3 Important Hypertrophy Training Principles You NEED To Know

Basic hypertrophy training is an area of lifting I see simultaneously being the most sought after (who doesn’t want to build some muscle?)…but also the most misunderstood…

More so, a lot of “logical” assumptions people will make about how you build muscle don’t hold up to the actual training principles needed to generate hypertrophic adaptations (i.e. build muscle). So with that being said, here’s 3 key hypertrophy training principles you need to understand first and foremost whenever you have a goal of building more muscle.

(Not into hypertrophy? Here’s 3 tips to take your strength programming up a notch!)

1. Quality Volume vs. Absolute Load

The first and most common mistake any beginner lifter will make when it comes to hypertrophy training is thinking the absolute load on the bar is what’s most important when it comes to building muscle. While progressive overload is important and you will want to strive to be lifting heavier weights over time, building muscle is mainly a game of volume.

A whole lot of volume actually. Generally speaking, the more the better when it comes to muscle building adaptations (Up to a point of course, we’ll discuss that below).

What differentiates a hypertrophy program from a pure strength program is the volume of a hypertrophy program should be drastically higher than a strength program. Whereas a good strength program will focus on higher intensity lifting and perfecting skill with the movements, a hypertrophy program focuses on quality volume and time under tension.

This is the exact reason why you can see a lot of assumingly “skinny” powerlifters who are strong as hell, but don’t visually look it. If a lifter only focuses on pure strength training rep ranges (think 5 and under) they may not actually be accumulating all that much volume in their program. So while they’ll be getting all the strength adaptations they want, they could notice they are lacking in the muscle building department (this is just one of the many tradeoffs in resistance training).

If you are currently following a hypertrophy program, accommodate the weight you are using to make sure you can complete the required sets and reps. Not the other way around. Hypertrophy programming isn’t about lifting the heaviest weights physically possible, that’s called powerlifting. You need to be able to set the ego aside when it comes to hypertrophy and understand hitting your overall training volume comes first, THEN worry about absolute load on the bar.

2. Time Under Tension

Time under tension is a term used to describe the amount of time a muscle is under mechanical stress.

Part of the reason volume is such an important variable for hypertrophy training is because it is by default increasing the total time your muscles are under tension. However, volume is not the only way to increase time under tension.

Bodybuilders put a lot more emphasis on controlling their reps than pure strength athletes do. It’s not uncommon to see a bodybuilder doing tempos for many of their movements for their workout. Even if they aren’t specifically doing tempos for the day, there’s always a lot more intent in how they are moving the weights, and how controlled they are with their movements. This isn’t to say that strength athletes are training incorrectly either. Again, it comes down to a difference in training goals. Strength athletes don’t get “extra points” for how pretty their lift looked, or how controlled they were. It’s very simply, did they get the lift or not? There’s generally more incentive for them to actually move the weight faster. Bodybuilders, or those just looking to build muscle, however, their one rep maxes don’t truly matter. They’re happy to move weight in a more controlled manner even if it’s impacting absolute load on the bar, so long as it’ll help them build muscle better.

Now, this being said, it is hard to give exact guidelines for “employing” time under tension. Some coaches will specifically state that you should be lifting for “x amount of seconds” per set to maximize growth, but it’s much more complicated than that. We have enough research to support that time under tension is a variable that plays a role in hypertrophy, but not enough to say much further than that. Even recommending what tempo to lift at is hard to say. My recommendation is that, at the end of the day volume should be your first concern, followed by making sure you are moving weights with intention and in a controlled manner to get some quality time under tension as well.

3. Understanding MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume)

So we just talked about how increasing your training volume is a big piece of the hypertrophy training puzzle. So like, just keep hitting set’s until you die or…?

Not exactly, believe it or not you can actually have too much volume. This is the opposite problem to people who think increasing weight is the only thing that matters for muscle building. Some people take the phrase “no pain no gain” a little too seriously and may not realize that they are actually negatively effecting their training results. While the basic idea “more volume will result in more hypertrophy” is generally speaking true, there is an upper limit. This is our Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV for short). MRV is exactly what it sounds like, the maximum amount of training volume an athlete can properly recover from. Basically, if you are consistently surpassing your MRV it’s likely you aren’t going to see any progress, or you are going to see progress in the wrong direction…

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what your MRV is. More frustratingly, it can be different for different muscles. The only true way to figure out your MRV is to do it yourself and track your training. This isn’t going to be a perfect science so don’t stress too much about it, but you want to look at the trends in your training for how many sets and reps you can handle for specific exercises, as well as specific muscles to accurately program for yourself. Again, if progress is consistently trending in a negative direction you’ve most likely surpassed your MRV and just need to cut back on volume. Also good to note is that your MRV is likely to continually change, it’s not just a static number. For those consistently training their MRV will usually increase over time but, it’ll just be something you are always paying attention to and fine tuning.

(Check out this video for FREE hypertrophy training programming!)


Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.