If you want to know exactly how to train for hypertrophy, from the number of times each muscle group should be trained to how long to rest between each set, this page will show you what to do.
You want to know how to build muscle in the shortest time possible. But you’re confused by all the conflicting opinions about how to do it.
One article says that you should do 6-12 reps per set, while another says that you’re far better off doing 4-6 reps per set.
Expert A says you should work different muscles on different days, while expert B says you should work your whole body three times a week.
You read a few articles on the subject of how to build muscle and think you’ve got it all figured out. Then you read something that says the exact opposite.
There’s conflicting advice coming at you from here, there and everywhere, and you can’t figure out who, or what, to believe.
Not only is the advice conflicting, it can also be downright confusing.
Four-digit time under tension recommendations here… mesocycles and microcycles there. Should your RIR be this or your RPE be that? Are you exceeding your maximum recoverable volume (MRV) or are you still at your maximum adaptive volume (MAV)?
It feels like you’ve stumbled across a script for the next Christopher Nolan movie, and you have absolutely no idea what the hell’s going on.
The good news is that scientists have put many popular ideas about muscle growth to the test, from how often to train each muscle to the amount of time you should rest between sets.
As it happens, some of the advice that’s been floating around for years has turned out to be right, while some of it has turned out to be completely wrong.
So, let’s dig in and take a closer look at what the science has to say on the subject of muscle and how to build it as fast as humanly possible.
Here’s what this guide covers:
- What is Hypertrophy? How Does it Happen?
- What’s the Best Training Frequency for Hypertrophy?
- What’s the Optimal Volume for Hypertrophy?
- What’s the Best Rep Range for Hypertrophy?
- Should You Go Fast or Slow to Grow?
- How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?
- Is Training to Failure Necessary for Hypertrophy?
- Which Exercises Work Best for Hypertrophy?
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is Hypertrophy? How Does it Happen?
If you could take a closer look at a slice of muscle tissue, you’d see that it’s made up of many smaller muscle fibers.
When you train with weights, those muscle fibers are called into action to move the weight from point A to point B.
If the training you do is sufficient to stimulate those muscle fibers, your body responds in the hours and days that follow by laying down new muscle proteins inside those fibers.
The gradual and progressive accumulation of muscle proteins make those fibers thicker, a process known as hypertrophy.
Over a period of weeks and months, as the individual fibers inside your muscles grow, the muscles containing those fibers become bigger and stronger as a result.
Myofibrillar vs Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy
Inside each fiber are rod-like structures called myofibrils, which run parallel to one another. Myofibrils are the part of the muscle that contribute to force production.
There is also a fluid part of the muscle fiber, known as the sarcoplasm, in which the myofibrils are embedded. It’s filled with stuff – such as water, glycogen, and myoglobin – that doesn’t contribute directly to the production of muscle force.
The term myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to an increase in the volume of the myofibrils, while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy describes the expansion of the sarcoplasm.
So, that’s what hypertrophy is. What’s the best way to go about making it happen?
What’s the Best Training Frequency for Hypertrophy?
First up, we have the question of how often each muscle group should be trained.
Some say that the best way to train for hypertrophy is to bomb your muscles into submission once a week with lots of exercises, sets and reps.
A typical routine might involve chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday, legs on Thursday and arms on Friday. While some people get decent results with this type of approach, there are better options available.
In fact, working a muscle more frequently has been shown in a number of studies to increase the rate of muscle growth. In one trial, subjects who trained a muscle three times a week built muscle more quickly than the ones training it once a week 
When a team of scientists compared studies that investigated training muscle groups once, twice or three times a week, they concluded that “the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week” to maximize growth .
Why is hitting a muscle group twice a week or more a better way to build muscle than hitting it just once a week?
Protein synthesis – a key driving force behind hypertrophy – is raised for a day or two after you train. But it’s back to normal a couple of days later . And simply creating more muscle damage doesn’t appear to make the rise in protein synthesis last any longer .
