The Case for Hypertrophyby Jen Sinkler
Editor’s Note: today’s guest post is from someone I’m downright giddy to feature, and that’s hypertrophy specialist Bryan Krahn. Krahn, a fellow longtime writer, editor, and coach, is more passionate about the prospect and process of building a muscle than anyone I’ve ever met, and as such, he’s turned over every rock and tried every practice in pursuit of best practices. His own and his clients’ results speak for themselves, but the arguments he makes in support of training for size are pretty great, too. I’ll let him take it from here.
Why should someone lift weights?
To be strong. Healthy. Capable. Vital. To slow down the insurmountable wasting forces of age, so one day you can do the Macarena at your grandchild’s wedding.
All wonderful reasons that even the most hardcore anti-exerciser could rally behind.
But what about simply to look buff and beefy?
Suddenly those cheers of encouragement turn sharply critical.
That’s vain. Self-absorbed. Shallow.
But is it so wrong to enjoy being muscular?
Flexing Gender Norms
As is often the case when comparing experiences between genders, men seem to get a lot less grief than women when they opt to chase muscle for muscle’s sake.
Part of it is because of how many of us were brought up. Boys will often curl Dad’s old plastic dumbbells before he learns to ride a bicycle. At family get-togethers, uncles and cousins ask boys to “show me your muscles.” Brawn is a celebrated quality.
Now our young meathead may not start working out in earnest until his early teens (nor should he), but those seeds of strength are still planted early. In short, most boys grow up not so subtly encouraged to become muscular men.
Not often the case for women. Sure, girls are encouraged to exercise and play and even lift weights, though it’s to help them excel at their chosen sport, or to generally be strong and healthy. But to lift weights purely to get jacked? That’s not normal.
As my client Caroline, a young fitness professional from Chicago, told me, “There’s a pervasive attitude in my field that women should only be training for ‘function.’ And I really just wanted to just look muscular.”
Why the criticism for becoming a beefcake?
People disparage bodybuilding for its lack of functionality, and it’s true that a physique build solely around aesthetics won’t exactly help you reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. (Though when the rubber hits the road, even most forms of “functional exercise” have similar limitations.)
Some point to an apparent lack of realism regarding aesthetic goals, saying most women will never look like the ones gracing the covers of Oxygen magazine, so why bother?
(It’s an interesting contrast from a young man’s introduction to this lifestyle, where we’re taught to believe that if we work hard, say our prayers, and take our vitamins like good little Hulkamaniacs that one day we might be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman, all famed bodybuilders. It’s only after decades of dedication and thousands of jugs of sawdust-flavored protein powder that we realize this is far from the truth.)
But times, they are a-changin’.
Every week I consult with new female clients focused on one goal: to build a more muscle, which requires training with a menu of exercises that challenges the whole body through various ranges and planes of motion.
In Service of Swole
Enter hypertrophy, or “bodybuilding” training.
First let’s clear up a few terms.
Hypertrophy simply means you’re focused on increasing the size of skeletal muscle through a growth in size of its component cells. Training for hypertrophy is best accomplished through a variety of exercises that can be systematically progressed as the body adapts; think bench presses, squats, and deadlifts.
If those sound a lot like standard strength training, you’re correct. A neophyte lifter will get bigger and stronger using an approach centered around such basic movements.
Those results come fast and furious at first mainly because those individuals are starting from an untrained state. As trainees moves along the adaptation curve, continuing to make progress requires a change in approach that make training for strength and training for hypertrophy more disparate.
One such difference is exercise technique. Powerlifting, for example (a strength sport where you focus on the barbell squat, bench, and deadlift) is about moving the biggest weights possible, which means maximizing the leverages of your body while minimizing the distance the bar has to travel. So, in a powerlifting bench press, lifters are coached to use the shoulders, triceps, and even leg drive to generate the most force.
In bodybuilding, on the other hand, the weights are merely a tool to place the muscles under maximum tension for an extended time. So in contrast, in a bodybuilding bench press, lifters aim to isolate the pectorals (or chest muscles) as much as possible, and to a lesser degree, the shoulders and triceps, as well.
Another difference is that, by and large, hypertrophy includes more exercise volume (sets, reps, frequency). Once the body adapts to what you’re doing, you’ve got to up your volume in some capacity to increase to coax additional gains in size. It can also mean including extra muscle-isolation exercises to hit more muscle fibers (think single-joint movements such as leg curls over compound, multi-joint movements such as squats). This submaximal, multi-angular approach is simply not ideal for moving maximum poundages, so it’s more common in hypertrophy than powerlifting.
The Hidden Benefits of Hypertrophy
Maybe you’re not sold on the simple aesthetics of having more muscle mass. What are some benefits to hypertrophy training that extend beyond looking imposing in a tank top?
