Hypertrophy 101 - The Science


So you want to build muscle, but you don't know how to attack it. This is a common problem.

There are so many programs floating around the internet focusing on building muscle. These are built by power lifters, bodybuilders, "functional trainers", "strongmen...and whatever their background, they're all SO different. But which program is right for you? What if you don't want to gain 100 pounds of muscle but just want to improve your body composition? Don't worry. I'm going to share with you (in a two-part series) the secrets of building muscle and show you how to incorporate these secrets into your own training. Part one includes all the definitions and bases of understanding for muscle growth. Part two will include a 4-week workout plan to put these practices into place. Let's start with the word 'hypertrophy.' The definition of which is the 'enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of cells.' Perfect.As the definition explains, in order for hypertrophy to occur in the tissue we want we need to increase the size of the cells. Seems simple, right? Eh...not so fast. Most gym goers only focus on one, possibly two factors when training for muscle mass. I'm about to address all the pieces you need for optimal results.

The Science-y Stuff:

There are 3 processes that must occur in the tissue in order to make a muscle grow.

  1. Mechanical Tension

  2. Muscle Damage

  3. Metabolic Stress

Mechanical Tension is the tension exerted on the muscle to reduce, produce or control force.You may ask yourself, "well, how the hell do i do that?" It's more simple than it seems. Lifting Heavy loads for lower volumes (think power lifter) and lifting medium to lighter loads for higher volumes (think bodybuilder). Both of these methods will create muscle tension in different intensities, creating a stimulus for muscle growth.

Muscle Damage refers to the micro-tears that occur in the muscle tissue from the eccentric or decelerating part of the motion. This is what leads to muscle soreness (or DOMS; delayed-onset of muscle soreness), hopefully you've experienced this after your workouts. But just a quick note, while some soreness is expected, it's not needed. Remember, this soreness is a result of muscle damage. Too much soreness (or the inability to walk after a leg day) is not a good sign. This means that too much emphasis was put on a certain aspect...sabotaging your gains! So anyway, these micro-tears, or muscle damage can occur from either mechanical or chemical stress. Mechanical stress is caused by lifting heavy weights that create muscle damage. Chemical Stress refers to the chemical processes that occur during mechanical stress, such as inflammation, fluid buildup in cells, protein degrading and absorption. Basically, think of muscle damage as burning down your house. How would you replace it? You would have to clean everything out first and REBUILD.

Now on to metabolic stress. This is what causes cell swelling around around the muscle that helps contribute to muscle growth; this doesn't necessarily increase your muscle mass. I refer to this as the "GO" after a workout. More technically, this refers to the buildup of lactate, hydrogen ions and creatine, all of which help the muscle cell grow. Increasing the Time Under Tension (TUT) will enhance your metabolic stress and give you that awesome pumped up feeling, that is, the muscle cell swelling. This is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Also known as "DA PUMP"

As the gread Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "The best activities are for your health are pumping and humping." I think he was on to something.

So there you have it. The three components of hypertrophy. Achieving a stimulus that involves all three will help you build larger muscles! To many times do programs focus primarily on one or possibly two of the above contibutors, when just a few rep/load tweaks could yeild twice the results by attacking all three fronts.

One of the most important elements of muscle growth, the part nobody ever wants to talk about, is REST. Once someone becomes obsessed with developing muscle, they often train too often without giving the body adequate time to rest, and ultimately, grow. With the apropriate nutrition (see below) and training stimulus, resting is where everything culminates.

Workout Nutrition:

As a Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach, I am a firm believer in research and anecdotal experience when it comes to my programs. I enforce the following protocol with my clients:

  • Pre-Workout: Eat normally 1-2 hours prior to training (everyone is different on timing here). Shoot for about 20-30g of protein, 20-30g of carbs and minimal fat. Try to find a meal or snack that sits well with you, and is easy to prepare. Try to stick with the same or similar meals before all workouts.

  • During Workout: Consume 10-25g of BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids). Sip on this during your workout. This will help keep your amino acid pool high, allowing for you to put even more muscle tension, damage and metabolic stress on the cells. Hydration is also important; sipping on BCAAs is not only delicious, but it aids in energy production, slows down protein degradation, and keeps you hydrated all at once. * If you are considered a "hard-gainer" then you probably need to focus on taking in even more calories, well, this is a great time too! Try adding a scoop of Dextrose sugar to your BCAA's, this will not only help in increasing all three components of hypertrophy, it will aid in a serious "pump" while upping total calories.

  • Post Workout: Eat a full meal consisting of a medium to high carbohydrate and protein source (25-50g of each). If you will not be eating for a couple hours, then a post-workout shake is a must. If you're really trying to put on size, a high protein drink immediatly following exercise added with a full carbohydrate/protein rich meal about and hour to an hour and a half post workout is the key.

In conclusion... For muscle breakdown and growth to occur you must force your muscles to adapt, no matter what base of program you choose. Stress must be created, and it must be more or different than the previous stress threshold that you have already created and adapted too. Pay attention to muscle damage, mechanical damage, metabolic stress as discussed earlier. This means gradually lifting heavier weights, continually changing your workouts (every 2-6 weeks) to damage more total muscle fibers and push your muscles to fatigue. After the workout is completed, the most important part begins....rest. Get adequate sleep (7-9 hours) and provide ample fuel to your muscles (carbs and protein).

Stay tuned for part II of this post- The Program

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