If you want to know how muscle hypertrophy (growth) really works and how to gain muscle faster, then you want to read this article.


You’ve probably heard many things about muscle hypertrophy (growth).

Things you’ve picked up in bodybuilding magazines, gym locker rooms, and supplement stores.

Things like…

  • Muscles responds differently to different types of training (size vs. strength).
  • Muscles don’t know weight–they only know tension.
  • There are different types of muscle growth and some are “better” than others.

And you’ve also probably heard that most of that is pseudoscientific nonsense, and that some other theory or model altogether is the real “secret” to gaining size.

Well, if you’re confused…and if you just want to know what works and what doesn’t…I understand.

I’ve been there.

I mean…we’ve mapped the human genome but still argue about how to best make our biceps bigger?


Well, I have good and bad news.

The bad news is muscle hypertrophy is a complex subject and something we don’t fully understand just yet.

The good news, though, is we don’t need to be scientists to grasp the basic principles of muscle growth and use them to get outstanding results.

And that’s what this article is going to be all about.

In it, we’re going to break down in layman’s terms the fundamental mechanisms of how muscles grow.

And then we’re going to outline some simple but effective guidelines on how to get our muscles to grow faster.

So if you’re having trouble gaining muscle as quickly as you’d like, this article is for you.

By the end of it, you’ll know exactly what’s holding you back and what to do to make the type of gains you really want.

Let’s get started.

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What Is Hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is simply the increase in size of an organ or tissue through the enlargement of the cells that comprise it.

And if we’re going to talk muscle hypertrophy, we have to talk about the two types generally discussed:

  • Myofibrillar hypertrophy
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy

You don’t have to dig too deep into the theory of muscle building before you hear these terms.

And you don’t have to read much before your head is spinning and you don’t know what to believe.

Are these phenomena real? Are they significant? Does it have any relevance to our training?

Let’s find out.

The Truth About Myofibrillar vs. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Myofibrillar Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Let’s start with myofibrillar hypertrophy.

Myo means “muscle” and a fibril is a threadlike cellular structure.

Myofibrils are made up of proteins that can contract and are what allow muscles to function as they do. Each muscle fiber contains many myofibrils.

Here’s a simple illustration of a muscle fiber that shows this:

muscle fibers

Myofibrillar hypertrophy, then, refers to an increase in the size and number of myofibrils in muscle fibers. This increases the force with which muscles can contract.

Now sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Sarco means “flesh” and plasmic refers to plasma, which is a gel-like substance in a cell containing various things vital to the maintenance of life.

Thus, sarcoplasm is the plasmic elements of muscle cells, and it includes proteins, glycogen, water, collagen, and other substances.

As you can deduce, then, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in the volume of the fluid, non-contractile components of the muscle (the sarcoplasm).

Here’s a simple visual of myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic hypertrophy:

myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic hypertrophy







Now,  few well-informed people dispute the fact that these things occur.

We know that muscle fibers gain myofibrils and that this causes a necessary expansion in the sarcoplasmic elements of muscle cells as well.

We also know that you can temporarily increase sarcoplasmic volume by doing things like loading creatine, eating carbs, or damaging the muscle tissue.

Where opinions diverge, though, is on the subject of selectively influencing one type of hypertrophy over another through training.

That is, can you expand the sarcoplasmic elements of muscles faster than the myofibrillar elements? Or is it more a “byproduct” of myofibrillar hypertrophy?

And if you can, does that result in long-lasting increases in muscle size?

And this is where the fog of war sets in.

Research suggests that selective hypertrophy is a myth but we just don’t know enough yet to microwave an answer.

Some people think the difference in the size and strength of bodybuilders and strength athletes is evidence that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can occur independent of myofibrillar hypertrophy.








“How else can you explain a 170-pound powerlifter that can out-squat a 230-pound bodybuilder?” they ask.

One answer is, through a different style of training, bodybuilders have been able to stimulate more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which would increase muscle size but not strength (the sarcoplasm of a muscle cell can’t contract).

Thus, you could have someone disproportionately big for their level of strength.

The problem with this line of reasoning (which has spawned the “hypertrophy rep range” myth that just won’t die), is it’s not borne out by science and it overlooks a simpler, more plausible explanation.

Namely, the fact that strength training doesn’t just involve heavier weights than bodybuilding–it also involves squatting, bench pressing, military pressing, and deadlifting much more frequently.

This is important because, as with any physical activity, the more frequently you perform an exercise, the better you get at it. And the better you get at an exercise, the better you can handle heavier weights.

