To build muscle and transform your body composition is a considerable task. It takes a lot of hard work, time, consistency and determination. Number one I will say before you embark on this task is that you cannot rely on motivation. This will only get so far and motivation from external factors is fleeting. You must have determination which is the internal drive and desire to want to achieve something. You need to be willing to put in the work even when you don’t want to, when no one is there to support you and push you that extra rep. You have to be very honest with yourself on the level of commitment you put into other things in life and apply that to following a training program. There is a reason two thirds of Americans are overweight and dad bod acceptance is on the rise and that is as a culture we are getting very complacent. However it’s terrible for our physical health and psychology among other things. With that being said if you are interested in really improving yourself this blog will break down a lot of the applicable concepts to building muscle which will include movement patterns, cycles, volume, load, and frequency.
First I will go over movements patterns and it is important to know the difference between compound and isolation movements. Compound movements use multiple muscle groups at several different joints and isolation movements use one muscle at one joint. They both have their merits and you want to use both in a hypertrophy training program. Advantages of compound movements are that you can more effectively progressively overload them, more time efficient and increase testosterone and growth hormone levels significantly. Disadvantage is these exercises tend to me more complex and require good technique and posture to decrease your chance of injury. However it is worth your time to learn how to do these properly and take advantage of them. Advantages of isolation movements are that you can target smaller muscles that are lagging in development or that improve posture. Disadvantage however is if your isolating to many muscles it is going to make your workout last extremely long. Therefore you want to program your workout to get the best of both worlds.
We will get into programming right now by going over exercise selection for hypertrophy. Exercise selection is very crucial because it changes with the different muscle adaptation protocols. Hypertrophy has the most isolation exercises out of all of them. This is because with all other protocols it is supplementation but with hypertrophy it is like layering on top of your compound lifts. For upper body, compound movements to focus on are horizontal push, vertical push, horizontal pull and vertical pull. For lower body, compound movements you want to focus on are the squat and hip hinge.
These are your primary movements and you want to think of everything else as an accessory exercise. Your training age aka how long you have been training will determine how many of those you do as well as how long you have to workout that day. For beginners I would recommend 1 or 2 accessory exercises per workout to keep the volume lower. Advanced exercisers could do 3+ accessory exercises and this because every exercise adds extra volume that advanced lifters are more conditioned to. What you want to focus on with these is either isolating smaller muscle groups or doing different muscle actions with the same bigger muscles of your compound lift. For example the bicep barbell curl is isolating a smaller muscle and pectoral cable flys is an example of a different muscle action to a primary muscle group being adduction of the pec major. Here is an example of an upper and lower body day.
DB Chest Press- Horizontal Push
DB Bent-over Row- Horizontal Pull
BB Overhead Press- Vertical Push
Lat Pulldown- Vertical Pull
Face Pull- Accessory
Pec Fly- Accessory
Bicep Curl (Optional)- Accessory
Tricep Extension (Optional)- Accessory
BB Back Squat- Squat
BB Romanian Deadlift- Hip Hinge
DB Hamstring Curl- Accessory
BB Hip Bridge- Accessory
Lateral Lunges (Optional)- Accessory
Leg Extensions (Optional)- Accessory
Next we will go over program cycling. Cycling your load and volume is important because your body is very adaptable. If your doing the same exercises and volume your results will plateau. Even though your primary goal is hypertrophy you should cycle through endurance and strength occasionally while on a hypertrophy program. Just because the other phases are called endurance and strength doesn’t mean your not building visible muscle. At the end of the day your going to be lifting weights either way and building muscle as long as your nutrition is on point. The key is to a have a macro-cycle, meso-cycle, and micro-cycle. A macro-cycle is anywhere from 6-12 months. Essentially it is your long term goal whether it be changing body composition or preparing for a physical event such as a marathon or weight lifting competition. This is what is going to determine your primary training protocol and make the biggest changes to it. In our case it is increase muscle tissue and to do that you want to follow a hypertrophy protocol. Next is the meso-cycle which is 1-2 month increments. This is when you are changing your muscle adaptation protocol to be getting a little different stimulus but the overall goal is staying the same. The big variables that will be changing are rest, sets, reps and load. Lastly are micro-cycles which is 1-2 weeks and this cycle there is very minimal change going on. You do not want to do the exact same exercises every time you workout but you also do not want to change it every single time too. The spectrum of optimization to adaption is very crucial. You don’t want to be completely optimized to an exercise unless you are performing it in competition. You don’t want to be in the adaption phase except for when you are first learning the exercise. It’s a happy medium that you must find in training that is difficult. You may need to adjust little things here and there because of scheduling or little nagging and unexpected injuries or sickness. Often times you will repeat micro-cycles after cycling back through meso and macro-cycles.
