Updated: Aug 16, 2019
Hypertrophy training, regardless of the muscle group or goal in mind, is dependent on a small handful of mainstays in order to be considered successful or worthwhile. Below, I have outlined those mainstays, called the Three Pillars of Hypertrophy Training.
1. Quality of the rep
In my opinion, the quality of the rep is the most important factor in hypertrophy training, if I was forced to pick one. Whether you're training hypertrophy movements in order to build up a lagging body part, or training the movement in order to directly assist a compound movement, such as a competition lift, the quality of the rep is of paramount importance. In simplest terms, what this means is that if you're trying to hit a muscle, like the bicep, then focus on making sure that the bicep is the muscle that's doing the work. That means not using momentum on your curls, not swinging your hips or doing a half-rep with too much weight in order to "finish the rep." Are you trying to curl 70lbs for three reps, or are you trying to get bigger biceps? You're simply wasting your time on hypertrophy movements if the muscle that's being targeted is not the muscle that's being worked. Hypertrophy work, for the most part, is not about weight moved, by by how much you can break down the muscle fiber with repeated work, so it can grow back just a little bit stronger than it was before. Repeat that cycle, and that's basically what hypertrophy is.
Sometimes hypertrophy work means leaving your ego at the door, and accepting that if you want to hit the movement in a way where you're going to bring up that lagging body part, you need to take a lot of weight off the barbell, or the dumbbell or the cable stack. That means if you're trying to target your glutes with hip extensions or glute bridges, don't just go through the motion by bringing your hips up and down to finish the set as fast as you can so you can look at your phone. Every time I'm doing hypertrophy work, I try to think of ways that I can fatigue the targeted muscle as much as humanly possible on each rep. This usually entails flexing the muscle as hard as I can at the apex of the rep, and make sure it's fully engaged (and engorged).
Another aspect of quality control on your reps is stopping just short of technical failure (leave one in the tank). If I program for you, you've probably seen that I rarely, if ever, program a movement "to failure." This is because once technical failure occurs, you aren't getting the same quality from those reps that you could, and you're wasting energy on something that will bring you less results over time (diminishing returns). My thinking on this has evolved over the years of coaching as well. Also, note that technical failure and muscular failure are not the same thing. One means the rep is no longer being performed at the level of quality you can put into your lift, and the other means you're physically unable to complete the rep in any form. Muscular failure creates a sloppy rep with extra gravy that is going to yield lowered results if you keep training in that way.
When it comes to directly training a muscle group for targeted growth, the quality of the rep will dictate how much you're getting out of your work. But, how long should you rest? Let's find out 2. Rest time between sets I have invariably gotten this question since starting LBEB over eight years ago, and thankfully, my thinking has not changed on this, and has that sweet, sweet scientific evidence to back it up. In simplest terms, I have always said that you should rest as long as you need to, in order to hit your next set as effectively as possible. This means resting long enough to make sure that you can use as much weight as possible on the next set. You're not training for cardio or conditioning, you're training for hypertrophy. And as long as you can keep the quality of your reps acceptable, using as much weight as you can is a great way to encourage more growth (when your diet is also on point). Why try to take too short of a rest period and not use enough weight or hit enough reps on the next set if you're still feeling gassed from the previous one? Some will say that you have to do this to "keep the pump alive", but I say that's bollocks. Rest as long as you need (in an environment where you're listening to your muscles, not accidentally spending 10mins looking at your phone and losing track of time).
On top of this, your Central Nervous System (CNS) can take a lot longer to recover than your muscle does, and you may get a false reading by thinking you're ready to go again, only to find out that you're still fried. Play around with extending your rest periods, if your schedule allows for it. Don't forget to have some intra-workouts carbs too, if you really want a solid workout for the whole duration of it. That brings us to frequency: How often should I work hypertrophy movements? Let's find out.
Frequency: the big question when it comes to hypertrophy, or pump work. How long should you do it? Naturally, that depends. It depends on your diet, your goal, your recovery ability, what your set/rep scheme looks like, and the muscle in question. For example, a muscle like your traps can theoretically be worked every day, due to it's position on the body of holding up your head, it can take quite a lot of abuse. The muscles of the leg, as well, can take a lot of abuse. The bro-split, which emphasizes hitting each muscle group once a week on its own day, is deader than disco. Your legs make up, on average, 60% of your body, and you're training them once a week? Not a great plan. The quads can be fully recovered in a trained athlete in about 2-3 days, so if you're hitting them once a week, there's 3-4 days where you could be training them that they're basically stagnating, and may be even regressing. This is why so many people who do "killer workouts" don't see growth. Yes, the workout is killer, but it isn't frequent enough.
If I were to boil it down into simple terms, the answer would be "more frequently than you are now." Instead of having squats on one day a week, throw in some light squats on your deadlift day. Add walking lunges and leg press or leg extension to your press day.
Right now, I am training legs three out of four training days a week, and my legs have never felt better.
In closing, consider the Three Pillars of Hypertrophy Training when it comes to your hypertrophy work, and see if you find improvement, not only on the muscle you're targeting, but your lifts as well. Thanks for reading.
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