What is muscle hypertrophy?

Muscle hypertrophy is the process of increasing your muscles by increasing the size of the muscle fiber cells. Many bodybuilders train for muscle hypertrophy when they’re preparing for a competition. You need to follow a specific training program and diet to reach hypertrophy.

There are both pros and cons to “getting big.” Lean muscle mass is more dense than fat mass, which is why people with more lean mass don’t float as well as those with more fat. This can make waterborne training and jobs more difficult if you have lots of muscle mass. It’s also why Navy divers and Coast Guard rescue swimmers often have smaller, leaner body types, as opposed to large muscles you’d think would help them move equipment and casualties in the water. Yet with more muscle mass comes greater strength. Jobs that focus on lifting heavy objects or using physical force can sometimes benefit from the added muscle.

Resistance training for hypertrophy

Muscle size is closely related to muscular strength. Generally, the bigger your muscles, the stronger you’ll be—though you don’t need to have huge muscles to be physically strong. To train for hypertrophy, use moderately high to high loads, or about 67–85% of your 1-rep max. If you’re less experienced at lifting, you should see good results doing about 4 sets of 6–12 reps per muscle group. If you’re more experienced, try 4–8 sets of 6–12 reps per muscle group at that weight range. You should train each muscle group 2–3 times a week, which has better results than if you were to train each group only once a week.

Just about any type of workout program that follows the reps and sets guidance above should work for your hypertrophy goals. Keep in mind, strength and conditioning professionals will have different experiences, so some might favor one type of workout over another. If you’re working with a strength and conditioning professional, discuss the benefits of different programs and what might work best for you.

One thing you’ll want to make sure you include in your workout is an appropriate work-to-rest ratio that includes 30–90 seconds of rest between each set. This will create short-term recovery between sets, which will allow your energy stores to refill and make your next set more effective for your hypertrophy goals. Shorter rest periods of less than 30 seconds increase the energy-stress on your muscles and are better for training muscular endurance.

Performance nutrition

Proper nutrition is just as important for muscle hypertrophy as a good lifting program. When you work to put on muscle mass, you need to have a positive nutritional energy balance, meaning you take in more calories than you burn. When you’re eating to gain muscle, make sure you’re eating healthy calories, not junk food. Your meals should have a well-balanced macronutrient distribution (a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats). Experts recommend 0.8–1.6 g/kg (about 0.4–0.7 g/lb) of protein each day for Military Service Members, or slightly more when you’re in intense training.

Tip: When it comes to protein, more isn’t better. Once you’ve met your recommended daily protein goal, stop there so you don’t accidentally replace other macronutrients you need or take in too many calories, which can contribute to fatty-mass weight gain.

Like performance-oriented fitness goals, muscle hypertrophy requires a dedicated training, nutrition, and recovery program (not just casually lifting weights every so often). Work with your fitness leaders (Army Master Fitness Trainer, USMC Force Fitness Instructor, etc.) or other resources to design a program that works for you.

To learn more about proper nutrition and macronutrient distribution, check out HPRC’s Warfighter Nutrition Guide.

If you have other performance-related questions, submit them using HPRC’s Ask the Expert function.


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References

American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(3), 687–708. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

Grgic, J., Lazinica, B., Mikulic, P., Krieger, J. W., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2017). The effects of short versus long inter-set rest intervals in resistance training on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review. European Journal of Sport Science, 17(8), 983–993. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1340524

Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24). doi:10.3390/ijerph16244897

Ratamess, N. A. (2017). Development of resistance training programs. In B. A. Alver, K. Sell, & P. Deuster (Eds.), NSCA'S Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(11), 1689–1697. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8