavier weight and shorter rest in between sets (30 seconds or less). It looks like this: DB Flat Bench (20-30 Rest-Pause set)= Set 1: 12 reps, Set 2: 8 reps, Set 3: 6 reps for a total of 26RP. So for three cluster sets, I’ve gone to all out positive failure (failure just before form begins to break down), not only for one set, but for three smaller sets too.
Let’s break down the pros and cons of this kind of training. To start off you’ll definitely be saving a lot of time. With a few warm up sets you’re ready to jump into action. Secondly, it requires extreme mental discipline to push yourself through to positive failure on every cluster set and continuously try and beat the logbook. Thirdly, I wouldn’t recommend this type of training until you’ve got at least 3 years of solid training under your belt. It requires you being comfortable with working with heavy weight which also relies on your Golgi Tendon Organs from blowing out. Your muscles are first to grow but it’s always a catchup game with your tendons.
The Science in muscle hypertrophy
So now that we’ve got the two camps out in the open, let’s look at the science. Studies have come out to show that it’s when your muscles are involuntarily slowed down that actually stimulates proper muscle hypertrophy. So why does this happen? Basically you’re getting your body out of its comfort zone and pushing it past its limits and creating a new stimulus. When you continuously create a new stimulus, you break down more muscle fibers that need to be repaired. Those fibers get repaired with proper nutrition, sleep, and recovery, and then you repeat the process all over again. Training is a very cyclical process when you think about it.
What Actually Promotes Muscle Growth?
So when it comes to volume vs. intensity, intensity is what actually stimulates proper muscle growth and we can see how that applies with Rest-Pause Training. Being able to go to the max effort and get to positive failure is what will help you build muscle long term instead of doing 7 ramp up sets with only really 3 somewhat challenging sets because you wanted to “save yourself for later”, as you’d see with German Volume Training. It’s easier to stimulate muscle growth when you focus on intensity instead of volume because it requires less time and energy to actually get where you need to be for those working sets. What often happens when you do too much volume is that you actually gas yourself out before even reaching those tough working sets.
The less time you take to get to those working sets and reps, the easier it’ll be to break down those muscles without burning out your CNS along with saving time and energy of being in the gym.
But at the end of the day, you should always be challenging yourself and beating the logbook to get to positive failure so you can create new stimulus and break down those muscle fibers to get the maximum benefit of muscle hypertrophy.
The best thing you can start doing today is to really push yourself to positive failure on your sets and reps in your program. Bring a friend with you to watch your form so you don’t get hurt.
If you have any questions don’t be shy to reach out to me!