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Optimally Training For Muscle Hypertrophy: A Deeper Dive

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Confused by muscle building training systems? Learn the science behind muscle growth, and provides a template for you to maximize gains.

Bicep CurlsEVERY muscle mag that you pick up these days will have an exclusive interview with Joe or Jane Bodybuilder on their revolutionary new training program that will pack on more muscle than one knows what to do with.  Get online and search “muscle building programs” and hundreds of styles and methods, all claiming to be the BEST, will come up.  DoggCrapp training, Muscle Fiber Type Training, descending sets, giant set, super set programs, ABC training, FST-7, 531, Occlusion training, Insanity, Cross Fit, Heavy Duty, HIT, and the list goes on.

Most programs are backed by an expert to validate their points, and most programs appear to make a lot of sense. As physique athletes looking to gain muscle while keeping body fat in check, which program is optimal?  Let’s look into the key factors that go into designing an effective exercise program for hypertrophy.  These are periodization, the hormonal response to exercise, muscle fiber type or an individual’s muscles tolerance to exercise and rest/recovery needs.

Linear Perodization

The concept of periodization is based on the fact that the body will adapt to an outside stimuli.  Developing a callous, a sun tan, and increasing muscle mass are all adaptations that our bodies go through as a response to outside stimuli.  Once this adaptation occurs, a stronger or different stimulus needs to be imposed for further adaptation to take place.  Thus a periodized program consists of a macrocycle, defined as an annual plan that works towards peaking for the goal or competition of the year.

The macrocycle is then broken down into several phases or mesocycles, and then further broken down into weekly workouts or microcycles.  For a physique athlete, a macrocycle can be thought of as a 24-week preparation period, with each month being a mesocycle and each week being a microcycle.  For many sports, the mesocycles are broken down into some type of foundation training, hypertrophy, power or agility, competition and then active rest or recovery.  This makes sense as most sports require a great deal of agility and functional power.  In accordance with the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) the body will adapt to the current phase or mesocycle and then the next phase will be instituted.

The next phase will manipulate volume, intensity, rest, and other variables.  One way of simplifying linear periodization  models would be to understand the progressive overload principle.  This states that progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.  In other words, once an adaptation has occurred, variables need to be changed in order to make the task harder.  This can mean increasing resistance, decreasing rest, or increasing volume.  Most “canned” programs lack periodization and therefore result in burnout, overtraining, or diminishing results.

Non-linear or Undulated Periodization

Undulating periodization involves the acute variation of volume and intensity on a weekly (microcycle) or daily basis.  This type of periodization manipulates volume, intensity, and recovery--all in a given week or even a single workout.  Typically undulated periodization consists of 3 phases known as Accumulation (volume), Intensification (Intensity) and Recovery.

Charles Poliquin is a respected strength and conditioning coach and researcher who is a proponent of this model.  Since variables are always being changed, it is argued that the body cannot adapt to the training as easily as it adapts to a linear model.  Several studies have validated that the undulated periodized model is efficient at gaining muscle when compared to its linear counterpart.

Bench Press

Exercise and the Hormonal Response

This is a highly complex topic with thousands of variables and different mechanisms; so for this article’s sake a general overview will be reviewed for the primary anabolic hormones, testosterone and human growth hormone.  According to researchers and studies published by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, certain training protocols will yield a different hormonal response.

Human Growth Hormone

HGH tends to be correlated with the amount of lactate produced by the skeletal muscle being fatigued.  According to the NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning textbook, an increase in lactic acid prompts the body to release hydrogen ions which in turn triggers a growth hormone response.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (J Appl Physiol 88:61-65, 2000) showed that occlusion training has yielded very high local HGH concentration in  the muscle group being occluded.  (In the referenced study, occlusion training consisted of applying a mild tourniquet on the proximal end of the knee extensor muscles while performing higher reps knee extensions at 20% 1RM)

Other types of training which would yield relatively high lactic acid levels would be rest pause training, descending reps, diminished rest training, and super set training.  Thus the prescription for natural HGH release would be:

  • Low rest periods
  • Moderately high volume of reps of 10 plus
  • High time under tension or constant tension
  • Slower movement speeds
  • Lighter loads

Maximize your muscle building.Testosterone

Testosterone is essentially a strength hormone.   One can hypertrophy a muscle by taking HGH and not working out;  but if one were to self administer testosterone and not work out it is unlikely that muscle hypertrophy would occur.  Those who illegally take testosterone may first experience large strength gains and then use this strength to overload the muscle for hypertrophy.