This helps explain why many bodybuilders rapidly gain strength when they switch to strength training programs. All of a sudden their “big-but-weak” muscles get really strong, really fast.

That said, this isn’t conclusive evidence that selective hypertrophy doesn’t exist and that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can’t outstrip myofibrillar hypertrophy due to training variables.

We just don’t have hypertrophy well enough taped to completely rule out the possibility.

The good news, though, is you and I don’t have to worry about it to build muscle effectively.

We can know enough to build workout routines that get the job done quite nicely.

How to Stimulate Hypertrophy

muscle hypertrophy causes

Now that we’ve learned why hypertrophy is, let’s talk about how to make it happen.

That is, how to build muscle (and fast).

You can stimulate muscle hypertrophy in three ways:

1. Progressive tension overload

This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers.

The most effective way to do this is to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting over time.

2. Muscle damage

This refers to actual damage caused to the muscle fibers (“microtears”).

This damage must be repaired and if the body is provided with proper nutrition and rest, it will adapt to better deal with what caused the damage.

3. Metabolic stress

This refers to working muscle fibers to their metabolic limits through the repetition of actions to muscular failure.

You can think of these as muscle growth “pathways,” and they can be heightened or lessened by how you train.

For example, heavy weightlifting emphasizes progressive tension overload and muscle damage.

Working with lighter weights and higher rep ranges, however, emphasizes metabolic stress (and especially when the rest times in between sets are relatively short).

Research shows that out of each of these pathways, progressive tension overload is the most important for muscle growth.

In other words, if you want to build muscle as quickly as possible, you want to ensure you’re progressively adding weight to the bar over time.

That’s why one of your primary goals as a natural weightlifter is getting stronger.

And especially on exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press in particular (but that’s another article).

I learned this lesson several years ago.

When I first started lifting, I let bodybuilding magazines dictate my diet and training.

That means I ate way more food (and protein) than necessary and did a lot of long (2+ hour) high-rep workouts consisting mainly of isolation exercises.

After about seven years of that, here’s what I had to show for my efforts:

before muscle hypertrophy training

I looked “okay,” I suppose, but I expected more from seven years in the gym.

Soon after this picture was taken, I threw away the magazines, stopped buying supplements, and got serious about educating myself.

I dramatically changed the way I ate and trained and here was me a year or so later:

after muscle hypertrophy training

A huge improvement, if I may say so myself, but I wanted to gain a bit more size and bring up what I felt were still weak points (my shoulders and lats in particular).

I plied my barbell, dumbbells, and forks and knives for another year and change, and this was the result:

muscle hypertrophy training

As you can see, just about every aspect of my physique has dramatically improved since the beginning of my journey.

(And this is the look I now maintain more or less year round. Read this article to learn how.)

I should also mention that I’m far stronger now than I ever was before.

In those ~2.5 years, I added close to 100 pounds to my bench press, about the same to my military press, and doubled my squat and deadlift.

And better still, I did it all in just 4 to 6 hours in the gym each week as opposed to the 10 to 12 hours per week I used to put in.

Now, I was slightly baffled by my transformation because I had assumed that heavy weightlifting is good for building strength but not muscle.

Well, that’s just one of many muscle building myths that keep people from having the bodies they truly desire.

(And that’s why my Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women) programs focus on heavy, compound weightlifting.)

Let’s find out why…

Is Heavy or Light Weightlifting Best for Hypertrophy?

best muscle hypertrophy training

This is another hotly debated topic in bodybuilding.

Opinions are all over the place and a glib review of the literature (abstract surfing) turns up nothing but a hairball of contradictions.

Well, I’m not claiming to have “the” answer, but I’ve done a lot of studying and have worked with a few thousand people, and I feel I have an answer worth sharing.

My position is this:

  1. You can build muscle with both heavy and light weightlifting, but…
  2. If you want to maximize muscle growth, you want to emphasize training with heavy loads and a moderate volume.

And by “heavy loads,” I’m referring to 80%+ of your 1RM and by “moderate volume,” I’m referring to the total number of sets performed each week (we’ll get to specific numbers in a minute).

A good example of this approach can be found in a well-designed study conducted by scientists at the University of Central Florida.

Researchers separated 33 physically active, resistance-trained men into two groups:

  • One that did 4 workouts per week consisting of 4 sets per exercise in the 10 to 12 rep range (70% of 1RM).
  • Another that did 4 workouts per week consisting of 4 sets per exercise in the 3 to 5 rep range (90% of 1RM).

As you can see, the first group followed your standard high-volume, moderate intensity “bodybuilding” routine.

The second followed a moderate-volume, high-intensity protocol akin to many strength programs.

Both groups did the same exercises–bench press, back squat, deadlift, and seated shoulder press–and were instructed to maintain their normal eating habits, which was monitored with food diaries.

And the result?

After 8 weeks of training, scientists found that the high-intensity group gained significantly more muscle and strength than the high-volume group.

The reason for the superiority of the heavier training is twofold:

1. Higher amounts of mechanical stress imposed on the muscles.

The high-volume training, on the other hand, caused higher amounts of metabolic stress.

2. Greater activation of muscle fibers.

And this, in turn, stimulates a greater adaptation across a larger percentage of the muscle tissue.

Similar results can be seen in other studies as well, and I’ve seen it play out time and time again in the thousands of people I’ve worked with.

If you want to avoid dreaded muscle gain plateaus, you want to do a lot of heavy weightlifting.

It’s that simple.

How Frequently Should You Train a Muscle Group?

how to achieve muscle hypertrophy

You’ve probably heard that training frequency is like protein intake.

Many people say that training a major muscle group once per week is like eating a low-protein diet–both hurt your muscle growth.

This simply isn’t true.

Increasing training frequency just to increase frequency won’t necessarily improve your results.

Training everything 2 to 3 times per week isn’t necessarily better for gaining muscle.

How frequently you can and should train each muscle group depends on the intensity (load) and volume (reps) of your individual workouts.

And here’s the overarching rule:

The higher the volume and intensity of individual workouts, the less frequently you can do them.

In other words, if you’re going to increase the intensity of your training, you have to decrease the volume. And if you decrease the intensity, you can increase the volume.

The reason for this is heavy weightlifting–and especially heavy compound weightlifting–puts tremendous strain on the body.

You can only do so much every week before running into issues related to overtraining.

This is why a popular strength routines like Starting Strength and others have you squat and deadlift 2 to 3 times per week…but call for just 3 to 5 sets per workout.

This brings us to the next point:

A well-designed workout program does two things for each major muscle group in your body:

  1. It emphasizes heavy, compound weightlifting wherever possible.
  2. It keeps you in a “sweet spot” in terms of total weekly sets (volume).

Number one is fairly simple (exercise and rep range selection based on percentage of 1RM).

Number two is a bit knotty because it’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all prescription.

As you know, volume is necessarily modified by intensity, but there are other factors in play as well including diet, training experience, sleep hygiene, genetics, and more.

That said, we can find guidance in the literature (and where it overlaps with the anecdotal evidence).

A good place to start is a comprehensive review of weightlifting studies conducted by scientists at Goteborg University.

They concluded that optimal volume appears to be in the range of 60 to 180 reps per major muscle group per per week when weights are in the range of 60 to 80% of 1RM.

As you would suspect, the lower end of that rep range applies to heavier weights and the higher end to lighter weights.

So, for example, if the majority of your sets were in the range of 80 to 85% of 1RM (as with my Bigger Leaner Stronger program), you’d want to be around 60 to 80 total reps per major muscle group per week.

If you were using much lighter weights, though, you’d want your weekly volume for each major muscle group to approach the top end of about 180 reps.

And if you were doing something in the middle, like my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women, which has you lifting moderately heavy weights (70 to 75% of 1RM), you’d want your total weekly reps per major muscle group to be somewhere in the middle as well.

Another good paper to read on this subject is a large review conducted by researchers at Arizona State University, which came to very similar conclusions.

The key takeaway here is this:

When it comes to building muscle, training frequency isn’t as important as intensity and total weekly volume.

In other words, working with heavy weights and hitting optimal weekly volume is more important than the number of workouts you do.

Now, there is evidence that increasing frequency can increase hypertrophy, but we need more research to answer important questions and gain more perspective on these findings.

Here’s what that study’s author, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, had to say on the matter:

On the surface it would seem that a total-body routine is superior to a one-muscle-per-week bro-split for building muscle.

All of the muscles we investigated showed greater growth from a higher training frequency.

For the biceps, these results were “statistically significant,” meaning that that there was a greater than 95% probability that results did not occur by chance. While results in the quads and triceps did not reach “significance,” other statistical measures indicate a pretty clear advantage for the higher frequency routine.

These results would seem to be consistent with the time-course of protein synthesis, which lasts approximately 48 hours (there is even some evidence that the time course is truncated as one gains lifting experience).

Theoretically, repeated spiking of protein synthesis after it ebbs would result in greater muscular gains over time.

Before you jump the gun and ditch your split, a few things need to be considered when extrapolating results into practice.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the study equated volume between conditions.

This was done to isolate the effects of frequency on muscular adaptations – an essential strategy for determining causality.

However, a primary benefit of a split routine is the ability to increase per-workout volume while affording ample recovery between sessions.

Since there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy, total weekly volume needs to be factored into the equation.

Certainly it’s possible that a split routine with a higher weekly volume would have performed as well or even better than the total body routine. Or perhaps not. We simply don’t know based on the current literature.

In addition, the vast majority of subjects in the study reported using a split routine as the basis of their usual workout programs, with muscles worked just once per week.

This raises the possibility that the novelty factor of the total body routine influenced results.

There is in fact some research showing that muscular adaptations are enhanced when program variables are altered outside of traditional norms.

It’s therefore conceivable that participants in the total body group benefited from the unaccustomed stimulus of training more frequently.

So, given the current state of the literature and, for what it’s worth, anecdotal evidence, I think it’s reasonable to say this:

1. There are pros and cons to every type of workout split.

A well-designed body part split will outperform a poorly designed whole-body routine and vice versa.

You want to chose the split and program that best fits your circumstances and needs, and you can learn more about this here.

2. We should think of frequency as a tool for reaching our target weekly volume.


And not a non-negotiable aspect of muscle building (like progressive overload, for instance).

3 Muscle Building Workout Routines That Really Work

maximum hypertrophy workout

Every word I’ve written and every studied I’ve linked ultimately mean nothing if you can’t use this article to get results.

That’s why I want to end with a few workouts that will show you firsthand how all the pieces of this puzzle come together.

Here they are…

The 5-Day Workout Routine

Working sets are done with 85% of 1RM (4 to 6 rep range) unless specified otherwise.

Warm-up by doing 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM.

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between working sets.

Rest 1 minute in between warm-up sets.

Add weight once you hit the top of the working set rep range for one set.



Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Face Pull – 3 working sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

3 ab circuits



Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Optional: Close-Grip Lat Pulldown – 3 working sets

Optional: Barbell Shrugs – 2 working sets

Calf Workout A



Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits



Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B



Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

Barbell Curl – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Close-Grip Bench Press – 3 working sets (no need to warm up after the chest pressing)

Alternating Dumbbell Curl – 3 working sets

Seated Triceps Press – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

The 4-Day Workout Routine



Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Dip (Chest Variation, weighted if possible) – 3 working sets

Seated Triceps Press – 3 working sets

Calf Workout A



Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Barbell Curl – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits



Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B



Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

The 3-Day Workout Routine

Rest at least one day in between each workout.



Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Barbell Curl – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits



Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Optional: Close-Grip Bench Press – 3 working sets

Calf Workout A



Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B

Do one of those routines for the next 8 weeks and see how your body responds.

In terms of overall results, the 5-day program is better than the 4-day, which is better than the 3-day.

If you’re happy with your results and want more, then you should check out my books, which give you a 360-degree understanding of building muscle and losing fat as well as a year’s worth of workouts.

What About Supplements?

muscle growth supplements

I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.

You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.

Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.

Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.

So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.

The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.

As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.

Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.

That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.

I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.

For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your workouts in general.


Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:

Supplementation with creatine helps…

You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.

If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.

In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.


RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:

  • 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
  • 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
  • 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid

This gives you the proven strength, size, and recovery benefits of creatine monohydrate plus the muscle repair and insulin sensitivity benefits of L-carnitine L-tartrate and corosolic acid.

Protein Powder

You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.

That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)


WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.

I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.

Pre-Workout Drink

There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.

Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.

Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.

Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.

Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.

The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.

And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:

And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:

  • No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
  • No artificial food dyes.
  • No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.

The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.


The Bottom Line on Hypertrophy

muscle growth training

As you can now see, the science of muscle building is fairly straightforward.

Researchers will continue advancing our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms and how we can further optimize our results, but us “normal folk” that just want to be muscular, lean, and strong, have all the know-how we need readily available.

If you follow the advice in this article, you can build achieve the vast majority of your genetic potential for muscle gain.

Here’s a quick summary:

1. We should emphasize heavy weightlifting in our training.

High-rep training has its uses but if you want to gain muscle as quickly as possible, you should focus on lifting weights in the 75%+ of 1RM range.

2. We should focus on multiple-joint compound exercises.

Again, this deserves its own article, but a well-designed weightlifting program built around compound lifts will outperform one involving mainly isolation exercises. Every time.

3. We should ensure we’re progressing.

Regardless of rep range or exercise selection or anything else, you must ensure you’re progressing over time.

And that means gaining reps with given weights, which eventually allows you to add weight to the bar, gain reps with that new weight, and so forth.


What’s your take on muscle hypertrophy? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!