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The term hypertrophy, like NEAT exercise and compound exercises, is one of those fitness phrases that often confuses more than it illuminates. Loved by exercise professionals, hypertrophy training isn’t something that needs to be confusing. In fact, if you love gym workouts and resistance training classes, chances are you’ve been doing it without even realising.
Read on for everything you need to know about hypertrophy training (as well as a snappy hypertrophy workout to sculpt new muscle tissue, too).
What does ‘hypertrophy’ mean?
‘Hypertrophy refers to an increase in muscle size through exercise,’ explains Ultimate Performance personal trainer and trainer education manager, Emily Servante. ‘Resistance training is the most effective way to produce muscular hypertrophy.’
Okay, so hypertrophy is when we build muscle tissue. Got it. But is there more than one type? Servante says yes.
‘There are generally two forms of muscular hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic, which refers to increasing muscle volume via the sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle size, typically referred to as a “pump” without necessarily any accompanying increases in strength.’
(A “pump” is gym slang for muscular swelling after exercise – it’s common in strength training lingo but doesn’t necessarily mean you’re building muscle.)
‘Then, sarcomeric (or myofibrillar hypertrophy), refers to an increase in the number of contractile proteins in a muscle, adding strength via the addition of extra muscle fibres,’ Servante continues.
‘For most trainees starting out, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is most likely to occur, as sarcomeric hypertrophy takes many months and even years of hard training to achieve.’
To put it simply, sarcomeric hypertrophy is the type of muscular response we should chase. New muscle fibres are hard (but not impossible) to create. Resistance training regularly, along with a healthy balanced diet and adequate sleep will have you well on your way.
Here’s your full guide to learning how to build muscle naturally.
What is hypertrophy training?
Hypertrophy training is exercising specifically to increase muscle size or muscle mass.
‘Typically, this involves a continual increase in training volume, generally within an 8-15 rep range, with moderate to heavy loads, over three to four sets. To elicit hypertrophy, each body part is trained multiple times across the week,’ says Servante.
To make sure your weekly exercise is geared towards your goals, consider using a workout split. A workout split is a technique used to make sure your routine is balanced with enough space to push hard during your sessions and recover fully before you go again. (There’s an example hypertrophy workout if you scroll down slightly, too.)
What are the benefits of hypertrophy training?
- Improved body composition (your ratio of muscle to fat)
- A more efficient metabolism (muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue)
- Increase in strength and lifting abilities
- Supports bone health and good bone density
- Protects muscle fibres and joints as a form of low-impact exercise
- Addresses muscular imbalances
- Releases endorphins
‘Hypertrophy training is beneficial for lots of reasons,’ explains Yumi Nutrition strength and conditioning coach, Kate Whapples. ‘It can change your body composition pretty dramatically. Increasing lean muscle size means your proportion of lean muscle mass is higher than other body tissues. Having a higher amount of muscle tissue also means that your body uses more energy even whilst it’s resting as muscle tissue is significantly more metabolically active than other tissues.’
‘Also, doing resistance training regularly increases your physical strength. This is great for your body and makes lots of everyday tasks a lot easier. Finally, hypertrophy training has been shown to help women maintain their bone density and help with insulin resistance whilst also being a low impact form of exercise (good for your joints).’
What are the main differences between hypertrophy and strength training?
Strength training and resistance training are terms often used interchangeably which can muddy the water somewhat. Whilst both phrases can mean using your own body weight or free weights to exercise, strength training specifically signifies exercising in a way that makes you stronger.
This is in contrast to hypertrophy training which focuses on breaking down muscle tissue to grow more. Both of these forms of exercise fall under the resistance training umbrella but work to different goals.
FLEX Chelsea PT Tash Lankester explains what this looks like in practice: ‘When training for strength, your rep range is usually anywhere between 1-5 reps. You perform fewer repetitions but focus on lifting a much heavier weight,’ she says. (Unlike hypertrophy training where you use a medium weight for higher repetitions.)
‘Training for strength and training for hypertrophy complement each other well – an increase in muscle mass can help aid an increase in strength and vice versa: the stronger you are, the heavier you will be able to go in your hypertrophy training.’
Try this 6-move full body hypertrophy workout
Personal trainer and BLK BOX athlete Emma McQuaid’s hypertrophy workout targets your full body. Efficient and effective it’ll help you build muscle double-quick.
Do: 5 sets of 15 reps
Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your chest up. When you’re ready, start by bending your knees and pushing your hips back. Make sure you’re engaging your core. When the back of your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause, and push back up.
2. Dumbbell bench press
Do: 4 sets of 10 reps
Lie back on a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand just to the sides of your shoulders. Your palms should be facing towards your feet as you start.
Press the weights above your chest by extending your elbows until your arms are straight and then bring the weights back down slowly.
3. Dumbbell row
Do: 4 sets of 10 reps (on each side)
Put your left leg on the bench and grab the far side with your left hand, then bend over so your upper body is parallel with the ground. Reach down with your right hand and pick up the dumbbell with your palms facing you, then hold it with your arm extended while keeping your back nice and straight.
Bring the dumbbell up to your chest, make sure you’re lifting with your back and shoulder muscles rather than your arms, and keep your chest still as you lift it. When lifted, squeeze your shoulder and back muscles, and finally lower the dumbbell slowly until your arm is fully extended again.
Do: 4 sets of 10 reps (on each side)
Start by standing tall with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core. Take a big step forward with the right leg and shift your weight forward until your heel hits the floor first. Lower your body until the right thigh is parallel to the floor and your right shin is vertical.
Next press into your right heel to drive back up to the starting position.
5. Tricep dips
Do: 3 sets of 10 reps
Stand as if you’re about to sit on the bench, now put each of your hands, palms down, on the bench keeping your arms straight.
Slowly lower yourself until your elbows are at right angles, ensuring they stay tucked against your body, and drive yourself back up.
Do: 5 x 20 second holds
Start by lying face down with your forearms and toes on the floors. Keeping your elbows directly under your shoulders and your forearms facing forward, engage your abdominal muscles and draw your navel towards your spine.
Keep your torso straight and rigid, and your body in a straight line from your ears right down to your downs. Your heels should be over the balls of your feet. Hold this position for 20 seconds and go back down to the floor.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t do hypertrophy training?
‘Hypertrophy is suitable for everyone providing you have no underlying health issues or you are injured. If you are unsure, check with a doctor first,’ says Fitness First personal trainer Olly Banks.
Training safely is the name of the game at WH, so, if you’re not sure, reach out to a professional before you get going.
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