Studies on rats and the effects of testosterone exposure show that the increase in strength may be a result of an increase in glycogen metabolism,  thus providing the muscles themselves with the capacity to do more work.  (Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 1999 apr:77 (4):300-4).  Most intense, heavy load training will elevate testosterone levels.  Thus the training stimulus most conducive to naturally elevating testosterone levels would be:

  • Longer rest periods
  • Heavy loads 1-5RM conducted explosively
  • Basic core movement which incorporate larger muscles (squat, deadlift, power cleans)

One of the biggest mistakes that a lot of physique athletes make is only training slow and controlled with “perfect form” to elicit the HGH response.  These trainees normally claim that they want to “feel” or experience the muscle pump, and simply throwing around the iron does not do any good. In accordance with the progressive overload principle, a muscle is less likely to hypertrophy to its fullest unless ALL its muscle fibers are exhausted.

Many times following only the HGH protocol, trainees muscle will shut down pre maturely due to the intense burning caused by the increase in lactic acid.  Heavy, explosive training is a fundamental for our sport and is one of the main tools necessary to build muscle.  Also on the subject of explosive, heavy training now leads us into the next discussion on designing our program Muscle Fiber Type.

One of the best books ever published on our sport is Bodybuilding: A Scientific Approach by Dr. Frederick Hatfield.  Dr. Hatfield provides an in-depth analysis of the three different muscle fibers and how each has a different tolerance to exercise.  For example, one of the largest flaws that most training protocols make is overtraining certain muscle groups and undertraining others.  Most physique athletes train each body part once per week.  This can be way too much frequency for some muscles and not enough for others.  Refer to the chart below on the three muscle fiber types:

Table 1: Characteristics of the Three Muscle Fiber Types
 
Fiber Type Slow Twitch (ST) Fast Twitch A (FT-A) Fast Twitch B (FT-B)
Contraction time Slow Fast Very fast
Size of motor neuron Small Large Very large
Resistance to fatigue High Intermediate Low
Activity used for Aerobic Long term anaerobic Short term anaerobic
Force production Low High Very high
Mitochondrial density High High Low
Capillary density High Intermediate Low
Oxidative capacity High High Low
Glycolytic capacity Low High High
Major storage fuel Triglycerides CP, Glycogen CP, Glycogen

A summary of this chart is that type IIB muscle fibers have the highest capacity for force generation and growth.  They also fatigue quickly and require more rest than other muscle fibers.  Conversely, type I muscle fibers have incredible endurance, but they do not possess the growth capacity that type IIB fibers possess.  Type I fibers also recover very quickly.  Type IIA muscle fibers share characteristics of type I and type IIB and are therefore right in the middle.

Dr. Hatfield and Charles Poliquin both have devised non- invasive muscle fiber tests that can give you an understanding of your predominant muscle fiber types.   Both methods require that an athlete perform a test to determine their 1 rep max for a given muscle group.  Then you would have them do as many reps with either 80% (Hatfield) or 85% (Poliquin) of their 1 rep maximum.  Less than 7 reps would be more type IIB dominant, mid reps of 7-11 would be a blend, and higher reps would be more type I muscle fiber dominant.

