Hypertrophy Training: A Guide To Building Muscle Size

Hypertrophy Training | EMAC Certifications

Hypertrophy Training: A Guide To Building Lean Body Mass

Hypertrophy training is a workout program focusing on the enlargement of skeletal muscle using high volume (reps and sets) with minimal rest. Even if your goal isn’t to increase the size of your triceps and biceps, building muscle offers health benefits and weight loss advantages. Therefore this type of strength training is great to incorporate into almost any training program. Muscle growth occurs with a repetition range of 8 to 12 at 80% of your one rep max (1RM), allowing 30 seconds of rest between each set. 

Hypertrophy training, then, is different from training for maximal strength gains. Conversely, some want to lose weight and are fearful that resistance training will give them unwanted muscle growth. But, training for weight loss is different from training for hypertrophy. Therefore, if you develop programs according to the science of adaptations occurring in the body, you can rest assured you’ll get great fitness results. First, it’s important to understand how lean body mass, muscle, grows. Then you can apply the basics of how to develop a workout plan and get the best muscular hypertrophy program possible.

And if you want to start building workouts for any goal, check out the EMAC Personal Training course to learn the secrets professional trainers know.

How Does Hypertrophy Training Work?

Resistance training workouts that are high volume and minimal rest in between sets cause cellular changes that make muscle cells larger. Muscle cells are also called myocytes or muscle fibers. The two primary cellular changes with this type of activity are an increase in myofibrils and an increase in sarcoplasmic fluid. 

Myofibrils are bundles of protein filaments that contain the contractile elements of the muscle. These contractile elements are called actin and myosin. And, when they overlap, they cause muscular contraction to occur. Likewise, when they lengthen out, they cause muscle relaxation. 

The other factor impacting muscle size growth is the increase in sarcoplasmic fluid. Sarcoplasmic fluid is an energy resource that surrounds the myofibrils in the muscles. It contains ATP, glycogen, creatine phosphate, and water. Therefore, during a good hypertrophy training workout, more of this fluid moves to the muscle cells. It does this to supply the muscle with the energy it needs to do the exercise. 

There are two exercise physiology concepts related to why muscles get larger. The first concept is muscle fiber type. There are two main categories of muscle fiber types with the second one having two sub categories.The second involves energy resources the body uses to produce movement. This is bioenergetics. 

Muscle Fiber Type

The two muscle fiber types are type I and type II. Type I muscle fibers are slow to fatigue. This means they’re involved in ongoing movements like walking. Type II muscle fibers are quick to fatigue but can produce more force. For this reason, they are called fast twitch muscle fibers.

Type II muscle fibers are larger in size and can be either type IIa or type IIx. Type IIa muscle fibers can be intermediary. This means they can use both aerobic and anaerobic energy sources (metabolism) whereas type IIx only uses anaerobic energy resources. Type IIa muscle fibers have an increase in the cross-sectional area size that’s larger than the other muscle fiber types. Therefore, these muscle fibers are the ones exercisers are training when they want bigger muscles.

Hypertrophy training increases the size of the muscle cell. There is also an increase in the number of contractile proteins found in the cell. It is not, however, an increase in the number of muscle fibers. This is determined at birth and by genetics.

Next, understanding how the body uses energy to produce movement helps to narrow down how you need to train if the goal is to increase muscle size.

Energy Source Continuum

There are three ways the body uses energy. This is important in hypertrophy training program design because it helps you know details of sets, reps, and rest. While you don’t need to know the specific steps in how these energy pathways work, you do need to know the:

  • Energy source
  • Duration 
  • Recovery needed for replenishment
  • Exercise or movement examples

This is the bioenergetic continuum.

