Here is a guide to skeletal muscle hypertrophy that explains the basic concepts in a simple way that anyone can understand.
Everyone knows that lifting weights (and proper rest, of course) will make your muscles bigger. It’s that easy. However, few know the “mechanics” behind the process. The key concept is muscle hypertrophy.
What is Skeletal muscle hypertrophy?
It’s a process that is triggered by placing your muscle tissue in an external mechanical load that, over time, forces your body to build new muscle tissue to adapt to the load. Therefore, in order to gain as much muscle mass as possible, you need to thoroughly understand this process.
That is the purpose of this article. We’ll go through the basic parts of this process and while we use some scientific terms to describe certain concepts, they’ll be explained along the way.
1. Skeletal muscle tissue is made up of muscle fibers
When viewed through a cross-section, muscle tissue is made up of many fibers that are packed together in tight bundles. Every muscle has two types of muscle fibers. The first type is used for endurance activities, the second for strength activities. Muscle size is directly related to the size of the fibers. If you stimulate fiber growth, you will also gain muscle size.
Slow twitch muscle fiber type
The slow-twitch fibers aren’t particularly strong, but they last a long time. They are surrounded by blood vessels that allow the fibers a constant supply of oxygen and make them very resistant to fatigue.
Fast twitch muscle fiber type
The fast-twitch type is the opposite of the slow-twitch type. You are very strong, but at the same time you get tired very quickly. In short, slow-twitch fibers are used for low-intensity exercises that are performed over a long period of time, and fast-twitch fibers are used for intense and short bursts of energy.
2. Exercise stresses the muscle fibers
The training puts a mechanical load on the body and forces it to change the fiber structure and adapt to the load. This makes them bigger, stronger, and more durable, making the load easier to handle. There are three ways to stimulate the growth of your muscles:
Progressive overload and tension
What we mean by tension is the time that the muscles are used. By gradually increasing the load and the duration of the training, we force the muscles to adapt.
The exercise causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers, forcing the body to strengthen and repair the damaged fibers.
Muscle cell fatigue
When we push the muscle to the absolute limit, we exhaust the fibers too, causing the muscles to adapt.
3. Different types of stimuli cause different growth of muscle fibers
Lifting weights can stimulate growth via any of the three methods above. However, the body reacts differently depending on the type of exercise you are doing.
Light load, lots of repetitions.
This type of exercise is extremely popular with recreational lifters and bodybuilders and usually consists of lifting low weights (no more than half a repetition) for 10-12 reps, sometimes more. This type of training does not require a lot of strength, but it does require endurance and uses mainly the slow-twitch fibers, but neglects the fast-twitch type.
It exhausts the muscles and causes the muscle cells to tire much faster. This stimulus forces the body to build more muscle mass in what is known as a process sarcoplasmic hypertrophyThis increases muscle size by adding fluids to the muscles, which are rich in the energy needed to improve performance.
Heavy load, few repetitions.
On the flip side, we have heavier loads (70% and more of your max reps) for up to 6-8 reps. This type of exercise requires a high level of strength but does not require a lot of endurance, which forces the body to use the fast-twitch muscle fibers. This type of exercise leads to muscle fiber damage instead of causing cell fatigue.
This leads to a different body reaction, a process known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. Again, this increases muscle size, but it does this by strengthening and enlarging the muscle fibers themselves.
4. You should decide what your goal is and train accordingly
Both types of training described above lead to different muscle growth results. If you take the first approach to high rep, light weight training, you will get an increase in muscle mass, but it is not permanent.
Sarcoplasmic muscle hypertrophy is observed as’the pump‘which is just a temporary increase in muscle size that usually goes away in a few days. While this type of exercise may make you look jacked, it doesn’t have a huge impact on long-term muscle growth.
Much more permanent growth is achieved through the second type of exercise, which causes myofibrillary muscle hypertrophy. Instead of filling the muscle tissue with fluids that can later drain away quickly, this type of exercise actually makes the muscle fibers bigger and stronger. Exercising at relatively high loads can stimulate this type of muscle mass gain, and while you may not be that pumped, you will gain much greater muscle mass over the long term.
Imagine filling a frame with concrete. The first type has more concrete but a thinner outer frame, while the second type has less concrete but a very thick and strong frame.
5. Progressive overload makes your muscles grow
Muscle size only increases if it is stimulated by regular training and constantly increasing loads. For example, the first time you push 40 pounds above your head, your muscle will be receiving enough growth stimulus to make it easier when you try again.
However, if you keep using the same load over and over, the muscle will adjust, and since you are not adding to the load, the body believes there is no need to keep building new muscle tissue.
To force the body to build new muscle mass, you need to gradually overload the muscles used, mainly by gradually increasing the weight with each workout. Every time you add weight, the body continually adapts by building new muscle to cope with the increased stress. Try to increase the weight in small increments every time you go to the gym to make sure you are challenging the muscles enough and getting continuous muscle growth.
As I said, the progression must be slow, gradual and in small steps. Building muscle takes time and the body cannot adapt to stress if it is too fast and too early. Always make sure that you are doing the exercises in good form before attempting to add weight, and always try to add as little poundage as possible.
6. An example of a muscle hypertrophy exercise program
If you want to build muscle in the most efficient way, opting for heavy weight, low repetitions, and always gradually overloading. In this article, we will give you an example of a hypertrophy exercise program that follows all of the concepts described above and is designed to trigger an optimal rate of muscle growth. Always warm up before starting any workout and try to increase the load every two to three weeks.
Hypertrophy training 1
Bench press, 3 × 6, heavy load
Dumbbell bench press, 3 × 12 reps with moderate weight
Overhead press, 3 × 10, moderate load
Dumbbell flies, 3 × 12-15, lighter weights
Bent barbell rows, 3 × 6, heavy load
Pulldowns, 3 x 12, moderate weight
Triceps cable pushdowns, 4 × 10-15
Dumbbell bicep curls, 4 × 12
Hypertrophy training 2
Squats, 3 × 6, heavy load
Leg extension, 3 x 12 lighter weights
Deadlift, 2 × 6, heavy load
Leg press, 4 × 10, moderate load
Lying leg curl, 3 × 10, lighter weights
Standing calf raises, 4 × 12, moderate exertion
Crunches 3 × 20 reps
Hypertrophy training 3
Overhead press, 3 × 6, heavy load
Pull-ups, 3 × 10, moderate exertion
Rows of seats, 4 × 10, moderate load
Close-grip bench press, 4 × 12
Barbell bicep curls, 4 × 12