What’s more, the rise in protein synthesis after training peaks earlier and returns to normal more quickly in trained versus untrained individuals . The upshot of which is that there’s a smaller overall change in muscle protein synthesis in advanced lifters.
In other words, when you train a muscle group directly only once per week, the muscles might spend a few days “growing” after the workout. But if you leave an entire week between training each muscle group, you’re missing several additional opportunities to stimulate growth .
So, how many times should you train a muscle each week?
- Monday: Whole Body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Whole Body
- Friday: Off
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
I know that two workouts a week might not sound like much. But, as long as your program is set up right, you can still make decent progress lifting weights twice a week.
In fact, when Canadian researchers compared the same amount of training divided across two or three weekly workouts, gains in muscle size and strength were virtually identical with both routines .
Option two is a whole body workout performed three times a week on alternate days, normally Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or Wednesday, Friday and Sunday will work just as well.
- Monday: Whole Body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole Body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Whole Body
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
If you’re able to train 4-5 times a week, the number of effective routines on the menu becomes much larger.
Training more often means that you can divide your body into two or even three separate compartments, and still hit each muscle group twice a week or more.
Option three is to train four days a week using an upper/lower split. You hit the upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, then take Wednesday off. Thursday is upper body, Friday is lower body and you have the weekend off. Each muscle group is trained twice a week. Of all the training splits I’ve used over the years, this one is my favorite.
- Monday: Upper Body
- Tuesday: Lower Body
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Upper Body
- Friday: Lower Body
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
The fourth option is a 5-day push/pull/legs routine.
This involves training for three days, taking a day off, followed by two days of training and then another day off. In any given week, you’re training five days out of seven.
Here’s what the 5-day push/pull/legs split looks like over a three-week period.
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- Monday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push Day)
- Tuesday: Back, Biceps (Pull Day)
- Wednesday: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves (Legs Day)
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push Day)
- Saturday: Back, Biceps (Pull Day)
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves (Legs Day)
- Tuesday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push Day)
- Wednesday: Back, Biceps (Pull Day)
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves (Legs Day)
- Saturday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push Day)
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Back, Biceps (Pull Day)
- Tuesday: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves (Legs Day)
- Wednesday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push Day)
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Back, Biceps (Pull Day)
- Saturday: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves (Legs Days)
- Sunday: Off
It takes three weeks before the program repeats itself, and the push workout ends up back on Monday.
The higher frequency of training works well if you have the capacity to recover from the stresses of training five days a week for two weeks out of every three. Not everyone can do it, so approach with caution.
Beginners wanting to train for hypertrophy are often told to avoid split routines and stick with full-body workouts that involve working each muscle group three times per week.
In much the same way that beginners can make impressive gains using a split routine, anyone who has moved past the beginner stages of training can still add a substantial amount of size by working their whole body three times a week .
What’s the Optimal Volume for Hypertrophy?
As far as sets go, there is a “dose-response” relationship between the number of sets you do for a muscle and the speed at which that muscle grows .
In other words, the more sets you do – up to a point at least – the faster your muscles will grow. However, there is a point at which doing more sets becomes counterproductive.
Ten sets per muscle group per week may be twice as effective as five sets. But, it doesn’t necessarily follow that 20 sets is going to be twice as good as 10.
In other words, there’s a theoretical “optimal” number of sets per muscle group, above and below which gains in size will be slower than they otherwise would be.
Training volume only counts when it is stimulating. If your overall training volume is too high, your muscles won’t respond to it.
The precise location of this “sweet spot” will depend on your genetics, the length of time you’ve been training, your age, the type of exercises you’re doing, your diet, as well as other sources of stress, be they physical or psychological, that you have going on in your life.
As a rough guide, 10-12 sets per muscle group per week is a good starting point. Then, you can adjust the number of sets you do based on how your body responds.
Any increase in weekly training volume should be done gradually. Just add a set or two each week.
