There are many different reasons why people lift weights, but arguably one the most common is muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is a term for the increase in the size of a tissue and its cells (in our case, the tissue is a muscle). Put simply, the size of a muscle plays an important role in muscular development and performance. A bigger muscle has the potential to be stronger than a smaller one, which is beneficial to strength athletes such as football players or shot putters. Bodybuilders are judged heavily based on how their body looks. So the size and development of their muscles can make or break their careers.
How Does Muscle Hypertrophy Occur?
There are three basic factors for exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. During resistance training, mechanical tension is achieved by intensity (the weight used) mixed with time under tension (duration of repetition or set of exercise), with the goal being to fatigue the muscle. Muscle damage caused by resistance training is thought to be a major factor in muscle growth through the inflammatory response. Lastly, metabolic stress is seen in the accumulation of metabolites in the muscle (aka the “pump”). In order to maximize muscle growth, all three of these mechanisms must be used.
How Many Sets and Reps Are Necessary?
In general, it may be possible to build muscle with anywhere from 3-20 reps per set. However, this range may differ from person to person so to oversimplify, something like 6-15 reps is a better range to work in. What is most important is that each set is taken either to failure or near-failure, and a load of 30-85% of 1RM (one-rep maximum) is recommended (too low may not stimulate the muscle enough; too high may cause improper form which uses other muscles to compensate).
Regarding sets, the window is ever more wide open. At a minimum, 5-10 sets per muscle per week is a good place to start. A combination of heavyweights for lower reps, and lightweight for higher reps is beneficial. The specific guidelines for hypertrophy will be discussed in its own future post. It is important to account for all variables including sets, reps, weight, and a number of days per week.
Specialized Training Techniques
In addition to manipulating the basic variables, there are several techniques that can be applied in an effort to get more bang for your buck.
This technique involves the addition of reps beyond failure, with the help of a spotter. For example, you can perform an exercise with a weight that allows you to reach failure after 8 reps, but your spotter can help “force” you to complete 12 reps. Theoretically, this can help increase both hypertrophy and strength adaptations. (Note: due to the added stress, training to failure too often can lead to overtraining, psychological burnout, and potential injury. Use this technique sparingly, such as one set per workout)
This also involves performing a set beyond failure, however, can be done without a spotter. Once failure is reached with a given weight (ex: 10 reps @ 50 lbs), you will immediately reduce the weight and continue training to failure again (ex: 8 reps @ 40 lbs). This technique could help stimulate muscle growth by increasing the time under tension. For a greater effect on fatigue and metabolic stress, multiple drop sets can be used. (Note: due to the added stress, training to failure too often can lead to overtraining, psychological burnout, and potential injury. Use this technique sparingly, such as one set per workout)
A staple in any program short on time, this technique involves performing two exercises back-to-back, with no rest in between. The most common superset includes opposing muscle groups (ex: bench press paired with bent-over row). However, you can also do this with two exercises for the same muscle group (ex: leg press and leg extension). The lack of rest allows you to perform more reps in the same amount of time, elevating fatigue and potentially contributing to increased hypertrophy.
Another technique that requires the help of a spotter (or two), heavy negative reps (aka eccentric contractions) use a weight greater than 1RM (105-125%) with a tempo of 2-3 seconds. For example, in a negative bench press, you would lower the bar in a slow and controlled fashion and then the spotter(s) would lift the weight back up. (Note: due to the added stress, doing this too often can lead to overtraining, psychological burnout, and potential injury. Use this technique sparingly)
There are many factors that contribute to muscular growth, and these are only a few of them. While a beginning lifter can achieve hypertrophy without specialized techniques, and the use of such strategies can exceed a beginner’s functional capacity, there may be some benefits after several months of training. However, all techniques listed above should be used sparingly (and not alongside each other). They can increase the risk of overtraining and/or contribute to potential injury.
Danny from Eternal Athlete