Important Considerations For Hypertrophy Training To Maximize Muscle Growth

Posted by Shaun LaFleur on


Introduction

If you want to focus solely on building muscle at the fastest rate possible, there are a few things you need to understand. In this article I will go over some of the most important concepts when it comes to maximizing muscle growth, as well as touch on some of the misconceptions that revolve around this topic, namely the differences between training for strength and training for muscle. Believe it or not, there is a difference and when training to maximize one, the other will suffer.

Volume levels and tracking recommendations

In our article [The Truth About Rep Ranges] we discuss how all rep ranges build roughly the same amount of muscle as long as you take those sets near failure. Additionally, the more sets (volume) you do in any rep range, the more muscle you will build, even if the lower amount of sets equals a higher total volume load.

This means that tracking volume in traditional terms of "volume load" (Sets x Reps x Load) may not be the most practical way to track volume for hypertrophy specific goals. A more modern and practical approach to tracking total volume for hypertrophy is to track how many "hard sets" (a "hard set" is defined as a set taken at least 4 reps from failure or closer) you perform and not worry at all about the rep range of those sets. 

A baseline recommendation for volume requirements for hypertrophy is to train a muscle with a minimum of 10 sets per week. There are definitely benefits to going much higher than this, but eventually you will run into diminishing returns once you increase sets past a certain point, and if you perform too much volume, you can actually slow down progress or even regress due to difficulties recovering. Below is an image derived from volume recommendations from Mike Israetel. This is simply a rough estimate and individual needs will vary widely.



A solid strategy is to start out with a base of 10 sets per muscle per week, then slowly increase the amount of sets you're doing each week. Do this until you feel as though you're reaching a point where the volume levels being performed are starting to cause recovery problems. From here you can either maintain the amount of sets you're performing for a while or begin to intentionally overreach and do more sets for a week or two followed by a deload to assist in recovery. After the deload you can increase the load on the bar or add reps, and then reset volume levels back down to it's old baseline of 10 or so per week, followed by adding sets over the weeks again but with the added weight and/or reps.

 

Train with enough frequency to perform adequate volume.

In our article [Training Frequency: How often should you train?], we discuss that research shows that training a muscle more than once per week is ideal, with anything over two times a week providing similar returns as twice a week. This suggests that you should train each muscle group at least twice per week. It is also much easier to perform higher levels of volume when training with higher frequencies.

Consider training a muscle 2-3 times per week so that you not only gain the benefits of training your muscles more frequently, but you make it much easier to increase volume levels without your workouts becoming excessively long.

Imagine that you need to train chest with 20 sets this week. If you only worked chest once a week, you'd have to perform 20 sets in that one workout. Not very practical and if you do manage to do it, odds are your latter sets during that workout will produce a sub par stimulation because of poor performance due to fatigue. Training two or three times a week, however, makes getting these 20 sets in much easier. Each session would only require you perform 10 sets for twice a week frequency and 6-7 per session for three times a week - much more manageable!

 

Managing volume levels with muscle prioritization

Each muscle requires a certain minimum amount of sets per week to maintain its size, a certain amount of sets to grow at all, and finally a certain amount of sets where it will grow at a maximal pace but begin to run into recovery problems. These concepts are often referred to as Maintenance Volume (MAV), Minimally Effective Volume (MEV) and Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). A muscle can grow in any set range that is between it's MEV and MRV, while the closer you train a muscle to it's MRV, the more it will grow. The optimal range for muscle growth is typically a range between these two that is called MAP or Maximal Adaptive Volume.

The closer you train a muscle to it's MRV, the more training fatigue you will accumulate due to the higher overall volume levels. This means that you can't simply train every muscle near their MRVs at the same time without running into recovery issues. If you attempted to train every single muscle with volume levels near their MRVs, you'd quickly dig yourself into a recovery hole and be unable to properly recover between workouts, thus lowering your long term ability to build muscle.

To alleviate this problem, you need to prioritize muscle groups in each training cycle. I'd recommend choosing 1-3 muscle groups that you want to grow maximally, and train those muscles near their MRVs, while every other muscle can be trained with slightly less volume that is further away from their MRVs, but still enough to grow at a decent pace. For some strong points you have, you may even be okay with training those muscles at only their maintenance volumes to allow yourself more room to push other muscle groups closer to their MRVs.

 

Choose exercises with a good SFR

SFR stands for Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio, a term coined by [Mike Israetel]. SFR refers to the ratio in which an exercise produces hypertrophy adaptations versus how much fatigue it generates. Some exercises such as the deadlift will generally have bad SFR for all/most lifters, while most other exercises will have different SFRs for different individuals. This means that each individual should test out many different variations of exercises so they can discover which exercises provide the best SFR. 

An example of an exercise with a bad SFR would be someone who performs the bench press to build the pecs who doesn't ever feel fatigue in their pecks after doing bench press, even if they use good form. This would mean that while the bench press is a great movement, for the sole purpose of growing this particular lifter's pecs, it may not have the best SFR, because the bench press in their case would generate more overall fatigue than it does pec hypertrophy.

Another thing to look for in terms of fatigue generation is just overall discomfort. If a movement gives you aches or pains when you do it a lot, you may want to consider different movements that stimulate the same muscles without the additional wear and tear.

 

Put strength on the back burner

While there is nothing wrong with expecting and looking forward to making strength gains, you should put training very heavy on the back burner. Avoid training in rep ranges lower than 5-6 reps. While most rep ranges build similar amounts of muscle, training very heavy produces much more fatigue and will therefore have a very poor SFR for hypertrophy. On top of this, because of the increased fatigue that very low rep ranges cause, it will hinder your ability to perform a lot of volume, directly impacting how much muscle you can build.

It's a common misconception that you have to get stronger in order to build muscle. It's actually quite the opposite. Getting stronger is a side effect of your muscles growing (as well as many other things that are beyond the scope of this article), not the other way around. So while you don't need to get stronger in order to get bigger, getting stronger can be a great sign that you're getting bigger. Naturally, you will still need to add load to the bar over time in order to maintain the correct proximity to failure as you get stronger. 

Another tip is not to obsess over the "big 3" (Bench, Squat & Deadlift) like many lifters do. These movements, while great, are not requirements for hypertrophy training, especially if they don't have a good SFR for you personally. The deadlift, for example, is often one of the most commonly left out compound movements for hypertrophy specific routines because it has such a bad SFR for most lifters.

 

Avoid using momentum and cheating on exercises

For hypertrophy training, the goal of any exercise is to specifically target a muscle or muscle groups and work them until they're near their limits. It's not to lift a certain amount of load or to reach a certain amount of repetitions. Because of this, you want to make sure that when you perform an exercise you avoid using momentum for the sake of lifting a certain amount of weight or performing a certain amount of repetitions.

Take a bicep curl for example. Often times people become obsessed with their strength on an exercise and want to lift a certain weight on the bar or they want to hit a certain number of reps, so instead of focusing on strictly moving through the range of motion in order to stimulate their biceps, they begin swinging their body and using momentum just for the sake of saying they were able to lift x amount of weight or perform x amount of repetitions. When this happens, they no longer stimulate the biceps nearly as much and their biceps growth will suffer. After all, your biceps don't care how much weight you can lift or how many reps you can do; if you don't take them near their limits, they have no reason to adapt and grow.

When you start bringing momentum into exercises, you take the focus off of the muscles that the movement was intended to target and increase your chance of injury. You are essentially wasting time and putting yourself at a higher risk of having to take time off from getting hurt.


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