Energy PathwayOxygen RequirementDurationMuscle Fiber TypeActivity TypeExample
ATP-CPAnaerobic10 – 15 seconds 1 – 4 repetitionsType IIxHigh Intensity, Short Duration100m Sprint, High Jump, Baseball Swing
GlycolyticAnaerobic/Aerobic30 – 50 seconds
8 – 12 repetitions
Type IIaModerately High Intensity and Duration400m Sprint, Basketball
OxidativeAerobic >60 seconds
12+ repetitions
Type ILow Intensity and Long DurationMarathon, 20 Mile Bike Ride
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Type IIa muscle fibers have the greatest size potential means a hypertrophy workout should include compound exercises that target them. These muscle fibers are recruited during moderately intense exercise and for 30 to 50 seconds. If the tempo of an exercise is two seconds down and two seconds up, one repetition is a total of four seconds. This is how the repetition range is determined and why clients should be training at an intensity great enough so they can only perform 6 to 12 repetitions. 

Developing A Hypertrophy Training Workout Program

To develop a results oriented program for hypertrophy, you’ll adjust acute variables of the workout. These include set, reps, rest, and more. However, before making these recommendations, you have to start with a comprehensive fitness assessment.

Fitness Assessments In Hypertrophy Planning

Before developing any kind of strength training program, do a comprehensive fitness assessment. Some will want to increase muscle size and lose body fat at the same time. Although this is possible, the body is more efficient at achieving one goal rather than two. 

Additionally, the parameters for hypertrophy training are different from a weight loss program. It isn’t that clients can’t lose weight while training for hypertrophy. Instead, it’s that they’ll see scale numbers change faster if they hold off on training for muscle growth. 

Implementing the right hypertrophy nutrition strategy is even more complex if attempting to both lose body fat and grow in lean body mass at the same time. For weight loss to occur, the body needs to be in an energy, or calorie, deficit. Conversely, to increase in size, it needs to be in an energy neutral or energy surplus state with adequate protein intake. For these reasons, determine which is more important first.

If hypertrophy is the most important goal, keep the assessment focused on measurements that you can tie directly to this outcome. You should include body composition testing and circumference measurements. However, other assessments are important for this type of programming as well. For example, you’ll need to know the one rep max (1RM). This will help you determine the load for the different exercises. Without this number, you’ll be guessing when you decide on weight for different exercises. The most important 1RM muscular strength exercises include a squat, chest press, and row

Sets, Reps, And Rest For Muscular Development

Since type IIa muscles are the largest and have the greatest capacity for enlargement, they’ll be recruited during the glycolytic pathway. To recruit the type IIa muscle fibers, you have to lift at an intensity level of 75 – 85% with the muscle under tension for 30 to 60 seconds. This equates to a 6 to12 repetition range. To prevent the muscle cells from using the oxidative pathway to produce energy, the timed rest interval should be about 60 seconds between exercises. For example, if you do a bench press and the next exercise is a chest fly, rest at least 60 seconds. However, if it involves opposing muscle groups or muscles of a different joint, the rest can be shorter. 

Training Volume For Muscular Development

Calculating training volume can be based on the muscle group being worked or the training session. Those who are looking for muscular development will commonly work similar muscle groups during a session. More importantly, to determine training volume, it’s best to be exact and calculate it according to the body part being trained. Therefore, volume is:

[Number of Reps x Number of Sets] x Number of Exercises per Body Part

Muscular development gains are achieved with high levels of training volume and minimal rest periods will force the cellular changes that need to occur for muscle size increase. The training volume recommendations for muscular development include:

RepsSetsIntensityTempoRestNumber of Exercises
6 – 123 – 575 – 85%Moderate30 – 60 seconds2 – 4 per body part
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Exercise Selection In Program Design

Selecting exercises for hypertrophy begins with knowing the current capability level. This includes posture, stabilization, and technique capabilities. Consider a deconditioned person who wants to gain muscle size, but he doesn’t know how to correctly perform a bench press. This individual will have to go through some initial technique and skill development first for motor learning to occur. This can happen by using programs and workouts for functional fitness. After one to four weeks, progress to exercises and a workout routine for building muscle size. 