Another way to determine muscle fiber type is to look at the action of the muscle itself.  For example, the abs and spinal erectors are necessary to stabilize the spine and trunk all day long, thus they tend to be slow twitch, type I dominant.  The same holds true with the calves we walk on all day long.  Since Mother Nature determines our individual muscle fiber types and thus determines if we will be a champion weightlifter or marathon runner, knowing the characteristics of the different muscle fibers will assist us in designing our programs.

Massive back

It is paramount to note that the type IIB muscle fibers have the largest diameter, the greatest propensity for growth, and generate the largest force production.  Whether you have a predominant muscle fiber or not (many of us have an even blend of the three), it would be optimal to focus on explosive, heavy training which will target our type IIB muscle fibers.

According to the Size Principle, muscle fibers are recruited in order of smallest to largest, thus our smaller type I fibers are always recruited first.  Capitalizing on explosive, piston-like repetitions with little focus on the eccentric portion (lowering or negative) of the lift is the best way to capitalize on type IIB muscle fibers.  It is no wonder that powerlifters, who primarily train in this fashion, have such large amounts of muscle mass.

In designing a program based on muscle fiber type, one must take into account other factors such as:  the fact that large muscle groups take longer to recover than small muscle groups, intensity of the program, motivation level, ability to get under heavy loads and perform explosively, etc…

Rest

As eager as physique athletes are to reach their potential, we sometimes fail to realize that muscle hypertrophy occurs outside the gym, not inside.  Overtraining can wreak havoc on our hormonal levels by plummeting the anabolic hormones HGH and testosterone.  Joint pain or tendonitis, lack of energy, and overall burnout are all signs of pushing too much too hard.

A lot of the programs out there simply annihilate your nervous and musculature system but do not allow any time for the body to heal itself such phases in periodized models.  Lack of recovery is another major flaw of the “canned” programs that we often read about.  The “squat til you puke” philosophy may sound hardcore, but doing this week after week will lead to overtraining and muscle loss.

Remember “stimulate don’t annihilate”  Ever notice that the day after a game in most sporting events is normally off or spent reviewing game footage, not hardcore practice.  Balancing periods of high intensity with periods of low intensity is paramount in building muscle.

Putting It All Together: The Program

By no means would I state that MY method of training is any better than the next Shark’s method: however now that we have a thorough understanding of the “behind the scenes” of muscle building, allow me to propose a program that optimizes the four aforementioned discussions.  This program would be considered an undulated periodized program and assumes the following:  the subject’s chest, shoulders, and triceps are type IIB dominant, the subject is a physique athlete with no injuries attempting to gain muscle, and the subject has several years of training experience.

The program has three workouts:

I. Intensity Workouts. These are powerful movements, reps of 9-11 executed heavy and explosively in a piston-like fashion with little attention to the eccentric phase of the lift.  Once failure is reached on the 11th or so rep rest, for 10-15 seconds and execute 1-3 reps more, again rest 10-15 seconds and execute 1-3 reps more.  If you can do more than 3 then you may either be resting more than 15 seconds or you did not reach true failure on the primary set.

Free weights and Hammer Strength work well for this initial set.  Then choose another exercise and execute in the same fashion.  Cables or a machine movement works well in this scenario.  A rep or two can be added to the rep scheme.  Finally end with an isolation movement executed in the same fashion with slightly higher reps of 17 plus.  Note: one working set with 1-2 rest pause drops per exercise for a total of only three working sets per bodypart.

Intensity workouts are designed to target type IIB and IIA muscle fibers and focus on the lactic acid response by using the rest pause technique.  The primary set will cause momentary muscle failure fatiguing the muscle fibers themselves as opposed to lactic acid causing muscle failure.  The rest pause sets will then be a factor in muscle failure due to lactic acid build up in the exercised muscle itself, therefore getting the best of both worlds.

II. Volume Workouts. These workouts consist of A sets executed very heavy and explosive for reps of 4-7; 3 sets total with up to two minutes rest between sets. B sets executed in a semi explosive fashion (controlled eccentric, powerful concentric) for reps of 9-13 with up to one minute rest between sets. C sets are then executed in a very slow and controlled fashion utilizing descending reps with total reps ranging from 40-50;  2 sets are done here.

