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Making Tweaks for Muscle Growth

Ladies, let’s gain muscle! The times of being super skinny and thigh gaps are over!

We live in an era now, where muscle mommies are at the forefront. We are chasing the ideal of looking more muscular, toned and stronger. It is all about muscle growth.

As we all know, there are multiple aspects that play into muscle growth: training on one side, nutrition on the other side but also our mindset towards it and how good we cope with making changes to our body. 

Why is training for muscle growth such a good thing? It comes with so many physical benefits. We are not only getting stronger and look healthy, we also protect our joints from injury, overall activities are becoming easier and we are setting ourselves up for later in age. 

In this blog post I want to dive into some variables we tweak during our training in order to get the most out of our hypertrophy training.

What is Muscle Hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is the enlargement of total muscle mass and cross-sectional area. Meaning, it refers to an increase in the size/or number of myofibrils within a muscle fibre, resulting in an increase in overall muscle size which we achieve through exercise, especially resistance training. 

It happens when our muscle protein synthesis is greater than our muscle protein breakdown, resulting in a positive net protein balance. Don’t worry, I won’t go too much into the science side of things and keep it as simple as possible. 

To take away: if we are putting a demand on our muscles, they will grow. If we don’t, we will end up in atrophy (decrease in size or wasting tissue).

We also need to remember that there is a difference between Strength Training and Hypertrophy, but this is a topic for another article. Just to make it clear, this post here is about building muscle mass as a main goal. 

So, before we dive into how we can adjust our training programs, let’s look at:

The 3 drivers of muscle growth.

Mechanical tension is mainly determined by the intensity and the time under tension – meaning the weight we lift and the duration of lifting the weight. So, it happens when there is a stretching force on the muscle, when the muscle is contracting and elongating on the load. Mechanical tension increases as we approach failure. We increase the stress on the muscle fibre as we fatigue. 

When we put our muscles under stress by overloading them, we create small tears in our muscle fibres resulting in Muscle Damage. The subsequent repair (through recovery) will strengthen our tissue and will protect it again further damage (adaptation). 

Lastly, we have Metabolic Stress. Metabolic stress refers to metabolism and metabolism is a chemical process that is going on within our body. And the chemical process that breaks down our three compounds of energy (carbs, fat and protein) to release kinetic energy is known as metabolism. And we all know, that we need to release energy while doing resistance training. 

Those three drivers can help us to stimulate recovery and ultimately supercompensation, meaning our body’ ability to manage the training stress will increase. So, our body will repair itself over and over again adapting to the new training load we put it under resulting in positive adaption – muscle growth. 

Now, let’s finally look at what we can do in our training to optimise muscle growth. 

Training variables for Hypertrophy.

1. Reps & Sets

Coming back to mechanical tension, we need to work on the intensity and time under tension. 

Looking at the first variable we can tweak, we would suggest to increase our reps while decreasing our sets which results in an increased intensity.

The traditional thinking says the 8-12 reps is the perfect rep range for building muscle. Everything below 8 reps helps to build strength while everything above 12 reps improves muscular endurance. 

But there has not been any clear evidence that supports this statement. We can train in a much broader rep range of let’s say 6-30 – as long as we push close to failure to actually recruit to motor units. It is less about the rep range itself, it is more about the load we are lifting. 

There is no point in going super light and smashing out 30+ reps if we aren’t stimulating our muscle fibres. We also want to avoid injury and overtraining by adding too many repls. So, find a challenging weight and a rep range that is suitable for the exercise, your available time and your overall training program and make sure you push to, or close to failure. 

2. Proximity to Failure

What is failure? It is not being able to complete that last rep no matter how much we really want to get it out. Training to failure is great as it can also have a positive effect on our mindset.

Looking at research though, there is no clear evidence that states it is any more beneficial training to failure than leaving 1-3 reps in reserve.

Training to failure does come with some benefits though. It causes a greater muscle fibre breakdown due to the longer contraction times. It allows us to work with a lighter weight which is great if we are not feeling as well, we might recover from an injury or similar. 

Training to failure can improve our stamina and lastly, it can help us to break through training plateaus. So, when you feel you are stuck with a specific weight or rep range, see if you can push to failure to activate those muscles. 

Training to failure is definitely something we wouldn’t do in every single set or every exercise you do. Mix it up and give your body some variety. 

3. Volume

How many sets should we be doing? Research measures volume as the number of challenging sets per muscle per week. So, in this case, if we would hit some heavy Front Squats for 5 challenging sets on Tuesday and then again on Saturday, we would have a volume of 10 sets per muscle per week. 

