Some of these are more important than others of course, but they all play a role and if you want to maximize your muscular development you’ll want to be incorporating most, if not all, of them into your workouts. Not necessarily all at the same time, but over the course of a training year you’ll want to have them pretty much all covered.
In this article I’m not going to discuss the underlying mechanisms of muscle growth (i.e. mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage), but rather what you actually need to do to achieve these.
So without further ado here are the 9 essential factors of muscle hypertrophy…
1. Exercise Selection
The big compound exercises cause more overall metabolic stress, muscle damage and hormonal response than smaller isolation exercises and will therefore put muscle on you much faster than anything else. The very best muscle building exercises in existence include the following:
Squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows, power cleans, pull-ups/chin-ups and parallel bar dips.
You will of course need some assistance work as well in order to even out your development, especially when you’ve been training for a while. But if you focus most of your attention on these big exercises you’ll get the best results.
2. Range Of Motion
The studies show it very clearly – a greater range of motion leads to greater hypertrophy than a lesser range of motion. So always use an appropriately full range of motion in all of your exercises.
So that means no half squats; go down until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. In fact you can go lower if you want, but parallel works well. If you can’t get to parallel work on your hip flexibility or any other issues you may have until you can get there.
In the bench press make sure the bar touches your chest. And in the overhead press bring the bar down to well below your chin. Do the same with dumbbells too – don’t adopt the common practice of stopping when your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Bring them right down and feel the stretch. Yes you’ll have to lower the weight a little, but it will be worth it. A fuller range of motion will give you much better results in the long term.
3. Training Volume
Despite what the “high intensity” enthusiasts will tell you, you can’t stimulate maximal muscle growth by doing just one set to failure. And although the first work set of an exercise is the most productive set, additional sets are required to achieve the best results.
If you are a beginner you won’t need a lot of volume, but over time you need to be increasing the amount of volume you are doing. It’s also a good idea to periodize your volume; that is do phases of higher volume work and phases of lower volume work to allow recovery and supercompensation to occur.
4. Training To Failure
Training to (or very close to) the point of muscular failure produces greater size gains than not training to failure – but only for a while. If you train to failure all the time you will soon burn out and may lose strength and muscle size. So again you should alternate periods of training to failure with periods of not training to failure. And when you do train to failure, only do so on the last set of an exercise.
If you are training purely for strength however (that is with a high relative load and with reps of 5 or less) you should never reach the point of failing to complete a rep. In strength training, training to failure is training to fail.
5. Training Frequency
All else being equal, training with a higher frequency will lead to greater gains than training with a lower frequency. However you have to balance frequency with volume and level of effort and you also need to take into account your “training age”.
So if you are a beginner you can train each body part more frequently but your overall training frequency should not be too high. For this reason a full body workout performed three times per week is absolutely the best way for a beginner to train. And this type of workout can also be highly effective for intermediate level trainees too.
When you’ve been training for a while however you’ll need to train each body part a little less often, but your overall training frequency can increase. So an upper/lower split routine training four times per week works perfectly.
And when you are more advanced still you could try a three way split, training either four days per week or using a rotating five day cycle (2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off). An ideal protocol for this is the push/pull/legs split routine.
But whatever you do, avoid the practice of training each body part just once per week as this is far from optimal no matter how long you have been training for.
6. Relative Load
For beginners it doesn’t matter too much what relative load (i.e. the load as a percentage of your one-rep max) is used. You’ll make virtually identical progress with lighter loads and higher reps as you will with heavier loads.
Once you’ve been training a while though this becomes more important and you’ll need to use heavier loads (both relative and absolute) in order to keep growing.
Again this does not mean you should always train as heavy as possible, but doing the occasional phase of high relative load (low rep) training will make you stronger, so you’ll be able to use a heavier absolute load for your higher rep training – and this will create additional muscle growth.
7. Muscle Action
When I refer to muscle action I’m talking about the concentric (positive) vs. the eccentric (negative) part of a movement. And the research shows that accentuating the eccentric part of a movement (or doing eccentric only training) results in greater muscle growth than doing concentric only training.
So it’s worth making an effort to lower the weight relatively slowly and under control, rather than just letting it drop down. And sometimes you might want to do a period where you really accentuate the negatives – or even do some negative only training.
Accentuating the negatives does not help you build strength however; it’s purely a size building technique.
8. Rest Periods
When you are just starting out, you should simply rest long enough between sets to allow adequate recovery. So that would normally be about 2 – 3 minutes, depending on the exercise. But when you’ve been training for some time strategically reducing your rest periods between sets can spark off a wave of additional muscle growth.
And although when training specifically for strength you should still rest long enough to allow complete recovery (usually anything between 3 and 5 minutes), when training for size reducing your rest periods down to 90 – 120 seconds tends to give the best results. But you can reduce your rest periods even more if you wish.
High density training is all about doing more total work in less time by reducing your rest periods down to less than a minute (sometimes to as little as 20 seconds). This places additional metabolic demands on the muscles and forces the activation of muscle fibers that may never have been used before. In short, density training makes your muscles more efficient.
With density training you’ll obviously be using lighter weights than normal, so it is very easy on the joints. And it’s great for burning off excess fat too. You won’t increase your strength with this sort of training of course, but it’s still worth using occasionally in order to maximize your muscle growth.
9. Repetition Speed
Whether you do the concentric part of your repetitions slowly or fast will make little difference to your muscle growth – at least in the short term. But it will make a big difference to your strength and power development. And this will of course affect your long term muscle growth.
Slow repetitions will do nothing to help you build strength, so always put maximum force into your lifts (as appropriate for the exercise concerned) and lift with speed and power. Of course if you are using a heavy relative load the bar will still not move fast, but your intention should be to lift fast. Never lift a weight deliberately slowly if you want to maximize performance and development.
Other Factors Involved In Muscle Hypertrophy
In this article I’ve discussed all the relevant factors that you can incorporate into your training in order to maximize your muscular development. But muscle growth occurs outside the gym while you are resting – not while you are training.
So you also need to consider the various factors related to recovery in order to get the best results. That includes diet, supplements, rest and sleep, stress levels etc.
In this blog I’ll be covering all of these training and recovery factors in detail, so if you like what you’ve read do stick around for more. And don’t forget to share it, so that others can benefit too. Thanks and best of luck in your training.
Photo credit: equilibriumnutricao, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr