Hypertrophy training is a fancy way of saying exercising with the goal of increasing lean body mass (LBM) – muscle size. The good news is that hypertrophy training requires a simple formula. The bad news is that training for muscle hypertrophy is hard work and is often a slow process. Following the below recommendations will ensure that you can build muscle that is both functional and beautiful.
The Hypertrophy Training Formula
Muscle Hypertrophy (Increased LBM) = Calorie Surplus + Strength Training with Progressive Overload + Recovery
You Can’t Build Muscle Without Fuel
Before we even get into training for muscle hypertrophy, we must discuss nutrition first. The law of energy balance dictates that unless the body has a SURPLUS of energy from food, muscular tissues will not increase in size. So, unless you are eating more food than you need to maintain your weight, you will not gain extra weight. You can have the best hypertrophy training program in the world, that was designed to meet your exact needs, but it won’t matter if you’re not eating enough.
Rather than just offer you the blanket advice to eat a LOT of food, I’m going to strongly suggest you increase your food intake only with nutritient-dense foods that will not only help you gain weight, but help you to improve your health. If you’re not starting off with a foundation of health, no amount of muscle hypertrophy will matter long-term.
If the food didn’t grow from the ground, walk, crawl, fly, or swim – then it probably isn’t the best option. This eliminates most processed foods, fast foods, packaged snack foods, candy, soda, TV dinners, and most other foods that have advertising on the label trying to convince you that it’s healthy. You should get the majority of your nutrition from vegetables, fruits, lean red meats, poultry, fish, eggs, oats, grains, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
The most important meals are breakfast and a meal following your strength training session. Make sure that both contain plenty of protein and carbohydrates, and that your breakfast meal has some fats.
A good rule of thumb is to increase your daily calorie needs by 10% for 2 weeks and track your body composition (muscle to fat ratio) with a bodyfat test. If you’re gaining weight, you won’t know if you’re building muscle or storing fat unless you track your body composition – so don’t get upset if you’re gaining weight that is not all muscle if you’re not tracking your progress. A great resource for nutritional coaching and for determining your calorie needs is lifetime, natural bodybuilder Tom Venuto’s Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle e-book.
Hypertrophy Training Program Essentials
Do keep in mind that every individual has unique needs which can require drastically different training program adjustments. There is no such thing as a good “general” hypertrophy training program. If you are a beginner, with a very lean physique, you’re going to need a completely different program than someone who has a good foundation of functional muscle already. Use your intuition, and apply the following principles with your unique circumstances in mind.
1) Strength training that utilizes the method of incremental progression – You will need a strength training program that is challenging enough to require you to work very hard. In general, you’ll need to be working between 60-80% of your maximum effort for hypertrophy training. With this in mind, progress with baby steps as often as you can. Every session, or at least every week, surpass a previous performance in your chosen strength activity – whether it’s bodyweight training, kettlebell training, barbell training, etc. An improved performance can be an increase in training frequency, training volume, training intensity, weight lifted or swung, or a decrease in rest times among other things.
2) Train the entire body – Hypertrophy is a system-wide process. It doesn’t happen in isolation, and the entire body must be involved for it to happen most effectively. The maxim “train all the body all the time” rings true when it comes to hypertrophy training.
The more of the body that you can recruit during each exercise, the better for your progress – This means to stay away from isolation exercises (if you are preparing for a bodybuilding competition, consult a professional for the proper way to integrate isolation exercises into your hypertrophy routine). In general, the more sophisticated the exercise is, the better. A model hierarchy for the most effective exercises would be:
complex exercises – multiple exercises performed one after the other in a circuit fashion (ie barbell deadlift, clean, front squat, push press)
hybrid exercises – two exercises paired together into one movement (ie squat + press = squat thruster)
compound exercises – an exercise that involves multiple joints as the primary movers (ie squat or pullups)
Least Effective: isolation exercises – an exercise that involves only one joint as the primary mover (ie biceps curl)
3) Recovery is just as important as training - Especially, if you’re a beginner, you’ll need plenty of recovery time to allow your body to rest, repair, and rebuild muscle. Your hypertrophy progress happens when you are resting, not when training. Get as much sleep as you can (8 hours is a good standard to shoot for), and short naps are another great recovery technique. When you sleep, growth hormones release to aid in the reconstruction of your damaged muscles. You will also need to ensure that you stay fully hydrated at all times. Don’t just drink during your workouts, prepare ahead of time. The water that you drank in the past 48 hours is what will determine how hydrated you are right now.
Another huge factor about recovery that is often overlooked is to actively schedule in planned recovery sessions. Having a balance between softer exercise and harder exercise is essential to ensuring your maximize your progress and remain injury-free. I whole-heartedly recommend a daily joint mobility program and a compensatory exercise program like Prasara Yoga.
Hypertrophy Training Program Recommendations
1) Don’t use exercise machines – they are ineffective because the machine is super-efficient, meaning you don’t have to be. They are also unsafe and known for creating an imbalanced and injured body.
