Not long ago, I found myself getting grilled on Facebook over the concept of hypertrophy training. “Strength and hypertrophy training are the same thing,” my critic wrote, with all the passionate intensity of someone who spends a lot of time on social media but not a whole lot else.
While strength and hypertrophy training are more similar than they are disparate (especially for newbie lifters, which my critic clearly was), the differences become noticeable the further you travel along the development curve.
This is why bodybuilders and powerlifters can follow shockingly similar programs the first few years and make improvements in both size and strength, whereas their more advanced counterparts train so differently they can’t even fraternize, much less train in the same gym.
The biggest variances lie in volume and intensity. Volume is the key driver in building muscle, whereas working at a high intensity (as a percentage of 1-rep max) is the Big Kahuna in developing strength.
However, there are many other variables at play in hypertrophy programming, such as frequency, variety, training to failure, and intensity techniques. All of which can and should be manipulated within the overall program.
So how does a coach manipulate all this, especially in the online world?
First, some background
I’m a long-time personal trainer turned online coach. I’ve also done my share of fitness writing along the way, plus a few years of so-so editing (subject-verb agreement remains a sore spot). But my biggest coaching “credential” is that since 1996 I’ve written a LOT of programs, 98% of which had one major goal in mind – to help the client build muscle and therefore, look better.
I’m a hypertrophy training specialist. Or as the kids call it today, aesthetic training.
And my number one tool for achieving purely aesthetic goals is volume-driven hypertrophy programming with a close eye on addressing structural weak points, primarily through frequency, exercise selection, and metabolic disruption techniques.
Now can one achieve similar results just by “training to get strong in the Big 3?”
Maybe, especially right out the gate. The statement “chase strength and the physique will follow” has some merit to it. But for most mere mortals those gains peter out.
Which is when the opposite form of that statement – “chase physique development and strength will follow” becomes much more useful.
Granted you won’t be as strong as you would simply chasing big PRs, but you will have more muscle and be much fresher for when you do decide to return to the heavy barbell.
The Way of the Exploding Gains
Let’s get down to brass tacks. As Schoenfeld (2010) notes, the main factors leading to muscular hypertrophy are mechanical tension (volume, progressive overload), muscular damage, and metabolic stress.
As stated, volume seems to be the biggest hypertrophy driver, especially as you get further along in your training “career.”
Now that doesn’t mean “junk” volume (volume with an insignificant load or doing set after redundant set of the same exercise or even movement plane). All that does is cut into recovery while offering little in the way of stimulating a positive adaptation. I’ll have guidelines on where to set volume below.
You should also still use the heaviest weights you can possibly use FOR THE GIVEN REP RANGE and always try to lift more weight, or at least lift it “better.” Progressive overload doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant simply because you’re “bodybuilding.”
That said, it’s a wise practice (from a CNS preservation perspective) to limit going to failure on “bigger” lifts and instead use the smaller exercises to push into the pain zone. This is simply a safer and more sustainable way to train, especially for older lifters, and satisfies both the desire to “get after it” with the need for systemic recovery.
Another key factor is exercise variety. In strength training, programming variety is viewed with considerable caution. After all, strength is an expression of skill, and skill requires practice and rehearsal. Constantly swapping out exercises only retards skill refinement – it’s far better to settle in with key lifts and hammer down technique as tightly as possible.
However, hypertrophy training is different. A multi-angular approach to exercise selection results in greater cross-sectional muscle fiber recruitment, especially in larger muscles like the pectorals and quadriceps.
And of particular interest to older lifters, more exercise variety can help prevent overuse injuries and pattern overload syndrome. This doesn’t mean swapping “bread and butter” lifts for second rate nonsense movements – rotating from barbell presses to dumbbell presses or even changing the angle on an incline bench or grip-width on a barbell will do.
Putting It All Together – My Step By Step Approach To Online Hypertrophy/Aesthetic Programming
1. Define goals, assess current physical condition and determine exercise volume.
Determine if fat – and if fat focus on getting them lean.
Now fat is a loaded word. I don’t mean some arbitrary measure like “10% body fat by caliper or 15% by DEXA,” or “top abs visible/bottom abs blurry.” It is much more subjective.
Does the client “feel lean?” When they strip to their skivvies, how do they feel? That, combined with a sharp pair of eyes from the coach is as good a measure of “lean enough” as any.
