How to Build Muscle – A Beginner’s Guide to Hypertrophy

When we talk about hypertrophy, it is important to remember that everybody is different. Two people can be on the exact same program and experience different results. However the underlying principles of hypertrophy, like strength training, are universal. 

Some athletes get jacked using bodyweight movements, or just by looking at the weights, whilst others have to work twice as hard to put on the same amount of muscle. This is an important reminder. You can choose to follow the practices of the biggest guy or fittest female in the gym, but the methods that work for them might not work at all for you. Once you understand the principles then you can adapt and apply the right methods in order to find the best way for you.

What is hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is simply the increase in size of an organ or tissue through the enlargement of the cells that comprise it.

A hypertrophy program is designed not to increase strength or improve athletic performance (although there is an overlap, of course), but to primarily cause muscular growth by increasing the size of your muscle fibres.

Hypertrophy guide

Principles of Muscular Hypertrophy

Progressive Tension Overload

This means that muscle fibres must be subjected to increasing levels of tension – Think progressively increasing the weights that you are lifting over time – but there are multiple ways you can apply progressive overload.

How to Force Muscle Growth – 5 Methods to Accomplish That

Muscle Damage

When you train, you tear and stress your muscle fibres, these are called microtears. When you rest, recover and replenish your body properly, your muscles will grow back stronger and more able to cope with the stresses that they are being put under. This results in larger muscles. This includes good quality sleep and nutrition, without both of these your efforts will be in vain. 

Metabolic Stress

This means working your muscles to failure. Repeated actions that lead to muscle fibres being worked to their metabolic limit will instigate hypertrophy.  

rich froning performs dead stop exercises with barbell
Rich Froning training

How to Train for Hypertrophy

As this is a beginner’s guide, we have stuck to core ideas. There are many different athletes and coaches that adapt these methods in numerous ways, but they all begin, in some form, with the principles and methods that we have outlined in this article. 

Use weights that are between 65 – 80% of your 1 rep max.

  • Muscle growth is generated by mechanic stress and fine muscle ruptures. Working with 65-80% of your max is the optimal area for this adaption.

Work between 8 and 12 repetitions per set.

  • Working within this rep range creates higher muscular hypertrophy because it uses anaerobic glucose as the primary source.

Do more sets.

  • Working your muscles in more sets with intermediate heavy weight generates a higher increase in hypertrophy than lower sets with heavier weight (which will increase strength).

Keep the pauses strict. 60-90 sec between the sets.

  • This period of rest increases the muscle-building process through mechanical stress. I.e. Your muscles spend a greater amount of time under tension, which is important for muscle growth.

Work until failure

  • No pain, no gain.

It is important to remember that hypertrophy training can be used for different functions. For example, some powerlifters will program hypertrophy phases into their training then shift into a strength-based phase before peaking for a competition. The idea is that you grow more muscle (through hypertrophy), utilise this extra muscle into making you stronger (through the strength phase) then peak at the correct time (for the competition). 

Read More: Junk Volume Weight Training – What Is It and Why You Must Avoid It

Hypertrophy can be used to improve performance for CrossFitters as well. Look at the functional bodybuilding work of CrossFit Games Athlete Marcus Filly for example.

“Functional Bodybuilding is a training philosophy and a movement that can benefit anyone in the fitness community. The essence of the movement is that training shouldn’t constantly beat you down, but rather build you up and make you feel great. As the functional fitness community has evolved in the past years to embrace intensity as a goal in and of itself, we have seen more and more people suffering from burnout and injury. It’s time to shift the pendulum back, help people define what intensity is right for them, and show them alternative ways of training that keep them functional, but also honour age-old training principles that help people stay healthy, balanced and strong.” Marcus Filly

Here is a good tutorial to explain principles of hypertrophy applied to the chest.

And from the same series, a guide for your back.

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