Volume workout will focus on true muscle failure not caused by the lactic acid with the exception of the C sets.  Maximal poundage’s can be used on the A sets.

III. Recovery Workouts. Recovery workouts consist of 3-5 sets of 10 using 40-50% of 1RM or bodyweight movements stretching the worked muscle between these sets.  If the muscle is still sore from the prior workout lighter loads should be used.

Recovery workouts are designed to break up scar tissue from the previous workout, mobilize the joints surrounding the worked muscle, and stretch the muscles and aid in the recovery process.

Below is a model of what a month layout with the subject described earlier of this program looks like. (chest, shoulders, and triceps are type IIB dominant, the subject is a physique athlete with no injuries attempting to gain muscle, and the subject has several years of training experience.)

Intensity

  • First Set - Reps of 9-11 heavy, piston - like motion, core movement 2 rest pauses.
  • Second Set - Reps of 11-13 executed in the same fashion, cable or machine movement 2 rest pauses.
  • Third Set - Reps of  13-17 executed in the same fashion. 2 rest pauses.

Volume

  • A Sets - 3 sets, reps of 4-7 executed heavy and explosive.  2 minutes rest between sets.
  • B Sets - 3 sets 9-12 reps executed in a semi explosive movement speed with heavy resistance.  1 minute rest.
  • C Sets - 2 sets executed slowly using descending reps 40-50 total reps.

Recovery

  • 3-5 Sets - 3-5 sets executed slowly with 40-50% 1RM.
  • Stretch - Stretch between sets.

Notes: Recovery sets can be lighter or heavier based of the feel of the muscle being worked.

Sample Monthly Workout Plan
 
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat

Chest I

Biceps I

Shoulders II

Triceps I

Quads II

Back II

Hamstrings I

Biceps III

Calves

Abs

 

Chest III

Quads III

Biceps II

Shoulders III

Triceps III

Back III

Hamstrings III

Abs

 

Biceps III

Quads I

Chest II

Back I

Calves

 

Biceps I

Shoulders I

Triceps II

 

Back III

Hamstrings II

Abs

Chest III

Biceps III

Quads III

 

Shoulders III

Triceps III

Calves

 

Biceps II

Back I

Hamstrings III

Chest I

Quads II

Abs

 

Biceps III

Shoulders I

Triceps III

Back III

Hamstrings I

Calves

 

Chest III

Biceps I

Quads III

 

Shoulders III

Hamstrings III

Biceps III

Abs

Calves

 

Chest I

Quads I

End of Month      

In this example, no specific protocol is being given to abs and calves, and the subject wanted Christmas day and Sundays off when possible.  Each volume and intensity workout is followed by a recovery workout.  Since it was mentioned that the subject’s chest, shoulders, and triceps are type IIB dominant, they are given a little more rest than the biceps.  It was also taken into account that the back and legs, being large muscle groups, may require more rest.

Although I can’t tell you that this program will give you 10 pounds of muscle in 10 days, I can tell you using this type of undulated program design will give you optimal stimulation of the type IIB muscle fibers; and provide adequate progressive overload, an ideal hormonal environment, and the proper recovery to hypertrophy your muscles and get you in optimal shape for your next contest.

You will notice that the program is “holistic” in that it is basically the culmination of several training principles which have been used by physique athletes for years.  High reps, low reps, explosive movements, slow moments and everything in between is the essence of this program.  If choosing to execute this program remember to take into account your individual muscles tolerance to exercise (muscle fiber type).

Feel free to email Jesse@sett2win.com with any questions on this program.

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  • About The Author
    Jesse "The Shark" Dale has been weight lifting and bodybuilding since age 14. He is an IFPA pro bodybuilder.
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Comments (16)

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Deborah Shagena
Posted Thu, 03/31/2011 - 06:37

Very good info. Well presented details of the correct way to work your body. Keep up the articles Shark Jesse, natural is best.

