Hypertrophy training is the best way to train for men and women wanting to build muscle.
Muscle hypertrophy Is an increase in the size of muscle cells, and thus hypertrophy training describes a style of training that maximizes muscle hypertrophy.
The problem is, most men and women don’t know how to train in a manner that’s effective for their aesthetic goals.
So, they spend endless hours working hard in the gym and the kitchen… but never move any closer to the body the want.
If you’re sick of not looking like you lift (despite all your hard work), today’s blog has the solution.
You’ll learn how to build the most effective hypertrophy training program tailored perfectly to your individual needs & goals.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
→ What Is Hypertrophy And Why Does It Occur?
→ The Most Important Principles Of Hypertrophy Training
→ How To Write A Hypertrophy Program
→ Understanding Effective Reps & RIR
→ Best Movement Patterns For Hypertrophy
→ Exercise Selection For Hypertrophy
→ Stimulus-To-Fatigue Ratio
→ Movement Sequencing For Hypertrophy
→ Best Rep Ranges For Hypertrophy
→ When To Change Exercises For Hypertrophy
→ Progression/Overload Schemes Within A Mesocycle
→ Mesocycle-To-Mesocycle Progression
→ The Best Training Splits For Hypertrophy
Muscular Hypertrophy is a term for the increase in muscle size, due to an increase in the size of the cells that make up said muscle.
Basically, hypertrophy is another word for muscle growth.
The real question is…
Why does hypertrophy occur?
It’s thought that muscle growth is stimulated by three primary mechanisms:
1. Mechanical tension
2. Metabolic Stress
3. Muscle Damage
[Image adapted from JPS Education]
MECHANISM #1: MECHANICAL TENSION
To simplify, imagine the actual “tension” your quads experience when you unrack the bar for a back squat.
With heavier weight, tension on your quads increases (not to say that heavier is always better).
Similarly, the longer the sets goes on, the larger the amount on tension your quads have experienced.
Now let’s say that you did your squats with poor form, so that most of the tension was shifted away from your quads, and you felt a large increase in stress on your lower back.
Although you completed your set of squats, you probably didn’t effectively apply tension to your quads to stimulate growth.
→ Adequate mechanical tension is thought to be the most important mechanism of muscle growth.
MECHANISM #2: METABOLIC STRESS
The burning, pumped feeling you get when you doing a high-rep set of curls, or a superset with short rest periods. Metabolites that are accumulating in your muscle cells, leading to cell swelling, hormonal changes, and a variety of other factors that are thought to influence muscle growth.
→ While always training exclusively for “the pump” seems to be a less effective strategy for hypertrophy, it does seem to help to have some metabolic stress-inducing work included in your training.
MECHANISM #3: MUSCLE DAMAGE
Usually experienced as soreness, it’s currently unclear whether muscle damage actually triggers muscle growth, or is simply a byproduct of training in a manner conducive to growth.
So while some soreness likely should be present relatively often when training for hypertrophy, your program shouldn’t be built around “getting sore”.
When writing your hypertrophy program (or assessing if your current program is truly effective for your physique goals), there are four key components that your program must have to yield the well above-average physique you want:
Let’s dive into each quickly.
PRINCIPLE #1: SPECIFICITY
Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands
Better known as the S.A.I.D. principle, this is the cornerstone of smart program design.
Basically, the way you’re training needs to be specific to your #1 desired outcome from your training.
Let’s talk through a few common examples to illustrate this:
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but your program has you doing lots of olympic lifts for sets of 1, 2, or 3… you’re violating the principle of specificity.
We know that:
a.) When it comes to the concept of Stimulus-to-Fatigue Ratio (more on this soon), most olympic lifts are a poor match for stimulating muscle growth.
b.) The low rep ranges you’re working with will likely be insufficient to stimulate new muscle growth (again, more on this soon).
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but your program is based on burning lots of calories, or utilizes extremely short rest periods… you’re violating the principle of specificity.
You could grow a bit of muscle from training like this – but the largest adaptation you’ll be forcing is the progression of your aerobic system, not muscle growth.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, but a large amount of your time is spent focused on running, HIIT style training, biking, etc… you’re violating the principle of specificity.
Nothing at all wrong with any of these modalities of training, and this isn’t to say they shouldn’t be done at all while simultaneously training for hypertrophy.
But they’re far from the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth. With your #1 goal being hypertrophy, the majority of your time should be spent focusing on the modality of training that will yield the most progress per unit of time invested.
→ Your #1 goal is building muscle, and your program is focused on creating overload over time in the 5-30 rep range, while training relatively close to failure (usually stopping with 1-3 reps in the tank), and taking adequate rest periods (usually 1.5-3 mins)… you’re honoring the principle of specificity for muscle growth.
PRINCIPLE #2: OVERLOAD
To quote Renaissance Periodization’s excellent Scientific Principles Of Hypertrophy Training:
“In order to produce improvements in performance, training must be challenging enough to the targeted systems or tissues to stimulate adaptation.”
Your body is an adaptation machine – it’s constantly striving to get better at managing the stressor it’s faced with.
The first time you squatted 135 lbs for 10 reps, it was probably quite a stressful event for your body.
The stress of this event triggered your body to adapt and grow stronger/more muscular, to be better prepare for similar events like this in the future.
Now, if you continued to squat 135 lbs for 10 reps, you would eventually reach a point where the stress (we’ll often refer to this stress as “stimulus” in this blog) created by this event was so small, that your body no longer felt the need to further adapt.
This is the principle of overload – you’ll literally often need to add load, reps, or sets across your training career in order to keep pushing your body to further adapt and grow.
This is also why doing the same sets, reps, and loads for months will quickly lead to stagnation.
PRINCIPLE #3: FATIGUE MANAGEMENT
One of the most underrated parts of an effective hypertrophy program is understanding how to manage fatigue well enough to allow your body to grow.
When you look at the SRA Curve (stimulus – recovery – adaptation) below…
[Image credit: bretcontreras.com]
…you’ll see that after experiencing the stress/stimulus of hard training, there’s a large amount of recovery that must happen simply to get your muscles back to their previous baseline before new growth can occur.
Too many hard working individuals like you fall into the trap of ignoring fatigue management and crushing yourself in the gym constantly.
This often leads to your muscles barely being able to recover enough to get back to their previous baseline, due to the huge amount of fatigue created in your training.
This is why so many people are working VERY hard in the gym, but still don’t look like they train.
See, fatigue management isn’t just making sure you get plenty of sleep, eat enough, and manage life stressors – it’s also very intertwined with your exercise selection… because the movements you select are what determine the magnitude of fatigue that is created/must be recovered from in order to grow.
More on this when we discuss Stimulus-to-Fatigue Ratio.
PRINCIPLE #4: INDIVIDUALIZATION
Our coaching company is obsessed with providing our online clients a truly individualized experience, because we believe that individualization is the key to transformation.
There’s a reason this article is composed of principles you need to understand and apply to your training, rather than me just simply telling you…
“Here’s the best hypertrophy program for EVERYONE. Do ___ movements for ___ sets & reps at __ RIR, and EVERYONE will see the quickest possible progress.”
…because it doesn’t work like that! We each have unique limb lengths, injury histories, volume (number of hard sets) tolerances & needs, life stressors, recovery abilities, goals, and more.
So while many can get decent results following a generic program, your training needs to be individualized to you to yield the amazing results you’re chasing.
A few of the key considerations when writing (or assessing) your hypertrophy program:
Of course, each of these topics requires a deep dive to make sure you fully understand how to write the most effective training program for hypertrophy.
One of the fundamental things you need to understand for hypertrophy training is a concept called Reps In Reserve (commonly referred to as RIR).
RIR gauges how many reps you have in the tank at the end of a set.
This is the tool our clients and most hypertrophy trainees use to make sure they’re using the appropriate amount of effort.
To Gauge Reps In Reserve:
Ask yourself at the end of a set: “How many more reps could I have squeezed out if I absolutely had to?”
Your answer is your Reps In Reserve (RIR), or how many reps you feel you had left before failure.
Utilizing reps in reserve properly ensures your training is providing an effective stimulus for growth.
See, the closer you take a set to failure, the more muscle fibers you recruit and fatigue.
It’s thought that the last few reps of a set are by far the ones you get the most out of – the most “effective reps”, because they do the most to disrupt homeostasis and spark new muscle growth. (This is the concept of “effective reps”).
We know that if we push the intensity too far (0 RIR/lots of sets to failure), we’ll create too much stress to recover from.
But we also know that if your RIR is too high (probably 5+), you won’t get much out of your set, as it will be very short on “effective reps”. So it’s smart to spend the majority of your time training around an 1-3 RIR.
There are four key movement patterns that create the foundation we build our online clients training programs around. They’re essential to helping you achieve your most functionally strong, aesthetic body composition ever.
The cool thing about this approach is, as long as you’re training…
…you’ve trained every major muscle group in your body.
So building your training days around this framework is a good indicator that you’re distributing volume as needed to truly create your best body composition ever.
PATTERN #1: KNEE DOMINANT MOVEMENT
Here, you’re training patterns primarily centered around movement at the knee joint.
These are primarily going to be quad-dominant, but will also work some glutes & hamstrings, and often some core.
Most often, this will be a squat or lunge pattern.
→ Important Consideration: Unilateral Work
There are tons of different variations we can program here, both bilateral (using both legs at the same time) and unilateral (using only one leg at a time).
One of the biggest issues in most people’s knee dominant movement selection is a glaring lack of single-leg work.
No single leg work isn’t a problem for hypertrophy in and of itself, but can indirectly hurt your progress.
I’ve found this to be especially true for online clients coming from a CrossFit style of programming in pursuit of hypertrophy…they’ll back squat and front squat multiple times per week but spend very little time (if any) on single-leg work.
They eventually develop imbalances training bilaterally too often (one leg becomes stronger than the other) which leads to pain and an inability to train intensely enough to build the muscle you want.
This is exactly why most online clients always have at least one single leg knee dominant pattern in their program.
PATTERN #2: HIP DOMINANT
Here, you’re training patterns focused on movement at the hip joint.
These are primarily going to be glute and hamstring dominant, but train some quads, and often core as well.
This will most often be a “hinge” pattern.
In comparison to the squat/knee dominant movement pattern, the hip dominant movement pattern often gets neglected.
Many have been misled to believe the knee dominant movements are good glute builders (e.g. back squats for glutes), which really isn’t often the case… but leads people to neglecting the movements that are actually great glute and hamstring builders (hip dominant movements).
→ Important Consideration: Low Back Stress
One of the main issues most run into with hip dominant movements?
Many create a relatively large amount of stress on the lower back. Anecdotally, most online clients have a pretty limited tolerance for movements that put a lot of strain on the lower back, before running into issues with low back pain.
So this is something we want to take into consideration when creating your program. More on this when we discuss Stimulus-To-Fatigue Ratio.
→ Important Consideration: Many lunge patterns can be made into a hip dominant hybrid
By focusing on intent, many of our lunge variations become great movements for glute/hamstring development.
For our online clients chasing aesthetics and performance, this is one of our favorite ways to kill two birds with one stone, as you’re now training the oft neglected glutes/hamstrings + adding in more single leg work.
Cues to think about here:
– You want to achieve a bigger stretch on the glutes and hamstrings. A forward lean + focusing on initiating the movement by pushing your hips back is helpful here.
– One the way up, focus on driving your weight through your front heel + extending at the hips (think: pushing your hips up/forward towards your knee) instead of extending at the knee (pushing your knee back toward the hips).
Since your glutes and hamstrings are primarily responsible for hip extension, this will make the movement more hip dominant.
PATTERN #3: UPPER BODY PUSH
Here, you’re training patterns focused on movement at the shoulder joint, and pushing a load away from your body.
These are primarily going to be training your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
We can split your upper body push movements up into two variations:
1. Horizontal presses – These will be more “chest dominant”, but will also train your front delts (the front of your shoulders) and triceps.
2. Vertical presses – These will be more shoulder dominant, but will also train a good amount of triceps, and some chest (varying depending on your torso angle).
It’s incredibly unlikely that you’re not including some upper body pushing in your training, and for good reason. If you’re chasing an aesthetically pleasing body composition, a strong chest and well-developed shoulders are a must.
→ Important consideration: Dumbbell work
Dumbbells are one of the best training tools for someone like you, who’s chasing hypertrophy.
Barbells are great for adding load (and don’t get it twisted, they’re a big piece of our online client’s programs), but they also keep you locked in one specific position as you press.
This can become problematic, because this position often causes irritation or pain for online clients with banged up shoulders (a.k.a. 90% of us).
The beautiful thing about dumbbells is, they allow much more customization in your pushing. You have more free movement, and can experiment with which positions feel best for your unique anatomy and injury history.
They also will often allow a better range of motion, which will typically yield more hypertrophy stimulus per rep.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t use barbells (again, they’re a big part of our client’s programs), but many individuals will find dumbbell work easier on their joints.
PATTERN #4: UPPER BODY PULL
Here, you’re training patterns centered around movement of the shoulder blades and shoulder joint, and pulling a load towards your body/pulling your body towards a bar (e.g. a pull-up bar). These are primarily going to be training your back and biceps.
You can split your pulling movements into two different variations:
1. Horizontal Pulls
2. Vertical Pulls
→ Important consideration: Execution
Your back is made up of a plethora of muscles. But generally with your pulling work, you’re focusing on targeting either your Lats or your Rhomboids…
Both vertical and horizontal pulls can be both lat focused or rhomboid focused, depending on your execution of the movement.
– A pulldown will be more lat focused if you stay relatively upright, and focus on driving the elbows low to the hips (if you look at the picture above, you’ll see that this would lead to the lat muscles shortening).
– A pulldown will be more rhomboid focused if you lean back, flare your elbows, and focus on driving your elbows back + squeeze your shoulder blades (if you look at the picture above, you’ll see that this would lead to the rhomboid muscles shortening).
– A dumbbell row will be more lat focused if you focus on driving your elbow low to your hip as you row the weight up.
– A dumbbell row will be more rhomboid focused if you allow your elbow to flare more, and focus on pulling your shoulder blade back as you row.
…you get the idea.
Now, while the specific ratio of rhomboid to lat focused pulling movements depends highly on you as an individual, most will build their best physique with a relatively balanced blend of both.
Because you’ll be seeing it a lot going forward in this article, you need to be familiar with the term mesocycle.
Mesocycle is a term often used within program design to describe a “block” or “phase” of training, usually lasting 4-6 weeks.
Multiple mesocyclyes are usually strung together to form a larger macrocycle, geared to push your body towards one specific adaptation (i.e. hypertrophy) like shown below:
More on how to successfully string together multiple mesocycles for hypertrophy below.
(Click here now to check out our blog on Periodizing A Year Of Physique Development.)
The single biggest piece 95% of you intermediate and beyond trainees like you struggling to achieve the results you’d expect (or any at all) are missing?
An understanding of how to apply the concept of stimulus to fatigue ratio (SFR) to your training.
Understanding SFR allows you to get the most aesthetic/hypertrophy gains out of every set, rep, and unit time invested in the gym.
Even better, applying SFR allows you to tailor your training to the movements that are most effective for you as an individual… no more force-feeding movements that leave you feeling beat up and little else for months.
Some movements just inherently “feel better” to you than others, and you probably can’t explain why.
Let’s say you love Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs).
You feel like your glutes & hamstrings are smoked after performing 2-3 sets, you have a good amount of soreness in said muscles the next few days (a.k.a soreness is present, but far from crippling), and have seen good glute/hamstring gains since substituting the movement in for conventional deadlifts.
You also notice that while 2-3 sets of conventional deadlifts left you feel absolutely exhausted, your RDLs don’t seem to be nearly as fatiguing, and you can get more out of your subsequent training because of this.
→ This is an example of a movement that currently has a good stimulus to fatigue ratio for you.
Not only do your RDLs seem to be stimulating more muscle growth than your conventional deadlifts did, but you’re also generating less fatigue – so you’re able to be more effective with your training across the rest of the training day, week, and mesocycle.
Now, let’s say that your friend/training partner hates RDLs.
While you feel a massive amount of tension and stretch in your hamstrings with each rep, they just feel their lower back. On top of that, they’re absolutely exhausted after 3 sets of RDLs (despite likely not feeling any “disruption” in their glutes and hamstrings), which carries over negatively to the rest of their training day, week, and mesocycle.
→ This is an example of someone who the RDL has a poor SFR for.
After determining that this is not simply an execution error (which is common, and exactly why form videos are such a key component of our online coaching service to help clients master execution), your friend would see better gains from plugging in a different hip hinge variation with a better SFR.
