My philosophy for most individuals who want to gain lean muscle mass, especially novice exercisers, is to train for hypertrophy.
Muscular hypertrophy training is the process of making your muscles grow bigger and stronger through focused training with adequate and progressively challenging resistance. Training this way causes controlled damage to your muscle fibres, which prompts them to repair and grow larger.
Let's discuss what hypertrophy is and discuss its basic principles, why I think it's one of the best types of muscular training, and then answer some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about programming for it.
What is hypertrophy?
When it comes to building lean muscle mass, there are few types of training as effective as muscular hypertrophy training. To understand why, we must first look at how we gain muscle in the first place.
To build muscle, your muscles must work hard (the "stimulus"). This hard work causes some damage to the target muscles, but it's a good kind of damage. This damage triggers your body to repair the target muscles, which makes them grow bigger and stronger. This process uses up energy and leads to muscle fatigue. This is when the muscles get sore and need a break, which is also a sign that they're growing.
Muscular hypertrophy training pushes muscles to their limits, prompting them to repair and grow. It does this in a targeted way by emphasising the stress on the target muscles during the eccentric and isometric phases of an exercise. Resistance or repetitions are constantly increased (67–85% of 1-RM), never settling for the status quo and always working to challenge yourself throughout your sets (3–6) and repetitions (6–12)—this is known as progressive overload.
As I previously mentioned, hypertrophy is just 1 type of muscular training and it's by no means the best type. The "best" type of training is the one that's suitable for your ability and the goals you wish to achieve. Other types of training include:
Muscular strength training: This is about building raw strength. It involves lifting heavy weights (>85% of 1-RM) for fewer sets (2–6) and repetitions (<6).
Muscular endurance training: This is all about sustained effort. It involves lifting lighter weights (<67% of 1-RM) for a few sets (2–3) and with many repetitions (>12).
Muscular power training: This combines strength and speed to generate power and explosivity. It involves lifting heavy weights (>85% of 1-RM) rapidly and forcefully for fewer sets (3–5) and repetitions (1–2).
It's important to note that it's common for different types of training to overlap, however, if you want to gain lean muscle mass, muscular hypertrophy training is arguably your best option.
The benefits of hypertrophy training
But muscular hypertrophy training is about more than just building eye-catching muscles, it has several other benefits that, in my opinion, make it the best type of training for most individuals who aren't in pursuit of specific performance goals.
Stimulus vs. fatigue
When it comes to weight lifting, striking the right balance between stimulus and fatigue is key—muscular hypertrophy training perfectly hits this sweet spot. It challenges the target muscles enough to prompt growth without pushing them to exhaustion and destroying your joints in the process.
Hypertrophy is a practical training type for individuals with demanding personal and professional lives. It focuses on quality over quantity, ensuring maximum stimulus to the muscle without having to commit to high-volume weight-lifting sessions for hours each week.
Develop great form
Regardless of the type of muscular training, developing great form is a top priority to avoid injury and ensure you're targeting the right muscles when executing lifts. Muscular hypertrophy training emphasises training far enough away from your 1-rep max (1-RM) to ensure that you're never pushing your muscles to unsafe limits.
It also emphasises controlled movements through a moderate tempo, which helps develop great form, especially among novice exercisers (0–2 years of weight lifting). An example of a moderate tempo is 2–3 seconds lowering the weight (eccentric), holding the weight in the muscle's most stretched position for 1 second (isometric), and then lifting the weight for 1–2 seconds (concentric).
Not rocket science
Muscular hypertrophy training isn't rocket science—it's quite straightforward. It doesn't involve complex calculations, complex programming, or exotic ways to train. You simply need to maintain good control throughout your lifts and progressively increase resistance or repetitions to provide an adequate challenge each training session. This makes it accessible for all levels of fitness and easy to track throughout your programme.
Putting it into practice: FAQs
Let's answer some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to beginning muscular hypertrophy training.
How do I know if I'm stimulating the muscle enough?
Put simply, if around the time or when you're training there's a good amount of tension in the target muscles, then that's probably going to be enough stimulus to prompt growth.
You'll hear people call tension by several other names, such as "burn", "pump", or "fatigue", but they all mean the same thing and they're all probably going to prompt growth.
If you don't feel any tension, then you're probably not stimulating the muscle enough, which won't damage it, which won't prompt repair, which won't lead to muscle growth.
Which exercises should I do?
When it comes to selecting exercises to include in a muscular hypertrophy training programme, I would generally recommend either investing time in doing research or engaging the services of a personal trainer to do it for you.
If you do opt to do it yourself, here are 3 questions you can ask yourself when experimenting with new exercises to help you decide which to keep and which to ditch.
Am I feeling enough tension in the target muscles? Prioritise exercises that do.
Are my joints getting destroyed? Choose exercises that stress your joints the least.
Am I too fatigued? If an exercise is so hard that it pushes you to breaking point and negatively impacts your motivation, then there's probably a better choice.
How should I progress my programme?
We've already established that resistance and repetitions should be progressive to ensure an adequate challenge that stimulates target muscles, but when should you progress the exercises themselves?
Firstly, you shouldn't change your exercises too quickly. I generally recommend keeping the same programme for at least 4 to 8 weeks. That allows for enough time to drill movements and perfect form, but not so much time that they become stale and boring.
When you do want to mix up your exercises, you should keep the ones that are giving you great tension in the target muscles, especially those that are steadily climbing in resistance or repetitions. On the other hand, you should probably replace exercises that aren't giving a good stimulus, are tough on your joints, or are causing you to plateau, especially if it's been 2 to 3 weeks of no gains over the last month.
If you're planning on starting a muscular hypertrophy training programme, here are some top tips to follow:
Aim for 2–3 muscular training sessions per week, working major muscle groups twice per week.
Aim for 67–85% of 1-RM for 3–6 sets of 6–12 repetitions.
Continually chase the feeling of enough tension in the active muscles.
When executing exercises, practise a controlled tempo and prioritise great form.
Prioritise compound movements (isolation movements should come afterwards).
Replace exercises when they cease to give you a great stimulus, but not too often.
If you want to build lean muscle mass through muscular hypertrophy training, get in touch, it's my speciality. Book a free 30-minute consultation with me where we can discuss your fitness journey to date and collaborate on clear and effective goals. If you'd just like to receive a steady stream of free weekly advice, tips, and guides about fitness, consider subscribing to Root Fitness and following me on Instagram.