Who needs a Personal Trainer? Part 2: Hypertrophy for dummies

Part 3 of the Who needs a Personal Trainer series is going to shed some light on what 90% of the people that goes to the gym do and how you can avoid their pitfalls.

Welcome to the most popular and most over utilized way to workout. I’m talking about muscle hypertrophy aka “3 sets of 10”.  If you ever wished to have bigger arms or being ripped then you’ll get something out of this.

Hypertrophy is the increase in size of an organ. So when we say, muscle hypertrophy, we are talking about increasing the size of the muscle. This is why bodybuilders use this method.

In order to increase the size of the muscle, volume with a moderately heavy weight is needed.

People tend to abuse this form of working out by doing a set of 10 with a weight they can easily do 12 reps with. Or they stick with a weight they have been lifting for weeks or months.

The idea behind hypertrophy is to enter a state of constant overload so your muscles have no choice but to grow.

Getting to this constant overload can be achieved 3 ways. Increase the weight, increase the volume and increase the frequency. We are going to leave the frequency alone in this phase and focus more on volume and weight. We can increase the frequency later on in the strength phase. Too much of these components will lead to burnout and injuries. And no one likes that.

How do I induce hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is induced at a rep range of 6-12. Six reps borders on the strength/hypertrophy line and 12 borders on the endurance line.  At very least, 3 sets should be performed of each exercise. Remember we want volume, so 4-5 sets shouldn’t be out of the question. I always aim for at least 30 reps per exercise to start a hypertrophy phase.

How much weight is a “moderately heavy” weight?

Now the reps are secondary to the weight you are lifting. Studies have shown that lifting 67-85% of your 1RM will induce hypertrophy. (Here is a link to see your 1RM.) Like I said earlier, people tend to lift less for a certain amount of reps. They’ll do 12 reps when they could do 2-3 more. Using this practice will keep you at the same weight/size you have been.

Should I stick to multijoint or single joint exercises?

This is not a political answer, but you should focus on both. Both type add value in their own way. Don’t I sound like a dad trying to pick my favorite between my two kids. Multijoint exercises, like the bench press or squat, use multiple joints to move the weight. These are your heavy lifts. When you compared to the single joint exercises, like curls and leg extensions, you have to use lighter weights or you risk injury.

Program your workouts with multijoint exercises in the beginning and single joint at the end.

Starting off with multijoint exercises in the beginning you are fresh and able to lift more than if you waited until the end. Save the single joints to finish off your muscles for a pump. I’ll also stick machines at the end for a finisher.

What is the “Pump”?

Since I just brought it up, I figured I’d explain it. The pump is when the muscles are filled with blood, which makes them look huge and it gives you a euphoric feeling (for me at least). It last for a few minutes but it serves as the body’s way to bring blood and nutrients to the muscle that’s being worked. As a side note, this is what Arnold had to say about the “pump” in Pumping Iron.

How can I keep myself from falling into a pitfall like everyone else with hypertrophy?

Ever hear “variety is the spice of life”? Well variety is also the spice of hypertrophy. Vary the reps, weight and exercises. Given the linear periodization model from last week, you’ll notice the reps go down and the percent of 1RM increases as the weeks progress. This is the progressive overload we were talking about earlier.

Here is an example of varying the reps and weight used to help induce hypertrophy. I’ve had massive success with performing 3 sets of 12,10,8 reps and increase the weight by at least 5-10 lbs. each set (depending on if it is a single or multi-limb exercise). For example, I’ll do my first set of 12 reps with 180 lbs. on the leg extension. Rest for 30-60s. For set 2, I’ll up the weight to 190 lbs. and do 10 reps. Rest for 30-60s. Set 3 I’ll up the weight 200lbs and do 8 reps. Progressive overload in action. Then the following time I do the leg extension I’ll use 190 lbs for 12 reps to start. Then I’ll add 10 lbs. for every set after. This way for the 3 weeks or so that I do hypertrophy, I can ensure that I am increasing the weight used.

Single limb movements (dumbbell curls for example) I only up the weight by 5 lbs. Less muscle moving the weight so the increase is less.

How to breakup the workout.

I have always found the best way for me to achieve hypertrophy is to do the typical bodybuilder split of one body part per day. This way I can ensure I can focus on every aspect of my body individually. Some people argue that their way is better but for me, right now, this is what works best for me. Combining body parts that work together can also work. For example chest and triceps. The triceps work when doing pushing exercises so when you do chest your triceps are working too.

If you do decide to do a body part a day, keep arms for the last day of the week and shoulders at least a day after chest.

Here is my reasoning:

All upper body exercises use the arms in some way. To get the most out of your chest, back and shoulder workouts you want to keep your arms fresh. Putting arms in the beginning of the week will tire them out and make them sore. This will hurt the rest of your lifts for the other days.

As far as shoulders a day after chest is more or less the same reasoning as doing arms last. The shoulders are used in chest exercises. So doing shoulders the day after chest will hurt your shoulder workout and doing shoulders before chest will make your chest workout suffer.

If you’re a newbie to the gym or you haven’t been to the gym in a while, stick with a 3-day full body split. You can work on fine-tuning your muscle definition when you get more experience. In this instance, using a push/pull split would be best. That would look like Monday: Push, Wednesday: Pull, Friday: Legs.

In the January 3rd post “Peaking and Tying it all Together” I’ll give examples of a 3 and 5 day periodization program.

Odds and ends

Muscles grow outside the gym. Get a good workout in the gym and then watch your muscles grown by getting adequate rest and nutrition. Your body repairs itself at night so give it time to do its job. 6-8 hours of sleep a night. Nutrition also plays a big role in hypertrophy. Protein is your friend. Over the course of the day eat roughly 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. This will ensure you have enough protein in your body to repair the muscles you destroyed that day.

Sample workout time

First thing to do is pick one portion of a body part to work on. If you want to build up your upper chest then this is what I would create for chest day with a focus on upper chest development.

Incline Bench 4×12,10,8,8

Flat bench 3×12,10,8

Leaning forward dips 3×12,10,8

Incline Dumbbell Bench 4×12,10,10,8

Cable Fly 3×12,12,10

Incline Machine bench press 1 set to failure

As you can see the upper chest is doing work. We start off with multijoint exercises (incline and flat bench and leaning forward dips) then we transition into single joint and limb movements (dumbbell incline bench and cable flys) then we finish it off with a burnout set of incline machine bench. This last move will give your chest that “pump” we talked about. We also vary the reps and the weight used to ensure progressive overload. Hypertrophy at its finest!

Stay tuned for next week when we talk about the Strength Training part of Who needs a Personal Trainer?

If you missed any of the previous posts in the Who needs a Personal Trainer? Series here are the links:

Part 1 Periodization: Never Plateau Again!

Part 2 Endurance: I don’t want to be bulky, I just want to be toned.