I will preface this here, I can only help you understand the getting jacked part. Not too hot on the the tanned part, you’ll need to figure that bit out yourself..
Last weeks article on strength training briefly touched on Skeletal muscle hypertrophy. This week, we will take a closer look at Hypertrophy. Specifically, we will look at 1) what hypertrophy actually is 2) How we can elicit hypertrophy through nutrition and training & 3) Hypertrophy in sports – is it a good or a bad thing?
What is hypertrophy?
Muscular hypertrophy is simply the growth of skeletal muscle tissue in the body. The opposite of hypertrophy is atrophy. This is when the muscle wastes away, typically this occurs from injury, however there are some diseases which cause muscular atrophy.
For hypertrophy to occur at all, there needs to be 1) an appropriate training stimulus placed upon the body and 2) adequate nutritional intake to support muscle growth. The latter being arguably more important. There are other factors which can assist with muscle growth. However, unless you’re taking of anabolic hormones / performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), they are unlikely to have much of an impact if your eating and training is poor.
Nutrition for hypertrophy
Looking at the nutritional side of things first, we need to take a brief look at the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, i.e energy balance. If we wish to lose weight, we need to use more energy than our body requires to maintain equilibrium. For example, if your maintenance calories are 2000kcal per day, and you eat 1500kcal per day, you will lose weight. If you wish to maintain weight, you need to ensure your energy balance is 2000kcal (or thereabouts). If you wish to gain weight, you need to ensure that your energy intake is greater than 2000kcal. By consuming over 2000kcal consistently, you will gain weight. The amount in which you consume over homeostasis, will determine 1) how quickly you gain weight and 2) the quality of the tissue which you gain.
The law of thermodynamics is constant, whether we like that or not. Calories in vs calories out is what determines weight loss or gain, pretty simple but many cannot grasp that.
Anyone who states otherwise is a blithering idiot. If you want to gain muscle, then you need to be in a positive energy balance. There are only 2 exceptions to this rule, who can gain some lean tissue (Measured by DEXA scan). Firstly, complete newbies can put on some lean tissue, however the time it takes and also the amount of tissue gained is pretty low. Efforts would be better put into a proper “growth” phase. Secondly, if you are using PED’s then you can gain tissue whilst losing fat, however the tissue growth rate is still relatively low (relative to PED users) and there can be a whole plethora of other health risks if you choose to go down this avenue.
So, you know you need to be in a positive energy balance. But how is best to go about it? Well, simply put, eat more food. Your 2 best friends when trying to gain muscle are protein and carbohydrates. Both are needed to gain muscle. Fat is as well, however adequate fat consumption is often achieved in a balanced diet without too much thought.
The body requires protein, specifically Amino acids to function. There are 11 which the body produces naturally, and 9 which must be obtained through nutritional intake via protein sources. Protein sources vary in quality dependant on the source. Animal proteins (Dairy, beef, chicken, fish etc) are classified as “complete” proteins, because they have a full amino profile i.e they contain all 9 amino acids which your body does not produce. Many plant-based protein sources are “incomplete” protein sources, as they are missing one or more of the amino acids. This doesn’t mean that plant-based athlete’s cannot make gains, far from it. They just need to mix protein sources to make a complete amino profile.
Looking a little more closely at amino acids, there is one of particular importance known as Leucine. Leucine is what is known as a branch chained amino acid (BCAA), and research indicates that it appears to be the most important amino acid obtained through exogenous consumption. To maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) you need to exceed the leucine threshold, which requires approximately 2.5mg of Leucine to do so. animal products are generally much higher in Leucine, therefore may be viewed as a better source of protein from a nutritional standpoint. If you do consume a plant based diet, it is worth checking out which protein sources are high in Leucine for you, as you will stand a better chance of being in an anabolic state (Discussed below).
Protein is the building blocks for skeletal tissue and consuming protein stimulates MPS and is required for repair & building of skeletal muscle. One thing gym bros get right (Albeit massively overstate) is the need for protein when trying to gain muscle. To gain muscle, you need to ensure you spend as much time in an anabolic (protein synthesis > protein degradation) state as possible, which requires MPS to be stimulated.
