Building muscle is at once very simple and simultaneously incredibly complicated. If that sounds like something of a frustrating contradiction… well then get used to it! As you learn more about growing muscle and getting jacked you’ll find that everyone has a different opinion and no-one seems able to agree on what the best way to get into powerful shape actually is.
When you start out though, it all seems very straightforward. In order to grow, you need to exercise more and eat more protein. When you do this, you start to build more muscle and you see yourself constantly increase in strength. But over time, you start to notice that you aren’t seeing change as quickly as you’d like. You realize that your colleagues-in-Iron are getting results faster than you and that you’ve ‘plateaued’, whatever that might mean.
That’s when you start to read into training and learn that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
This is when you learn that the best way to build muscle is to lift heavy and for fewer reps. You need to focus on compound lifts so that your strength gains are ‘functional’ and you should support that with a healthy, ketogenic diet.
But then there’s the guy who says that you should isolate your muscles during training and focus on just the one muscle group to cause the maximum muscle damage and boasts about “Time under Tension”
He corrects your technique – even though you learned it on YouTube – and you find yourself just about ready to give up on the whole thing.
Sound about right?
Hypertrophy. What is it and Why?
Here’s the deal. We are talking about Hypertrophy. Why? Because I am recently coming off of months of intense training for Team Strongman Worlds and so many of you have asked how can I get stronger and look the part.
So I put together my latest program, Hypertrophy 101 for anyone looking to get jacked up strong. It’s compatible for anyone in a garage gym or commercial. Nothing in Hypertrophy 101 is confusing.
There are different routines for different goals, and different goals for different people. In the end the program that you follow has to be targeted to your goal and you have to “want” it more than the next person.
Different Types of Muscle
Let’s start at the beginning, with the different types of hypertrophy and how each of them can be employed to get different results.
How Hypertrophy Works
Hypertrophy. What is it? When your muscles grow, what actually causes them to grow? What is actually happening? As you probably had already guessed, there’s actually multiple things going on, which is where all the confusion comes in.
Generally though, we can split hypertrophy down into two main processes.
- ‘sarcoplasmic’ hypertrophy and
- ‘myofibrillar’ hypertrophy.
Actually though, even this is contested somewhat – some experts actually believe that these terms are merely pseudoscience and that they aren’t actually based on any concrete evidence.
Regardless, the reality is that these two types of training do result in two different types of muscle. This is how strength athletes have been training for decades, with a lot of success, so it’s safe for us to take this understanding and apply it. These terms and the description will simply serve as a somewhat useful ‘crutch’ for understanding what’s going on here…
On the one hand, we have myofibrillar hypertrophy, which is the predominant form of hypertrophy used for building strength. This is also sometimes referred to more simply as ‘muscle damage’. And that’s an apt name because it really does describe what is going on here – you are damaging the muscle.
Or more specifically, you’re actually tearing the muscle. By lifting heavy enough weights, you’re actually causing tiny rips in the fibers that make up the muscle, known as muscle fibers (the tears themselves are called ‘microtears’).
Muscle fibers work just like any other cell in the human body, except that they can have multiple mitochondria and mitochondria can also increase as you train more frequently and in higher volumes. Right now though, we’re interested in tearing the muscle fiber, which then causes it to be marked for repair. Once we’re sleeping or resting, these tears are then repaired by the body using protein and amino acids to restore the muscle and build the muscle fibers to be thicker and stronger.
It’s generally agreed that it’s impossible to increase the number of muscle fibers (a process that is known as ‘hyperplasia’) through conventional training. However, you can increase the thickness of the fibers through this process which makes them stronger and increases your ability to throw heavy weights around.
What’s the best way to cause these microtears?
Train with heavier weights, which in turn will allow you to cause more damage more quickly, triggering more growth. That’s why powerlifters – who are predominantly interested in pure power – will train using weights close to their one rep maxes and lift only a few times.
Then you have sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which is also sometimes known as ‘metabolic stress’. Here, the objective is not to create microtears but rather to swell the muscles with metabolites, metabolites being hormones and other compounds that stimulate more growth and hypertrophy. The obvious examples of these are testosterone and growth hormone, both of which are ‘anabolic’ in nature.
So how do you trigger this kind of change in your body? It’s time to get scientific for a moment.
This time, the aim is to occlude the muscle and allow blood to build up there – right up until the point where you have too much lactic acid in your muscles to continue and you start to feel a lot of discomfort. You do this by using higher repetitions, as this allows you to increase that all-important ‘time under tension’ – the amount of time that your muscle spends contracting during any given workout.
The Big Thought:
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy does lead to some increase in size as well as strength
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy appears to be the fastest way to increase size.
- A bodybuilder trains with significantly lighter weights but uses higher rep ranges, often reaching into the 10s, 12s and 15s before they reach failure.
This is why a smaller powerlifter will often be able to lift more than a much larger bodybuilder. That is not to say that a bodybuilder’s muscle isn’t as ‘strong’ or that one type of lifting is better than the other, but #ImJustAyin.