Don’t go crazy and start doubling or tripling your training volume overnight. Do it gradually, notice the way your body responds to the change in volume, and adjust things based on that response.
What’s the Best Rep Range for Hypertrophy?
When it comes to reps, conventional wisdom has it that training with light weights and high reps builds muscular endurance, but makes little contribution to gains in size.
Heavy weights and lower reps has long been the accepted “best way” to train for hypertrophy.
That’s because lifting heavy weights places tension on a large number of muscle fibers, which in turn sends the “make me bigger” signal to those fibers.
However, lifting heavy weights isn’t the only way to put a large number of muscle fibers under tension.
Training with lighter weights and higher reps – where you “go for the burn” and your muscles feel like they’re pumped up and about to explode – generates a large amount of metabolic stress, which has also been shown to increase the activation of muscle fibers .
In fact, there’s plenty of research out there to show that lighter weights and higher reps do a surprisingly good job at stimulating hypertrophy.
In a study from Canada’s McMaster University, sets of 30-40 reps stimulated just as much muscle growth as sets of 10-12 reps .
And this isn’t a finding that’s limited to untrained beginners, who tend to grow no matter what they do.
Even in guys with an average of four years training behind them, researchers found no significant difference in muscle growth after 12 weeks of training with sets of 20-25 reps versus sets of 8-12 reps .
That said, the fact that it’s possible to build muscle with higher reps and lighter weights doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea to do so.
Remember, higher reps and lighter weights didn’t lead to superior gains in size or strength. But each set took twice as long to complete.
Training to failure in a higher rep range is also highly unpleasant and extremely painful – a lot harder than lower reps and heavier weights.
But to repeat, as long as you train hard and push yourself, heavy weights, medium weights and light weights can all be used as part of a hypertrophy training program.
Should You Go Fast or Slow to Grow?
How fast (or slowly) should you perform each repetition?
With very few exceptions, extremely slow training speeds offer no significant advantage compared to simply lifting and lowering the weight under control .
Take a look at the video below, which shows Ben Bruno performing the trap bar deadlift.
Despite the fact that he appears to be lifting the bar relatively slowly, he’s actually trying to move it as fast as possible. It’s the amount of weight he’s using that slows each repetition down.
If Ben was to use an intentionally slow lifting speed (as opposed to an unintentional one, where the weight you’re lifting and/or muscle fatigue is responsible for slowing you down) the bar wouldn’t come off the ground at all. The only way he can move such a heavy weight is by attempting to do so quickly.
That being said, some exercises are better suited to faster lifting speeds than others. You wouldn’t want to do dumbbell curls with a fast lifting speed, and a clean isn’t really a clean if you’re lifting the bar slowly.
Bodyweight movements such as dips, push-ups, inverted rows and chins, as well as most single-joint exercises, are better done at a slightly slower speed.
But for pretty much every other exercise, the proper rep speed for gaining size is to lift the bar with as much force as you can. Then simply lower it under control.
There is no need to count the number of seconds it takes to complete each repetition, memorize four-digit tempo codes, or calculate your time under tension. Just focus on moving the bar from point A to point B, under control, and forget about everything else.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?
The research on this subject is a bit of a mixed bag.
Shorter rest periods (60 seconds) also appear to blunt post-exercise muscle protein synthesis compared to rest periods lasting 5 minutes .
So, what should you do?
Other than saving time, shorter rest periods offer no muscle building advantage over long rest periods. In some cases, they may well put the brakes on muscle growth. If in doubt, err on the side of giving yourself too much rest rather than not enough.
As a rule, I’d suggest taking several minutes of rest between sets of multi-joint exercises that work a large amount of muscle mass, such as squats, rows, deadlifts, leg presses and so on. You can take a shorter rest between single-joint exercises, such as dumbbell curls, lateral raises and pressdowns.
Is Training to Failure Necessary for Hypertrophy?
