Having a workout plan where you know which muscle groups you’re going to work out on what days, knowing exactly how many days per week you’re going to work out, planning how heavy the weights you’re lifting should be for maximum results – these are all vital aspects of your muscle growth journey.
You may have heard the term Hypertrophy thrown around but still weren’t aware of just how critical it is. In fact, it’s the very core of muscle growth itself. Once you know what hypertrophy is all about, how do you go about making it happen?
This guide introduces you to hypertrophy and presents to you the latest facts and research about how to stimulate hypertrophy for ultimate muscle gains – you’ll also learn of some surprising research that could mean you may not have to lift as heavy as you think to reach your goals.
Table of Contents
What Is Hypertrophy?
Without muscle hypertrophy, your muscles would never get bigger. That’s because hypertrophy is the process of the muscle growing in size. The official definition of hypertrophy is an “increase in the volume of a tissue or organ produced entirely by enlargement of existing cells.”
Of course, this doesn’t happen on its own. Unless the muscles are pushed to grow, through sustained and regular resistance training, the muscle tissue will not increase in size.
When you force your muscles to lift weights beyond their normal comfort level, the muscles receive a signal that they need to adapt to this increased demand.
The key to achieving long-lasting and continually increasing muscle hypertrophy of the muscles is to be consistently overloading the muscle with appropriately heavier weights as time goes on – although as you will read below, even using light weights to the point of muscle fatigue can bring about hypertrophy; it can just take longer to get to the point of fatigue.
Complex processes take place in the body during muscle hypertrophy, starting with the trauma that muscles experience after an intensive workout, which activates cells that eventually become new protein strands on the muscle – resulting in a thickening of the muscular cells and supplying the ingredients needed for the process of protein synthesis in the muscles.
This leads to the creation of more of the two primary protein filaments in the muscle – myosin, and actin. These are vital for muscle contraction during workouts. This process of protein synthesis is the very basis for building muscle. The more protein that your muscle fibers can synthesize: the more significant the hypertrophy will be.
Knowing how to stimulate hypertrophy, as well as learning about how heavy, and how often you should be lifting weights, is the key to maximizing your muscle growth. And as you’ll see from our research in this guide, following the stereotype of lifting those big massive weights is not necessarily the only way you’re going to get the most from muscle hypertrophy.
How to Stimulate Hypertrophy?
Muscle hypertrophy is stimulated when you push the muscles beyond what they’re used to lifting or resisting – on a constant and regular basis. So the first step to stimulating hypertrophy is to overload the muscle (or muscle group) that you’re targeting.
This forces the muscle to adapt to the new requirements being placed on it – this explains why people who undertake heavy lifting in their everyday work are physically buff (think of those builders and bricklayers); their muscles are being forced to adapt, through growth, to the loads being placed on them.
When the muscle is overloaded, minuscule tears are created in the fibers of the muscles. Once the body starts repairing itself during recovery, the muscle tissue grows a small amount as it attempts to adapt to the new pressure you’ve placed on it. It makes perfect sense then that, when you complete these actions on a regular basis over an extended period, the muscle can’t help but continue to grow. That’s what muscle hypertrophy is at its very core.
Although hypertrophy and muscle adaptation start happening right after your muscle mass building workout, you won’t see the physical results until several weeks or even months later – hence the great importance of maintaining a consistent long-term training program.
But that hypertrophy doesn’t come without some conditions. Simply damaging the muscle fibers during workouts won’t result in positive growth unless the muscles are provided with two other things they need for the process of hypertrophy to take place: nutrition and recovery properly.
Read More: What to eat to gain muscle?
Nutrition provides the vital building blocks that the muscle requires to grow. Nutrition for muscles is obtained from your food, and from any supplements, you’re taking. The critical nutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while essential vitamins and minerals are considered micronutrients.
Recovery allows the muscle the time it needs to repair and grow. If a muscle group isn’t given enough time to recover and is instead overloaded again, it can have the opposite effect to what you want: instead of repairing the minuscule tears you’ve created during workouts so growth can occur, the muscle can instead lose size and strength. Recovery is therefore critical to hypertrophy.
How Frequently Should You Train a Muscle Group?
One of the most controversial – and most talked about – topics in bodybuilding centers around just how often you should be training a muscle group.
Is there a black and white answer? In short: no.
There are several factors that come into play, and each needs to be considered as they relate to you as an individual: in particular, your current physique and health state, how long you’ve been working out for (are you a beginner or have you been lifting for many years?), and your goals.
A long-held belief by many people is that completely wearing out a muscle group once per week, and letting it fully recover afterward, is the best strategy for maximum muscle hypertrophy, or muscle growth.
But research shows that this is rarely, if ever, the ideal strategy. In fact, virtually all modern research indicates that working for a muscle group up to three times per week is the most effective way to achieving maximum hypertrophy.
In a highly researched thesis completed by Alexander C. Boivin of the University of Central Florida, found that:
“…resistance training each muscle group three times a week may enhance hypertrophy and strength adaptations even more compared to either once or twice a week. Recovery of the muscle may be reached in approximately 72 hours or 3 days.”
What this means is that if you’re only working for a muscle group once per week: you’re leaving gains on the table. The muscle group does not require a week to recover to a level where it’s ready to be worked on again.
Furthermore, the all-important process of protein synthesis is elevated after heavy training – but only for less than two days. After that time, protein synthesis reduces back to its regular level
A study on the time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise was based on the already proven knowledge that protein synthesis rises by 50% four hours after intense resistance exercise.
At the 24 hour point after your muscle gain workout, protein synthesis is known to have increased by a whopping 109%.
The primary focus of this study, however, was to determine where protein synthesis is at after 36 hours post-workout: and the results are telling. By 36 hours after your heavy resistance workout, your protein synthesis has dropped right down to its most base level.
Your muscle group, therefore, receives no further benefit from protein synthesis after this period of approximately 36 hours post-workout.
Based on the available evidence, working for a muscle group two to three times per week is considered the optimal strategy.
What Body Parts to Work on What Days?
Once you’ve decided on how many days each week you’re going to train each muscle group, your next decision is going to revolve around knowing exactly which muscles or areas of the body you’re going to train on any particular day.
Once you have a routine set up that you plan to stick to, you eliminate guesswork and procrastination, and instead can entirely focus on precisely what you have scheduled for each specific workout day. This lets you plan for very detailed goals and puts you in prime position to meticulously track your progress.
There is an infinite number of schedules you could create for your weekly workouts – but the fundamental concept to keep in mind when planning which body parts to work on what days is knowing which muscle groups you can combine on the same day. You might want to dedicate one day to doing leg workouts only. Another day you might focus on your biceps while leaving extra time to also work on your back that day.
If your gym time is limited, you’ll want to have your workouts planned so you know exactly what you’re going to do the second you walk in.
Successful hypertrophy is going to depend significantly on how well you can combine your muscle group workouts because there’s no doubt that specific muscle groups, when worked in combination, provide more activation of muscular fibers – leading to greater hypertrophy and faster, bigger gains. By combining muscle groups, you also benefit from the smaller muscles giving assistance and support to the larger muscle (and vice versa).
The order you work on each muscle group at each workout is also important: the most important exercise to your overall goal should be done first at a workout, as it’s highly likely you’ll be able to complete more reps during whichever muscle group exercises you work on first.
And it goes without saying – you should never train the same muscle group on consecutive days. Learn your rate of recovery, and plan your workouts accordingly. Most recent research shows that the muscles in the upper body recover quicker than those in the lower body. In practical terms, this often means working on your legs for a maximum of twice weekly.
Can You Build Muscle Without Lifting Weights?
Muscle hypertrophy (growth) happens when you push a muscle group into overload: in other words when you exhaust the muscles through resistance training. The muscles need to be overloaded continually for growth to occur, where you need to push them harder and harder each time to make progress and gain muscle fast.
Lifting weights, of course, is the most well known, most widely used method of gaining muscle: only because it works and it’s the best way to push a muscle group to fatigue.
But what if you want to grow muscle without relying on weight lifting equipment? Is it possible?
The short answer is: yes, you can build muscle without weights. This involves the use of your body weight. The upside is, you can gain muscle and strength this way. The downside? It won’t be as fast or as extreme as the gains you’d get lifting weights. That’s because you depend upon the limits of your body weight.
So what muscle exercises can you do to build muscle without weights? You’ve probably done many of them before:
There are a plethora of other exercises you can do for muscle gain without weights, and you can easily combine them into a routine.
The critical aspect to remember (just like with lifting weights), is that your body weight exercises need to be progressed in intensity as time goes on for you to make gains. Staying stagnant does not encourage the body to adapt and get stronger.
While it’s certainly possible to gain some muscle without lifting weights, the rate of progress and the extent of your muscle gains are likely to be limited when using your body weight for resistance rather than weight lifting equipment.
