HYPERTROPHY & HOW TO APPLY IT
Author: Douglas Elom
Douglas is a well established personal trainer in Dubai. Having competed in sprinting competitions throughout his youth, studying sports performance with a scholarship at Leeds Beckett University and coming 2nd place in his first body physique competition! Doug has kindly put together his top tips to build muscle through hypertrophy training.
Keywords: Hypertrophy, Strength, Training, Nutrition, Fitness
Who am I?
My name is Doug, I’m a personal trainer and have been for about 7 years now. I started resistance training 7 years ago. During my PT course I wasn’t in shape at all and thought to myself, “if I am to get clients I need to practice what I preach”.
So I started lifting, now admittedly when I look back now, the first 8 months of my training journey were just woeful. But I boil this down to a lack of knowledge, once I had lived the ‘gym life’ for a while, done a lot of research on various training techniques. I then practiced and learned how to maximise hypertrophy in the gym. Knowledge is power!
Throughout my years as a PT, I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of the good and bad in the gym. There’s always one thing that never ceases to amaze me. That’s the idea that the majority of people believe they know it all (usually men believe it or not). It’s ok, I’m a guy so I can say that. But seriously, when it comes to hypertrophy it’s never linear or easy. But even if you’re doing it right, you will hit walls and plateau and the only thing that will push you past these boundaries is knowledge. Now I’m by no means saying I know it all, because I’m still learning and adapting to new information that arises from studies. But I hope to pass on some key areas, which have helped me over the years. So here we go.
What is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy is, by definition - the enlargement of an organ or tissue by the increase in the size of its cells. Or as I like to call it – GAINS. Now in this article the particular tissue we will be discussing will be, you guessed it. Muscles.
Hypertrophy is an extremely complex subject, there’s not just one way to go about increasing muscle size. However there are absolutely fundamentals that need to be applied across the board. Hopefully throughout this article I can address the main points that will help beginners to advanced level gym goers.
Process of Hypertrophy
Have you ever done a gym workout, and been sore the next day? This is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This occurs when you have exhausted a particular muscle, and the fibres of that muscle can’t take any more stress, tear and break. This causes pain and stiffness for 24-72 hours after, and maybe even longer if you’re unaccustomed to exercise. The healing process is where the magic happens. When the muscle fibre’s heal, they do so stronger, bigger and more durable. Hence MAD GAINS!
Achieving hypertrophy – Hierarchy of training
This is something which no scientist, professional bodybuilder or ‘bro lifter’ can dispute. Consistency is paramount, you can’t make gains if you’re not in the gym, it’s that simple. It’s better to lift wrongly for 10 years than to lift right for 1 year. Commitment and dedication is key people.
2. Training volume/Progressive overload
Weight lifted x Reps x Sets is a main predictor of hypertrophy and strength. Now this doesn’t mean you should do bench press 5 times a week because you want a big chest, you will most likely end up injured. Also if you did bench 5 times a week, what happens when you plateau? Will you go to 6 or 7 times a week? Well no because what about your other muscle groups. So you want to try and progress with the minimum amount of volume possible.
There is also a minimum intensity threshold that’s important. By intensity we mean the % of the heaviest weight you can lift for 1 repetition, or 1 rep max. Doing 1000 reps of bicep curls because it’s a shit ton of volume isn’t going to stress the muscle fibres enough to break them. Why? Because if you can do 1000 reps of any exercise it means the weight is far too light and before the muscle fibres break, they will likely fill with lactic acid and prevent you from lifting anymore and thus not creating any form of hypertrophy. So keeping intensity between 50-65% of your 1 rep max is a good starting point.
So the goal is to increase the total amount of volume week by week, whilst keeping a high intensity up, e.g.:
Week 1 – 3x10 squats @ 100kg = 3000kg lifted
Week 2 – 3x10 squats @ 105kg = 3150kg lifted
Week 3 – 4x8 squats @ 105kg = 3360kg lifted
Week 4 – 4x8 squats @ 110kg = 3520kg lifted
Now it’s very unlikely that progression will be as fast as in this example, but it’s just so you get a clear idea of how it should work. The amount of sets or reps you do is generally down to preference, but maintain high intensity!
Ok, as a personal trainer, there’s nothing that gripes me more than bad form. Now in most instances, it’s totally innocent, sometimes beginners aren’t quite sure what correct form is or how to do an exercise properly. Another reason why knowledge is power! Having good form in the gym is a skill, but a lot of people do not think of it like that. But it is, and like any other skill, it takes a hell of a lot of practice to perfect.
So why is keeping good form so important for hypertrophy? To determine this let’s split form up into categories;
1 - Technique whilst lifting
2 - Range of motion
3 - Time under tension
Technique – Let’s use standing barbell bicep curls as an example, a very common exercise because let’s be honest, who doesn’t want massive guns. However, commonly done wrong. A lot of people will not use full range of motion and bring the barbell down perhaps half way thus only using 50% of their muscle. T, they will use their body and back for momentum and swing the weight up because it’s too heavy and do the reps as fast as possible.
Proper form would be; Back straight keeping the core tight, using the biceps to lift the weight without using momentum. Achieving 100% range of motion whilst keeping the whole set controlled and at a good pace. If you’re doing a set wrongly, the desired muscle is not being primarily worked and because you’re recruiting muscles that you shouldn’t be, you’re wasting the set. Hypertrophy will not be maximised and you’re jeopardising potential gains!
