I’m sure by now most of us who exercise or lift weights frequently have all heard the term hypertrophy thrown around at least one point or another. Although many of us may understand the basics to muscle hypertrophy, many of us do not actually know what muscle hypertrophy means and how we can use it to our advantage towards building a perfect or ideal physique.
What Is Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy is simply the term used to state the results from when a cell (muscle cell) increases in size. Although many may think that when we exercise and lift weights we are increasing or adding cells to our body (hyperplasia), this is actually not the case. Instead, when we lift weights we are increasing the overall size of the muscle sizes within our body, not the quantity.
With hypertrophy, we can see an increase in cell size regarding all cell types from muscular cells to cardiac cells. However, with muscle cells, hypertrophy can occur in 2 different ways.
1) Myofibril Hypertrophy
2) Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
This is simply referring to the types of muscle tissues (myofibril and sarcoplasmic) that we are enlarging. Although weight training can increase both the myofibril and sarcoplasmic cells, the myofibril cells are the ones we are primarily targeting. These are the cells that respond to an overload from a stimulus (lifting weights beyond what the body is used too). What lifting weights at a weight load above our adaptive conditioning, our body will end up using the stimulus from the weights to be engaged. This causes the muscle fibers to become broken down and trauma is inflicted upon the individual muscle fibers in that targeted region.
When these fibers become broken down, the body will next treat these fibers as it would if fibers were damaged by an injury. (An injury from an accident such as falling creates the same trauma or damage as when we lift weights). When the cells go through the healing process, they will also increase the cell volume and density in the myofibrils in order to prevent the injury from possibly occurring again in the future. This results in a growth in the cell size, hence the reason why lifting weights lead to an increase in muscle density or muscle mass.
Producing Muscle Hypertrophy
Muscle hypertrophy is best seen when progressive resistance training or progressive overload is applied to a muscle group and is constantly applied for a great deal of time. What this simply means is that in order to achieve optimal muscle growth, you need to apply a stimulus to the desired region for a great deal of time. This is best done by increasing the overall rep and rep range of your exercise to ensure a longer time for stress to be placed on the muscle. Increasing the weight load and keeping rep ranges low does not increase the stress inflicted upon the muscles, which is why many people advocate for a high rep range with lighter weight vs a low rep range at a heavier weight.
Now it’s important to understand the difference between training for muscle growth and training for strength. Although these will both coincide with one another no matter what training you perform, if your goal is simply to become stronger, you will need to change your training technique. By lifting weights with around 80% weight load of your 1RM with a low rep range (3-8 reps) and a longer rest period (2-4 minutes) you will have better results for strength. This is due to the myofibrils achieving muscle hypertrophy which will lead to muscle enlargement and eventually an increase in strength.
Take Home Message
In summary, muscle hypertrophy is simply the result of cell growth due to a stress placed on a targeted muscle region. By lifting weights with proper form, a heavy enough weight and a high enough rep range, we will end up breaking down muscle fibers. When the fibers are broken down, they will begin to heal and repair themselves by increasing in cell size to prevent the tissue from being broken down in the future. This repair process is what allows for muscle growth.
The best way to go about increasing muscle growth is to have a good training routine performing strength training exercises with weights in a rep range as little as 8 reps to as high as 20 reps or even more. Decrease your rest times between sets and increase your training volume to ensure you are targeting muscle fibers fully during your workouts. After your workouts ensure to eat an adequate amount of nutrients to help provide the muscle cells with nutrients in order to repair themselves for proper growth.