- You get stronger. “Hypertrophy is the foundation upon which strength is built. Muscle strength is directly proportional to cross-sectional area — a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, period. If any athlete wants to get stronger, increasing muscle size is certainly the number one way to do so,” says Alex Viada, MS, CSCS, founder of coaching company Complete Human Performance.
- It’s enjoyable. While what classifies as fun is highly subjective (people still play lawn darts for fun, after all), if you enjoy the feeling of your muscles swell with blood during a training session and appreciate seeing new veins emerge in your arms, then training for hypertrophy is tough to beat.
- It’s easier on the joints than many other types of training. If you pursue strength training to the absolute peak of your abilities, chances are you will suffer some sort of injury, major or minor, at some point. Now, this holds true for any type of physical activity, but due to the decreased poundages involved in hypertrophy, there’s a lot more leeway and warning, and oftentimes less fallout.
- There’s no special equipment required. You can set up a near perfect hypertrophy training program with just barbells and dumbbells, with a cable station and a place to do chin-ups and dips ideal. Everything else is purely optional. Except for the mirrors. (Gotta admire your work.)
The Wham-Bam Thank-You Plan
Here’s one of my favorite four-day muscle-building programs for those looking to change the shape and muscularity of their physique. It includes extra attention for the lower body and shoulders, areas that can make a dramatic difference in creating a powerful silhouette. With the exception of the Giant Sets, all exercises are performed as straight sets. Meaning, completely all sets of a particular exercise before moving onto the next.
Granted, building muscle takes time — especially compared to losing body fat — and even more so for women. But if you stick with it and focus on the daily process rather than the eventual outcome, you will be richly rewarded.
Day 1: Legs & Core
- Lying Leg Curl (on a machine or with a resistance band): 3 sets x 10 to 12 reps
- Barbell Back Squat: 4 x 12 to 15
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 3 x 10 steps each leg
- Machine Leg Extension: 3 x 15 to 20
- Standing Calf Raise: 5 x15 (rest 30 seconds between sets)
- Reverse Crunch: 3 x 15
Day 2: Push
- One-Armed Dumbbell or Kettlebell Overhead Press: 3 x 8 to 10 per side
- Incline Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 x 10 to 12 (use a neutral grip)
- Flat Dumbbell Chest Fly: 3 x 10 to 12
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 10 to 12 (with a triple drop set as the last set*)
- Triceps Press-Down: 3 x 12 to 15 (with a triple drop set as the last set)
- Pushup: As many reps as possible in 5 sets, resting 30 seconds between sets
*Note: a triple drop set is 2 “sub-sets” of the exercise where each set you drop the weight, but aim to complete the same amount of reps. You will only do this on the last set. For example, if you’re doing Dumbbell Lateral Raises with 20 lbs, your first three sets are 3 x 10 to 12 with 20 lbs, immediately followed by a set of 10 reps at 15 lbs and then a set of 10 reps at 10 lbs — you’re then done with that exercise. Rest about 5-10 seconds between drops, long enough to adjust the weight and get back into the correct starting position.
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Pull
- Seated Leg Curl: 3 x 12 to 15
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (shown with a barbell, but the same ques apply): 4 x 10 to 12
- Lat Pull-Down (on a machine or with a resistance band): 3 x 10 to 12
- Dumbbell Bent-Over Row: 3 x 10 to 12
- Seated Row to Neck with Rope Handle (on machine): 3 x 12 to 15
- Dumbbell Biceps Curls 3 x 12 to 15 (with a triple drop set as the last set)
- Ab Rollout 3 x 8 to 10
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Glutes & Shoulders
- Back Extension: 3 x 10 to 15
- Leg Press (on machine): 3 x 15 to 20 (place your feet high on the platform)
- Barbell Hip Thrust: 3 x 10 to 12
- Shoulders Giant Set (If you can help it, don’t rest between drills. Instead, rest two minutes after each round of the circuit. Complete three rounds.)
- Lateral Raise x 12
- Dumbbell Front Raise x 12
- Dumbbell Rear Raise x 12
- Arnold Press x 12
- Glutes Giant Set (If you can help it, don’t rest between drills. Instead, rest two minutes after each round of the circuit. Complete four rounds.)
- Bodyweight Squat x 20
- Bodyweight Alternating Forward Lunge x 12
- Bodyweight Alternating Jumping Lunge x 12
- Bodyweight Jump Squat x 10
- Bodyweight Squat Hold (hold bottom of a Bodyweight Squat) x 10 seconds
It’s a lot of volume and sweat, and you may eventually miss crushing heavier weights. But just because you dedicate a portion of your life to training for muscular development doesn’t mean you can’t train for strength again (or too, if you stagger your training and incorporate recovery). Fact is, including a variety of approaches into your overall training year can yield even better results.
Just remember to keep it fun and focus on the daily process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, or even a year. But the work has continued to win admirers for centuries.
Bryan Krahn is a hypertrophy specialist based in Calgary, Alberta. He offers online coaching services at www.BryanKrahn.com.
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