What is muscle hypertrophy?

Muscle hypertrophy is the process of increasing your muscle mass by increasing the size of your muscle-fiber cells. So, if your goal is to continually get stronger, hypertrophy training can help because muscular strength is directly related to muscle size. If you’re at a point where you think you’re “strong enough,” you might not need hypertrophy training

 “Getting big” has pros and cons. Lean muscle mass is denser than fat mass, which is why people with more lean mass don’t float in water as well as those with more fat. This can make waterborne training and jobs more difficult if you have a lot of muscle mass. This is why a smaller, leaner body type is more common among swimmers and divers. On the other hand, more muscle mass provides greater strength. Land jobs that focus on lifting heavy objects or using physical force can sometimes benefit from added muscle.

Resistance training for hypertrophy

To train for hypertrophy, use moderate to heavy loads, or about 67–85% of your 1-rep max. Muscle hypertrophy training requires a high volume—the number of sets you do multiplied by the number of repetitions in each set for each exercise. For example, 3 sets times 10 reps equals a total volume of 30 reps. If you’re less experienced at lifting, you should see good results from doing about 4 sets of 6–12 reps of 1–2 exercises per muscle group. If you’re more experienced, a higher volume in the 4–8 set range of 6–12 reps for at least 3 exercises per muscle group will be most effective. Aim to train each muscle group 2–3 times a week, which will yield better results than if you were to train each group only once a week.

Just about any type of workout program—full-body workouts, upper-body and lower-body days, or muscle-group-specific days—that follows the reps-and-sets guidance should work for your hypertrophy goals. Keep in mind, strength-and-conditioning professionals 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. Since the training volume is so high, workouts can take a lot of time. It’s important to find a workout program that works best for your schedule, so your gym time doesn’t interfere with work or family time.

Make sure your workout has an appropriate work-to-rest ratio that includes 30–90 seconds of rest between each set. This creates short-term recovery between sets, which allows your energy stores to refill and makes 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. This means you take in more calories than you burn. Aim for an additional 300–500 calories each day.

When you eat to gain muscle, make sure you eat healthy calories, not junk food. Some examples of nutrient- and calorie-dense foods include nuts, seeds, whole grains, starchy vegetables, avocados, olive oil, and full-fat dairy. 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. Protein provides the greatest benefit if you distribute your intake over 4–5 meals or snacks each day, rather than one large dose of protein at once. After you’ve met your recommended daily protein goal, stop eating foods high in protein so you don’t accidentally replace other macronutrients—carbohydrates and fat—that you need or consume too many calories. This can contribute to fatty-mass weight gain.

As with any performance-oriented fitness goal, muscle hypertrophy requires a dedicated training, nutrition, and recovery program—not just casual weightlifting 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, you can send them to HPRC using our Ask the Expert feature.


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References

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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

Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. A. (2017). Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, Sixth Edition. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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