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Kristaps
Posted Sat, 04/02/2011 - 19:47

Hey,
First of all loving the article many thanks to the author. Second of all I have a question about the intensity part of the workout. What exactly do you mean by 2 rest pauses within the 1st, 2nd and 3rd set?

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Kristaps
Posted Sat, 04/02/2011 - 19:51

My apologies for the previous comment, I just found my answer above in the article I believe by the 2 rest pauses during intensity sets you mean the extra 1-3 reps with 10-15 second interval after the main set.

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Chaz
Posted Tue, 04/05/2011 - 09:20

VERY GOOD AND TRUE INFO.

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clutch1
Posted Fri, 04/08/2011 - 10:00

seems like a good program. uses doggcrapp sets, which i like, and is very similar to layne nortons power/hypertrophy training, which i like.

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Paul Elliott
Posted Mon, 04/11/2011 - 21:42

3 questions.. Is there anyway this could be altered into a Mon-Fri routine? How long do these workouts generally last? and lastly, what type of exercises should be used when it comes to this routine? compound? isolation? Thank you so much, I greatly look forward to using this routine if I can fit it into my Mon-Fri schedule!

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Jesse Dale
Posted Mon, 09/05/2011 - 19:48

Apologies for not answering much sooner. Insteead of adapting this to a Monday-Friday program I would suggests taking Sat/Sun off and then picking back up on Monday but following the rotation of the 3 formats described. The workout legth depends on what protocal you are using, about 45 minutes to an hour. For "A" sets free weights or Hammer Stregth work well, "B" sets same or cable machines as well, "C" sets bodyweight or cables work well, isolation movements also work well here as well.

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Paul Elliott
Posted Mon, 04/11/2011 - 21:57

Also, why not do all type I one week, type II another, and type III another?

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Jesse Dale
Posted Mon, 09/05/2011 - 19:50

It could be done in this fashion, I see no reason why not

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Miles
Posted Sun, 04/17/2011 - 21:54

hey thanks for the post!
I've been following this workout for 1 week now and it feels like im not doing enough sets and exercises. Have i read it wrong, is it this series of A,B and C workouts for each exercise in that muscle group?
Thanks.
-Miles
The incredible bulk!

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Jesse Dale
Posted Mon, 09/05/2011 - 19:52

Miles-
My apologies for not repsonding much sooner. It is plenty of volume:\
A Exercise= 3 working sets
B Exercise= 3 working sets
C Exercise= 1-3 working sets

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Mike
Posted Wed, 04/20/2011 - 12:16

What does A set B set and C set mean? Like 3 different workouts for the desired body part?

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Jesse Dale
Posted Mon, 09/05/2011 - 19:54

It is just an arbitrary way to define the exercise. A exercises are done explosively, little eccentric, very powerful concentric reps of 5-7. B exercises or sets are rythymic and controlled reps of 10-12, and C exercises are very slow and controlled high reps sets.

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Kuzdra
Posted Fri, 08/16/2013 - 17:33

Well done Jesse! Individual approach to each muscle group on workload type and recovery time. I will definitely try it. One thing is confusing - for type II (volume) workouts you propose 7-9 sets on one muscle group. Then it must be a long and exhausting day session when you workout three groups: Shoulders II (7-9 sets), then Triceps I with three sets on rest-pause scheme, and another "volume" type 7-9 sets for Quads. I doubt someone can keep the proper technique and concentration for quads workout after the first two. I don't want to make any changes in your program which looks balanced thoroughly, just share my confusion

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Éric FONCEL
Posted Sat, 05/04/2013 - 03:13

Hi, would it be possible to adapt that kind of program with full body work out routine? Could you give me an exemple? Thanks in d'avance, Éric .

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Bartosz
Posted Fri, 06/13/2014 - 14:28

Hi Jesse,
How many exercises do you suggests to do on each body part? As I am confusing a little a bit about the workout.

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