Apply these science-backed principles to your strength training program and start seeing results.
When it comes to building muscle, there’s a lot of pseudoscience out there. For real results, turn to science-backed hypertrophy training strategies instead.
To understand the latest research on hypertrophy, the Tonal Strength Institute partnered with hypertrophy expert and Tonal Advisory Board member Brad Schoenfeld, PhD. Here, he explains what hypertrophy is and shares five tips for building muscle with hypertrophy training.
What is Hypertrophy Training?
“Simply stated, hypertrophy is muscle growth,” says Schoenfeld, who is also a professor of exercise science at CUNY Lehman College. “And in adulthood, it’s mostly brought about through some type of resistance-based exercise.”
There are many different ways to execute hypertrophy training. In general, you need to progressively overload your body with new challenges, whether that’s with more load or more overall volume, to spur new muscle protein synthesis that results in bigger gains.
How to Build Muscle with Hypertrophy Training
1. Find the sweet spot for volume.
The more sets per week per muscle group you perform, the more muscle growth you’ll achieve. But there can be too much of a good thing. Lift too low of a volume and you won’t maximize growth; lift too much volume, and you will plateau or risk overtraining, explains Schoenfeld. Everyone has a different point at which they plateau.
Emerging research suggests that the sweet spot is approximately 10 or more sets per muscle per week to significantly improve hypertrophy, Schoenfeld says. For example, if you complete 3 sets of bench press and 2 sets of chest flies within two workouts for the week, you’re completing a volume of 10 sets of chest exercises. If you complete 5 sets of goblet squats and 5 sets of front squats once a week, this would also be a volume of 10 sets of squat variations.
Apply it: Aim for around 10 sets per week per muscle group. If you’re not there yet, don’t sweat it. Base the volume on your current workout habits, progressively increasing volume by 20 percent at a time. So if you’re under 10 sets per week, you can benefit from including one additional set per week, a finding that was also evident in anonymous performance data of Tonal users. The programs geared toward hypertrophy on Tonal seamlessly build this progressive overload into the workouts.
2. Maximize hypertrophy with different loading strategies.
Historically, there were strict guidelines for how heavy you should lift and how many reps you should perform for hypertrophy goals. But new research now shows that muscle growth occurs regardless of intensity and rep range, Schoenfeld explains.
“Both heavy (>60 percent 1-rep max) and light (<60 percent 1-rep max) load training elicited remarkably similar increases in hypertrophy and results were consistent regardless of whether exercises were performed for the upper or lower body,” he notes. Your best bet is to work at a moderate load with alternating periods using very high levels of effort with reduced levels of effort to promote supercompensation of gains.
You can take the same approach with rep ranges. You can achieve hypertrophy with as little as 3 to 5 reps all the way up to 40 reps per set. But, says Schoenfeld, “from an efficiency standpoint, a moderate repetition range somewhere in the 8 to 12 or 8 to 15 range is where you want to be for the majority of your training. Focusing on more moderate ranges, then cycling in lower and higher ranges helps to optimize growth,” he adds.
As far as frequency, if you are aiming for 10 sets per muscle group per week, “even one day a week per muscle group really is sufficient,” Schoenfeld says “But when you start using more than about 10 sets per muscle group, it’s generally best to split the volume up into more frequent sessions across the week. So let’s say you’re doing 16 sets per week, two days a week of 8 sets would be better than one day a week of 16 sets.”
Based on the research, Schoenfeld also recommends resting at least two minutes between sets of multi-joint exercises such as squats or deadlifts. Shorter rest intervals can be used with single-joint exercises—such as sets of biceps curls—seemingly without detriment.
Apply it: As long as you are hitting the volume recommendations for each muscle group per week, you can lift light or heavy and see improvements in hypertrophy. For efficiency, aim for a moderate 8 to 15 rep range and cycle in some lower rep sets at higher loads and higher reps set at lower loads, with rest intervals specific to the exercise.
3. Include different exercise variations for the same muscle groups.
Your body moves in infinite directions all day long, so training your muscles in multiple patterns and planes of motion is the best way to build hypertrophy. What’s more, muscles often have multiple heads, like the triceps brachii which has three heads that are often controlled by different nerves. Think about all of the ways you can perform a triceps exercise (bench press, narrow-grip bench press, overhead triceps extension, kick backs, lying triceps extension). Accordingly, research shows incorporating variations of exercises is beneficial for hypertrophy.
“[Muscles] are partitioned in ways anatomically for better leverage in certain angles and planes of movement,” says Schoenfeld. “Having a multi-angled, multi-planar approach is needed to maximize gains.”
Apply it: Include a variety of exercises in different positions and planes for each muscle group to maximize hypertrophy. Exercise variations are already built into your routine on Tonal. With over 200 exercises to choose from, you can be sure you’re hitting all of the planes of motion and parts of each muscle.
4. Build in periodization.
Periodization refers to strategically changing up your workout routine over time, which can help you overcome plateaus in performance. “There is a sound logical basis to have some type of periodization approach so you’re not just doing the same thing over and over,” says Schoenfeld. This might look like a few weeks of higher volume (increasing the number of sets per week), followed by a few weeks of lower volume.
One approach to your hypertrophy training is to build it into your life. When you are busier or have higher levels of stress, focus on lower volume blocks. When you have more energy and free time, you can increase volume for a few weeks to get those overload benefits.
Apply it: Change up your volume schemes over time to avoid plateaus. A way to tackle periodization on Tonal might look like participating in a four-week “Get Lean” program and then a three-week “Build Muscle” program that vary the frequency and intensity of your lifts.
5. Individualize your program based on your progress.
Every body is unique, and your goals, lifestyle, and response to training will all affect your progress. “Research shows some people do better with higher volumes, while some people do better with lower volumes,” Schoenfeld says. These differences can even be seen across muscle groups as well. Ultimately, use the recommendations as a general guideline and then customize programming based on your individual response.
Apply it: Tonal provides real-time data to give you an in-depth look at your progress. Keep an eye on how you feel in your workouts and about your progress and make changes in your program with these guidelines in mind.