Building muscle takes a lot of hard work and effort, and you may end up failing on some of your work sets whether you planned to or not.
However, doing so will give you no better gains than finishing each set feeling like you could grind out another rep or two. While muscle fatigue plays a role in stimulating growth, it’s not necessary to take a set to failure in order to create that fatigue.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you hit muscle failure, or cut a set short knowing that you could have cranked out another rep or two. Your muscles will still grow at much the same rate.
You also need to consider the issue of safety. Towards the latter stages of a set, the build-up of fatigue can easily lead to a breakdown in technique.
It’s not so much of a problem with exercises like the leg extension or dumbbell curl, which don’t require a great deal of skill to perform. But training to failure on big compound lifts like the squat and deadlift, where technique is paramount, isn’t a great idea.
On the flip side, the popularization of concepts like reps in reserve and RPE has left many people worried that hitting failure is going to sabotage their gains.
When you reach failure, all that’s happened is the amount of force produced by the various muscles involved in an exercise – not all of which are fatigued to the same extent – is no longer sufficient to move the bar past a certain point.
In the bench press, for example, failure is the point when, after lowering the bar to your chest, you can’t get it back to the starting position.
While your chest, triceps and shoulders are experiencing high levels of fatigue, they’re still capable of doing more work.
Once you hit the point where you’re unable to lift the bar, you’ll still be able to lower it under control. And when you’re unable to lower it under control, you’ll still be able to hold it in place, if only very briefly. Even after reaching concentric failure, your muscles still have plenty left in the tank.
While failure isn’t something you need to chase, it’s not something to be feared either.
Stimulating growth does require that you reach a certain threshold of effort, and pushing yourself to the limit is one sign that you’ve crossed that threshold.
However, there’s very little evidence to suggest that intentionally training to failure needs to be the focus of your workouts, or that doing so is necessary for hypertrophy.
Which Exercises Work Best for Hypertrophy?
Some say that certain exercises, such as the parallel squat, deadlift, bench press and so on, should form part of any hypertrophy training program.
These compound lifts work a large amount of muscle mass at the same time, making them an efficient use of your training time.
However, no exercise is essential for hypertrophy. Muscle is just contractile tissue that adapts and grows in response to tension, and there are many different ways to apply that tension.
First, you need to consider how you’re put together. Not everyone is built in such a way that makes them well-suited to movements like the bench press, squat or deadlift.
There are some exercises that will hurt no matter what. If so, don’t be afraid to ditch that exercise and find a similar one that doesn’t.
As long as the exercise you’re doing is working the muscles you want it to work, fatiguing those muscles within a certain rep range, and allows for consistent application of the overload principle, it’s an effective way to stimulate growth.
Plan Your Workouts in Advance
You’ll also need to get into the habit of planning your workouts in advance.
Before you even set foot in the gym it’s vital that you know exactly what you’re doing when you get there. If you’re serious about gaining muscle, just “winging it” won’t be good enough anymore. That’s why I highly recommend keeping a training diary.
Probably the most important benefit of a training diary, and the single biggest reason why most people don’t use one, is that it will force you to face facts.
Is what you’re doing delivering results? Or are you doing nothing more than simply repeating the same workout over and over again in the hope that it’ll suddenly start working?
More Muscle Requires More Work
Within certain limits, a muscle will grow in direct proportion to the amount of work it does. The focus of an effective hypertrophy training program should always be on applying the overload principle, and increasing the amount of work your muscles do over time.
That extra work can come in the form of more weight on the bar, or an increase in the number of sets and reps you do.
What’s going to happen if you do the same number of sets and reps, while lifting the same amount of weight, for the next five years?
Not a lot.
That’s because your muscles have already adapted to the amount of work you’re asking them to do. As a result, very little hypertrophy will take place.
You’re not going to improve every time you train. To do so indefinitely would be impossible, and there’ll be times when you end up lifting the same amount of weight, for the same number of sets and reps you did in the previous workout.
