Hypertrophy training – in an untamed pursuit to build a better body, we’re rarely concerned about the long-term or how we plan to get from point A to point B; we simply want to experience a transformation. We want maximal muscle growth in minimal time and we’ll do anything to appear how we believe we’re supposed to when gazing upon the reflection staring back at us.
The pursuit may seem vain to many, but to those who can relate – it goes much deeper. The maximal muscle hypertrophy we desire is often a result of our competitive drive to reach new heights or the unconscious self-doubt (gasp) we impose upon ourselves.
Sure, for some it’s pure vanity and that’s fine too; there’s nothing wrong with a little textbook narcissism now and again. However, to understand something fully, we sometimes must start at the end result and work backward. Therefore, to better understand hypertrophy training, in this case, from an anecdotal standpoint, we’re going to look at a few trainees who’ve made major strides despite slightly different training philosophies and approaches.
Thou Shall Get Strong
Despite what anyone tells you, for the most part, strength is going to equal size. As we gaze upon the masters of bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and the popular sports such as American football that require an athlete to be very strong, it’s easy to see that maximal strength usually means an increase in muscle hypertrophy.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at Martin Berkhan, Tommy Jeffers, Layne Norton, Dave Gulledge, or any other athlete with great strength. All these guys are incredibly strong and thus possess remarkable physiques. One should also note how their training differs. While it’s obvious when looking at their programming that Tommy and Layne are focused on hypertrophy training, Dave Gulledge’s focus is primarily strength-oriented and Martin’s training preference seems to be fairly low volume (rarely looked upon as hypertrophy training).
A Look At Some Hypertrophy Training Programs
I’ve covered a few of these already but I feel it’s necessary to discuss them in this context to do this article justice.
Low Volume Hypertrophy Training – DC Training is a good example here. The concept of DC is simple; low volume, heavy weights and continuous improvement. The training template focuses on 3 training sessions per week. Exercise selection is varied from session to session but the layout is fairly minimal. This program is primarily focused on producing muscle hypertrophy via strength gains on any given movement.
Another example is the HIT training made popular with the help of Ellington Darden. Mike Mentzer also contributed to its popularity but it’s hard to say whether or not he truly followed the HIT routines or if he was just involved in promoting them. Many say he built his frame using a more conventional approach and merely maintained his physique with the HIT methods.
With this type of hypertrophy training, one might do a max set of squats once per week or every 10 days. The same applies to other movements as well. HIT training, in my opinion, is not suitable for many as it’s often difficult for most individuals to stay out of the gym. Plus, most aren’t going to see the results they’re after like they might if they followed a routine with more volume and a higher frequency.
Moderate Volume Hypertrophy Training – Lyle McDonald’s Bulking Routine is a good example of this. With these programs, you’ve normally got 2-3 movements per body part for a frequency of a few times per week. This type of hypertrophy training spans over 3-4 days depending on your personal preferences and recovery ability.
Another example is splitting up your training into limb and core days. On the limb days, you train legs and arms and on core days, you train chest, shoulders and back. I’ve done this type of training for a long time. You can opt for a 3 day version (set up like the DC template) or the 4 day version in a similar fashion as Lyle’s routine.
For each muscle group respectively, you pick two movements and perform 2-4 sets of 3-12 (rep range dependent on how you periodize it.)
With this type of training, your arms are getting hit directly and indirectly 4 times per week. This is not a problem as long as you keep the training volume moderate and manage intensity.
This type of program puts an emphasis on steady progression per each movement with some added volume when compared to DC or other low volume training methods.
Low Frequency/High Volume Hypertrophy Training – Just about any of the popular 5-7 day splits you discovered in your favorite muscle magazine will fall under this category. While this training has its place for a select few individuals, I’d never recommend it to the average trainee. I’ve seen and read about too many people doing such routines with little to no results to speak of.
Many of the mass monsters can get away with training like this for two reasons: one is the fact they are very advanced and require a stimulus that only heavy weights plus a ton of volume can provide and the other reason is that many of them are pharmaceutically assisted. When drugs enter the game, the rules become skewed.