Why this jumping-off point? Any discussion around chasing muscle gain for aesthetics should be postponed (or at least tweaked) if the client is carrying too much body fat. A lean physique builds muscle easier (likely due to improved insulin sensitivity) and a chubby guy embarking on a mass gain program can gain 4 to 5 pounds of fat for every pound of new muscle tissue. This is simply not acceptable to any pragmatic trainee. Not to mention, if aesthetics is the game, lowering body fat is probably the most “aesthetically pleasing” adjustment a heavier trainee can do.
To lower body fat, basic, moderate volume hypertrophy training protocols should be used: Around ten10 sets per muscle group, divided over two exposures a week; a 500-calorie deficit or so, some cardio, and a focus on consistency and adherence, and progressing as needed.
Such diets should not last longer than 16 weeks before taking 4-8 week break at maintenance calories. From there, the trainee can consider either returning to dieting or start on a muscle-building hypertrophy phase.
2. Assess current training volume.
Using any available training data (at least 3-6 months of history is ideal) determine the average number of sets per body part per week. You can’t plot a future if you don’t know your past.
So if a training log tells me the client typically hits each muscle group with an average of 10-12 sets/week, I’ll know what amount of volume he can recover from, and where to build from.
3. Determine frequency.
Real-world obligations best dictate the number of training days. A limited number of days will require full-body workouts or at the very least an upper/lower split of some sort. More robust training schedules can get more specialized programming.
4. Determine the variations of big lifts that the client will use and get comfortable with them.
I like to keep big lifts like squat variations, deadlifts, and presses relatively consistent and focus more on changing the reps/sets every month or so. The most important thing? These lifts should rarely be taken to failure.
5. Determine the volume plan – start under and increase weekly.
Training is all about building on success. If the goal of a hypertrophy program is to adapt to volume, it makes sense to start UNDER current training volumes and “coax” the body into accommodating increasing demands.
Using our example bro (12 sets per part, once a week) it might build up like this:
- Week 1: 8 sets
- Week 2: 10 sets
- Week 3: 12 sets
- Week 4: 8 sets
Switch to twice a week exposures.
- Week 5: 10 sets (total)
- Week 6: 12 sets
- Week 7: 14 sets
- Week 8: 10 sets
Switch to three times a week exposures.
- Week 9: 12 sets (total)
- Week 10: 14 sets
- Week 11: 16 sets
- Week 12: 12 sets
Credit to Dr. Mike Israetel for helping me put this together.
6. Change isolation exercises regularly.
This isn’t muscle confusion, nor is it changing stuff at the first sign of a loading “plateau.” Reps that are smoother, faster, or less disjointed are all signs of mastery in progress, and any change would be counterproductive. Once the above stop delivering and real “boredom” sets in, THAT’S when you change. And not always “wholesale” changes either (i.e., a simple form tweak like switching from supinating DB curls to hammer curls is often enough).
Some Jacked Take-Aways
- Resist the urge to go below 6 reps. While popular wisdom says that “volume burns out lifters before intensity,” it should be noted that this stems from research done using conditioned athletes (Bompa). In my experience with more “normal” populations, too much CNS intensive low rep work is far more draining — especially for stressed-out middle-aged guys with kids and jobs.
- A balanced program will not correct an aesthetic imbalance. “Weak body parts” is a complex subject worthy of multiple blog posts. Some of the more obvious and effective ways to address weak parts (after improving exercise technique) are increasing volume and frequency of exposures. However, you can’t increase volume in one area without reducing in another. Therefore, to address a true aesthetic weakness, an “imbalanced” program is the logical answer
- Everything matters. Diet, sleep, work stress, family stress, commuting. All dip into the recovery pool and need to be accounted for. Don’t be afraid to err towards doing less.
- Be sure to have a variety of metrics to measure beyond simple bodyweight. Building muscle is a frustratingly long process and can often seem like endless wheel spinning. A hypertrophy program may not increase body weight much at all if the diet is closely monitored. This is an example where photos and girth measurements are helpful.
- Individualization is the key. The above works for 2/3 of the population 2/3 of the time.
This is how I approach hypertrophy programming in the online space, at least most of the time. Granted, every new client brings new challenges and new methods to consider trying. There are always best practices, but the overarching theme is to make the program fit the client, not vice versa. Don’t be rigid on your mindset when coaching people. Listen to what they enjoy and take account of that in the program. Many roads lead to Rome after all.
Thank you for reading,