What is hypertrophy? At its simplest, hypertrophy means “muscle growth” or the process by which muscles increase in size. Hypertrophy Specific Training aka HST is therefore any training that is targeted at and leads to muscle growth.
How is hypertrophy different from bodybuilding you might ask? Well, technically bodybuilding is a sport and to excel as a bodybuilder you must engage in Hypertrophy Specific Training, but they are not one and the same thing. Competitive bodybuilders perform Hypertrophy Specific Training then take part in contests where they are judged for muscle development, proportion and aesthetics.
In contrast, strength training, endurance training and weight loss training may not lead to muscle growth and therefore would not be considered Hypertrophy Specific Training.
Over the years research has shown that Hypertrophy Specific Training is composed of just a few important principles outlined below.
- Progressive Overload
This is by far the most important principle. For muscle growth to occur you must subject your muscles to progressively heavier loads over time. Have you ever seen the skinny guy who slaves away in the gym but never grows? Chances are he is doing the same 2 x 45lb bench press workout year in year out, never increasing the load.
Hypertrophy (muscle growth) occurs when you induce ‘micro-tears’ in your muscle tissue by training intensely with weights. When these ‘micro-tears’ heal, a thick fleshy callus forms to protect the muscles against future ‘attack’. This is part of the body’s response to a perceived ‘threat’ and over time what was once perceived a ‘threat’ (heavy intense weight) is now the new normal.
The human body has an amazing ability to adapt and so if you keep training with the same weights the body won’t perceive a ‘threat’ and will not respond by building bigger muscles!
- Frequency of Training
Along with the principle of progressive overload you must also train frequently to grow muscle. I usually recommend 3-4 times a week. Any more than that and you run the risk of overtraining. Any less, you will not stimulate your muscles enough for the gains to become permanent.
- Specific Repetition Range
No one really understands why but it has been determined that 5-7 reps is the ideal range for muscle growth. Fewer repetitions do not stimulate the muscles enough and too many more above this range gets you into endurance training which does not lead to muscle growth.
It is OK to start with 8-10 repetitions for the first set (warm up) but you should aim to expend your most effort, with the most jaw clenching intensity, in the 5-7 rep range.
- Strategic Deconditioning
This is just a fancy term for changing the nature of the load. As you progressively add weight to your training (principle 1) you will reach a mechanical limit and may not be able to significantly increase weight for a long time. So what to do? To avoid hitting a plateau you can change the angle of the load.
For instance you could start doing more incline bench pressing rather than just the flat bench press. When you do this you will immediately notice that you are not able to lift as much weight as you did on the flat bench.
Over the next several weeks or a few months aim to eventually get to the same weight on the incline bench that you did on the flat bench. Your muscles will be stimulated in a slightly different way ensuring that you continue to grow! At that point resume the flat bench and then try to go up in weight again.
Strategic deconditioning is the principle behind popular commercial fitness programs such as P90X that tout ‘muscle confusion’ as the solution to all your fitness needs! It isn’t so much ‘muscle confusion’ as it is stimulating your muscles in a slightly different way, the muscles have no mind of their own and simply respond to varied stimulation.
In a nutshell, those are the core principles of Hypertrophy Specific Training. Apply them consistently and you’ll build some serious muscle!