What Is Muscle Hypertrophy? Know The Science Behind Your Muscle Growth


We’ve all come across THOSE adverts. The ones that promise to pack on 10 kilograms of pure muscle all by following their 30-day hypertrophy program.

But what does the term hypertrophy actually mean?

What Is Muscle Hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is the scientific term for the growth of a body tissue through the increase of cells that form it.

It doesn’t take an exercise scientist to understand that muscle hypertrophy simply refers to muscle growth.

While many individuals aspire to get muscle hypertrophy, so many struggle to attain it.

For those who struggle to build size, this article will serve as a crash-course to muscle hypertrophy.

It will start by looking at muscle hypertrophy and the mechanisms behind it. Then it will move on to discuss the principles that need to be applied to maximize muscle growth.

How Does Muscle Hypertrophy Happen?

Before we can think about training methods and techniques, it’s important that we have a basic understanding of hypertrophy.

Understanding the changes that occur during hypertrophy will be invaluable when it comes to training sessions.

However, there is a slight issue. Science is still trying to fully wrap its head around muscle hypertrophy and the processes behind it.

While the scientific understanding of hypertrophy may not be entirely complete, there is still much we can learn.

Types of Hypertrophy

Firstly, there are two types of muscle hypertrophy to be aware of:

  • myofibril hypertrophy
  • sarcoplasmic hypertrophy

A myofibril can also be referred to as a muscle fibril. Muscle fibrils are rod-shaped units that chain together to form a muscle cell (or myocyte).

Myofibrils are composed of proteins such as actin and myosin which play a key role in causing contraction of muscles.

Putting two and two together, myofibril hypertrophy is an increase in the size and number of the individual myofibrils.

By increasing the size of the myofibrils, muscle fibers will increase in size and contractions will become more powerful.

Okay, so that’s myofibril hypertrophy wrapped up.

What about sarcoplasmic hypertrophy? The sarcoplasm refers to all of the contents held within the muscle cell. Within the sarcoplasm, a whole host of essential substances can be found such as proteins, glycogen (energy) and water.

Therefore, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to the increase of the contents of the muscle cell.

So, serious muscle growth can be established through either myofibril and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. But, is one better than the other and can we be selective in the type we use?

Is one type better than the other?

A widely held belief is that myofibril hypertrophy is superior to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy for strength improvements. However, neither is considered more effective for hypertrophy.

As mentioned, myofibril hypertrophy may lead to stronger muscle contractions. Because sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs as a result of an increased volume of fluid in the cell, strength will remain unchanged.

A study of particular interest investigated the type of hypertrophy that bodybuilders and weightlifters experienced. Bodybuilders appeared to experience sarcoplasmic hypertrophy while weightlifters primarily underwent myofibril hypertrophy (1).

While this appears to add weight to the argument, it is only a theory. More research is needed. Finally, it appears that selective hypertrophy is not possible regardless of the training methods and techniques used (2).

Training is likely to bring about both myofibril and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy one degree or another. Once again though, the evidence is inconclusive. Welcome to the world of exercise science!

How Do We Get Muscle Hypertrophy?

What Is Muscle Hypertrophy

There are three essential requirements for packing on muscle – strength training, nutrition, and recovery.

To bring about optimal muscle growth, all three requirements must be put in place. We simply cannot have one without the others.

Strength Training

The most obvious requirement for bringing about muscle growth is strength training. In training, for muscles to grow, they must experience the following three mechanisms:

  • Mechanical Tension
  • Muscle Damage
  • Metabolic Stress

Mechanical tension is the stress that muscles experience during a lift. The greater the load, the more tension that is applied to the muscle.

As a result of this mechanical tension, muscle damage occurs at a microscopic level. Small tears appear in the muscle fibers that must be repaired.

Metabolic stress refers to the accumulation of metabolites (or waste products) in the muscle. This is most commonly achieved by exercising the muscle to failure.

Providing that recovery is adequate, the muscles will repair themselves from this damage and stress and consequently increase in size. By training regularly and exposing these hypertrophy mechanisms, there is great potential for significant muscle growth.

When it comes to training methods, the traditional belief was to use 6 – 12 reps to optimally build muscle size. However, recent research has indicated that muscle hypertrophy occurs across a range of rep ranges (3).

Therefore, don’t be overly concerned about specifics like rep ranges. Instead, focus on overall training volume and progressive overload.

Training volume is the number of sets and reps performed while progressive overload is the process of gradually making training harder over time.

By gradually increasing our training volume over time and lifting heavier loads, muscle hypertrophy will be attained.


Muscle Hypertrophy - Nutrition

While strength training receives a lot of attention, nutrition is often neglected or misunderstood.

Proper nutrition is essential to the muscle-building process. When it comes to nutrition for muscle hypertrophy, calorie and protein consumption are most important (4).

More specifically, we must place our bodies in a calorie surplus. This is where we consume more calories than our body needs. The additional calories that are consumed are used to speed up recovery from training.

Better recovery equals greater growth. One of the reasons that people fail in their muscle-building endeavors is because they simply do not eat enough.

While this is not permission to binge eat whatever we like, calories do need to be upped. To ensure that we are consuming enough for muscle growth, consider calorie counting.

While it is unlikely to become a new, favorite hobby, it will help deliver results. Alongside calories, protein is also influential in muscle building.

Nowadays, we can purchase every type of high-protein product under the sun. Protein pancakes, protein chocolate, protein crisps, and even protein water. But why all the fuss about protein?

Protein is a nutrient that the body needs for recovery and growth. That means protein plays a huge role in how well we recover from exercise.