Resistance training is catabolic (Degrades muscle) in nature, so protein intake becomes more important for those who lift weight & undergo training where muscle tissue is broken down.
To stimulate MPS there needs to be a minimum threshold of protein consumed, which is around 20g. Max protein synthesis (Per hour) appears to be in the 20-40g range. By consuming protein on a regular basis you increase the amount of time you spend in an anabolic state, thus able to build lean tissue. There was an old myth that you HAD to get protein into your system within 30 minutes of training, known as the “anabolic window” or you were going to lose all of your gains. However, this has been shown not to be the case numerous times through controlled studies (Sorry bros). Overall, the research suggests that ensuring the time spent in a state of a positive protein synthesis over a 72 – 96 hour time frame is more important for muscle growth. So if you don’t get protein into your system within the first 30 minutes don’t worry you will probably be fine.
However, if your nutritional habits are poor, then getting yourself into the habit of having meals / snacks at specific times & on a regular basis is a good idea. Habits create behaviours. Building a habit of eating at specific times of days helps to ensure you are getting multiple MPS occurrences throughout the day ensures you are keeping that positive synthesis balance, thus more likely to build tissue.
There is still some debate on how much protein an individual requires, however Layne Norton (Completed his PhD in Protein metabolism) and Martin Macdonald at MNU have discussed protein requirements extensively and are both worth checking out. Research seems to indicate that the bare minimum requirement is around 1.8g per Kg of Lean body mass (LBM = Total body mass – fat mass). Optimal appears to be around 2.4g / kg LBM, and the upper limit in research is around 3.5g / kg LBM. More doesn’t necessarily mean more tissue will grow, just a better chance of being in a positive protein balance (Protein requirements can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdVMuUztWec).
Carbohydrates are also important for hypertrophy. Consumption of carbohydrates allows intramuscular glycogen stores to be resynthesized following training, which is important for athletes as intramuscular glycogen plays a large part in providing energy. Consumption of carbohydrates also aid toward ensuring a positive energy balance, which provides a fuel source to be oxidised. This spares protein from being oxidised, which allows protein to be
used for MPS rather than oxidised as a substrate. This is referred to as the protein sparing effect of glycogen. For those looking to gain muscle, this can be effective. Protein based foods score high on satiety (Fullness from eating) where as carbohydrates (Depending on the type of carbs) can be less satiating. For someone who has a metabolism that is through the roof, this can be a useful factor. You will get away with eating a little less protein, and adding more carbs due to this protein sparing effect. Getting in calories then becomes a little easier, as you feel less full thus can eat more.
When increasing energy intake to put yourself into a positive energy balance, you need to remember that putting on lean muscle tissue is a painstakingly slow process, taking 8-12 weeks for any kind of real meaningful growth. As an athlete not using PED’s, you are looking at around maximum 18kg per year of lean tissue. If you are a teenage male, you might be lucky and gain a little more. If you are an older male, or a female athlete it will be less. Patience and consistency is key. You only need a small energy surplus to stimulate growth. 250-500kcal per day consistently should help, up toward 750-1000kcal if your metabolism is very fast. Throwing extra calories doesn’t cause muscle gain to occur any quicker, however, it will cause fat gain to occur faster. Gaining fat mass is generally the last thing you want to do as an athlete. So a hypertrophy phase is not an excuse to eat like an asshole.
Training for hypertrophy
The good news is that training to gain muscle is a lot less complicated than the nutritional side of things. As I stated in last week’s article, exercising in the 30-85% 1rm has been shown to elicit hypertrophy.. so as long as you are eating properly and doing something, you’ll probably gain some lean tissue.
However, there are some nuances to training for hypertrophy. Some of these nuances are more applicable to athlete’s, however I will discuss both
Light weight, high repetition training for hypertrophy
The use of light weight and high repetition training for hypertrophy is pretty well documented. You only need to listen to a bodybuilder talk (Wouldn’t recommend this, they are inherently dull 99% of the time) about training for 0.3 nanoseconds to hear them talk about chasing “the pump”. This is simply when they perform an exercise for high repetitions (12-30 typically) with short rest intervals. By doing so, the muscle does not get the chance to fully recover.
Muscle recovery being the clearance of metabolic wastes (Waste products). This creates a “pumped up” burning kinda sensation in the muscles you have been exercising, making you feel all swole and huge.
Again, the gym bros got it right. This can induce hypertrophic gains over a sustained period of time. Training with high metabolic waste accumulation is pretty uncomfortable, however all training at some point should be uncomfortable. If you are in the “gen pop” category, metabolite waste training can be used to help put on some mass, however it is not the only way, and not necessarily the most effective way. A downside to this type of training is that it can induce some pretty heavy DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness).
Another downside, more important for athletic populations, is that the accumulation of waste product can affect the muscles ability to contract. This could be viewed upon 2 ways. At best (of the worst) case scenarios, they are not able to produce much force and are getting beaten in sprints, jumps etc. At worst, the muscle cannot contract (Or co-contract) with enough force nor fast enough during a high-risk manoeuvre such as a sidestep cut. This causes instability around the joint, and also hampers force dissipation, resulting in an injury to the athlete, side-lining them for weeks, months or in absolute worst-case scenarios, for good.
The inability to contract (Or co contract) during a higher risk manoeuvre such as a sidestep cut, causes them to get injured. This is not to say you should never use high metabolic waste training as an athlete, but if you are going to implement it then you should use it sensibly and far away from game time or intense training. Ideally, it would be an off-season tool or used to try and isolate smaller muscle groups such as shoulders and arms.
Heavy weight, low repetition training for hypertrophy
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have lifting heavier weights for lower reps for hypertrophy. This method of training is popular in strength sports, because it gets a good blend of practising skill acquisition under heavier loads (Practising movement patterns, gaining neural adaptations etc) as well as undergoing skeletal muscle architectural and structural adaptations. The advantage of this type of training is that you get stronger, alongside putting on mass. Heavy loads would be classed as anywhere in the range of 75-85% 1rm for hypertrophy. Loads over 85% tend not to have much of an effect on hypertrophy because it becomes 1) very much a neural / technique element to lifting and 2) you cannot perform much volume work at loads exceeding 85%. Volume is a large driver of hypertrophy (As discussed later).
A consideration for this style of training is the effect of fatigue, particularly axial fatigue. When performing this type of training, exercises implemented are typically big compound movements. Squats, deadlifts etc. These carry a greater fatiguing effect on the whole body, particularly through the spine. The spine is important as it is connected to the Central nervous system (CNS) which controls the body. Accumulated fatigue to the CNS can cause a decrease in drive, thus performance. When performing these exercises, you are also at
higher risk of injury due to the higher loads on the bar. Adequate recovery between sets, and sessions is of paramount importance. Again, this can be used in Gen pop fairly simply, just adjust it around your life if necessary. For athlete’s, consideration around training and games is important. The nature of your sport may also impact this. For example, if you are a front row forward, doing heavy squats before scrum practise might be a bad idea..
A mid-range approach is often used. Moderate intensity through a moderate repetition range for athletes. If you are within the gen pop category you have far more scope to play with things. Combining both heavy . low reps and light / high reps can often work. Pick 1-3 compound movements (Depending on your session style) for heavy / mid-range work) then pick some isolation work for the high rep / low load training. Keep progressing this over time. If you are unsure on progression, check out my previous article on progressive overload (https://www.stewartathleticdevelopment.com/post/what-drives-progression-the-key-to-understanding-and-implementing-progressive-overload).
There are also some training techniques, which I will highlight briefly, that can be used for hypertrophy:
Drop sets – perform 1-3 top working sets before working down the weights. E.g if you were squatting 3 plates you might go 2x6 @140kg, 1x12@ 100kg, 1x20@ 60kg
Super sets – This is where you perform 2 exercises that are separated by a small margin e.g 30s. this is typically performed in an agonistic / antagonistic manner. E.g performing dumbbell bench press, 30s rest then dumbbell rows & then taking your full recovery. This is an effective way to get a lot of work in a short time frame.