What’s more, an effective hypertrophy training program will involve a planned and deliberate reduction in sets, reps and weight. Think of it like taking one step back in order to take two steps forward.
However, you need to give your muscles a reason to get bigger, or they’ll remain at the same size they are right now.
Finally, forget about your body type or your genetics. You can’t change them, so there’s no point even thinking about them.
Gains in muscle size come slowly, so you’re not going to notice them on a daily or even a weekly basis. But they all add up. Train hard, stick to the plan, and in a few months time you will have more muscle than you have right now.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before I wrap this up, let’s take a look at some of the most popular questions about hypertrophy and how to build muscle.
- What’s the Difference Between Strength Training and Hypertrophy Training?
- Do Metabolic Stress and Muscle Damage Cause Hypertrophy?
- Is Adding Weight Necessary for Hypertrophy?
- How Much Volume is Too Much?
- Does Changing Workouts Mean Faster Gains?
What’s the Difference Between Strength Training and Hypertrophy Training?
How does training for hypertrophy differ from training for strength?
To a degree, the two things are connected. That is, hypertrophy training will typically lead to an increase in strength, while strength training will lead to an increase in size.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s a perfectly linear relationship between gains in strength and gains in size. While it’s rare to see an extremely muscular guy who doesn’t also possess a high level of strength, the biggest guys aren’t always the strongest, and the strongest guys aren’t always the biggest.
A lot hinges on how you’re defining strength. For some, strength just means being stronger than the average person. You’re the one who gets the call when anyone needs help moving something heavy from one place to another. If it’s just general strength you’re after, most types of progressive resistance training will build it.
But it’s a different story if you’re talking about strength that is both specific and maximal. If you’re a powerlifter, for example, your aim is to do a single rep in the bench press, squat and deadlift with as much weight as possible. In which case, the type of training you do is going to be different to the type of training you do to build muscle.
Lighter weights and higher reps may form part of a program designed to increase strength for a powerlifter. However, much of their training is going to revolve around lifting very heavy weights for a relatively low number of reps. They’re also going to spend a lot of time deadlifting, squatting and bench pressing, because those exercises are the ones they need to get good at.
But if you’re training for hypertrophy, on the other hand, there’s no great need to lift very heavy weights, or do this or that particular exercise. You have a lot more choice about the type of training you do.
Do Metabolic Stress and Muscle Damage Cause Hypertrophy?
It was once believed that hypertrophy was caused by three distinct pathways – mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
However, it’s a theory with more than a few question marks next to it.
For one, we know that muscle damage isn’t an independent stimulator of growth. While lifting weights can cause damage to muscle fibers, there’s very little evidence to show that muscle damage is a requirement for muscle growth.
What’s more, the role that metabolic stress plays in hypertrophy is not as straightforward as was once believed.
Rather than act as a separate stimulus for hypertrophy, the main contribution that metabolic stress makes to muscle growth may simply be to generate more tension. And it’s that tension, rather than metabolic stress itself, which is causing the growth.
That is, fatigue (which can occur in the absence of metabolic stress) leads to an increase in the mechanical tension experienced by the muscle fibers, which in turn is what makes those fibers grow.
Here’s how hypertrophy researcher Chris Beardsley sums it up:
Metabolic stress (the accumulation of metabolites, such as lactate, phosphate, hydrogen ions, and reactive oxygen species) put on a very good show of appearing to cause muscle growth. However, it is only mechanical tension that really triggers hypertrophy. Fatigue can affect the mechanical tension that the muscle fibers of high-threshold motor units experience, but fatigue is not the same thing as metabolite accumulation, as it can occur in its absence.”
None of this means that training with higher reps and lighter weights won’t lead to muscle being gained. Just that the way they contribute to muscle growth may have more to do with an increase in mechanical tension than metabolic stress per se.
Is Adding Weight to the Bar Necessary for Hypertrophy?