Range of motion – Another huge factor, this time let’s use squats for the example. A common sentence you may hear in the gym would be “what the f*ck is she/he doing? That’s not a squat”. They’re referring to someone who likes to quarter squat. Meaning not going below 90 degrees. Usually they will pack on the weight, think they’re squatting heavy but only go down about an inch. It’s ridiculous. Then you make them do a full proper squat of below 90 degrees and they can barely lift the bar.
If you’re doing half reps of any exercise, you’re using only 50% of the muscle. I don’t think I need to explain why that isn’t great for making gains. Not fully utilising reps is again wasting the set.
Time under tension – oseuhfpowEN!!. This is what people who do reps as fast as possible look like. It’s silly don’t do it. But seriously, the amount of time the muscle is under stress is important. Yes taking longer for a set is harder, yes it takes more time, but that’s no reason to rush it. If you want to maximise gains, don’t cut corners. Now in some cases, depending on an individual’s programme, the exercise or specific goals, fast reps are required. But always keep control of the weight, keep good form and keep a full range of motion.
Periodization is simply planned manipulation in your training variables. So this can be volume, intensity, frequency, rep ranges etc. However the main two that are often periodised are intensity and volume, most training programmes you see are periodised in some way. An example of periodising:
Say you’re training legs once a week and squatting once a week, and your max weight for 5 reps is 120kg, but you want to hit 140kg for 5. Up your leg days and the amount of times you squat to twice a week for 3 weeks. Once your body has adapted to 2 leg days a week, if your goal still isn’t achieved up your leg days to 3 times a week for a further 3-4 weeks. Hopefully by week 8 or less you have achieved your goal, and can then prioritise and periodise for another goal you may have.
Now for new lifters (4-6 months), I wouldn’t at all worry about periodising your workouts. The most important aspect is for you is to learn how to lift effectively, practice your form, enjoy the workouts and make working out a habit. For experienced lifters, you will definitely need to constantly change up your workouts, training harder and smarter.
It’s important to remember number 2 on this hierarchy list, volume and intensity. If your workouts vary week by week, it becomes very hard to track overall volume and intensity. Secondly I the workouts again vary too much, then your body’s adaptive abilities can be spread too thin, you need to give it time to react and grow to the training you are giving it. Variation is definitely important, but it has to be done methodically, not sporadically.
5. Nutrition & Diet
I bet most of you are surprised this is last on the list? Well that’s
because like I stated before, without physically going to the gym, lifting
properly and effectively, no amount of diet will achieve hypertrophy. That said, once you have the other 4 points nailed down, diet is absolutely
Dieting for hypertrophy – There is no magic number of calories when it comes to hypertrophy, it is individual and specific to body types. However in most cases, a person will need to be in a caloric surplus, meaning consuming more calories than they’re expending per day.
So how do you know if you’re in a surplus? Well one way to be certain is to track calories. Calorie counting allows an individual to monitor their intake closely and remain very consistent. If their weight remains the same after a few weeks of the same calories, then their caloric intake is most likely at a maintenance level. Once calorie equilibrium has been established, depending on one’s goals, they can decide to create a calorie deficit to lose weight, or a calorie surplus to gain muscle.
It takes experimenting, it’s very tough to determine exactly how many calories your body burns just to keep itself alive. Calorie expenditure comes from:
1. BMR/RMR (Basal metabolic rate/resting metabolic rate)
These are your body’s energy requirements just to stay alive, to
provide energy to your heart, lungs, brain and other organs.
2. TEF (Thermic effect of food)
The energy required to digest and absorb food.
3. Exercise Activity thermogenesis
Calories burnt through exercise.
4. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis
Calories burnt through normal everyday tasks such as walking, climbing stairs etc. Why do we need to be in a surplus to build muscle? – Muscle is a very expensive tissue to maintain for the body, it has very high-energy requirements. That is why most muscular people will eat a lot more and have a much higher metabolism than someone with less muscle. However the body will not prioritise muscle growth over the more important energy requirements (BMR, RMR, TEF, EAT, NEAT). Therefore unless your body has certainty that calories are in abundance, it will not help you to build muscle and risk hindering the other factors.
How much of a surplus, I don’t want to gain fat? – When it comes to the world of gains, I’m sure most people have heard the term, ‘I’m bulking’. This basically means one is trying to get build muscle and get huge, one way or the other. Now what people do not take into account is the amount of calories they should be eating. They will eat whatever they want whenever they want, and it’s fine because they’re bulking right? Wrong. If you over-eat, even when lifting heavy and training hard, you will absolutely gain excess fat. So it’s very important to control your food, be balanced, have the naughty stuff you like, but don’t go crazy! Find your maintenance calorie level, and take in just a bit more for solid muscle gains without adding unnecessary body fat.
It’s a journey – Enjoy it
Now of course there are a lot of other factors that help to obtain hypertrophy, however I have outlined and explained what I think are the fundamentals. Building muscle takes time, it needs to be done step by step, you will hit walls, plateau and lose motivation at times. So above all adherence is key, find what motivates you, set new goals, reach them and then set higher ones. Keep your training fresh and exciting, new programmes and different training techniques. If you feel you’re stuck, get help, higher a trusted trainer for a while, learn from them, let them push you past your comfort zone and find new boundaries. Training, however, is a personal voyage that you should enjoy and cherish.
If you have any questions about anything I’ve discussed – Please feel free to email me at: Douglaselompt@gmail.com