As we are aiming for muscle growth, it is less about the amount of work we are doing than it is about the muscle growth we are stimulating. In saying that, counting the more challenging and harder sets makes a lot more sense than taking all our warm up sets into consideration, too. 

You want a number? Well, there are a lot of different opinions out there and we may need to differentiate between muscle groups we well. On top we need to consider the weight we are lifting, the rest in between sets, etc etc. 

But, as a good ballpark, we would try to aim for 8-20 sets per muscle per week. 

4. Frequency

Again, this is where there is no clear evidence if training a muscle multiple days a week or all sets in one session will help build muscle. But, we DO know that a good and challenging workout will stimulate our muscles for a few days before they are fully recovered. 

In saying that, it would be best to hit the same muscle groups at least twice a week to keep the stimulus high. 

Frequency will also matter when we talk about the volume. Let’s take our quads as an example. If we would be training our quads one day per week for 15 challenging sets, then we would first: completely burn out our quads and second: would not leave any time to focus on our hamstrings and calves. So, why not incorporating a second leg day to balance it out and to stimulate your quads every 2-3 days?!

5. Rest Intervals

Another question where opinions across the board seem to be slightly different: how long should we be resting? 

How much we rest in between sets goes hand in hand with the volume and training frequency. We could say that you can take anything between 60 – 240 seconds. Everything below 60 is too short for your muscles to recover, everything above 240 is more for the purpose of strength training and when pushing close to your 1RM.

We can see it like this: during rest, our muscles recover and it allows us to hit 12 fresh reps in the next set and to also keep the weight high. It allows our strength capacity to return. 

Therefore, longer rest periods are optimal. Taking into consideration that we can’t spend all day at the gym, we need to keep our rest intervals reasonable. From my personal experience I would aim for 60-90 seconds for hypertrophy training. 

6. Progressive Overload

I am sure you heard about progressive overload in conjunction with hypertrophy training. Progressive overload is KEY when trying to drive muscle growth. 

What is progressive overload? It means that we are increasing the mechanical tension we are putting our muscles under over time. This can be in form increasing weight over time, increasing the volume or time or even improving your form which means you can feel the movement a lot better.

The goal is to always challenge our body and to force our body to adapt so we can grow muscle. Progressive overload can help us to remain in a specific phase, in this case hypertrophy/muscle development without hitting a plateau. 

7. Exercise Selection

When it comes to muscle growth and how we choose our exercises, we need to decide between compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises engage far more muscle mass, these are our big lifts like squats, deadlifts or bench press. Let’s take the squat for example: we will work our quads and glutes, the two biggest muscles in our body. But we will also require help from our hamstrings, calves, spinal erectors, and adductors. 

Isolation exercises on the other hand are, as the name says it, exercises that are isolating muscles like a bicep curl or a tricep pushdown. Everything else in the body is unlocked and only the one specific muscle is working. 

Now, when it comes to putting our training program together, we want to imagine this: in front of us is a bucket and next to it we have smaller and bigger rocks. We get asked to fill the bucket…where do we start? 

Common sense would tell us to start with the big rocks as we want to get the hard work out of the way first. Our muscles will fatigue so it will be easier to take care of the smaller rocks later on. 


This is the same principle we apply to our exercise selection: compound first, then isolation. But, of course they don’t fill a whole hypertrophy program for us. Here is where isolation exercises come in handy as they are a great addition for a well-rounded training program.  

8. Tempo

Lastly, let’s talk about tempo. According to research, there is no clear relation between the rep tempo and hypertrophy and we can say that the lifting tempo is one of the more minor aspects to consider when working on muscle growth. 

Generally spoken, most people get quite a good feeling of what tempo we should use for which exercise. It’s kind of like a gut feeling. It does not always need to be super slow. 

The advantage of lifting slower is that a lot of us feel a better mind-muscle connection as  our muscles are under tension for a lot longer. But, it also forces us to lift a little lighter and we might not be able to work to our full potential. 

So, as a summary…it really is a personal preference and it always depends on the lift. Slowing down on the eccentric and being more explosive on the concentric is definitely favourable to hypertrophy but this does not mean that we have to do this for every single exercise. 

We should find a good mix, try a few things and see what we feel best with. 

BUT…

There are a lot of variables we can tweak to enhance our hypertrophy training. Not ALL of these points need to be applied, it comes down to what we like to do at the gym and where we get the most out of it for ourselves. 

If it compromises our motivation to even show up at the gym, then don’t even worry about it. Because our mindset and our passion and willpower wanting to go to the gym and to lift some heavy weights comes first!