MEASURING STIMULUS TO FATIGUE RATIO
So the question is, how do we determine which movements have a good SFR, and which movements you should swap out?
The graphic above illustrates the components of both stimulus and fatigue that we’re taking into consideration.
At the end of the day, we’re looking for the movements that have the best ratio of stimulus to fatigue.
COMPONENTS OF STIMULUS
→ Mind-Muscle Connection: Can you “feel” the target muscles working throughout the movement?
In my experience, this is one area people tend to overthink. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of…
“I don’t feel a good mind-muscle connection… I need to go slower/light/think harder about the movement!”
…and while control, focus, and intention are important, you also need to realize that developing a good mind-muscle connection is rarely a product of “thinking harder”.
Most often, the lack of a mind-muscle connection during a movement is a result of poor execution of said movement. Either…
1. You’re not taking the movement through a full range of motion (ROM)
– ROM is getting shorter as the set goes on
2. You’re not controlling the negative component of the movement for 2-4 seconds
3. You’re not pushing yourself to be more explosive through the actual “lifting” portion of the movement
4. You’re not pushing the movement to your Reps In Reserve (RIR) target
5. You’re in your first set of said movement (where mind-muscle connection is usually lower)
6. You’re focusing too hard on breathing/bracing, and your cardio system is becoming the limiting factor before the actual muscle
7. Your technique is inadequate to apply tension to the target muscles
…or any combination of the above.
In a nutshell, the mind-muscle connection is a byproduct of proper execution of a movement (and this is where the lack of a mind-muscle connection usually stems from), and not necessarily the result of “thinking harder”.
Also, be aware that the more joints and muscle groups involved (the more compound the movement, we could say), the less you should just feel a single muscle working in isolation (e.g. it’s OK if you’re feeling ALL of your lower body during squats, as long as the target muscle – probably quads – is the rate limiter.)
All that said, at the end of the set you should feel like the target muscle “did the work”, and definitely experienced a lot of tension from the load you lifted.
→ Pump: Blood & fluid traveling to your muscles as a result of repeated, intense contractions, resulting in a muscle that’s engorged with blood and feels “pumped”.
You’ve probably experienced the pump after a few sets of bicep curls of hip thrusts where a strong mind-muscle connection/lots of tension & burn was present, and afterwards, the muscle felt much more “full” than normal.
Now, similar to the mind-muscle connection, it would be wise not to focus solely on the pump as a proxy for a good/bad exercise.
The pump does seemingly have some benefits to muscle growth – but if you were training strictly for great pumps, you’d likely spend your training time exclusively doing high rep isolation work.
We know that focusing on progressing mechanical tension (lifting heavier loads over time) with variations of squat/hinge/lunge/push/pull is going to be the quickest way to build muscle.
So similar to the mind-muscle connection, your training shouldn’t be focused on/designed for solely achieving a great pump. But rather, a good pump in the target muscle(s) usually comes as a byproduct of proper execution, and the target muscles experiencing lots of tension.
A good (or great) pump by the end of a few work sets of a movement is a good sign that you’re ticking the boxes needed to stimulate growth.
→ Disruption: Likely the most foreign term to you here.
Basically, “disruption” refers to how disrupted a specific muscle tissue feels post-training… both immediately and over the next few days.
Disruption could be experienced as:
– Tightness in the target muscle(s)
– Stiffness in the target muscle(s)
– Soreness (both close after the session and/or over the next few days)
Similar to the other proxies (pump and mind-muscle connection), while you’re not directly “training to get sore”… you should generally be able to tell that you trained a muscle after your session – it should feel “disrupted”.
If you’re never sore (especially in lagging muscle groups), never feel fatigued, and don’t seem to be building said muscles: it’s a good sign that something is off in your execution or effort with the corresponding movements.
If you’re never sore (especially in lagging muscle groups), feel extremely fatigued, and don’t seem to be building said muscles: it’s a good sign you need to find movements with a better SFR.
On the other hand, we all have “strong” muscle groups that we have no trouble developing a mind-muscle connection or pump with.
These muscles still seem to grow, and can definitely “feel” the tension/disruption during a training session, but will rarely be noticeably sore over the next few days unless you hit them with a lot of training volume (hard sets) or novel exercises.
For “strong point” muscles like these, the lack of noticeable disruption in the days after a session is much less to worry about than for weak point muscles.
So in simplest terms, you should usually be able to tell by the way a muscle feels…
“Oh yep, trained that today.”
It doesn’t need to be excessive soreness, but the “disrupted” sensation should be present.
COMPONENTS OF FATIGUE
The Yang to Stimuli’s Yen.
If we didn’t have to worry about managing fatigue, and only needed to focus on the stimulus, we could basically just do whatever movements “felt best” for endless sets until we all had the physiques we wanted.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case… fatigue/fatigue management is a critical part of exercise selection you must understand in order to get the results you want.
This is because we know that once you’ve hit a threshold level of effort and execution, volume (a.k.a number of hard sets – usually thought of in a weekly context, per muscle group) is going to be the main driver of muscle growth.
Fatigue management is crazy important for achieving the physique you want from both ends of the spectrum:
→ STIMULUS: It doesn’t matter how much deadlifts stimulate your back, hamstrings, and glutes… if your posterior training is basically a no go for the rest of the week because you’re so fatigued post-deadlift… you probably won’t be able to rack up enough volume to actually grow your posterior.
→ FATIGUE: Actually building new muscle from all of the volume you just hit requires first recovering from the stimulus you created with your training. It doesn’t matter if stimulus is super high… if the amount of fatigue created alongside it is too much to recover from, you’ll fail to grow.
Makes sense, right?
Cool, let’s dive into the components of fatigue.
→ Stress On Joints & Connective Tissue: Let’s say that as of late, doing a neutral grip pull-up is causing you a lot of elbow pain.
Whereas you used to feel a great pump, mind-muscle connection, and disruption from the movement… now you really just notice that your elbow is hurting.
Joint pain is the “rate limiter” here. Again, once you’ve cleared up any concern of a potential error in execution, it’s probably a good idea to sub a different movement in.
The thing to realize here is, all movements will stress your joints and connective tissue to an extent, but…
1. If during or after the movement you’re experiencing a large amount of pain in said joints/connective tissues, pain is (or will soon be) the rate limiter for the movement.
You’re better off finding a pain-free sub (again, assuming your execution of said movement is on point).
2. If you feel a bit of joint discomfort, it might be worth playing around with grip position/width, foot position/width, etc., as oftentimes you’ll be able to find a position that feels great for you as an individual, with good stimulus and no joint pain.
With things like positioning of hands/feet, try to avoid any dogma about where things “should” be (this is of course different than saying to ignore biomechanics), and feel free to play with things and find the position that feels best for you.
→ Perceived Effort: Basically, how hard a set feels.
This can be actual physical exhaustion, the amount you have to “ramp yourself up” mentally to do a set (which also has a physical toll), or a combination of both.
It’s key to understand that effective training will feel hard, and the ability to push yourself is important. If you’re looking to build your best physique and avoid any challenging training, good luck.
But, it’s also important to ask…
“Could I be getting as good of/a better stimulus with less fatigue using a different movement here?”
Conventional deadlifts are another movement that have come up a lot in this article as one that doesn’t have a great SFR for most people with primarily hypertrophy goals.
This is because if we look at our criteria we use with online clients for exercise selection:
The conventional deadlift doesn’t meet many of the criteria we’re looking for here for good movements for building muscle… but it also happens to be one of the single most fatiguing movements you can do in the gym.
As always, context is important here. There are many other variations of the deadlift (we’re very fond of Romanian Deadlifts, Trap Bar Deadlifts, and Stiff Leg Deadlifts), and many of our clients with strength or powerbuilding focused goals still training the conventional deadlift.
But everything in this blog is through the lens of what 90% of our clients are chasing – primarily hypertrophy-based goals.
→ Non-Target Muscle/Joint Stress – Are other muscles heavily (or even moderately) taxed when training a movement? Some non-target muscles will inevitably be fatigued a bit no matter what movement you’re training.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
One of the main benefits of focusing on big compound lifts is exactly that – they allow you to effectively train a large amount of muscle(s) at once, and make your training much more efficient.
But, if doing Barbell Bent Over Rows fatigues your low back so much that low back fatigue is the limiting factor when you train your lower body two days later, you’re likely better off subbing in a chest-supported row variation (or at least one that involves less spinal loading).
This is the crux of looking at non-target muscle stress. It’s less about looking at how said “unused” muscles are impacting the current movement you’re training, and more about how they’ll impact your ability to train effectively the rest of the week and mesocycle.
In general, it’s important to understand that movements that put a lot of stress on the spine especially are going to create a higher fatigue cost, which is why the advice of…
“Just do lots of heavy squats, deadlifts, and barbell pushes/pulls”
…doesn’t pan out for most.
Generally, it’s a good idea to limit the amount of movements that involve a significant amount of spinal loading (e.g. most… deadlift variations, barbell squat variations, standing press and row variations) to 1-2 per session.
While these are often the most stimulative movements, they’re also the ones that’ll rack up fatigue the quickest.
HOW TO ACHIEVE THE BEST STIMULUS TO FATIGUE RATIO
A few pieces of advice that we implement with our online clients to help them get the best SFR (and thus, results) from their hypertrophy training:
1. Use a full range of motion (relative to the joint the muscles you’re training are acting on).
This will often require you to use a lighter load, which – while a hit to your ego – will both reduce the fatigue cost (lighter weight = less stress on joints and nervous system) and increase the stimulus (a more full range of motion = more stimulus with each rep) simultaneously.
2. Make movements more stable.
Because unstable movements are an easy way to wrack up a lot of fatigue/expend a lot of effort, with little direct stimulus to the target muscle.
For example, if you struggle with balance on your Bulgarian Split Squats, add hand support like shown below:
– Probably don’t do handstand push-ups to try to build your delts (range of motion is cut short here as well).
– I don’t think I need to explain Bosu Ball Squats.
3. Use a decent amount of chest supported and seated movements.
These will reduce axial loading a.k.a. load/stress on your spine, and as a whole, keep fatigue lower.
It’s about finding a balancing of the few movements with significant axial loading the provide a great stimulus for you, and the reducing axial loading the rest of the time.
4. Potentially quit bracing so hard.
A tip I recently picked up from Steve Hall of Revive Stronger – many of us have learned to focus hard on bracing our core, to keep our backs safe while lifting.
And while proper bracing is helpful (especially in the context of a heavy deadlift or squat), it’s often overdone, even in the context of a higher rep set of Back Squats of Romanian Deadlifts.
A full stop + massive valsalva maneuver breath at the top of every rep is VERY fatiguing.
Now, I’m not necessarily recommending you implement this (it’s up to you to weigh the risk vs. reward with your own training/injury history), but we’ve personally found that often times focusing on bracing/breathing so much actually creates a LOT more fatigue than is needed.
5. Use “lifting tools”.
These can be seen as ways to prevent other muscles from becoming the rate limiter, so that the fatigue you’re racking up is at least coming with a very good stimulus for the desired muscle(s).
– A lifting belt. Very optional, but useful to reduce stress on the low back during movements that can create a lot of axial loading. I personally like/use this belt.
– Wrist straps/Versa Gripps. If anything here is a “must have”, these are it. If your grip is giving out on pulling movements, Romanian Deadlifts, etc. before the target muscle (hint: it probably is), you’re racking up a lot of fatigue for very little stimulus. These help make the target muscle the rate limiter. Highly recommend checking out Versa Gripps.
– Olympic Lifting Shoes. Another very optional one. If you have trouble hitting a squat depth that allows for a lot of knee bend without also putting excess stress on your low back, these can help.Or you can simply elevate your heels.
I can’t give enough credit to Renaissance Periodization for these concepts. I highly recommend you check out their related YouTube Series and Hypertrophy Book to gain a much better understanding of the application of SFR and smart training principles.
This very much ties in with the concepts discussed above in the stimulus to fatigue ratio section, so we’ll try to avoid overlap here.
But when writing your program, you need to understand that some exercises are inherently better than others for hypertrophy.
The 5 key things we look for in a movement when designing a hypertrophy program for an online client…
EXERCISE SELECTION KEY #1: TARGET MUSCLE GROUP IS THE RATE LIMITER
When the goal is building lean muscle, you want the “rate limiter” (the thing that forces you to eventually stop a movement) to be the specific muscle group(s) you’re targeting.
Let’s say you’re doing heavy Farmers Carries to train your core, and refuse to wear wrist straps.
As a result, your grip always gives out long before core fatigue would cause you to stop the movement.
Thus, this has become a pretty shit exercise for actually building a stronger core… but if the goal was building grip strength, it’d be a great fit.
Some common examples of rate limiters on exercises that are stopping you from building lean muscle:
→ Grip strength: See example above.
→ Unstable exercises: The classic example of doing squats on a bosu ball applies here. You don’t “fail” the movement because of fatigue in your quads, you fail due to a lack of stability.
→ Core strength: Let’s look at the Bird Dog Row:
Great movement for core stability? Absolutely.
But if you were programming this as one of your primary rowing variations, it just wouldn’t make sense. The rate limiter is your core, not your lats or rhomboids.
→ Cardiovascular Fatigue: The most common example of this is simply cutting rest periods too short between sets, or stringing together too many exercises in a row with inadequate rest (this is a big part of why we always prescribe specific rest periods for our online clients).
EXERCISE SELECTION KEY #2: COMPOUNDEDNESS
Credit to Menno Henselmans for this term (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a real word).
Basically, compoundedness means that a movement works multiple muscle groups & joints simultaneously… A.K.A. compound movements.
Compoundedness is important because it leads to more “bang for your buck” & efficiency when it comes to building muscle (this is also part of why the 4 movement pattern framework from earlier works so well).
To illustrate, let’s compare Leg Extensions vs. High Bar Squats.
To get the same magnitude of training stimulus from 4 sets of High Bar Squats, you would have to do MANY more sets of Leg Extensions. So from an efficiency perspective, programming at least some or the High Bar Squats makes sense.
(*Note: I talk a lot about the High Bar Back Squat in this blog, but realize that you could plug in any variation of the squat pattern here that meets the exercise selection criteria… Hack Squats, SSB Squats, Leg Presses, etc.)
Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do isolation exercises. They’re an important part of a program designed to help you build lean muscle.
But most of us simply don’t have the time required to build the body composition we want through a program composed purely of isolation work.
When you start online coaching with us, your program is built primarily around the 4 movement pattern framework from earlier.
This allows you to efficiently accrue the volume (number of hard sets) needed across a training week to progress your entire body.
EXERCISE SELECTION KEY #3: RANGE OF MOTION
As mentioned earlier, typically the greater the range of motion an exercise allows, the more effective it will be for stimulating muscle growth.
Let’s again use the High Bar Back Squat as an example:
The High Bar Squat is a movement we program for online clients to target the quads.
The role of the quads in the squat is knee extension… a.k.a. straightening your legs/standing up from the bottom of the rep.
The more knee flexion (bending at the knee) you can achieve on the way down (which will also equal a lower squat), the more quad stimulus you’ll get from every single rep, because your quads are being forced to work through a greater range of motion.
So let’s say you could either…
Option 1.) Squat just to 90 degrees with 225 lbs on your back for 8 reps at 1RIR.
– OR –
Option 2.) You could squat well below parallel with 185 lbs on your back for 8 reps at 1RIR.
Option 2, despite being less load, would still stimulate more muscle growth in your quads due to the greater range of motion.
As an added bonus, a movement with a greater range of motion (again, consider the example of deep squats vs. squats to parallel) will also be less taxing on your joints and nervous system, because you’re using a lighter load (but achieving the same or better stimulus).
→ Thus, the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio of a movement with a larger range of motion is generally better.
EXERCISE SELECTION KEY #4: ECCENTRIC COMPONENT
The eccentric portion of a movement is typically thought of as the “lowering” part of a movement, whereas the concentric portion of a movement is the actual “lifting” portion of the movement.
It’s pretty rare that most movements are missing the concentric focus… but many movements are noticeably missing an eccentric, OR many lifters aren’t intentional about controlling the eccentric portion of the movement.
The problem here is, we know that muscle damage has a strong correlation with muscle growth. We also know that the eccentric portion of a movement is where a large degree of muscle damage is happening.
So movements without a controlled eccentric will be much less conducive to muscle growth.
Again, we could compare a conventional deadlift vs. a romanian deadlift, and conclude that the RDL is likely superior for hypertrophy, because it has a controlled eccentric and greater stretch under load.
