Hypertrophy: How to Best Stimulate Muscle Growth

What is Hypertrophy?

By definition, hypertrophy is when you increase the size of an organ or tissue through the enlargement of cells that compose it.

By increasing the size of the skeletal muscle’s component cells, you are able to increase the overall size of the muscle.

Essentially you’re able to grow the size of the muscle by increasing the cells within the muscle.

What are the different Types of Hypertrophy

There are 2 types of muscle hypertrophy generally discussed:

  1. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy: ‘Myo’ means muscle and ‘fibril’ is a threadlike cellular structure. This type of hypertrophy focuses on increased myofibril size.
  2. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: Focuses more on increased muscle glycogen storage

And we are going to cover them in detail in this post.

Within strength training, larger muscles increase the athlete’s potential for long-term progress as they give the athlete greater potential to lift more weight.

Anyone who takes weight training seriously must stimulate hypertrophy in order to reach their full potential.

Whether your goals are bodybuilding or powerlifting specific, growing bigger muscles will help your long-term performance and mitigate injury risk when programmed correctly.

Although sets of 8 – 12 + reps may seem far removed from traditional powerlifting training, the increase in muscle size will serve the athlete well in the long-term.

Now Read: The Complete Guide to Powerbuilding

Old school gym floor
The perfect place to stimulate both types of hypertrophy

Hypertrophy vs Strength Training

Strength training produces 2 different types of hypertrophy. Myofibrillated hypertrophy dominates when working with heavier weights, traditionally in the 80 – 90% of your 1RM (Rep Max).

Each muscle fibre contains many myofibrils and proteins that contract. Myofibrillated hypertrophy increases both the size of these fibres and number of them.

This form of hypertrophy is more common in Olympic lifters and powerlifters. High intensity, low repetition weightlifting that stimulates growth through the shear intensity of the lift.

Not through the number of repetitions per set or overall volume.

In Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, muscle growth is stimulated with an increased number of reps and a lower weight, usually in the 8 – 12 + rep range. This type of hypertrophy is more common in bodybuilders.

The word sarco means flesh and plasmic refers to the plasmic element of cells. It’s important to note this as Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy increases the volume of fluid in the cells- muscle glycogen storage.

This leads to athlete’s looking ‘fuller’ after a high repetition session.

Muscular man performing a high repetition workouts that enlarges the muscles via myofibrillar hypertophy
High repetition workouts enlarge the muscles stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertophy, leading to a fuller look

Both of these types of hypertrophy cause a temporary increase in muscle size, especially sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Rushing fluid to the muscles is the body’s response to the tissue damage caused by weightlifting.

Muscle growth is then created as the tissues repair and blood rushes to the muscles, driving nutrients to the areas that need it most.

Will Hypertrophy make me Bigger?

Yes, especially for those still lucky enough to be in their teenage years, their body will naturally enable hypertrophy, usually stopping around the late teens.

Also an increase in testosterone, a naturally produced HGH (human growth hormone), increases the potential for muscle growth.

Incredibly muscular man with a shaved head, carrying dumbbells and chains
But maybe don’t take it as far as this guy….

This is the main reason why a) it’s easier for men to achieve hypertrophy and increase muscle size and b) why it’s *almost* impossible for women to get genuinely muscular as they simply don’t produce enough testosterone to grow.

If you see enormously muscular women, the chances are they are having some HGH ‘assistance’ one way or another.

Now Read: How to Gain Muscle

Can Hypertrophy build Strength?

Size definitely doesn’t equal strength. It’s usually a reasonable indicator of it however and typically the bigger you are, the greater your propensity to lift more weight.

It’s pretty commonplace to see average looking guys in the gym comfortably squatting 180kg (405lbs for the imperialistic scum amongst you).

The same weight can be a lifetimes work for 200lb+ men. Take Derek Ng as an example:

Derek competes in the 59kg category (130lbs for you imperial measurement belters) which is phenomenally small by any standard. However Derek squatted 170kg in this competition, almost three times bodyweight which is an elite level lift by anyone’s standard.

He also deadlifted 260kg and actually had the 274kg, but lost it on his grip alone. Deadlifting 3 times bodyweight is elite and Derek isn’t far off 5 times; a weight that almost anyone would be very satisfied with.

This is a perfect representation of low repetition training and it’s impact on size vs strength. To efficiently stimulate muscle growth you need a combination of high and low rep training.

So How do you build Muscle with Hypertrophy?

Muscle growth is driven by time under tension, volume of weight lifted and frequency. Although this formula is argued from dusk ’til dawn.

In my opinion, frequency, volume of weight lifted and properly applying protein synthesis is the most effective way to do so.

Muscle Growth = (Volume + Intensity + Frequency) * Quality Nutrition

High-repetition training that stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy isn’t an efficient way to build absolute strength.

Sets of 8 – 12+ typically take place at around 70-75% of your 1RM, so the carryover into your absolute 1RM strength is inefficient.

Now Read: Complete Guide to Protein

However typically this type of training is designed to increase size and reinforce technique. It takes place at the beginning of training cycles as it helps build a strong base and reduces the risk of injury when performed properly.

So although it doesn’t directly contribute to an instant increase in strength, performing it consistently as part of a periodised program will provide long-term success.

So what type of Hypertrophy should you aim for?

As I alluded to earlier, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is more commonly associated with bodybuilders.

Higher rep training, pumping blood into the muscle and breaking the muscle down beyond the state of repair for an unassisted person is how they look the way they do.

According to various studies, moderate rep-ranges of 6-12 have been shown to optimise the hypertrophic response, with anything under 65% of your 1RM not being heavy enough to stimulate growth. So as a bodybuilder or someone looking to put on size, this is what you should aim for.

As an athlete, myofibrillated hypertrophy is most likely best suited to your needs.

The first second of almost any sporting activity is going to be the most crucial in gaining the upper hand. Throwing a punch, sprinting, football plays, racket swings are all actions that are over in a matter of seconds.

Bodybuilders have the greatest muscle mass, but it’s very much form over function. They’re neither the fastest, strongest or most explosive athletes even though they have the largest muscle mass.

Now Read: Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding

As an athlete your priority is function, so stimulate proper hypertrophy for your needs.

How to Stimulate Hypertrophy

Compound Movements. Heavy Loads. Isolated Exercises.

  • Work with a heavy load and moderate intensity: Intensity and volume are more important than frequency, work until you overreach your MRV each meso cycle and then deload and start again.
  • Progressive Tension Overload: Continue increasing tension levels within the muscle fibres by increasing the amount of weight over time. The use of Progressive Overload emphasises both muscle damage and progressive tension overload, essential in any successful program.
  • Muscle Damage and Repair: Repairing the muscle’s microtears with adequate rest and appropriate nutrition (quality and quantity) increases the size of the muscle.
  • Metabolic Stress: Pushing your muscle fibres to their Metabolic limits enables growth and hypertrophy over time; especially using shorter rest times. Working with lower weight and higher reps emphasises this metabolic stress and employs sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

When talking about muscle hypertrophy, outside of the athlete’s training, the most important factor to take into account is the intake of calories and protein.

There have been various studies undertaken as to how much protein an athlete should eat when training, and one particular study done by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2002 put the recommended protein intake at 1.2 – 1.8 grams per kilo of body weight.

Various other studies have highlighted that protein intakes greater than 1.8g per kilo of body weight have no greater effect on hypertrophic gains. Unless you’re ‘aided’ by certain banned supplements of course.

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