A key throughout these cycles is progressive overload. This is a very important concept to understand and implement in a weight training program. It is increasing the difficulty of your workouts progressly overtime to avoid plateaus. You can do this by increasing your volume either through your load, sets, reps, or training frequency or decreasing your rest intervals. However you still want to stay in a particular range for all of those variables to get the greatest hypertrophic response. Here is what it will look like for beginners, intermediate, and advanced.
Rest: 30-90 seconds
Intermediate and Advanced
Rest: 30-90 seconds
One of the biggest issues I see with people that have hypertrophy goals is that they rest too long in between sets. Rest should be no greater than 90 seconds so this does not give you a lot of rest to restore energy levels and clear metabolites. This puts a lot of stress on the muscle which leads to growing it bigger. Of all the different muscle adaptation protocols hypertrophy results in the most volume in total even more so than endurance.
Load is crucial and probably the hardest to get right but it's important. There are two different ways to determine load and that is through your 1 rep max (1RM) or rep max zone. 1RM is the preferred form of determining load for compound lifts. This is because it is the more accurate way of doing it and with these exercises you lift heavier weight and going for personal records (PRs) aka 1RM is pretty standard already. For example exercises like the bench press, military press, back squat and deadlift are common exercises to do this with. What I would recommend with your primary compound movements being your horizontal push, vertical push, horizontal pull and vertical pull you base your loads on your 1RM. Make sure to reassess these at the beginning of every new meso-cycle to see changes in strength and correct weight accordingly. The second way is the rep max zone and you will do this strategy for accessory exercises. You do not want to do 1RM lifts with accessory exercises because these tend to isolate smaller muscle groups. You will be putting the muscle and tendons at a greater risk which is not needed. Instead you will base your intensity on your reps, say you are shooting to get 10 reps done. If you get 10 reps done but you are not quite to failure and feel you could get 2 or more reps down until getting to failure then you should increase the weight. Say again you are shooting for 10 reps but can’t get to at least 8 before reaching failure or form starts to break down then you decrease the weight. General rule is staying within + or - 2 reps of the target goal.
Repetitions are another important aspect of training. I feel like it is one of the more understood aspects of training. Beginners want to shoot for 8-12 reps each set and intermediate to advanced want to shoot for 6-12 reps. Everyone will tell you a different sweet spot but if you stay within this range you will be good. Any less and your getting into strength and power ranges and any more your getting into endurance ranges. Some people are confused by the beginner having a higher starting rep range than intermediate to advanced however this is because those have a higher 1RM%. I would recommend you stay in the lower rep range for your core lifts so around the 6-8 range and a bit higher for assistance exercises at the 10-12 range. This is because your core lifts are compound exercises and use more muscles therefore you can lift more weight, opposed to accessory exercises where you lift significantly less weight and therefore do more reps.
Sets are the primary way to change your volume significantly. As a beginner you are going to want to keep your volume lower to prevent DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) as much as possible. Depending on your starting point you may want to start with a single or double set. As you progress and your muscles become more conditioned you can go to three sets or more.
Last point I want to make and reiterate to you is consistency. None of this means anything if you miss a couple workouts a week or are taking a couple weeks off at a time. You need to be hitting every muscle group at least two times every week to see good development. If you are not doing at least that don’t expect much to happen. Consistency is a very big key and often the biggest components that people lack. They are very motivated for the first couple of weeks on a new program and then the reality sets in that this is very monotonous and takes time and patience and most people will not withstand. Trust me though it is worth it in the end to see the results of your hard work.