Muscle hypertrophy training—in other words, working out for muscle growth—may seem relatively straightforward. For years, the idea has been that sticking with roughly eight sets of eight to 12 reps per muscle group will stimulate growth. But in reality, it’s so much more than that. After all, do you just want to stimulate hypertrophy, or do you want to optimize it by working as efficiently as possible?
You could hit the gym every day, have your nutrition on point, sleep like a baby every night, and yet still not see the gains you want. But there’s a lot more to building muscle than eating, sleeping, and banging out sets of eight to 12 reps. You need a plan, and more importantly, you need to execute it.
Having a set of core values and principles is essential to progression no matter what you’re doing. And with the right plan and execution, you can optimize growth with 12 or five reps per set. You just have to work your muscles properly.
Muscle hypertrophy isn’t necessarily about working hard; it’s about working smart. You don’t need to go to failure or beyond—proper activation is the real difference maker.
Every successful company and individual I can think of has a set of values that drives their decision-making. The same is true for muscle building. Allowing a set of core values and principles to guide your training can optimize results and catapult hypertrophy.
The Core Values of Stimulating Muscle Hypertrophy Intelligently
1. Activation of Mind and Muscle
Optimizing muscle hypertrophy is all about specificity. Yanking weights from point A to point B as fast as possible will not give your muscles any incentive to grow.
Instead, think about the exact fibers you want to hit and move accordingly. When you perform a pull down, you want to feel your lats (the widest muscles of your back) lengthening and shortening on every rep. Lock your brain into performing the movement in the way you’ll feel it most.
When you perform a bicep curl, you want to squeeze the bicep as hard as you can, making sure you focus on the contraction; move the elbow joint to leave all the stress in the bicep.
When the muscles you’re training are activated and targeted with your mind throughout the entire rep, you’re optimizing the environment for hypertrophy.
You can walk into the gym every day moving as much weight and reps as you can, but that doesn’t mean you’re optimizing your workout.
If you want to grow, you have to hit the specific muscles you want to influence. That means adjusting your movements and weights so that the target muscles are under maximum tension throughout the entire rep.
It might get uncomfortable, but making things as difficult as possible to pull your muscle’s insertion (where it attaches to movable bone) to the origin (where it attaches to immovable bone) is the only way to get it bigger.
When other muscles jump in to help, they’re limiting the opportunity for hypertrophy.
If you want to build a stronger bench press, you load on the weight and activate every muscle from your toes to your traps to push it up. But if you want to grow a big chest and optimize hypertrophy, pick a weight and a position that keeps the load solely on the chest.
When you work out with intent, you can pick the weight, rep ranges, motions, positions, and movements to optimize every workout for growth.
3. Appropriate Weights
To grow your muscles and achieve the shape you want, training with appropriate weights is essential.
What do I mean by appropriate? Quite simply, I mean the maximum amount of weight you can use to perform your desired rep range with proper muscle-building technique.
And what’s muscle-building technique? It’s performing movements where only the targeted muscle group is activated. It means if you’re doing a lying leg curl, all the tension is on your hamstrings.
Let’s say, for example, that when you perform a lying hamstring curl your hips are coming up off the pad and you’re sling-shooting the weight up and down as fast as possible.
If you really want to stimulate the muscles and optimize hypertrophy, you’ll need to press your hips and the quads down as hard as possible into the pad, only moving the knee joint to keep all the tension on the hamstring.
When momentum and helper muscles are removed from the equation, each rep has substantially more value for hypertrophy.
You’ll notice that this technique will require you to use lighter weight than you’re used to, but it will optimize growth by transferring tension to the intended muscle throughout the entire rep.
When it comes to building muscle, the least efficient way to move weight is usually the best!
It doesn’t matter how far you move weight or the path it takes to get there if you’re not squeezing your muscle as hard as possible at the top of every rep.
Remember, our goal here is growth, not strength. Focus on activating the muscle you’re training and make sure that’s where all the tension is.
A key factor is being aware of the insertion and origin points of your muscles. The focus of your reps should be shortening the distance between them.
For example, the origin of your bicep is just below the anterior deltoid (the front of your shoulder muscle) and its insertion is just above the elbow.
Therefore, the appropriate way to perform a bicep curl is to have your shoulder joint in a fixed position then squeeze (contract) the bicep so the insertion moves closer to the origin.
This will cause the elbow joint to move, and the muscle to shorten. Squeeze it briefly at the top of the rep so that the muscle is as short as possible before bringing it back to the starting position, maintaining tension throughout the entire motion.
You want to dominate the weight, not vice versa. Perform your reps with control throughout the entire set, maximizing time under tension during both concentric (shortened) and eccentric (lengthened) positions.
Keeping longevity in mind also means keeping your focus on the muscle. With proper intent and activation, you’ll be taking the load off your joints and avoiding hurky-jerky movements.
Executing properly controlled technique by placing the load on the intended muscle will help you dominate every rep for optimal activation while protecting your joints to keep you training longer and harder far into the future.
Training smart and reducing the risk of injury is a strategy that must be employed for maximum growth
7. Minimize Stress
The gym isn’t the only place to focus on muscle building. An intelligent approach to muscle building expands to your daily life.
As you know, proper nutrition and sleep play a role, but so does your exposure to stresses. Cortisol—the stress hormone—can put your body in a catabolic (muscle breakdown) state. Therefore, finding ways to minimize external stressors in your life can create a better environment for muscle growth.
Try meditation, practicing mindfulness, and turning off the television and other screens to provide as little stressful stimuli as possible.
8. Optimize Off-Days
Nutrition on training days is a no-brainier; you know you need to be hitting your protein and carbs to fuel your workouts and regenerate the tissue you’ve annihilated. But that need doesn’t disappear on off-days.
Off-days are where you want to look to maximize recovery by taking in plenty of micronutrients via green and colorful vegetables along with your protein. This helps ensure that the acid and free radicals in your system from a few days of hard training are flushed out and you’re ready for your next session.
Don’t Just Stimulate—Optimize Muscle Hypertrophy
If you stick to those principles when you’re training, you’re going beyond stimulating muscle hypertrophy. Quit worrying about your rep ranges, strength, and weights and focus on intent to optimize hypertrophy. Train your muscles!
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