Moderate to High(er) Frequency/Moderate Volume Hypertrophy Training – These are training programs that have you in the gym 3-6 times per week with varied intensities and volume.
HST is a great example of this training in effect. On HST, one is training full-body every other day. The idea behind it is to take advantage of recovery and peaks in protein synthesis. The frequency in this regard is fairly aggressive with each body part getting hit 3 times per week. However, it’s completely doable due to the loading protocol and built-in periodization Bryan Haycock recommends to succeed on the program.
One more way of approaching a higher frequency program is to train 6 times per week in an upper/lower split (or for more volume – push/pull/legs). While many won’t be able make such a commitment, if set up correctly, this type of training can be very productive.
Productive, in this sense, assumes that the individual knows and understands how to moderate their intensity and volume in a sensible and practical matter.
Here’s an interesting thread about high frequency training on Glenn Pendlay’s forum.
Rest-Pause Hypertrophy Training – While DC training is a form of rest-pause training, it’s not the only way of getting the hypertrophy training effect. With DC training, one goes to failure on each respective set. With other rest-pause style training, one doesn’t have to go to failure if the desire is nonexistent.
I’ve had a few email conversations with Børge Fagerli of MyoRevolution.no as well as read many of his forum posts about rest-pause training. His method of training has become known, to a select few fitness obsessed, as MyoReps. Click that link for a rough, Google translation of this training method.
He also discusses auto-regulation (which I’m having a lot of success experimenting with) in this article. Eventually, I plan to write about my personal, anecdotal discoveries pertaining to auto-regulation training.
Another addition to this rest-pause method for muscle hypertrophy can be found at WannaBeBig.com. The name they gave their program is HCT-12. Start here if you wish to read all articles on WBB about their rest-pause method.
For rest-pause training with a little bit of auto-regulation thrown into the mix, one can experience shorter, more efficient training bouts. My time is precious; therefore when I have the chance to cut down on training time, I do it.
A Look At Some Strength Training Programs
Full-Body and Moderate Frequency – Many strength training routines are on the 3 times per week schedule. The most popular strength training program is probably Starting Strength. In my opinion, it’s one of the best and simplest routines for the beginner who wishes to get started with strength training or bodybuilding. Then of course, the methods discussed in the book, Practical Programming, are just as pertinent.
Another training routine that follows closely is known as the Texas Method which incorporates a similar training style in terms of frequency but slightly different in terms of intensity depending on the day.
Sheiko programs are cool, too.
Moderate Frequency Split Training – These are your upper/lower four day strength programs that usually incorporate heavy and light days. The most famous of these is probably the Westside template and its many variations.
With these types of programs one is training each body part twice weekly in a periodized fashion. A few light days and a few heavy days can ensure your progression for a long, long time.
Another popular template is known as the 5-3-1 by Jim Wendler. Now this particular template focuses on 4 movements: the squat, bench, deadlift and shoulder press. While you’re only training the movements specifically once every 10 days or so, there’s a ton of overlap.
Now, while I could go on forever about different training methods and ideas, it’s time to move onto the heart of the matter.
What produces muscle hypertrophy? Is there such a thing as hypertrophy training specifically, or is it always going to be some hopeless mystery in which we’ll never, ever crack?
Hypertrophy Training or Strength Training?
Likely, this discussion will always be debatable. Everyone has their own experience to draw from; their own reasons or methodologies about why something works. If you walk into any gym, you’ll find big guys doing 6-day body part splits, a few guys doing upper/lower splits and then a few doing full-body training. You also find just as many guys doing the same thing, and have been for years, who look like they’ve never picked up a fork, let alone ever stepped foot inside a gym.
While everyone has their own ideas and beliefs, I feel it’s important we remain objective when discussing what works (also, what doesn’t) and why.
First, I want to take a look at someone who’s attained an incredible physique through low-volume, very intense training protocols – hardly what you’d expect for someone who had high hopes of muscle hypertrophy. If you don’t know of Martin Berkhan, allow me to introduce you.
Here’s a post of the condition he maintains year around – it’s easy to see this guy has put his time in and gotten a few things right along the way. His training resembles more of a strength-oriented focus – it’s evidently worked when you see his 270kg deadlift.