→ On another note, many trainees simply fail to focus on the eccentric portion of a movement as much as the should. It’s smart to focus on controlling the eccentric of each rep for 2-4 seconds.
EXERCISE SELECTION KEY #5: ABILITY TO OVERLOAD
Finally, we know that the ability to progressively increase load on a movement over a long period of time is essential to stimulating continuous growth from said movement.
One problem with many movements is simply how difficult they are to add load to over time.
Consider the Push-Up vs. the Barbell Bench Press.
The Push-Up is harder to load in small increments (or much at all outside of weight vests), whereas the Barbell Bench Press can be loaded in very small increments, and thus is easier to progress long-term.
→ This is especially important for online clients that fall into the intermediate and beyond category, as microloading (increasing load via very small increments) is often the only realistic way to add load.
APPLICATION: EXERCISE SELECTION FOR HYPERTROPHY
Now that you have a good understanding of the keys to smart exercise selection, let’s get into a bit more real-world application.
Let’s say you’re trying to build your quads, and are trying to decide between a Goblet Squat vs. a Box squat vs. a High Bar Squat.
Remember, you’re looking for a movement that ticks these boxes:
→ If we look at a goblet squat: 4/5 of the components are there… but upper back strength is almost always the rate limiter when loads are held in the goblet position, rather than quads.
→ If we look at the box squat: right away we see that range of motion is severely limited by the box… so again, probably not the best option specific to building lean muscle.
→ If we look at the High Bar Squat: we see that it effectively ticks all of these boxes, and is likely the best option of the three.
When it comes to rep ranges, you’ve probably heard something like…
“Train 1-5 reps for strength, 8-12 for muscle growth, 15+ for endurance.”
…and while the general recommendation of training in the 8-12 rep range for hypertrophy definitely isn’t bad, it’d be wise to be a bit more structured with your rep ranges than this.
When assigning rep ranges we know a few things…
→ When performing sets of less than 5 reps, you’ll need to do more total sets to make up for the low total volume (typically defined as number of hard sets, but here think load x reps) per set.
→ Sets 5 shy of failure all the way to failure are thought to be “hypertrophic reps” that stimulate muscle growth… so you’ll likely get more growth from doing a set of 5 to failure vs. 4, as you’re adding one more hypertrophic rep.
So from these first two points, we can conclude that it makes sense to train with 5+ reps for hypertrophy.
→ We know that 30% of your 1 rep max for a movement seems to be the “floor” for the lightest we want to take a weight, as using weight lighter than this seems to be less effective for stimulating growth.
While you probably don’t know exactly what your 1RM Lateral Raise is (and thus don’t know 30% of your 1RM), a good rule of thumb is – if you can do 30+ reps with a weight, it’s likely below 30% 1RM.
So we can conclude that doing no more than 30 reps in a set is also a good idea for hypertrophy.
→ Most compound movements are better suited to the lower end of this spectrum (5-15 reps). Taking a set of Back Squats or Romanian Deadlifts much past 15 reps often leads to your cardio system, low back, or form breakdown being the rate limiter – not the muscles you’re trying to target.
→ Most isolation movements are better suited to the higher end of this spectrum (10-30 reps).
Going too heavy on a Bicep Curl or Lateral Raise usually just involves sloppy technique and recruit other muscles that shouldn’t necessarily be heavily involved in the movement, just to get the weight up.
→ Training in the 5-10 rep range is likely a bit harder on your joints and tendons (due to the heavier loads used), so we probably shouldn’t spend all of our time here.
→ It’s hypothesized that to effectively recruit and train all muscle fiber types (both fast twitch and slow twitch) as effectively as possible, relatively lower rep (i.e. 5-10) heavier sets and higher rep (i.e. 20-30) lighter sets (all still trained to 0-3RIR) are needed.
(Although realize that considering fiber-type specific training is probably getting to the point of splitting hairs, and not something that you need to consider if you follow the guidelines in this article).
So putting all of this together, we can conclude that the best rep range guidelines for hypertrophy training should be:
1. Train in the 5-30 rep range.
2. Compound lifts should primarily be trained in the 5-10 and 10-20 rep range. Isolation lifts primarily in the 10-30 rep range.
3. Too much time in any one of these rep ranges is probably slightly less productive than a mixture of the 3.
4. As a good rule of thumb, it’s probably smart to spend approximately 25% of your training time in the 5-10 range, 50% in the 10-20 range, and 25% in the 20-30 range.
This will help ensure that you’re not spending too much time in the more physically taxing 5-10 range (while still reaping the benefits), nor gassing yourself out/investing a lot of time per set in the 20-30 range.
Of course this will change across mesocycles, but the above recommendations are a good place to start.
5. It’s a good idea to vary these rep ranges across your training day.
Meaning it’s smart to do your heaviest work (in the 5-10 range) when you’re freshest (at the start of a session).
If you save your heavy Romanian Deadlifts until the very end of a lower body day after doing sets of 10-20 Walking Lunges and Leg Extensions, and 20-25 Leg Curls… the decrease in performance you’ll see vs. if you did your RDLs at the start of the session will be huge.
But you wouldn’t see the massive drop-off in performance in all of the movements mentioned from doing the RDLs first in the session.
So naturally, most training sessions for hypertrophy should follow an undulating periodization-esque model. Something like…
→ First 1-2 movements in the 5-10 range
→ Next 2-4 movements in the 10-20 range
→ Final 1-3 movements in the 20-30 range
“Ok, all of this is great… but how do I know how many sets to do?”
…of course, we’ve got you covered.
When it comes to hypertrophy, the 3 main variables we’re manipulating in an online client’s program are:
1. Frequency: How often you train a muscle group or movement pattern.
2. Volume: The number of hard sets you train a muscle group or movement pattern with.
3. Intensity: The load you are training with.
→ Now, if all 3 variables are HIGH across your training week, you’ll do too much to recover from.
→ But, if all 3 variables are low, your training won’t provide enough stimulus to grow lean muscle.
For hypertrophy, it seems that when a threshold level of intensity (<5RIR) and frequency (2x/week+) are reached, adding more volume (to an extent) is the best way to stimulate more muscle growth.
Thus, volume is the main factor we manipulate with online clients to help stimulate more muscle growth.
Our clients focused on hypertrophy are usually training in the 5-30 rep range, and stopping sets with 1-3RIR (reps left in the tank), as are most individuals following a (smart) hypertrophy program.
The general consensus when it comes to measuring volume is that it’s easiest to simply think of as number of hard sets per muscle group. (Given you’re within 5-30 reps and 1-3 RIR).
If you hit 3 sets of Barbell Bench Press on Monday, and 4 sets of Dumbbell Incline Chest Press on Thursday, your weekly chest volume is 6 sets.
So to answer the question of how much volume should I do…
It depends. Remember, individualization is an essential part of building the most effective hypertrophy program for clients.
The amount of volume you need for optimal muscle growth can vary wildly from your friends, depending on training age, recent training history, genetics, current recovery capacity, and much more.
This could be an incredibly long discussion… but let’s keep it succinct, and answer another question while we’re at it…
“HOW MANY MOVEMENTS SHOULD I DO MUSCLE GROUP PER TRAINING DAY FOR HYPERTROPHY?”
The thing to understand he is, there is a ceiling to the amount of effective volume that we can do per training day.
To quote James Krieger’s amazing article Set Volume for Muscle Size: The Ultimate Evidence Based Bible:
“On average, muscle growth tends to be best around 6-8 hard sets per muscle group per training session when taking long rests. That can be 12 – 24 weekly sets for a frequency of 2-3 days per week.”
Now, realize that these numbers are averages (so some individuals will need more volume, some less) – but the averages give us a great starting place.
→ Once we pass the 6-8 sets threshold, we’re a lot more likely to enter the realm of “junk volume” (volume that continues to adds to the fatigue our body must recover from, but doesn’t help stimulate more muscle growth).
→ When you consider the stimulus to fatigue ratio from earlier, you also have probably realized that the first set of an exercise is rarely the most stimulative – sets 2 & 3 are really where things pick up.
So it also makes sense that we wouldn’t want to do less than ~2-3 sets per movement, which means that we’ll also likely want to be doing something like 3-5 exercises per muscle group per week, and no more.
From this, we can conclude a fairly good starting point for your volume would be something like:
→ 6-8 hard sets per muscle group, per session, split between 2-3 movements
→ 12-24 weekly hard sets per muscle group, doing something like 3-5 exercises per muscle group per week.