2) Use your bodyweight and free weights as your primary strength training tools. I prefer bodyweight exercise, clubbells, kettlebells and sandbags to barbells and dumbbells myself because of their complementary nature of balancing compressive forces with traction-based forces. If you only use compressive based strength training like lifting barbells and dumbbells which compact the joints, you will develop injuries. Your lifts may go up, but you’ll be building a WEAKER body. At the very least, begin to balance out the compressive weightlifting with traction-based lifting that relies on torque from swinging the implement to create force and cause the body to adapt. The muscles don’t recognize different training tools when they adapt – they only know resistance. But your joints can tell the difference from swinging weights (which pulls the joints apart, strengthening them) and lifting weights (which compresses the joint capsules, and squeezes out the lubrication inside). Learn more about this in this interview I did with Scott Sonnon.
3) Don’t spend time on cardio-based training – this eats up energy, calories, and time. If you want the health benefits of cardio, then adopt a Metabolic Conditioning routine for your strength training instead of a more traditional routine.
Rep Ranges Versus Timed Sets
The traditional repetition range for hypertrophy training is between 8-12 reps. It’s true that you can build muscle outside of those ranges, and even a 6-15 rep range would be more accurate for most people. However, repetition ranges are ESTIMATES that are based on a concept called “tempo.” Tempo is the speed at which you execute a strength training exercise, and it is based on a principle called time-under-tension (TUT). The duration that your muscles are under tension will largely determine your results, and there is an ideal TUT specifically for hypertrophy training.
Ideal TUT for Hypertrophy Training = 30-60 seconds per set (45 sec. being a good general goal for each set)
Sample Hypertrophy Workouts
*Disclaimer: These are examples only to show you how the above principles can look like in a workout routine. Your needs are unique, and these hypertrophy workouts may not serve them properly. Use your intuition, and don’t try anything that doesn’t feel right.
Bodyweight Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 5-10X, 45 seconds per exercise, no rest between exercises, 2 minutes rest at the end of each circuit:
Plank held for 30-60 seconds
Barbell Complex Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 4-6X, no rest between exercises, 2 minutes rest at the end of each complex
Deadlift – 15-30 seconds
Power Clean – 15-30 seconds
Front Squat – 15-30 seconds
Push Press – 15-30 seconds
Dumbbell Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 3-4X, 30 seconds rest between exercises
Squat thrusters with 2 dumbbells racked at shoulders – 30-60 seconds
Dumbbell swing – 30-60 seconds
Repeat 3-4X, no rest between exercises
Dumbbell bench press – 30-60 seconds
Dumbbell Renegade Rows – 30 seconds/arm
Kettlebell Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 3-4X, 60 seconds rest between exercises
Full Clean – 30-60 seconds
Push Press – 30-60 seconds
Repeat 3-4X, 60 seconds rest between exercises
Snatch – 30-60 seconds
Overhead Squat – 30-60 seconds
Lateral Lunges with KB’s racked – 30 seconds/side
Clubbell Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 3-5X, no rest between exercises, 2 minutes rest at the end of each circuit
Barbarian Squat – 30-60 seconds
Swing – 30-60 seconds
Single Clubbell side Swipes – 30-60 seconds
Double Clubbell Front Swipes – 30-60 seconds
Clockwork Squat – 30-60 seconds
Repeat 2X, rest 60 seconds between each exercise
Front leverage press (single or double) – 30-60 seconds
Lateral leverage press (single or double) – 30-60 seconds
Cross Training Hypertrophy Workout:
Repeat 2-4X – no rest between exercises, 2-3 minutes rest at the end of each circuit
Clubbell Clockwork Squat – 30-60 seconds
Kettlebell Snatch – 30-60 seconds
Dumbbell Renegade Rows – 30-60 seconds
Pushups – 30-60 seconds
Barbell lunges – 30-60 seconds
Pullups – 30-60 seconds
Barbell push press – 30-60 seconds
Front Plank – 30-60 seconds
Remember the 3 keys for muscle hypertrophy success:
–> Eat enough food to put you in a calorie surplus – (BFFM ebook is the best program for this)
–> Strength train with intensity, always setting personal bests
–> Emphasize recovery as much as training
Hypertrophy training is simple, but it’s not easy. Optimal progress is half to one pound of lean body mass gained per week. It may seem like a slow route, but that’s 25-50 lbs of extra muscle that can be gained in a year. If you follow the above guidelines, and make them your lifestyle, those gains will be permanent and natural.
To your health and success,
P.S. If you’re serious about packing on some real muscle, then you’ll need a lot more than just a solid training program. The truth is that you’ll never gain muscle without an effective nutrition strategy. One of the biggest mistakes I see newbies to muscle-building make is to eat a ton of junk and assume that it will lead to hypertrophy. This may work in the short-term, but it’s not sustainable for long. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to pack on a LOT of fat too. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to stay lean and mean WHILE building muscle. If you want to keep fat gain to a minimum when building muscle, then you’ll need a proven system to show you how to eat right from the start. Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle will show you how to how to calculate your ideal daily caloric intake, how to balance out your foods and meals, and when the best times to eat for hypertrophy are. It’s a step-by-step system for how optimize muscle building and minimize fat gain. Check it out here: