There are many different factors that influence the effectiveness of a hypertrophy (muscular enlargement from resistance training) program, including the following:
- Selecting the best exercises for the targeted muscle groups.
- Correct execution of each exercise for maximum gains.
- Appropriate technique for injury prevention.
- Combinations of sets and repetitions.
- Weight and equipment selection.
- Specialist training techniques.
- Correct nutrition.
Attention to each of these factors will have a huge influence on the effectiveness of your training sessions, and hence your overall results.
There are an almost infinite number of resistance exercises and exercise variations that you can do, but when you’re selecting exercises, there are three key factors that will always play a significant part in the effectiveness of your training program.
- Knowledge of your body, muscles and muscle groups, so that precise areas can be targeted.
- Executing the correct exercise for the specific muscle or muscle group that you are targeting.
- Varying your exercises to avoid training plateaus.
With resistance training, technique is everything, and using an incorrect technique will lead to reduced gains. Although your goal is increased muscle mass when starting a hypertrophy program, it’s important that you learn the correct technique for each exercise using light weights before progressing to heavier weights.
Also, with muscle-bulking training you have to push to your limits to achieve results, and so you are likely to become fatigued a lot, and when you are fatigued, lapses in technique are more likely to occur. So, always make sure you monitor your movements while you train. Looking in the mirrors in the gym, for example, is extremely useful for when you want to monitor your movement as you do exercises, particularly during the final few repetitions when you are tired and are more likely to lose the correct form.
Exercise and injury
Injuries should not be synonymous with exercise. In addition to correct technique, a thorough warm-up and cool-down, plus flexibility training, should be integral parts of each training session. Omitting these important factors is likely to lead to injury, training downtime and consequent muscle atrophy (wastage), which is the exact opposite of your goal!
Sets and repetitions
Varying the repetitions or ‘reps’ (i.e. how many times you carry out a single execution of an exercise), and sets (i.e. how many repetitions of each exercise you do at a time), has a big influence on your muscle development. In order to bulk up and improve your strength, you will need to do different types of training in the following order:
- Endurance. To improve your muscular endurance, you need to carry out a higher number of repetitions, typically 15 to 20 repetitions per set, with lighter weights, and do this for several sets.
- Toning. To achieve a toned physique without muscle bulk, doing 12 to 15 repetitions per set is most suitable.
- Muscle bulking. To bulk up your muscle, select a weight for each exercise where you work to failure (i.e. until you are unable to continue with the exercise). As soon as you can complete a full set of eight to 12 repetitions, increase the weight.
- Strength. For specific strength training, you should do no more than four to six repetitions, and have long recovery periods of several minutes between sets.
Training for hypertrophy is very, very demanding, both physically and mentally, because to succeed you have to push your body extremely hard. So it is important to periodise your hypertrophy training by building up from endurance, to toning and then muscle bulking, so that you gradually condition your body and eventually progress to more advanced strength training techniques.
Weights and equipment
Your primary tools for bulking up should be dumbbells and barbells (known as free weights), rather than fixed weight machines. Dumbbells and barbells are more versatile than fixed weight machines, and allow a far greater range of exercises to be carried out, which in turn will progress your training faster.
Also, you will recruit more muscles and muscle fibers when lifting free weights because of the need to balance and control the separate dumbbells or the barbell, compared with a machine that usually only moves in a single plane. Machines can still be useful and are particularly beneficial for training the back, which is a harder body part to train without machines, but you should try to use free weights wherever possible.
Specialist training techniques
Once you are suitably conditioned to maintain your hypertrophy training, the following advanced training techniques will bring accelerated results:
This technique trains alternate muscle groups without recovery periods, which allows more training to take place within a single session. For example, alternate between the following body parts:
- Biceps and triceps (fronts and backs of the upper arms).
- Chest and upper back.
- Abdominals and lower back.
- Quadriceps and hamstrings (fronts and backs of the thighs).
A ‘pyramid’ involves completing decreasing numbers of repetitions of the same exercise, using increasingly heavier weights and separated by rest periods. For example:
- 12 repetitions x 60kg (132lb). Rest.
- 8 repetitions x 70kg (154lb). Rest.
- 6 repetitions x 80kg (176lb). Rest.
- 4 repetitions x 90kg (198lb). Rest.
- 2 repetitions x 100kg (220lb). Rest.
- 1 repetition x 110kg (242lb). Rest.
This technique focuses on lifting a weight to failure, followed immediately by lifting a lighter weight with no rest period in between. For example:
- 40kg (88lb) x 10 repetitions or until failure. No rest.
- 30kg (66lb) x 6 repetitions or until failure. No rest.
- 20kg (44lb) x 4 repetitions or until failure. No rest.
- 10kg (22lb) x 4 repetitions. Rest.
This system varies the range of movement within a single exercise in order to extend the time that the working muscle is ‘under load’. Typically, three continuous sets of seven repetitions of an exercise are carried out without rest. For example:
- 7 repetitions through the first half of the complete range of movement for the exercise. No rest.
- 7 repetitions through the second half of the complete range of movement for the exercise. No rest.
- 7 repetitions through the entire range of movement for the exercise.
As any bodybuilder will testify, correct nutrition is not just beneficial for building muscle, it is essential, and no less important than the actual training itself. Focus on the two primary constituents of your diet: protein and carbohydrate:
Typically, someone wishing to bulk up will often look to eat large quantities of protein. Good quality, low fat, ‘complete’ proteins (i.e. the ones that contain the full complement of eight essential amino acids for use within the human body) are essential for repair and growth. However, the maximum amount of protein that the body can use is approximately 2g per kilogram of bodyweight per day. For example, a 70kg (154lb) man can only use a maximum of 140g (5oz) of protein daily. Any excess protein that is consumed above this value will be stored as body fat.
Neglecting carbohydrate in favour of excess protein will result in a poor gym performance, because there will be insufficient energy within the muscles and liver to fuel the exercise session. When looking to build muscle, intense training sessions are necessary, which will always require carbohydrate. Look to consume slow-release complex carbohydrate foods (for example pasta) prior to a workout, followed by a combination of slow and quick release energy after your workout.
Sizing it all up
There’s no getting away from it: if bulking up in the gym is your preferred fitness target, then you will have to repeatedly train hard. But it’s not just about pushing large weights in the gym; training hard requires a combination of good nutrition, correct techniques, concentration and rest in order to achieve results. The more attention you pay to all the elements that contribute to successful muscle building, the more successful you will be. So, if size is everything, focus on the detail and you will progress much faster, which in turn will motivate you to continue.