In practice, this usually plays out as a client having more training days devoted to a specific body part(s) that they want to grow, and thus volume closer to the 24 sets per week mark for those parts, with less for lower priorities.
A client wanting to focusing on glutes and hamstrings might be following a 5x/week Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower split. By nature of having a 3rd lower body day, they’ll be able to squeeze in an extra 6-8 hard sets of effective volume for lower body vs. upper.
Also, realize that there will be some volume overlap. I.e. many pressing movements will also hit the delts, so if you’ve done several presses already, most can get by with 3-5 sets of side delt work with Lateral Raises, rather than devoting 2-3 movements to side delts.
The above rings true for delts, triceps, and biceps.
So understanding this, a push day in a push/pull/lower split could look something like:
a.) Barbell Bench Press 4×7-10
b.) Dumbbell Incline Bench 3×10-15
c.) Dumbbell Skullcrusher 4×10-15
d.) Dumbbell Lateral Raise 4×20-30
Signs You’re At Or Near Your Ideal Volume (Number Of Hard Sets):
→ Your strength is consistently increasing (you’re usually able to add a rep or a bit of load vs. last week’s performance on the same movement).
→ You’re consistently a bit (but not excessively) sore.
→ You’re getting good pumps.
Signs You’re Doing Too Much Volume:
→ You feel beat up/run down.
→ Motivation to train is low.
→ Strength is stagnant or decreasing.
→ No pumps.
(It’s key to understand context here – sometimes this is something we’ll do intentionally the last 1-2 weeks before a deload.)
Signs It’s Time To Add More Volume:
→ Recovery is good.
→ Strength is stagnating.
→ You’re rarely sore.
→ No pumps.
Movement sequencing is an important part of program design, and something we consider to be sure our online clients get the absolute most out of their training sessions.
We can relate this back to our earlier conversation about rate limiters…
We want the “rate limiter” of a movement to be fatigue in the specific muscle group we’re targeting.
If you’re training 6-8 hard sets of triceps before training your chest/a bench press variation… it’s likely that tricep fatigue will be the rate limiter for your bench press, not your chest.
You likely won’t get an effective stimulus for your chest in this session.
But if we flip this example on its head (train chest first), this is no longer an issue. When you move on to triceps, you’ll be able to fatigue them perfectly fine.
So generally, it’s a good idea to start a training session with one of the two most fatiguing movements. From there, move down the chain from largest to smallest muscle groups or most fatiguing to least fatiguing movements.
For upper body training this usually looks like…
1. Chest or back (usually alternate which comes first in between 2 days in a training week)
2. Chest or back (usually alternate which comes second in between 2 days in a training week)
(3-5 are fairly interchangeable.)
For lower body training, this usually looks like…
1. Quads or Glutes/Hamstrings (as both are typically trained in hinge patterns)
2. Quads or Glutes/Hamstrings (usually alternate which comes first in between 2 days in a training week)
3. Glutes or Hamstrings (whichever wasn’t the primary focus of the above glute/hamstring movement)
This isn’t a black and white answer, because there’s really two different scenarios we run into with clients, which changes our approach to this.
SCENARIO 1: Client has plenty of time per session (i.e. 60-90 minutes to devote to training), and of course has a primary goal of hypertrophy.
In this case, we’d likely take a muscle-by-muscle approach. So for example, if the client was training upper body, something like:
a.) Barbell Bench Press (Chest)
b.) Cable Chest Fly (Chest)
c.) Dumbbell Row (Back)
d.) Lat Pulldown (Back)
e.) Dips (Triceps)
f.) Barbell Curl (Biceps)
g.) Lateral Raises (Delts)
Scenario 2: Client is very short on time, but still with the primary goal of hypertrophy. Their upper body day could look something like:
Superset a.) a.) Barbell Bench Press (Chest) X Dumbbell Row (Back)
Superset b.) Cable Chest Fly (Chest) X Lat Pulldown (Back)
Superset c.) Dips (Triceps) X Barbell Curls (Biceps)
d.) Lateral raises
In Scenario One, going from the first chest exercise or back exercise to the second, developing a stronger mind-muscle connection will typically be easier, as focus and fatigue is kept “local” (to a specific muscle group) – this could in theory improve the SFR of your training.
In Scenario Two, the program ensures that they can do the most important thing by far to building muscle – getting in adequate volume (with appropriate proximity to failure and rep ranges).
As alluded to earlier, it also makes sense to alternate which muscle groups/movement patterns are emphasized/paired with the most taxing movements across the week.
This better helps you manage fatigue (and in turn, build muscle) without burning out your recovery resources or getting injured too quickly.
For example, if you have 3 lower body training days per week, all starting with glute/hamstrings movements like…
→ Day 1: Good Mornings
→ Day 2: Romanian Deadlifts
→ Day 3: Deficit Sumo Deadlifts
…by the end of the week, you’re going to have created a massive amount of fatigue and stress on your lower back.
You won’t be able to train like this long, as recovering your glutes/hams from all the above work will be very challenging.
On the flipside, if your 3 lower body training days were something like…
→ Day 1: Romanian Deadlifts
→ Day 2: Start with quads, before moving into a Barbell Hip Thrust
→ Day 3: 45 Degree Back Extension
…you’d experience much better gains across a mesocycle.
Typically, it makes sense to divide training days across a week into something like:
1. Horizontal Emphasis Days: Most taxing movements are generally horizontal pushes & pulls (i.e. Barbell Bench Press and Barbell Bent Row).
2. Vertical Emphasis Days: Most taxing movements are generally vertical pushes & pulls (i.e. High Incline DB Press & Weighted Pull-Up)
3. Quad Emphasis Days: Most taxing movements are quad focused (i.e. main quad move is a Barbell Back Squat, main glute/ham move is a 45 Degree Back Extension)
4. Glute/Ham Emphasis Days: Most taxing moves are glute/ham focused (i.e. main glute/ham move is a Barbell Romanian Deadlift, main quad move is a Leg Press)
Of course programming like this means that the “emphasis” muscles will also likely be worked in the lower end of the hypertrophy rep ranges (7-10) while the others will be in the 10-20 and 20-30.
If you’re cutting rest periods too short between sets, you won’t get the most out of your hypertrophy training program.
We need time to allow for local and systemic fatigue to dissipate before being able to effectively push the next set.
It takes longer for systemic fatigue to dissipate than local fatigue… meaning that the target muscle(s) you trained on the previous set will feel relatively recovered sooner than your body has reduced system-wide/nervous system fatigue enough to effectively push your next set.
So just waiting until the targeted muscle groups stop burning isn’t an effective strategy.
Not surprisingly, this is an area that has also been researched quite heavily.
For example, this 2016 study by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues assigned 21 resistance trained men to two groups:
→ Group 1: The “short rest group” took 1 minute rest between all sets.
→ Group 2: The “long rest group” took 3 minutes rest between sets.
Both groups trained exclusively in the 8-12 rep range.
After 8 weeks of training like this, the “long rest group” had made better strength and hypertrophy gains than the “short rest group”.
We have many more studies that seem to draw the same conclusion… taking about 2 minutes rest for most isolation exercises, and 3 minutes or more for compound exercises rest is generally superior for hypertrophy training. (3)(4)
General rest period guidelines:
→ Compound lifts: Rest 2-4 minutes
→ Isolation lifts: Rest 1.5-2 minutes
Cutting rest periods shorter than this often results in you being able to do less overall volume, and/or your aerobic system or systemic fatigue becoming the “rate limiter”, not the specific muscle group(s) you’re trying to target.
If you don’t want to actually time your rest periods, I love Mike Isratel of Renaissance Periodization’s recommendation of simply resting until breathing returns to normal.
The exception here is when you’re following a metabolite style of training (basically, the goal is to get a crazy pump) – where often rest periods are intentionally cut short to create more metabolite accumulation in targeted muscle groups.
You’re actually hurting your progress if you’re constantly changing movements in your training program.
See, when you implement a new movement, it takes your body time to learn the “skill” of the movement.
After the first few weeks of progressing a movement is when online clients really start to learn what loads/reps are needed & become “skilled” enough to achieve true effective reps (the last few reps of a set that fatigue your muscle fibers enough to stimulate growth). This is where the most progress happens.