On the other side of the coin, let’s take a look at a few guys who are naturals, like Martin, that train in a different manner altogether.
Layne Norton and Tommy Jeffers are both advanced bodybuilders who do their fair share of strength work but also a decent amount of volume, too. Take a look at Layne’s five day split. Let’s just say that if you aren’t in good shape and ready for some hard work, this program would eat you alive.
Then you have guys like Dave Gulledge who are primarily known as powerlifters and only train as a means to get stronger. Most don’t care too much about hypertrophy – they only care about becoming stronger than their peers in order to bring home the trophy on competition day.
And then of course, we have the wondrous guy or gal who can grow on any routine you place them on. These folks can usually be found doing the 6-day splits they found in a magazine and growing like a weed. This is rare though, so don’t count on this type of training being optimal for many.
Recipe For Success?
It’s no doubt there’s something at play here – something we need to examine and if we don’t make a decision just yet – at least think about it. For one, I think it’s fairly obvious that strength, to an extent, is going to equal mass.
Now, this isn’t an absolute because we have to keep neural adaptation in mind. Ever heard of the newbie lifter putting 30-40lbs on his bench in a matter of a month or so? It’s simple – they started doing something they were unfamiliar with, practiced it (repetition), and then got in the groove. This is why a higher frequency is often recommended to beginners – it just makes sense to get in as much “practice’ as possible when stating out. This ensures proper form (if it’s being taught) sticks into their brain, thus making the exercise easier and safer which enables them to progress fairly rapidly.
Now, let’s make a pie.
- First Ingredient: strength – If one wishes to pack on the size, strength gains must be your focus. It’s only through adaptation and a continuous stimulus these gains will be realized. Ever read any of Dante Trudel’s thoughts on Intense Muscle? He’s constantly preaching the gospel that states whoever makes the most strength gains will likely make the most gains in lean body mass. It’s no question that the strongest dudes are almost always the biggest. Look at Ronnie Coleman deadlifting 800lbs. Picture Tom Platz squatting a small house.
- Second Ingredient: Food – I hate to say it, but this one probably scares people a bit; especially the FFB’s. This is the main determinant as to whether or not you make the gains you desire. Every guy who’s both big and strong has done his fair share of eating. It’s probably the most important part of the equation. Sure, training is up there as well but without food, it’s all in vain. Make sure, that along with the training method you decide on, you support your goals with an adequate intake of high quality calories plus some cereal and cheesecake now and then.
- Third Ingredient: TIME – We’re not talking about the magazine, either. Time, oh how short it is, is truly the only thing between you and your physique goals. Now I write that assuming you are in good health, capable of tackling the first two ingredients and have the desire to make it happen. Think about this for one second. It’s safe to say that a trainee, over his/her lifetime, could conceivably add a total of 30-50lbs of lean body mass to their frame. Think about if you had only average genetics and you added a total of 40lbs over 5 years? Your first year would be the best in terms of overall gains in body weight and as time goes on, things will slow down fairly drastically. However, just think about the guy who weighs 150lbs starting out and ends up 190lb man carved out of wood? How’s that for a visual impact? Is the time and effort worth it? I believe it is, actually.
Goals – Get Some
I think it’s safe to say the big picture is what matters here. Sure, certain training programs are better suited for some than others. If you’re goal is to gain the most strength possible, picking a strength-oriented routine is going to be more ideal than picking a program built around the concept of creating hypertrophy first. Sure you’ll get strong on either one but which one will get you to your goal faster?
The most important part of this equation is that you figure out what you want, develop your plan to get you there and then just go and do it because guess what; neither I, nor anyone else can do it for you.
You must choose to accept there are no shortcuts. You must accept that hypertrophy training is strength training (and vice versa) as long as it’s within the scope of lifting heavier weights over time whilst allowing yourself to recover as a result of proper nutrition and lots of shuteye.
Now take everything you’ve learned, sit down in a corner by yourself. Take out a sheet of paper and write out your goals exactly as you see them. Then, simply work backward until you arrive at where you are currently.
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