Optimal Training for Hypertrophy by Andy Baker
This is a really common question and a very common debate amongst trainees, coaches, and trainers and I’m not sure there is a definitive answer to every situation. Unfortunately like so many other debates in the strength & conditioning world the correct answer is almost always prefaced with the frustrating phrase of “well – it depends.” The fact is that there are a lot of big, strong, muscular people on the planet and most of them achieved their results through a variety of different pathways. If there was truly just one particular programming method that worked for size and muscularity then we wouldn’t have a debate, would we? Everybody would be doing the same program and that’d be the end of the story. But for every trainee with a gargantuan set of wheels that squats 3 times per week, I can point to just as many trainees that squat just once per week. Hell, I can point to a lot of people that don’t squat at all and believe that exercises like hack squats and leg presses are superior to squats if we are talking about purely muscle growth and physique development. (That isn’t congruent with my experience, but I’ve known plenty of big bodybuilders who spent very little time in the squat rack). So, two major factors that influence our discussion are the use of drugs (anabolics) and genetics. For the sake of our discussion here, I’m going to throw those two factors out. I have always trained and competed drug-free without the use of steroids or any other PEDs (other than coffee!!!). Likewise, the trainees and athletes that I typically work with through my coaching practice here at the gym as well as my online clients have been drug free. So I can’t speak with any authority whatsoever on the effects of anabolic steroids on a trainee’s programming…other than the fact that they accelerate the results of any type of programming whether it be low frequency or high frequency types of programming. My opinions on drugs have nothing to do with morality. I could care less if people decide to use anabolics as long as they aren’t trying to compete in organizations that have legislated them out of their competitions. Now we’re cheating. But the use of anabolics in non-tested organizations or for their own purposes is fine by me. It’s not a moral judgement – it’s simply just a personal choice that people need to make for themselves. Genetics also blur the picture a little bit because we know that a certain percentage athletes we work with can be classified as “genetic freaks” that respond to just about any type of sensible programming structure. Furthermore, a lot of very gifted athletes respond well to training
programs that are just downright terrible, but still seem to get results. In this case, athletes are getting bigger and stronger IN SPITE OF their training programs, not because of them. For our discussion, we will consider my observations to be based on those trainees who are both drug free and genetically average. This is probably where most of my readers fall as well. It’s certainly where most of my clients are.
Understanding Your Level of Training Advancement If you are a novice you need frequency. This is why a program like the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression is so insanely powerful. Squatting 3 times per week for 3 hard and heavy work sets grows the legs, and in fact, the whole body. Pressing and Pulling 3 days per week has the same effect on the rest of the body. Novice trainees, whether the ultimate goal is strength, mass, or both, don’t need anything more specialized than the basic barbell lifts repeated as often as possible with increasing loads at every (or most every) training session. Volume must be set in a way that allows training to occur every 48-72 hours which is why the 5-rep set is preferred for novices. Less reps and the nervous system gets overwhelmed too quickly. Higher reps creates an environment that trainees cannot recover from in a 48-72 hour window and training time is lost because elongated rest periods are required. But can a novice grow bigger and stronger on training a lift (or muscle group) just once per week? Sure. But not as quickly. On the front end of a training career the most powerful stimulus for growth is overload. Simply put – you need to get stronger to get bigger. If you squat 150×5 on day 1, your most powerful mechanism for growth is to build that squat up to 350×5…or 450×5. And there are ways to get there slow, and ways to get there quickly. Let’s choose quickly. And most of us recognize that simple programs that rely on just a few tried and true lifts repeated as often as possible – get us there quickly. So let’s fast forward a bit to a more advanced trainee who has spent a few years driving his basic barbell lifts up as high as he can get them. For arguments sake we’ll say our trainee has achieved a Squat somewhere in the mid 400s, a Deadlift in the mid 500s, a Press in the mid 200s, and a Bench Press in the mid 300s. We’ll say he has achieved these numbers strictly from basic barbell programs like those inside of Practical Programming for Strength Training. His ultimate goal all along has been to build a bigger more muscular physique – maybe he wants to compete in bodybuilding, maybe not. But either way he really wants now to focus on growth and physique development. So the big question is – Does he continue to do what he has been doing? i.e. Does he continue to simply focus on driving up his main lifts in the hopes that more strength will equal more mass? OR Does he need to add any additional hypertrophy specific training to his routine? The answer is YES and YES.
More strength will almost always lead to more mass. And the continued pursuit of more plates on the bar creates the right mindset and focus for trainees in the gym. You have to have objective goals in the gym whether you train for physique or for strength. Simply going into the gym to “work a muscle” can create a lot of “drift” in a training plan and trainees often lose focus on consistently practicing the activities that give the most bang for the buck. Consistent progression in strength we know leads to what is commonly referred to as myofibrillar or sarcomeric hypertrophy. In short, this is the growth of the actual contractile units of the muscle cell. Some of have called this type of muscular growth “functional hypertrophy” because it is correlated quite directly with force production. The only problem with strictly focusing on heavy low rep training that leads to myofribrillar hypetrophy is that it isn’t very dramatic after a certain point in time. So, we must recognize that muscle growth and physique development doesn’t just come from gains in strength and a bunch of calories. There is another component of muscular growth known as “sarcoplasmic hypetrophy.” This is the type of muscle growth we often associate with higher volume and higher density training (think higher reps (8-20), more sets, and shortened rest periods) This type of training creates an environment for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which is more simply thought of as the “swelling” of a muscle cell. The swelling effect typically occurs as a result of an increased capacity of the muscle cell to store metabolic substrates within the cell – namely glycogen and water. Often this type of hypetrophy as referred to as “non-functional” in nature because there is no direct impact on force production save for a maybe a few minor changes in the leverages around a joint. But there is another problem with this type of training that makes it hard to utilize in conjunction with a true strength-building type of program. It’s hard to recover from. i.e. it makes you really really sore for long periods of time. This is why we never use this type of training with novices. It slows down the progression of strength on the main lifts because the recovery period is much longer in between training sessions. So whereas a squat for 3×5 can be performed every 48-72 hours, a squat for 3×10 cannot be. Even though the loads are lighter, the trauma to the tissue is more severe. So What is the Crux of the Problem? The problem is that for optimal gains in hypertrophy the trainee needs both types of training. He needs to train the main lifts heavy with some degree of frequency, but he also needs exposure to higher rep/higher density training. And not just on the main barbell exercises, but also on a myriad of assistance exercises for small muscle groups that are necessary to build a complete physique. So how does a trainee fit all that into a week and still make progress? Some very outdated models of Western Periodization liked to organize a trainees calendar into “blocks” of trainee with a specific focus on one area or another. So for example, a trainee might spend 6-12 weeks training for strength with just heavier low rep training and then transition into another 6-12 week block of just mass which was dedicated to just higher rep/higher density training. The problem with this approach is that time spent in each block means losses from the previous adaptation. 6-12 weeks without training heavy will result in a loss of strength. 6-12
weeks training without a pump (the result of higher rep training) will result in some loss of hypertrophy and loss of muscular endurance. If possible these two types of training need to be trained concurrently, within the same week, for the majority of the year. Many modern bodybuilders (although this is changing) have adopted training protocols where each muscle group is only trained 1x week. But at that single session the target muscle group is ANNIHILATED with a combination of heavy lifts plus lots and lots and lots of high volume assistance work. The muscle group is pounded into submission and then given a complete week of recovery. Great pains were taken to ensure that the muscle group in question was rested completely during the week with no added stress. However the problem with...