So if we’re switching up the entire program every month, clients are getting ~1-2 weeks of training that’s actually effective every month.
Plus, if you’re always switching movements, there’s no way to track progress across months. It’s like using a different scale every time you weigh yourself.
Whether you’re a coach, or coaching yourself, adding movement variation is a fine line to walk.
Some variation absolutely makes the program exciting & engaging, but I’ve found that the MOST motivating things for online clients is actually making tangible progress, which often comes with less variation month-to-month.
So, when it comes to movement variation, these are my general guidelines for online clients chasing hypertrophy:
→ 1-2 metric-based movements to start each session: These are compound lifts that we’re focusing on progressing for many multiple mesocycles. Rep ranges might change, but movements DON’T for long periods of time.
→ 2-4 auxiliary movements: One new movement per muscle group with each new training phase is a good rule of thumb, but can be more if it’s a client that just enjoys more variation.
→ 2-4 isolation movements: Generally “simpler” movements that take less skill, and thus can be varied more frequently.
But really, if you’re more concerned about maximizing hypertrophy than you are being entertained by new movements… as long as the stimulus to fatigue ratio of a movement is good, it’s smart to keep progressing it.
1. Pump, disruption, and mind-muscle connection are all high
2. You’re consistently getting a bit stronger at the movement
3. You’re not experiencing pain associated with the movement
Signs it’s time to swap out a movement for a different variation:
1. Movement has stalled out – No progression with a movement (i.e. adding reps or load) across a mesocycle.
2. Experiencing pain or discomfort with said movement.
3. Fatigue generated by said movement is extremely high, and seems to be detracting from the rest of training, when an equally stimulative/less fatiguing movement could fill its place.
Truly effective training for hypertrophy requires much more than just “going into the gym and working hard”.
You can achieve the well above-average physique results you want.
But it’ll require a well-planned, science-based, and systematic approach to progressing your training.
Time to resolve that need, by teaching you the science & application behind the three best training program progression models for hypertrophy & aesthetics.
MODEL #1: STATIC RIR LINEAR PROGRESSION
To my knowledge, credit for this progression model goes to Brian Minor.
As the name states, you’re keeping RIR static across a mesocycle.
Applying A Static RIR Linear Progression:
STEP 1: Prescribe a rep range (aim for higher end of rep range) & RIR target for a movement in Week 1 of a mesocycle. Record reps/loads/RIR.
STEP 2: Going forward, add load to the movement weekly (e.g. +10lbs from last week – this will be very dependent on the client & movement), and aim to hit the same RIR target as last week, while keeping reps open-ended.
In practice, with online clients, this could play out something like…
→ Prescription: 3×6-10 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 225 x 10/9/9 @2RIR.
→ Prescription: Add 5lbs from last week, and hit 3 sets @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 230 x9/8/6.
→ Prescription: Add 5lbs from last week, and hit 3 sets @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 235 x8/8/5.
→ Prescription: Add 5lbs from last week, and hit 3 sets @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 240 x7/6/5.
In a nutshell, this creates a linear progression like we all learned about in the fantastic Muscle & Strength Pyramids books…
…but helps clients avoid the pitfalls of the traditional linear progression model because it’s auto-regulated by RIR instead of specific rep targets.
In a linear progression model, you’re tied to hitting a certain load AND rep increase to keep up with the progression.
This can often lead to form breakdown in order to try to continue to keep up with the progression… basically, we can’t progress linearly every week.
Adding the weekly load increases and RIR targets instead without specific rep targets allows this to be more auto-regulated.
→ So if you are progressing well (e.g. able to match last weeks reps with an extra 5 lbs), great.
→ If not, you don’t have to cut form/overshoot RIR to “keep up”.
The downside of this model?
It’s very easy to not push yourself hard enough if you’re not accurate (or honest) with your RIR.
This is a great progression scheme for online clients chasing both hypertrophy and strength, and works very well for your big compound lifts.
MODEL #2: DYNAMIC DOUBLE PROGRESSION MODEL WITH STATIC RIR
Another model that I first learned about from Brian Minor. So it’s no surprise that this progression scheme is similar to model #1… We’re assigning a rep range & RIR target, and looking to progress reps and/or load with said rep range, while maintaining the same level of effort (RIR).
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 155 x 11/9/8.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 155 x 11/10/8.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 155 x 12/10/9.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 165 x 9/155 x 11/9.
The beauty of this progression model is the way it allows you to auto-regulate your training, and increasing loads/reps as your body adapts to what you’ve been doing in the past, without being “locked” in a linear progression you can’t keep up with.
The biggest downside (as above) is that it’s very easy to not push yourself hard enough if you’re not accurate (or honest) with your RIR.
MODEL #3: PROGRESSIVE RIR MODEL
To my knowledge, a similar progression style to this was first championed by the folks over at Renaissance Periodization.
Here, you’re progressing your (or your client’s) RIR target across a mesocycle, usually decreasing weekly.
This will often play out as something like…
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 3RIR.
→ Client #’s: 175 x 10/9/8.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 2RIR.
→ Client #’s: 175 x 11/10/8.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 1RIR.
→ Client #’s: 175 x 12/10/9.
→ Prescription: 3×8-12 @ 0-1RIR.
→ Client #’s: 185 x 10/175 x 11/9.
The reality of being an intermediate or advanced lifter is, we often need progression schemes built into our program to force us to get more uncomfortable, and keep pushing.
One of the primary benefits of this approach is the fact that since you’re decreasing your RIR target weekly, in theory you should be able to push to add a rep or increase load slightly (relative to the same set and exercise) vs. what you did last week.
Using this progression model also removes the common fear of…
“You’re not actually training as hard as you think you are/not hitting your RIR target”
…because adding a rep or a bit of load every week to follow the RIR progression eventually forces you to reach failure (0-1RIR).
The beauty of this progression scheme is, it ensures you’re always pushing for progression.
The last few weeks of a mesocycle before a deload will be intense, but the RIR progression allows clients lots of productive time training, without always being so close to failure that fatigue constantly outweighs recovery.
The con with this progression scheme?
It’s much too easy to fall into the mindset of always needed to “beat the logbook”... Because in theory, if we’re decreasing proximity to failure on a movement by 1RIR from last week, we should be able to add a bit of load or a rep vs. last week.
Thus, it can be very frustrating to the client to see areas where they can’t “beat the logbook”.
The thing you need to understand to get the most out of this progression scheme:
You won’t always be able to beat the logbook, nor do you always need to for progress.
You shouldn’t be sacrificing form to add a rep/load.
Expecting to be able to add a rep or a bit of load every week to a movement for years is expecting to linearly progress.
If this was the case, we’d all be able to squat 600+ lbs by this point – we just don’t see linear progress week to week in the real world.
So understand that you won’t see linear progression week-to-week with this model… and that’s ok.
You don’t have to beat the logbook in a training session in order for it to stimulate further growth.
There are many confounding variables outside of just your training that can impact performance (sleep, stress, nutrition, etc.). And the fact that you haven’t been able to add load or a rep vs. last week doesn’t mean that you didn’t make progress in the last week.
As long as you are within your range of needed volume and effort within your training day (and are taking care of the recovery part of things outside of the gym), you’re stimulating further muscle building – these muscular adaptations just haven’t added up to you being able to do another rep or more load yet.
APPLICATION FOR HYPERTROPHY
There is no perfect progression model.
Each of the above has pros & cons, and by no means should you feel like you can only use one of these progression methods.
The key here is effectively walking the line between pushing hard enough to keep building the physique you want, without pushing so hard that you can’t effectively recover from your training.
So each of these models can work very effectively. But understanding context and your (or your clients) individual needs is key.
This is where most individuals “fall off” on their own.
All the guidelines we’ve talked about previously explain to you how to set up your first mesocycle of science-based training… but not what to do in the mesocycles after that.
Not to worry. Here’s a general outline of how we’d structure this for many online clients:
Here, you’re simply following the guidelines above.
Your body is an adaptation machine… it’s extremely skilled at “getting used to” whatever you throw at it.
Specific to your current goals in a hypertrophy program, this means that the same amount of training volume you used last month won’t stimulate quite as much in terms of building as it did a month ago.
So to counter this, we typically “layer on volume” (a term I’m borrowing from Steve Hall) monthly.
[*NOTE: This strategy is definitely speaking to the more intermediate-advanced crowd. Beginners, you don’t need to stress this much.]