Pyramid sets – This is where the repetitions decrease per working set, but the weight increases. E.g a set of 12 at 80kg, a set of 10 at 90kg and a set of 8 at 100kg would be a pyramid set
Reverse pyramid sets – The reverse of above. You start low and decrease weight and increase reps. E.g a set of 8 at 100kg, set of 10 at 90kg, set of 12 at 80kg
Tempo work – This is where you deliberalty increase the eccentric (descent), isometric (pause) and concentric (Upward) phase of the lift. A 3-2-3 tempo would be 3 count down, 2 count pause, 3 count up on a repetition.
Density training – This is where you perform a set amount of work in a set time. E.g you set a 20-minute timer, and do 1x10 push ups, 1x10 pull ups, 1x10 bicep curl, 1x10 tricep extensions, 1x10 bird dogs and complete as many rounds of this as possible in the 20 minute time frame.
Hypertrophy for athlete’s, is it a good thing?
So you now know how hypertrophy occurs from a nutritional and a training standpoint… but is it a good thing for your sport? With extra muscle comes extra weight, is this a good thing?
Like pretty much everything S&C related, it is not a “yes or no” answer. It is dependant on 1) the sport you compete in & 2) your individual needs. We will look at both closer.
For endurance sports, the extra weight may become more of a hinderance. Larger muscles do have the capacity to produce greater force than smaller muscles, which can increase locomotion and movement economy. However, extra mass may actually detract from movement economy, as it costs more energy to move more weight. When implementing S&C for endurance athlete’s you want to try and increase strength and power with minimal weight gain. This improves relative strength and power / weight ratio. You want to be able to produce as much power at a lighter body weight. However, there may come a point where you have absolutely tapped out your force / power capabilities for the muscle mass you have. When you reach this point, you may want to increase your muscle mass by a small amount.
Weight class sports (Excluding strength sports)
When competing in a sport which involves weight classes, you need to keep an eye on your body mass throughout your training, both removed from competition and when close to competing. In an ideal world, you will be filling out your weight class with as much muscle and as little fat mass as possible. If you are carrying a lot of extra fluff, it may be worth
looking to work on a body recomposition, so that the weight you carry is more useful. If you are consistently under weight (Which is rare) it would be worth trying to fill out, however you want to ensure you are maintaining a good power / weight & relative strength ratio. If you are consistently overweight for competition, it might be worth looking at why. Is it self-discipline? Or do you need to look to move up a weight class? If you are already very lean, and cutting weight becomes a struggle then moving up a weight class may be a viable option
Strength sports are more unique in that they are more or less entirely dependent on max force or power. There are elements to strongman where conditioning plays a part, however brute strength is still a huge part of it. There are some similarities in considerations for weight classes as above. There is no sense in filling out a weight class with fat mass as it isn’t going to do much for you. And if you are killing yourself with weight cuts, then you should definitely consider moving up a weight class. However if you are underweight, or looking to fill out your weight class there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t focus on some hypertrophy training and put on some mass. Your sport / activity will hugely benefit for it, assuming you maintain your technical skill. One thing to keep in mind from this is that big changes in mass (Both gaining and losing) will change your leverages, so you may need to adjust your technique accordingly.
Other sports (Rugby, football, hockey etc)
This will be largely individual to 1) your needs and 2) your positional needs. If you are a striker in football, you likely don’t need to be built like a brick shithouse. It may not necessarily be harmful, but other qualities are of more important. On the flipside, if you are a Rugby union back Rower and weigh 80kg’s soaking weight, you might wanna think about filling out a bit.
The reoccurring theme here, is the relative strength & power to weight ratio. If you are looking to gain some mass, you need to ensure that the mass you gain is 1) quality tissue and 2) not making you slower or less powerful. If these qualities keep improving, then
hypertrophy may be beneficial. Some benefits to improved hypertrophy are 1) improved robustness 2) potential to be stronger / more powerful 3) for contact / Collison sports such as rugby you have more weight behind you. You can become a human wrecking ball. Ever tried to stop a 120kg back rower who can shift? I have, it’s bloody hard and not a fun day at the office.
I hope this article helped your understanding of the mechanisms that induce hypertrophy, and some considerations for gaining mass!
Until next time