Hypertrophy: Building Muscle


As a gym owner and personal trainer I have been around a lot people seeking results. Some use a lot of supplements, some don't use any. The one thing that remains constant in the ones who see results: they put in the work and the effort and push themselves hard! If you want it, go and get it!

Not everyone is going to want bigger muscles (hard to believe since bigger is always better!); some competitive lifters want to stay at a certain body weight (putting on muscle size increases body weight), most females that go into a gym don’t want to get “bulky”, and some people just don’t intend to go for the larger appearance physically. Aside from the few exceptions, this article will help guide those individuals training for size or strength to achieve their goals.

There are two types of muscle fibers in the body, fast twitch which are used for strength, power, and give muscles their size, and slow twitch which are used for endurance or any aerobic activity. With hypertrophy, the goal is to target the fast twitch muscle fibers (since they are responsible for the size of the muscle).

Understanding Hypertrophy

There are two techniques to build muscle size, and the easiest way to understand this is by their goals; body building muscle size and strength training muscle size. Both fall under a term called hypertrophy (body builders want sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and strength trainers want myofibrillar hypertrophy), which is defined as the enlargement of an organ or tissue. 

A body builders goal is to increase the size of the muscle as much as possible; although still important (to target the fast twitch fibers), you will not be concerned about the weight lifted as much, and you will train for the “pump” or “burn” (which is increasing the production of a fluid called sarcoplasm, hence the name sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) and until muscle fatigue or failure. The goal of this is to increase the fiber size and the other proteins in the muscle not used for force production.

Training for muscle strength hypertrophy, which directly impacts force production, will be trained with heavier load to engage fast twitch fibers (hence the name myofibrillar… fiber is in that word somewhere I think) and less focus on the “pump”, and also working until muscle fatigue. The goal of this is to increase the size of the individual fibers that form your muscle because a bigger muscle fiber produces more strength.

Training Techniques

Things that will be factored into your training are sets, rep ranges, rest time, and tempo.

Sets: a group of reps performed in sequence                  
Reps: the number of times an exercise is performed in one set
Rest time: the time between each set of an exercise
Tempo: broken down by the movements of the exercise: eccentric, isometric, and concentric; expressed in seconds or counts. 3:1:2 (for bench press that would mean 3 count down, 1 count hold at chest, 2 count back to start position).
Load: how much weight used for the exercise. This can be the most challenging for people, and in my own experience I would blame that mostly on fear. Weight training can be intimidating because of injury horror stories. This is why understanding lifting technique and form is very important. If you are not sure of what your body should be doing, ask for advice from a professional or research as much as possible!

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Body Building Hypertrophy

So, your goal is to be as big as the GOAT, Mr. Schwarzenegger himself?! You want to be chasing the “pump” or “burn” along with muscle fatigue during your exercises. For majority of individuals this is achieved by:
3 – 5 sets
8 – 12 reps
60 – 90 second rest
4:1:2 tempo
Load that causes fatigue within the desired rep range

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Strength Training Hypertrophy

You don’t like the bulky look but want to be able lift a car to change a flat tire in the rare event that you don’t have a jack but do have a spare?! Your concern will not be the “pump” or “burn”, but instead it will be focused on heavier load and muscle fatigue. For majority of individuals this is achieved by:
3 – 5 sets
6 – 8 reps
60 – 90 seconds rest
2:1:2 tempo
Load that causes fatigue within the desired rep range

Training for body building hypertrophy can be done as long as you are making progress. It is important to have a program to follow and a goal in mind (if you want bigger arms, measure them every 4 weeks to see if they have grown).

Training for strength hypertrophy should be focused around your goal specifically. If you are preparing for a competition this should be done 6-9 months prior to the competition date. If you have switched from strength training (normally 3-6 rep exercises) don’t be discouraged if you try to max out immediately after two months of hypertrophy and don’t hit your previous best. The goal during hypertrophy is to get bigger muscles, sometimes you need to “step back” to move forward. You now need to train your body with reps in the strength range again, and if you trained the hypertrophy phase correctly, you should be stronger than before after a few weeks in a strength phase (which is why hypertrophy should be done a long time before a competition).

I can’t stress enough the importance of putting in the work and following these basic parameters… there are exceptions based around certain individuals and body types and other variables. If you put in the work, follow the rest periods, fail within the rep range, you WILL see results.

Ryan Sensenig