Consuming a high protein diet will ensure that our recovery is optimal and will accelerate muscle growth.


Muscle Hypertrophy - Recovery

One of the biggest factors that impacts much more than just muscle growth is sleep.

Most of us probably don’t get enough of it if we are honest. Sleep is needed to allow the body systems, such as the muscular and nervous system, to recover from everyday stresses.

By failing to get enough sleep, recovery will be stunted and these key systems will not operate efficiently. If the muscles do not recover adequately from training sessions, muscle growth may slow and the muscles may remain fatigued.

Carrying fatigue into a training session will certainly impact performance. If performance is reduced, the training stimulus may not be enough to bring about substantial changes.

It is even possible for overtraining to become an issue. If the body can’t recover well and deal with the training stimulus, muscle growth will stop and size can even be lost.

There’s been a running theme throughout this section – recovery. If we can promote recovery after training, muscles will have no choice but to grow.

Types of Exercises for Muscle Hypertrophy

Now that the science is more or less out the way, let’s think about training specifics for muscle hypertrophy. Which exercises should be prioritized in training sessions?

With strength training, there are two types of exercise to be aware of – compound and isolation.

  • Compound exercises are “big” movements that use a number of muscles and joints. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows are all good examples of compounds.
  • Isolation exercises meanwhile are small movements that focus on just one muscle group and joint. An example of an isolation exercise would be the world-renowned bicep curl.

So, two different types of exercise, but which is better for muscle hypertrophy?

Typical strength training programs tend to follow the same format. Compound exercises form the bulk of each session while isolations are used as accessory exercises.

Does this mean that compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises? Not exactly.

While compounds recruit more muscles and allow for greater loads, the stress is shared across a range of muscles. If the goal is to develop full-body size, compound exercises should take priority.

With isolations, although only a relatively small amount can be lifted, isolations place all the stress on only one muscle. This makes isolations an excellent addition to hypertrophy programs – specifically for encouraging growth in specific areas.

For developing muscle size most effectively, both types of exercise should be used in training sessions (5).

More Tips To Build Muscle and Enhance Muscle Size

This is the section where many hope to read about the untold secret for unlocking insane hypertrophy gains. Sadly, there are no such secrets or shortcuts.

The truth is that only through consistency and patience can we make real change. However, that’s not to say there aren’t techniques that we can use to accelerate progress.

1. Train With High Volume

Recent research has shown that high volume has a huge impact on the rate of hypertrophy.

Providing progressions are gradual, look to gradually add volume to enhance muscle size. This can be done by adding sets, reps, or load.

One simple and effective method of increasing training volume is to use advanced training techniques. Supersets, trisets, giant sets, and dropsets are all excellent tools.

Supersets involve performing 2 exercises back-to-back with no rest. Trisets and giant sets use three and four exercises respectively.

For dropsets, start with a heavyweight and complete as many reps as possible. When failure is reached, drop the weight slightly and continue.

Not only will these methods increase volume, but they can also contribute towards the three mechanisms of hypertrophy.

2. Make Recovery a Priority

By reading through the article, it should be very clear that recovery is key.

If the goal is to develop muscle size, recovery needs to be a top priority. This means placing things like good nutrition and sleep on a pedestal.

Establishing easy habits like meal prepping and setting bedtimes can be valuable. Meal prepping and planning will ensure that healthy and nutritious meals are consumed.

It may also potentially restrict the eating of junk foods and snacks. Setting a bedtime and religiously sticking to it is also recommended.

While everyone is different, it is recommended to sleep for 6 – 8 hours per night.

Although this may both of these may feel a little restrictive, they can have a substantial effect on muscle hypertrophy.

And who doesn’t want an hour longer in bed each night anyway?

3. Set Achievable Goals

We’ve all set ourselves a New Years Resolution before. And we’ve all likely failed to keep our resolutions too… after approximately two days.

The reason why so many resolutions fail is because the resolutions that are set are either too big or unrealistic.

Setting unrealistic goals inevitably leads to failure and demotivation. On the other hand, setting achievable goals and attain them leads to success and motivation!

So, when assessing goals, consider whether they are actually attainable. If a big goal has been set, look to break it down into smaller, more manageable goals.

What About Supplements?

Creatine - Best pre-workout supplement

The supplements industry has exploded over the past few years.

With so many new supplements and products being churned out, it can be challenging to separate the effective and ineffective. There are supplements that can make a difference in training and recovery.

As we mentioned earlier, maintaining a high protein diet can be valuable when looking to build muscle size. Therefore, whey protein supplements are very convenient and can help to boost daily protein intake.

Creatine monohydrate is another supplement that may be beneficial to many. The substance has been found to increase strength and power (6).

This may allow for heavier loads to be lifted which will increase the amount of mechanical tension. And as we now know, mechanical tension is a key mechanism for muscle growth.

A final supplement that is extremely popular is pre-workout. Considering that a good quality pre-workout is packed with stimulants, it can help boost performance in the gym.

While some supplements have their uses, we must recognize that they should not be relied upon to achieve nutritional targets. Products should only be taken if they enhance nutrition.

Finally, there are swathes of supplements that are simply not worth spending money on. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The Final Word

Research on hypertrophy will likely continue for years to come as science continues to grapple with the mechanisms behind it. However, research has provided ample information to allow us to attain muscle hypertrophy.

By regularly performing strength training and eating enough it is possible for anyone to build significant muscle size.

It’s not just the genetically gifted individual. However, remember that building huge shoulders, a wide back, and thick legs do not happen overnight.

Be patient and consistent in training and recovery and results will come.


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