Once you can handle more stress, choose either compound exercises or isolation exercises. A compound exercise has more than one major muscle group responsible for the motion. For example, a squat is an example of a compound exercise. Whereas an isolation exercise targets just one muscle group, like a leg extension.

Because of the moderately high intensity needed to develop muscle cell size, the exercises should be relatively stable. This way, you can put as much tension as possible in the primary muscles rather than the stabilizers. For example, instead of performing a push up on a stability ball, perform a bench press. The stability ball push up will tax the core stabilization mechanism of the body. Further, the proprioceptive demand from the moving stability ball will dilute the tension from the pectorals and distribute it elsewhere. This type of training, however, can lead to greater strength gains for other reasons and can be included as part of a periodized program. However, for a traditional hypertrophy training session, keep the exercises stabilized and supported.

Then, there are different ways to group the exercises chosen in each session. These groupings include:

  • Pushing versus pulling muscles. Here, you can group the pushing muscles into one training session and focus only on the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Conversely, you can alternate exercises within the session to do a pushing exercise and then a pulling exercise. The opposing muscle groups in this example maximize time in the training session and reduce time spent resting. 
  • Upper body versus lower body muscles. Similar to the pushing and pulling example, you can do upper body exercises and alternate with lower body exercises. Performing these right after one another will provide gains seen in cardiorespiratory training but allow rest for the muscle cells. 
  • Total body circuit training. In this example, you target each major muscle group in a strength training session. It’s difficult to meet the volume demands of muscle development, however. And this type of grouping is more often used in general fitness training or weight loss training.

When grouping exercises and planning workouts for the week, the hypertrophy research recommends targeting each major muscle group twice per week and allowing at least a 48 hour window of recovery time. See the table below for a sample structure.

PushingPullingGlutes and HamstringsQuads and CalvesOFFPushing Pulling
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Glutes and HamstringsQuads and CalvesOFFPushingPullingGlutes and HamstringsQuads and Calves
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Resistance Training Systems

There are different ways to structure a workout that sometimes do or do not adhere to the traditional standards of muscular development. While most have research supporting different gains, it’s important to note that the difference these types of resistance training systems will make are more minimal. What’s far more important is programming workouts that are:

  • Physiologically effective
  • Achievable 

Part of the art of coaching and program design is creating a system that your client can stick with, finds mastery in, enjoys, and achieves results. For many, this includes providing variety in the structure of a workout. The following are different ways to structure a muscular development resistance training program.

  • Vertical loading.
  • Horizontal loading.
  • Peripheral heart action.
  • Eccentric loading.
  • Pre-exhaustion. 
  • Post-exhaustion.
  • Pyramid training. 
  • Reverse pyramid. 

Sample Hypertrophy Workouts

Alternate Push and PullSetsRepIntensityRest
Bench Press2 – 46 – 1275 – 85%30s
Lat Pull2 – 46 – 1275 – 85%30s
Bench Chest Fly2 – 46 – 1275 – 85%30s
Overhead Lat Pull2 – 46 – 1275 – 85%30s
Rest 60s after 3 sets
Incline Chest Press1060s
Cable Row2060s
Speed Lunges Right12
Speed Lunges Left12
Rest after 3 sets
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In conclusion, if you have a goal of increasing muscle size there needs to be a focus on high volume, moderate intensity, and lower rest to make the cellular changes. Muscle size grows as a result of the recruitment of type IIa muscle fibers, which have the greatest capacity for growth. While there are different ways a personal trainer can piece together a workout, the results will be more based on the ability to comply with the workout. Therefore,  muscular development workouts that keep you  mentally stimulated while also giving opportunities for mastery will yield the best results.

To get results like a personal trainer, get the EMAC Certified Personal Trainer course. You’ll learn the applications of exercise science like the fitness professionals, but in a way that makes sense for your own workouts. Then, you can take your knowledge to the next level and start getting paying clients whether at the gym or as an online personal trainer.



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