Many people take the view that muscle growth is triggered by progressive overload. Hypertrophy is simply a by-product of getting stronger and progressing in the gym. That is, adding weight to the bar, or doing more reps with the same amount of weight, is the key to building muscle.
But it’s actually the other way around.
Your ability to add weight to the bar, or to do more reps with the same amount of weight, is the result of your muscles adapting, rather than the cause of it.
Put differently, your muscles don’t grow because you’re overloading them. You’re able to add reps and weight because your muscles have adapted. If your muscles hadn’t adapted, they wouldn’t be able to do the extra work.
Think about it.
Let’s say that you go to the gym on Monday and bench press 100 pounds for five reps, with that fifth rep being the last one you’re able to do. On Wednesday, you go back to the gym and try the same thing again. This time, you’re able to do six reps.
The reason you’re able to complete that extra rep is because your body has adapted. If there had been no adaptation, and your body literally hadn’t changed in any way, you would still only be able to lift 100 pounds for five reps.
What’s more, an inability to add weight or reps doesn’t mean that a particular workout wasn’t an effective one.
A single training session, as long as it’s done properly, will stimulate a number of adaptations, including an increase in the size of your muscle fibers.
However, if you’ve been training for some years, the adaptations triggered by a single training session will be relatively small. When you go back to the gym for the next workout, you may still be unable to perform another rep, or lift more weight.
But that doesn’t mean your workout was wasted.
Rather, it just means the adaptations that were stimulated weren’t large enough to permit a heavier weight or an extra rep. It may well take multiple workouts for those changes to accumulate to the point where they manifest themselves as an improvement in performance.
How Much Volume is Too Much?
You can’t keep adding sets indefinitely and expect to keep growing. If your training volume is too high, you’ll end up hurting your gains.
I suggest capping your training volume at around 20 sets per muscle group per week. That’s not to say higher volumes won’t lead to faster gains, but there is a point of diminishing returns. You end up expending a lot of extra time and effort, as well as exposing yourself to a greater risk of injury, for a relatively small benefit.
There is a degree of individual variability from person to person. While some people grow well with higher training volumes, others do better with less. Muscles can respond to both approaches.
Determining how much volume is too much, not enough or about right is going to require some experimentation on your part, and I’d suggest using your performance in the gym to guide you.
An increase in strength, whether that’s in the form of more weight on the bar, or an increase in repetition strength (the number of reps you’re able to do with a given amount of weight), particularly when that increase is demonstrated using a single-joint “isolation” exercise requiring little skill to perform, is a good sign you’re recovering and growing, and that your overall training volume isn’t excessive.
In this case, keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re feeling mentally and physically fresh, motivated and hungry to train, and you’re making progress in the gym, you are on a path that will ultimately lead to more muscle.
However, if your performance in the gym takes a dive, it’s a sign that something’s wrong. You may well have overcooked it and need to pull back.
Does Changing Workouts Mean Faster Gains?
Frequently I read that you should keep switching things up to confuse your muscles and make them grow.
For most people, this is a mistake. Jumping around from one routine to the next isn’t magically going to make your muscles grow more quickly than they otherwise would do. Don’t let anyone try to kid you otherwise.
Once you have a decent training and nutrition program set up, the best way to build muscle as fast as humanly possible is to stick with it.
While variety stimulates the mind, it’s consistency that stimulates the muscles. A hypertrophy training program built around a handful of basic exercises will always work well as long as it’s progressed in the right way.
There is a time and a place for rotating exercises, but only if it’s part of a structured plan designed to achieve a specific goal. Performing a bunch of random exercises in every workout (AKA muscle confusion) serves little purpose if you want to get bigger and stronger.
Doesn’t it get boring to use the same exercises all the time?
Nothing beats boredom like the feeling that you are moving closer to your goals. When you’re seeing results, getting “bored” with your workouts is rarely a problem. The people who get bored are usually the ones who aren’t making a great deal of progress.
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