Here’s what I mean…
Let’s say that through your first mesocycle (a.k.a. training phase), you were doing sets of 7-10 Dumbbell Bent Over Rows. Maybe 3 sets, maybe 5 sets, depending on your needs.
In the second mesocycle, we might add in something called a “down set” to slightly increase volume.
Here’s how implementing down sets looks in the Truecoach app our online clients use:
So basically, you’re doing a few “heavier” sets, followed by “lighter” down sets.
Now, we’ve been defining volume as “number of hard sets”, but the most technical definition is “Sets X Reps X Weight”.
So generally, a down set will lead to slightly higher rep ranges and more training volume than the heavier set.
By implementing more down sets as your hypertrophy phases goes on, we’re effectively “layering on volume” without having to dramatically increase (if at all) the number of hard sets you’re doing/time in the gym.
As an added benefit, working with these slightly lighter loads will be less taxing on your joints, and prevent you from getting beat up as the hypertrophy phases progress.
Similar to last month, when you start your third mesocycle/training phase (these don’t always align perfectly with the calendar month, as most of our client’s mesocycles last 5-6 weeks when including a deload), slightly increasing the number of down sets relative to your second mesocycle would be smart to continue to layer on volume.
Over the last three mesocycles, you’ve been layering on more and more volume… but this can’t keep increasing linearly forever.
So your training volume “peaks” (relative to your recent training history) during this metabolite phase.
We’re adding in more down sets, and often slightly decreasing the % of load used in down sets (i.e. decrease by 15% instead of 10%).
To add to this, we’re implementing more intensification techniques – things like…
→ Supersets: Two movements done back to back with little/no rest. In the metabolite phase, we’re most often using this in a “pre-exhaust” fashion to target a specific muscle group (I.e. Leg Extensions x15-20 supersetted with Walking Lunges x15-20).
→ Dropsets: Taking a set to/near failure, decreasing the load, and immediately repping out more. This can also be done by moving from a mechanically weaker to stronger position as a set goes on.
Here, adjusting the bench moves you from a weaker to stronger position as fatigue sets in, allowing you to extend the set for an absolutely brutal training effect.
→ Myo-Reps: Start by taking a weight to or very near failure in the 9-20 rep range. Rest 3-5 breaths, before hitting 3-5 more reps. Repeat in this fashion for 3-5 mini-sets of 3-5 reps.
…lots of different techniques we implement in a metabolite phase, but you get the gist of it.
As mentioned earlier, we define “metabolic stress” as the burning feeling you get when you do an intense set.
So obviously in the metabolite phase, this metabolic stress is what you’re chasing… but realize that your entire training program should NOT be supersets, downsets, and myo-reps.
Continue to progress your compound lifts with top sets and down sets. After training your primarily lifts, choose 1-2 muscle groups for training day to implement metabolite techniques with.
As we’ve talked about, your volume needs to elicit considerable progress increase over time, as your body adapts to your current amount of training volume.
The problem here?
As we increase training volume over time (given intensity is adequate), our body adapts more and more to this style of training. This means we need to keep increasing volume to further push growth.
Another interesting adaption is your muscle fibers. Your muscles are composed of primarily two fiber types:
→ Type 1 “slow twitch” fibers: These fibers are geared for endurance. They fatigue slowly, but also are poor at creating explosive movement, and have very limited potential for muscle growth.
→ Type 2 “fast twitch” fibers: These fibers are geared to be explosive. They fatigue much quicker than Type 1 fibers, but also have a much greater capacity for growth.
Whereas it used to be thought that muscle fibers were stuck as either slow twitch or fast twitch, it’s now been shown that your muscles sit somewhere on a spectrum of slow to fast, and move more towards one of the other, depending on your lifestyle and how you train.
When we’re training for hypertrophy, which is generally includes lots of relatively higher rep (10+) work, it’s thought that our muscle fibers actually shift more towards “slow twitch” characteristics, as an adaptation to the fact that you’re hitting your body with primarily higher rep sets, where endurance can become more of a priority than being explosive.
Since slow twitch fibers have a smaller capacity for growth, a shift towards slow-twitch is obviously not conducive to your muscle growth.
This is where Strength Phases or Resensitization Phases come into play.
The goal here is shifting your focus away from building for a period of time, in order to re-sensitize your muscles to lower training volumes. This decreases your “volume needs” in the future, and will allow you to make more progress with lower training volumes.
[*Again, Steve Hall and the team at Revive Stronger deserve the credit for pioneering the idea of “Resensitization Phases”. They have an excellent ebook on the topic here.]
→ Reps: 4-8.
As we’ll discuss shortly, the goal in the resensitization phase is to decrease volume, and increase intensity. The lower rep ranges are more conducive to this.
→ Sets: Decrease by ~40% of your minimum effective volume (the minimum number of hard sets you can grow on) per muscle group.
For example, if you could start seeing glute gains at 15 hard sets per week, you would decrease to 9.
→ Intensity (Meaning Load): Should be higher here. I like to use the resensitization phase as a “Strength Phase”.
The increased load per set here helps compensate for the decrease in volume.
It’s also smart to use a progression scheme that brings your sets closer to failure (increasing intensity) over the course of 3-4 weeks, before deloading.
But generally, you’ll be training with anywhere from 3 to 1 reps in the tank.
→ Length: 3-4 week blocks.
Post resensitization phase, you can expect to come back to hypertrophy-focused training with increased sensitivity to training volume, better pumps, and overall quicker progress.
From here, you can essentially “start the process over” at mesocycle one.
The keys to choosing the most effective training split for you:
1. It needs to provide adequate volume to stimulate the muscle building effect you’re chasing.
2. It needs to allow for you to train every major muscle group/movement pattern 2x/week+.
3. It needs to allow you to train in a manner that’s fun and engaging for your (underrated aspect of program design).
→ Beginner-Intermediate: 4x/week Upper/Lower Split or Push/Pull/Push/Pull split
For most individuals who have been following a smart, science-based training program for <1.5 years, both of these splits allow plenty of training volume to continue to progress.
If you’re not new to the gym… but new to following an evidence-based training program like we build for our online clients, this is still an effective place to start.
→ Intermediates: 5x/Week Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper or Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower or Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower
You’ve been following a smart, science-based training program for ~1-2 years (which likely means you’ve already been following one of the 4x/week splits we mentioned earlier), but are starting to see progress slow considerably.
Over time, your volume needs to elicit muscle growth rise – so most will need to add a training day eventually to keep progressing towards their goal physique.
For clients in your position, a 5x/week training split is typically the best option. There’s lots of room here for customization as well:
For more upper body focus, go with an Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower or Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower Split.
For more Lower body focus, run a Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower split
→ Intermediate-Advanced: 6x/Week Push/Pull/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower or Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower
Been following a smart, science-based program for ~2-3 years or more now, and have also been taking a relatively intelligent approach to your nutrition?
You can likely make great gains over the next few months following a 6x/week split.
My personal favorite training split is the Push/Pull/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower – it allows for 2x/week frequency, lots of volume, and isn’t excessively draining.
The Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower split is also very effective, as it allows you to rack up A LOT of volume per body part weekly – this can be a good thing OR a bad thing, as it can be extremely taxing.
Now, a few things you need to understand about training 6x/week:
1. You don’t have to train 6x/week to make great progress… even if you’ve been training a considerable amount of time. If this just isn’t realistic for the rest of your life, you can still make excellent progress following a 4x/week or 5x/week split.
2. Even if you’ve been training a good amount of time, one of these higher volume splits might not be needed/the best fit for you.
A big part of what we focus on within online coaching is teaching clients how to master execution and get MORE out of every single set… so often, the same amount of volume you’ve been doing creates more stimulus than ever before.
If your nutrition and/or recovery haven’t been on point much during your training career, you likely don’t need to train 6x/week to see good progress.
3. We can make a major difference by improving how you fuel your training and recovery… until we have these mastered, more training won’t create better results.
Number of training days is really just a tool we use to regulate training volume. IF you have solid effort and execution of your movements within your training (it’s a big if), you’ll likely need to adjust training volume over time to maximize your results.
And that’s how to write a hypertrophy program that’ll completely transform your (or your client’s) physique.
If you’re ready to take the guesswork out of achieving your best body composition ever, click here now to apply for Online Coaching with our team. You’ll get fully customized training + nutrition protocols fit to your specific goals & lifestyle, and expert guidance through every step of the process.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.