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The Mythology of Hypertrophy


In personal training, we seem to encounter two types of clients. We have the clients (usually male) who desire hypertrophy, and we have the clients (usually female) who view hypertrophy as a disease. In order to effectively and honestly develop training programs for both types of clients, it is important to revisit what we know or, more importantly, what we think we know about the development of hypertrophy. I must confess that I’m not a hypertrophy expert. I discovered this information by accident. I train primarily athletes and generally don’t worry about hypertrophy to any great degree. However, as a result of performing some eccentric emphasis strength work, I began to question what I had always taken for granted about hypertrophy. Recently, I’ve begun to look at some of the accepted ideas about training in general - and about hypertrophy in particular - that many of us in the fields of strength and conditioning and personal training seem to accept as fact. Let's take a look at some of these myths about hypertrophy.

Myth #1: A good controlled rep takes four seconds to complete.

In my opinion, this is the number one problem in the myth of hypertrophy training. If in fact a well performed repetition takes four seconds to complete, then trainees should do eight to 12 reps for hypertrophy, correct? Let's examine this concept a bit further. Many of today’s leading strength and conditioning coaches are big proponents of tempo emphasis in training program design. I recently read an article which stated that eight to 12 reps would take 32 to 48 seconds and therefore would fall in the hypertrophy range of time under tension (30-70 seconds). In my experience, this is one of the most basic misconceptions in training for hypertrophy. I performed a little informal research with a metronome. We simply made a metronome CD (one tone per second) and allowed it to play while our athletes trained. The purpose of this tempo CD was to force our athletes to slow down the eccentric portion of the lift by consciously trying to lower the bar for five seconds. The by-product of this experiment was that I was able to watch many people lift with a loud metronome beat in the background. What I observed surprised me. Good controlled lifting in my gym was at best 1-0-1 tempo. I observed this over and over and realized that our conventionally performed eight to 12 rep sets were taking from 16 to 24 seconds to complete. In order to produce hypertrophy, it would be necessary to consciously slow down the reps to break the 30 second barrier. Try it yourself. Have your client lift as she normally would and time the set. I'll bet that 10 reps will take 10 to 20 seconds. Normal or natural tempo in my experience is much closer to 1-0-1 than 2-0-2. This alone throws off our entire concept of training for, or not training for, hypertrophy. My long-held erroneous belief in the assumption of how long a rep should take and consequently how long a set takes is probably why some of my athletes have had some difficulty gaining size. As I look back, I can see that believing what I read and not challenging assumptions may have caused some athletes and clients to progress at a slower rate.

How can I then train for hypertrophy (if this is my goal)? Personally, I don’t like deliberate slow concentric motion. This means that in order to produce hypertrophy, we need to slow the eccentric portion of a 10 rep set down to two seconds. This 2-0-1 tempo will just reach the 30 second mark, which is thought to be the bottom end of the range for hypertrophy. This type of approach (slow eccentric, fast concentric) should also produce more functional hypertrophy than deliberately attempting to perform the concentric portion of the rep more slowly, and it will certainly allow the use of a higher load.

Myth #2: You need to do basic exercises with free weights to develop hypertrophy or avoid them to prevent it.

Let's ask ourselves a simple question: do muscles have the capability to recognize type of resistance? Can a muscle tell the difference between a weight, a band or a spring? I don’t believe so. One of my favorite lines of miscommunication is, “This exercise or training method will give you long, lean muscles like a dancer.” In my opinion, this is akin to telling people you can turn an apple into an orange right before their eyes. You can no more make a short stocky client have long lean muscles like a dancer than you can make someone taller. Exercise will remove subcutaneous body fat and reduce intramuscular fat stores, but changing the source of resistance in a resistance-based exercise will not produce a muscle that appears different. Muscles can’t tell the difference between resistance generated by a piece of iron or by a piece of rubber. We need to produce a resistance that will cause fatigue to occur at the 30 second point or later to induce hypertrophy. If weight training had to be done with a free weight to produce hypertrophy, then lat pull-downs would be a better exercise than chin-ups for upper back development. Thousands of bodybuilding articles tell us the opposite, but the resistance in a chin-up is “only” bodyweight. If we don’t want hypertrophy, than don’t do light weights and more reps. I think the common prescription for female trainees (light weights, lots of reps) leans more toward a bodybuilding, mass producing prescription than away from it. If I wanted less hypertrophy, I would stay in the five to six rep range with higher loads and generate less time under tension. I would also do less sets. The result: less time under tension, less volume and less hypertrophy. The fact is, training is about time under tension and the point of fatigue. I can produce hypertrophy with weights or without.

Myth #3: Lift light weights and do more reps.

Light weight is an oxymoron. Why would anyone lift light weights? I often talk to trainees, particularly females, who say something like, “I have eight pound dumbbells, and I do the same routine three times a week.” When I ask them why they train with such light weights, usually their response is, “I don’t want to get too big.” Again, this is based on major misperception. Ask a natural bodybuilder how much time and effort goes into gaining 10 pounds of quality muscle. Most male natural bodybuilders will tell you that it takes about a year. For a female, this could be two years. So in truth, our eight pound dumbbell waving client need not be concerned about too much hypertrophy. I recently trained a golfer with the same concerns. He didn’t want to gain too much size. He thought it would hurt his swing. I had the same response to him that I do to most female clients: “Don’t worry about it.

The Truth About Hypertrophy

The fact of the matter is that hypertrophy may be the goal for some clients and considered an unwanted byproduct of training by others. In either case, it should not be a great concern. The reality is, hypertrophy for most, non-anabolic using clients is very hard to come by. And one unfortunate problem with hypertrophy training is that our concept of how to train for hypertrophy has also been heavily influenced by steroid users.

If in fact hypertrophy is the goal, then a conscious effort must be made to control the eccentric portion of the exercise to increase time under tension. If a client wants to weight train but has no desire for hypertrophy, I would perform five to six reps at a 1-0-1 tempo. In either case, I would still avoid the conventional three to four exercises per body part favored by the bodybuilding crowd. I would perform one or two exercises for each movement pattern, and if hypertrophy is the desired result, I would emphasize slower eccentric contractions.

Another common misconception is that single joint exercise is better for hypertrophy. Again, if I had a client that was interested in hypertrophy, I would stay with basic multi-joint exercises like bench presses, front squats and chin-ups. It is amazing to watch people waste time with lateral raises and other single joint exercises when they have not even performed an overhead pressing movement. The bottom line is that the exercises that are the most beneficial are often also the most difficult to do. The body doesn’t always like a good taste of hard work. Sometimes, at least at first, it hurts.

The public is uninformed, and often as trainers, we’re just playing along. We talk to clients about tone and about changing muscle structure (long dancers’ muscles). I just hope that people in the industry can begin to see this is salesmanship and not science. Why not tell our clients the truth? When your client says, “I don’t want to get too big,” tell him/her, “Don’t worry. Chances are we won’t train hard enough to produce much muscle mass anyway.”