A Special Recipe for Muscle Mass: Part 1 – Weight Training

Apr 14, 2019
Ashley Lawrie

Author: Riley Pearce
Social Media Director
Personal Trainer – Byward Market

We understand that not everyone who reads this blog is a woman who needs to understand her hormones better. So we are taking a break from our more female-focused blog topics and will move to a more general one: putting on muscle mass – or hypertrophy.

The general recipe, or formula, for hypertrophy is :

Weight training + Diet + A Pinch of Genetics + recovery = hypertrophy

This is a huge topic and really can’t be boiled down to one article, so we are going to break this down into 3 parts:

  1. Weight Training
  2. Diet
  3. Genetics and Recovery

This week we will focus on how the “right” kind of exercise can help you increase muscle mass, and whether or not there is one right way.

What Is Hypertrophy

Meriam-webster defines hypertrophy as:

hy·​per·​tro·​phy | \ hī-ˈpər-trə-fē

biology : excessive development of an organ or part

specifically : increase in bulk (as by thickening of muscle fibers) without multiplication of parts

As it pertains to us in the fitness industry, we are interested in how we thicken our muscle fibers without creating new cells (hyperplasia). This can happen in 2 ways, as shown in the image below

For those of you who are a little foggy on grade 12 biology, the sarcoplasm is the muscle-cell space between the myofibrils. In most animal cells this is known as the cytoplasm. It is a gel-like fluid where the other components of the cell are suspended. Myofibrils are the contractile components of the muscle cell. In the picture above they are little dots, but in reality they look like this:

So if you are going to get bigger you can either increase the cell space, or actually increase the number of contractile components (the parts of the muscle that will do the work).

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Research is mixed on how sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is accomplished long-term, but in the short-term, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is essentially “the pump”. Taking supplements like creatine, working a high volume program, blood-flow restriction training, and carb-loading can all cause this swelling of the muscle.

So if you’re looking for a quick, non-functional (less strength associated with this kind of hypertrophy) pump, then you could combine all of these techniques for maximum pump-age.

This kind of muscle growth is also seen in the elderly. Many of us know that as we get older our ability to gain muscle/strength decreases. You can still gain a small amount of size as you get older as your bodies ability to adapt this way slows at a slower rate than the ability to adapt by-way of myofibrillar hypertrophy. So although your ability to increase myofibril count decreases as you age, your ability to increase sarcoplasmic space is decreasing at a slower rate.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

This second form of muscle growth is the one that really counts. The muscle adapts by incorporating more contractile proteins so, not only does the size of the muscle fiber grow, but it also gets stronger.

This type of muscle growth is accomplished with very specific training, as well as proper nutrition, recovery, and a sprinkle of genetics – but we will get to those next week.

There are A LOT, and we mean A LOT of programs out there all claiming they will help you “gain the most size ever, and you’ll be super ripped and huge for beach season.”

But what is the best way to encourage this type of muscle adaptation?

In fitness programs and personal training certification courses we are taught a generic formula for the 3 different training goals. 1-5 reps & heavy load will lead to strength gains. 6-15 reps and heavy to moderate weight will lead to hypertrophy. Anything over 15 will lead to endurance adaptations.

But is it so black and white? Should you only train in the 6-15 rep range if you want to increase muscle mass?

In a study published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 34 healthy and trained men were put into three different training groups. The breakdown was essentially low volume, moderate volume, and maximum volume. The men trained for 8 weeks.

In the end, all men had some hypertrophy. The only place where there was greater hypertrophy associated with higher volume was in the elbow flexors (biceps) and the thighs. So if you’re looking for bicep and thigh gains, then maximizing volume (reps x sets x weight) could be the key.

So what about the perfect program?

One of the 7 training principles in personal training is individuality. This is why we always stress with exercise and dietary recommendations that you need to find what works for you. For those who are just starting off, simply lifting weights consistently should help put on size.

If you have been training for a long time and your hypertrophy has dropped off, you may need to be a bit more resourceful with your training.

Dr. Layne Norton, a well-known weightlifter, and somewhat controversial figure in the fitness industry, designed a program known as the PHAT program. PHAT stands for power hypertrophy adaptive training. The program takes both power-style training techniques, as well as strength and hypertrophy style training to give your muscles the most stimulus possible to promote hypertrophy.

Dr. Norton’s program highlights a key point around hypertrophy. There needs to be a varying stimulus in order to maximize muscle growth.

If you were building a house, you could make it all out of wood – this would be like following a straight hypertrophy program (6-15 reps, moderate weight). In the end you’ll still end up with a house.

Or – you could build a house with wood, steel, plaster, and a number of other materials. In the end the result is the same – a house. But the one built with many more materials is more robust and uses as many of the available resources possible to build the house.

Working with your trainer, who has a better understanding of your training level, nutrition, and lifestyle, is key to achieving the goal of hypertrophy. They can put together a program that is specifically designed to your individual needs, and training history, so you can maximize your muscle growth.

Next week we will look at how nutrition can affect your ability to put on size.

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