Hypertrophy: Science or Guesswork? How to Build Your Own Workout Routine

Hypertrophy: Science or Guesswork? How to Build Your Own Workout Routine

Hypertrophy: Science or Guesswork? How to Build Your Own Workout Routine

0 comments 📅26 June 2015, 08:05
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By Jonathan Kelly

Think of a ‘Bro’, any ‘Bro’ and they’re probably endorsing the ‘best workout for maximal gains’. A lot of the time they’ve never touched that programme, occasionally they’ve tried it and even less often they’ve wrote it. Is it really the best workout ever or are they just trying to sell something? Is Hypertrophy really as complicated as they make out? Or are they just overcomplicating a fun topic so you’ll never feel adequate enough to write your own programme?

This isn’t an attack on successful fitness models, it’s far from it. Consider this article as the next step after you’ve finished that programme or for those wanting to try their hand at writing their own programme.

Hypertrophy: Science or Guesswork? How to Build Your Own Workout Routine

So, what do you need to know to take control of your own training?

Bringing order into your chaotic workout routine

Bringing order into chaos: A sound workout routine is the key to hypertrophy and muscle building. But where should you start when designing your own programme? (Source Pixabay.com / geralt ; CC Licence)

By definition Muscular Hypertrophy occurs when Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is greater than Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB) [7]. Physical evidence of this can be seen from an increased Cross-Sectional Area (CSA) of the muscles due to an increase in size of the existing fibres [2]. When this is translated it means that in order to increase the size of your muscles your body must be able to synthesise proteins effectively and at a greater rate than they are broken down. Before you go any further with your Hypertrophic journey you MUST be eating appropriately. I’ve heard many people over the years say ‘I’m training really hard but getting nowhere’. The answer may lie in the kitchen. Generally speaking, if you eat like a little girl you will gain like a little girl. See further articles on Aesirsports.net to equip yourself with the knowledge on how to do eat properly.

Assuming you’re eating appropriately, the magnitude of hypertrophy ultimately depends on the training stimulus or programme prescribed. Optimal muscle growth may result from maximizing the combination of mechanical and metabolic stimuli via training periodization [4]. Mechanical stimuli can be described as lifting heavy loads, including eccentric muscle actions and incorporating a generally low to moderate volume (characteristics of strength training). Whereby metabolic stimuli revolves around moderately high intensities and high volumes combined with shorter rest periods (general characteristics of bodybuilding training) [5]. The mechanical factors result in a greater recruitment of muscle fibres (as a heavier load is being lifted) and the metabolic factors stress the glycolytic energy system and result in increased metabolites that may be involved in muscle growth [3]. Programmes that combine these two factors elicit the most potent anabolic hormonal response [6].

Heavy weights, light weights, good diet, that it?

Lift that shit: Heavy weights build muscle too

Who would have guessed? Heavy weights don’t only build up your strength. They will also do their fair share when it comes to your “gains”. (Source: Flickr / Jason Lengstorf ; CC Licence)

Essentially yes. You now have the basic principles of hypertrophy. You need to have a diet designed for growing and lift a combination heavy loads at low volumes and lighter loads at a high volumes. Leave no stone unturned.

The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) have a pretty strong stance on all things training and produce most of the work we know today as being ‘the norm’. They recommend for Hypertrophy that you should perform (per exercise) 6-12 repetitions for 3-6 sets at a load of 67-85% 1RM with 30-90 seconds rest between sets [1]. At first glance that’s pretty vague but it also suggests that Hypertrophy training can be achieved a variety of ways.

This article isn’t a programme, its purpose is to provide you with information on how to build your own programme. Below are some examples of how to make use of the NSCA guidelines so your training is fun and adaptable. After all, you don’t want to going to the gym to be a chore.

The Methods

Firstly you have the ‘classic’ body building regimes, also known as the Plateau method. This method is fairly straight-forward and is adopted by beginners or those transitioning from a period of heavy training. After an appropriate warm up a weight is chosen and is used for all sets. Generally there are three sub-categories for the Plateau method.

  • Classical: 3-5 Sets of 8-10 repetitions
  • Extensive: 3-5 Sets of 12+ repetitions
  • Intensive: 3-5 Sets of 5-8 repetitions

If you look back to earlier in this article you will see that the Classical and Extensive rep ranges offer more of a metabolic stimulus and the Intensive rep ranges offer a more mechanical stimulus. All are important in their own right, as I mentioned earlier, both are required. See what works best for you, maybe start with one or two Intensive exercises, then finish with a Classical exercise and an Extensive exercise.


Supersets are a very common and handy Hypertrophy format. A superset involves combining two separate exercises into a ‘set’. For example, Bench Press and a Barbell Bent-Over Row. You would perform one set (6-12 reps) on the Bench Press then almost immediately, with very little rest, perform a set (6-12 reps) on the Bent-Over row. Due to the high levels of fatigue it has to be stressed that a sensible load should be chosen. In this example, if you are used to rowing 100kg, you row 90kg instead. This is more of a precaution, form shouldn’t be sacrificed for load. Supersets can be upgraded to Tri-sets (Three exercises) or a Giant-sets (Four or more exercises). As you can see a lot of work is achieved in a short period of time with Supersets, making them ideal if you are pushed for time or you would like to train more than one body part in a session.


Pre-Exhaustion with squats

Be carefull with this techniques, when you use them. Sometimes you can do more harm than good if you overdo it. (Source: Flickr / U.S. Naval Forces Command ; CC Licence)

Pre-exhaustion is a more advanced method but easy to incorporate if you understand it. This method involves ‘pre-exhausting’ a muscle in a single-joint exercise that will also be used in the multi-joint exercise to follow. For example, performing 4 sets of 10 leg extensions to exhaust the quadriceps and then performing 4 sets of 10 on the leg press to force the hamstrings and glutes to be more involved. This method is favourable if you have a particularly dominant muscle that takes over when performing a compound exercise.

Failure Sets

Failure sets are probably the least scientific but also one of the most common bodybuilding methods. For those that have seen ‘Pumping Iron’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger you would have noticed that he adopted this method to ensure his target muscles were definitely fatigued. There is no harm in using this method, I should warn you though, this method relies how you feel on the day. One day you may Bench Press 100kg for 10 reps, the next time you try it you may struggle for 8. If you want to see progress each session you may want to avoid this method. If you just want to feel the burn then you’ve found what you’re looking for.

Drop Sets

Stripping sets or as they are better known ‘Drop sets’. There are many ways to incorporate these into your programme due their versatility. The idea is to perform a set with a particular load and then have a partner ‘strip’ 5-10kg from the load before you perform another set to failure. The weight can be stripped just the once or as many times as you can handle. This is another method to do a lot of work in a short period of time. Drop sets can be adapted to take on more a Pyramid shape whereby a 4-5 sets are performed and with each the set the load is increased and the reps are decreased. This method can be reversed as well. Here are examples of each:

Bench Press Pyramid

  • 1 x 12 @ 60 kg
  • 1 x 10 @ 70 kg
  • 1 x 8 @ 80 kg
  • 1 x 6 @ 100 kg
  • 1 x 4 @ 110kg

Leg Press Reverse Pyramid

  • 1 x 3 @ 400kg
  • 1 x 6 @ 350kg
  • 1 x 9 @ 300kg
  • 1 x 12 @ 250kg

The above methods are adapted from the book ‘Supertraining’ by Verkhoshanksy and Siff [8] for those who wish to know more.

How do I split my routine?

Heaby barbell at rest

Full body workouts are a good starting point for novices. Advanced lifters like to use split routines. (Source Flickr / Carlos Varela ; CC Licence)

This varies completely and all depends on how many times you can train. If you can only make can only train with weights twice a week then one day may be upper body and the other day lower body. Three sessions a week may look at a push, pull and legs split. Whereby all muscle that incorporate a ‘pushing’ movement are trained together, for example, the deltoids, pectorals and triceps. ‘Pull’ movements may include the latissimus dorsi and the biceps. And ‘legs’ are, well, your legs.

Four sessions a week is where it becomes interesting. You can either do upper/lower/upper/lower where you have four separate workouts. Or separate ‘legs’ into quadriceps one day and hamstrings and calves the other day.

Five or six days a week allows for one body part to be trained per session. The advantage of this is you can spend a whole session on your weaker body parts. The disadvantage is that you may spend a whole session a body part you don’t like to train.

The above splits are examples, as you can see it totally depends on how often you can train and what you preferences are. Life is about learning, learn about your body and discover how it responds best.

You mentioned Periodization?

I did, however periodization can sometimes be considered a difficult topic to interpret. For those wanting to do their own Hypertrophy programmes I suggest a more user friendly approach to increasing your lifts week by week. The good guys at the NSCA [1] suggest that for the novice athlete upper body loads should increase by 1-2kg each week and lower body loads by 2-4kg. More trained individuals can look at increasing upper body lifts by 2-4kg and lower body lifts by 4-7kg. You will hit a plateau eventually using this technique but this is the beauty of Hypertrophy training. This signals that your body has become more used to this style of training and some variation is required – it’s time for you to write a new programme, with new methods!

The take home message

  • ‘Bros’ don’t have the all answers to your hypertrophic needs.
  • Hypertrophy has a solid scientific background but also requires self-discovery.
  • Your training should consist of both heavy loads and lighter loads for both mechanical and metabolic stress.
  • There are many ways to train for Hypertrophy, it shouldn’t be boring, find what works for you and stick with it for a while.
  • Address issues in the kitchen before you address your programme.
  • Look for small increased in weight each week.
  • ENJOY your training!

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Picture sources: Ironphoto.de – Photography for Athletes

About the Author – Jonathan Kelly

Jonathan is a strength and conditioning coach working in professional rugby league in the UK. With a history of evidence based writing and an increasing library of published journal articles he enjoys translating written theoretical science into a practical environment, applying a ‘science versus reality’ approach to training, nutrition and supplementation.

The versatile nature of his job allows him work prescribe training across the whole exercise spectrum including strength training, bodybuilding, injury prevention and conditioning. To give his athlete’s the competitive edge he is also well versed in the prescription of effective and scientifically proven supplements.

References (click to expand)

[1] Baechle TR / Earle RW (2008): Essentials of strength training and conditioning. In: Champaign, Il: Human kinetics. URL: http://goo.gl/QZwGBB.

[2] Goldberg, A., et al. (1975): Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. In: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 7: 248-261. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/128681.

[3] Shinohara, M., et al. (1997):. Efficacy of tourniquet ischemia for strength training with low resistance. In: European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 77: 189-191. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9459541.

[4] Kraemer, W., et al. (2004): Changes in muscle hypertrophy in women with periodised resistance training. In: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 36: 697-708. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15064598.

[5] Kraemer, WJ. / Ratamess, NA. (2004): Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. In: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 36: 674-688. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15064596.

[6] Kraemer, WJ. / Ratamess, NA. (2005): Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. In: Sports Medicine 35: 339-361. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15831061.

[7] Phillips, S. (2014): A brief review of critical processes in exercise-induced muscular hypertrophy. Sports Medicine 44: 71-77. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008813/.

[8] Verkhoshansky, YV. / Siff, MC. (2009): Supertraining. Rome: Verkhoshansky, 2009. URL: http://goo.gl/g7c0xz.

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