And let’s not forget the use of the mind when it comes to gaining strength and muscle – you may be surprised to learn of several studies that have shown that just thinking about moving the muscles resulted in increased muscular strength. While you won’t be looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger any time soon only by thinking about packing on muscle, these studies do reveal that there’s a definite link between how you feel and what effect it has on your body – and it may just be another small way you can improve your muscle strength without lifting weights.
Knowing how to build muscle at home without the use of gym equipment allows you to work out any time, anywhere and at no cost.
Even if you prefer not to lift heavy weights (or don’t have access to them), keep reading below, because you’ll discover a surprising fact that many aren’t aware of when it comes to making superb muscle gains without necessarily using heavyweights.
Can You Build Muscle With Light Weights?
Bigger is better, isn’t it?
Along with almost everyone else, you probably assume that the only way to make significant gains is through lifting the heaviest weights that you possibly can, right?
Well, you might be surprised to learn that lifting lighter weights can still result in satisfactory muscle gains. A study by Professor Stuart Phillips of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada has shone a light on the age-old debate about just how heavy we should be lifting to get ultimate results.
His study found that it’s all about pushing the muscle to exhaustion – and not specifically about how much you’re lifting. While this doesn’t sound like anything you didn’t already know, the fact that Professor Phillips can state based on his study results that “it doesn’t matter whether the weights are heavy or light”, is truly eye-opening and has ramifications for you if you’ve felt pressured to lift as heavy as you can at every workout.
This revolutionary study measured the size of the muscle fiber and overall muscle mass of people who completed a twelve-week program. All participants had to lift the weights until they were fully fatigued, just as you do at the gym.
In the end, muscle gains were measured to be virtually identical across both study groups.
Some fitness experts now advocate using lighter weights – if not all the time, then at least on occasions, mainly when you’ve been pushing yourself to the limits and are at risk of not recovering adequately. Or worse, at risk of burning out.
Overloading the muscle is what makes it grow – and the research is clear that you can achieve this both with light and heavier weights: provided the muscle group is pushed to exhaustion and that you are dedicated to a regular weekly routine that targets all essential muscle groups.
Is Heavy or Light Weightlifting Best for Hypertrophy?
Now that it’s been shown that you can indeed achieve hypertrophy by lifting light weights, the big question is: is it better to lift heavy or light for ultimate results?
If you’re keen on using light weights for any specific reason: you might want to start slowly, you might have a past injury or disability, or if you don’t feel ready to lift heavier weights – then doing high reps with low weight is a legitimate way to see muscle growth or hypertrophy.
The fundamental principle to achieving hypertrophy with light weights is that you unconditionally must lift those weights to the point of fatigue – just as the same as you would with heavier weights.
The difference is that you’re going to reach fatigue quicker when the weights are heavier – so if you want to lift light, you should be prepared to put in a longer session to cater to an increased number of reps.
Studies have shown that, when all other factors are equal, the difference between results achieved when lifting heavy vs. light weights can be identical.
So we know that overall hypertrophy can technically be equal whether heavy or lights weights are lifted to fatigue on a regular basis. When it comes to strength gains, the jury is still out, but studies indicate that heavier loads likely facilitate greater overall strength gains.
While there is no one specific method of achieving hypertrophy, research has been undertaken to determine how bodybuilders and powerlifters differ in their weightlifting approaches to achieve similar hypertrophy outcomes. Powerlifters use maximum heavy loads with longer rests, while bodybuilders are considered to use moderately heavy loads with shorter rests between sets. The study found that moderate rest intervals are the ideal strategy for maximum hypertrophy.
Like many studies, this one did not conclude the ideal amount of weight to lift but rather on the importance of undertaking 6-12 reps for each set with between 1 and 1.5 minutes rest between each set – with some sets being carried out to the point of failure.
Whether you use light or heavy weights to get there is up to you. As long as you understand how to gain muscle and how hypertrophy works, you can make it happen with any equipment you have on hand.
Hypertrophy is central to everything you do when it comes to gaining muscle – without hypertrophy, your muscles will never grow nor will your strength increase.
This essential process is entirely within your control: you can make hypertrophy happen by undertaking an appropriate build muscle fast workout program and providing your body with the much-needed nutrition that is required for muscle hypertrophy to be successful.
Having a solid understanding of hypertrophy takes away the mystery of bodybuilding and turns it into an exact science.
The more you know about hypertrophy and how to make it happen, the significantly better position you’re going to be in to achieve those impressive gains you’ve been wanting.
Now that you know you can even achieve those gains by lifting lighter weights or by not even lifting weights at all, you don’t need to feel pressured into lifting the heaviest possible weight and putting yourself at risk of injury.