You might have seen your favorite Instagram trainer mention hypertrophy on her strength training posts. Or maybe you heard the term in a fitness class or while listening to a workout podcast. No matter where you cam across it, if you’ve found yourself wondering, “what is hypertrophy?”—and what does it have to do with your workouts—this is the science behind the training style.
Put simply, hypertrophy means to build muscle.
Put simply, hypertrophy means to build muscle. “It means to increase muscle tissue—the actual muscle fiber itself grows in size and diameter,” explains Laura Miranda, DPT, a certified trainer in New York City. “You don’t grow more fibers, the ones you have just get bigger.”
Besides actually helping you tone up, this type of training can also decrease body fat, stave off diabetes, and improve strength, Miranda explains.
“Having muscle is the baseline of health; it keeps you moving and protects you from injury,” she says. So if you want to make your booty look bigger and more defined—or you just want to get fit and healthy—hypertrophy training should have a place in your gym routine.
What happens to the body during hypertrophy training
“The burn you feel [when doing hypertrophy training] is a mechanical stress on the muscles, and the by-product of that is lactic acid,” Miranda explains. “The water that gets pulled into the muscle cell, which creates the growth, also causes an immediate swelling.”
Remember the trendy term “swole?” That’s what she’s talking about here—that pumped-up feeling you get after you lift weights and burn out your muscles.
In the short-term, hypertrophy training causes microtrauma to the muscle, making it break down and leading to microtears. Sounds scary, but don’t freak out. Over time, your body repairs and rebuilds those tears, Miranda says. “When you rest, the muscles grow in size,” she adds, noting that you need proper recovery, protein, and hormone balance for that effect to actually take place.
Factors that affect hypertrophy
Speaking of sleep, protein, and hormones, those are crucial to hypertrophy, certainly. But the biggest influence on building muscle is consistency, says Miranda. “Most people think that the second you touch weights, you’re going to get bulky,” she says. “But you have to be so consistent over time. You have to watch the amount you lift, week after week, sleep enough, and eat enough to actually gain that muscle. It takes patience and an adherence to a plan.”
You know your body best, but shoot for seven to eight hours of zzz’s per night, and consume some form of protein, along with some carbs, within about an hour of your workout.
Even if you’re doing all of the above, it’s important to remember that there are certain factors around building muscle that are out of your control. Your genes, for example, play a role in how much body fat you have—and therefore, how noticeable your muscles are from the outside.That said, “everyone can build muscles,” Miranda affirms—they might just not be as visible depending on your ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass.
Hormones can also play a role in hypertrophy. When you don’t get enough sleep or you’re super stressed out, your cortisol levels increase, and this hormone holds on to body fat, Miranda explains. “So you may not see as many benefits as someone who’s sleeping more and less stressed,” she says.
The best workout plan for building muscle
In general, there are three types of resistance training styles—strength (heavy weight/low reps), hypertrophy, and muscular endurance (low weight/high reps). While there’s crossover (meaning you’ll still build strength when working on hypertrophy and vice versa), you can maximize growth gains by staying within a certain window of reps, sets, and weight.
Miranda suggests focusing on four- to six-week training cycles to really see results, progressing in weight, reps, or sets as you move through each week. In general, hypertrophy training focuses on moderate weight and moderate to high volumes of reps and sets. As for choosing loads, you want to go for 65% to 85% of your one-rep max, or the most weight you could lift in a certain move for a single time.
If you’re new to lifting, you probably don’t know that number, so Miranda suggests starting with bodyweight exercises and nailing down the movement patterns. That could be a squat, bicep curl, deadlift, or skull crusher, depending on the body part you want to build.
Watch this video to perfect your deadlift form:
Then, slowly ramp up the weight each week, so you can test what that one-rep max would feel like. This way, you’ll gradually get more familiar with what the weight should be for the 65% to 85% of your one-rep max.
Another way to gauge this is that you should feel the burn—and start to feel fatigued—by the end of your reps and sets with the weight you’re using when you’re doing hypertrophy training.
In addition to lifting that moderate weight, the two other key elements to muscle-building workouts: You lift for 6 to 12 reps for three to six sets. That’s the hypertrophy training standard you’ll seen in every science-backed manual. How often you do this really depends on your fitness level, Miranda suggests a minimum of three hypertrophy training sessions per week.
Focusing on the volume (reps and sets) is actually more important than the number of days you lift, research shows. So make sure to hit those rep/sets recommendations.
Pro Tip: Go for the higher end or the reps/sets range if you’re working out fewer days a week.
Another way to increase your gains is by reducing rest time between sets to 30 seconds, even when lifting a lighter load, according to another study.
Because hypertrophy training focuses on moderate intensity, it’s ideal for the nervous system—you’re not going all out, which makes it less stressful on the joints and ligaments, too. “You want to lift weights and exercise for the rest of your life so this helps with longevity,” Miranda says. “The piece that I love is that it feels good. You feel that pump, which a lot of people chase. You feel that burn in the muscle.” That’s what the hype’s about, after all.
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