At our facility, New York Sports Center, we train people specific to their goal(s). For some, it's speed enhancement and performance, while others need rehab or want to compete in bodybuilding. For Coach X and myself, we really enjoy a more hypertrophy-based split where we train ourselves into the ground with volume. I’m not advocating this, though. I'm just giving you some insight into how we train ourselves. My true mentors are the bodybuilders from the '70s and '80s, like Arnold, Frank Zane, Franco Columbo, Serge Nubret, etc., and I still watch Pumping Iron a few times a year. (It never gets old). And while training knowledge has certainly increased since then, we still employ a lot of the same practices they used back then. In fact, very few things are new today. They are simply repackaged in a shiny case and given an eye-catching name.

Coach X is known for his expertise in the sports enhancement field, but his knowledge of training doesn't stop there. He also knows a thing or two about hypertrophy training. I attribute most of my training knowledge to him, aside from the other research I do on my own. So I wanted to put together a little back-and-forth article on our views on muscle acquisition and the means used to accomplish this—basically, how to get huge. These are the ideas and methods we have used with bodybuilders, athletes needing to gain size, figure competitors, and more.

1. How do you view hypertrophy?

Fred Duncan:

Building tissue is all about stressing the body, stressing the muscles, and providing an external environment that demands and requires muscle. Your body doesn't want to waste it’s time and precious energy on building up your pecs so that you can flex on people at Chipotle. The body’s main concern is survival and reproduction. The lifting of heavy weight is a perceived threat against our ability to survive; hence, why the body increases size to overcome and cope with this external threat.

Hypertrophy is an adaptation, and an extensive one too. There must be a frequent stressor that warrants the building of your tissue. Lift one time and the body won’t build muscle. Lift consistently and the demand is perceived as worthy of increasing muscle to handle the work. So why doesn't muscle gain continue linearly if you continue to work out? For a host of reasons—genetics for one, but mainly because your body gets efficient and accustomed to handling the load. Bench press a million times and your body will have a pretty good idea on how to accommodate it. No further adaptation is required. This is why you introduce novelty to your training and continue to push the boundaries by increased loading.

The hypertrophy we are after is the thickening or increased size of skeletal muscle, and there are many ways to accomplish this. In order for hypertrophy to occur, there needs to be an anabolic response to increase muscle proteins and an increase in satellite cells. There's myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and we want both for maximal growth. (Coach X will touch on these). We also want to fully stimulate and exhaust our pool of motor units. So, your program should focus on performing the exercises/reps/schemes that will stimulate both low-threshold motor units and high-threshold  motor units for the best growth. Don’t fall in love with one aspect of training, whether it’s strength or time under tension.Variety is the key.

Since I always write about nutrition, I have to note in that for maximal hypertrophy, you will need a proper diet. You must supply the body with the necessary raw tools to rebuild and grow. Without that...well, good luck.

Typically, bodybuilders are known for their hypertrophy-based split, as that is a part of their sporting requirement—to have a lot of tissue. It’s common for people to believe that bodybuilders are “weak” or don’t lift heavy. (This isn't true). However, hypertrophy is not only about strength! Strength is a byproduct of the efficiency of the nervous system—being able to contract as many muscle fibers simultaneously as possible. The more motor units that are recruited, the more force you produce. Does strength aid in hypertrophy? Absolutely, but it's not the only requirement. I believe hypertrophy is about volume, fatigue, contraction (type, tempo, speed), blood flow, time under tension, and novelty. Novelty accounts for various changes in grip type, tempo, joint angles, or any different variables you use to present the stimulus of training to your body in a "new" way.

Your training will play a huge role in the type of hypertrophy and overall success of your goal. It's also important to note how many other things (like growth factors, satellite cells, fiber type, testosterone, etc.) play a role in your muscular development.

Coach X:

I view hypertrophy from two distinct perspectives, but both forms of this adaptation rarely occur independently of each other, as everything in the human body is interdependent. Hypertrophy occurs in two different adaptations: sarcomere and sarcoplasmic (or as some refer to as “functional" and “nonfunctional" hypertrophy). The first, sarcomere, is an increase in the number of contractile proteins (actin/myosin) of the muscle and lay themselves down in a “series." This form is "functional" and is associated with force and power outputs. It is the increase of the sarcomeres that is the bases of increasing athletic sporting outputs and is what the athlete trains for.

The second adaptation, sarcoplasmic, is an increase in the non-contractile proteins of the muscle (the volume of sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell) increasing the diameter of the muscle. This form is nonfunctional. This is the sport of bodybuilding. If muscle size determined athletic outcomes, then bodybuilders would be able to out-run a speeding bullet and be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But we all know that only "Superman" could do that, and he wasn't the most buffed dude on the block.

To me, "hypertrophy" is simply a combination of many things—where an individual can experience a large increase of fluid with a slight increase in proteins, a large increase in proteins with a slight increase in fluid, or a combination of both. One must define the objective of training and understand that muscle hypertrophy is a multidimensional process with numerous factors involved. It is a complex interaction of satellite cells, the immune system, growth factors, hormones, age, nutrition, and a host of other influences.

Photo courtesy of SYMI Photography

Key Factors to Pay Attention to for Maximal Hypertrophy?

Fred Duncan:

I believe you should focus on:

  1. Sets/reps where you focus on the eccentric or lowering portion of the lift – A fair amount of research supports eccentrics being more beneficial for muscle hypertrophy than the concentric portion.
  2. Enough volume/fatigue to exhaust all motor units – You want enough total work to fully stimulate all of your motor units. Working some sets to failure and some high-volume work do the trick.
  3. Sets/reps where you train the muscle group based on its fiber type – The example I gave above of higher reps on the leg press.
  4. Reps focused on maximal contraction or “squeezing” of the muscle – I believe this really helps recruit the muscle. You can call it the mind muscle connection or whatever you want, but it definitely helps.
  5. Sets/reps where you attempt to generate as much force as you can – Some explosive-type work can hit those type 2a and type 2b fibers.
  6. Maximal blood flow or “The Pump” – Everyone loves a good pump, but it’s more beneficial than some believe. Blood flow within the muscle increases localized amino acid delivery.
  7. Concentric work on off days to promote recovery – In order to get bigger, you need increased “work” or volume and optimal recovery. Concentric training gives you both.

Coach X:

One of the most overlooked ingredients in the quest for bone-staking vascularity, triple-cut definition, monolithic size, and herculean mass is rest. You grow when you rest. Sets, reps, tempo, intensity (degree of effort when compared to maximum capacity), speed of contraction, rest intervals, and vertical/ horizontal loading can all have an effect on hypertrophy.

All training is incomplete by nature. Of all the variables we have to manipulate (sets, reps, training sessions, etc.), there is not one perfect variable. They all have their own benefits and drawbacks. Thus, there can be no one perfect program! We also are all individuals and do not respond the same to the same program used. Studies of identical twins using the same program produce different results. We are not clones and one size does not fit all—adjustments must always be made based on "readiness." Remember, all programs work, but they only work for so long and nothing works forever.

*In part two of this article we will discuss our favorite rep schemes, loading parameters, variables, and exercises for maximal hypertrophy.