If you’ve ever wondered about the scientific process behind muscle growth, you may have already deduced that it has a name. It’s called hypertrophy, and it’s the process through which your muscles increase in size and density.
The goal of most people who hit the gym is to increase muscle mass and strength, so it’s helpful to understand how the whole process works. The precise science behind muscle growth is still up for debate, but we know enough about the process to guide the it through nutrition and training.
The process of hypertrophy is comprised of two types: Sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. To understand hypertrophy, we need to take a look at these two specific processes and how they work.
This particular kind of hypertrophy is defined as an increase in fluids and other energy substances that surround the myofibrils in your muscle fibers. These fluids include creatine phosphate, glycogen and water, and they serve to increase the volume of your muscle cells, creating more space between fibers.
This type of hypertrophy serves to increase the visual muscle size but not so much so to increase actual muscle strength and function. But it’s good for increasing sheer volume and appearance; those looking to increase size without strength can benefit, such as bodybuilders.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the process of the muscle’s myofibrils splitting and creating proteins within each individual fiber. This flavor of hypertrophy is better for those looking to develop raw strength as it focuses on muscle density and output rather than the sheer size of the muscle.
This process makes for much more functional muscle mass, packing more strength into smaller packages. But despite this, practicing myofibrillar hypertrophy will still result in good overall size for those that train with higher reps.
How It All Works
Weight training is essentially the process of tearing down your muscle fibers and regrowing them through hypertrophy. This occurs through a few different factors, including nutrition, anabolic levels and optimal recovery time.
Muscle mass increases from myonuclei multiplying within your muscle fibers. And how much muscle you can develop depends on the myonuclei count, which is formed when your muscles repair themselves after a tough workout. In other words, you increase your muscle mass by increasing your myonuclei count with repeated damage to your muscles. More training equals more muscles. This all takes place within the realm of myofibrillar hypertrophy.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when the fluids in your muscle fibers increase without the fibers themselves increasing much. But regardless of whether you’re training for strength or mass, both of these processes occur in your muscles. The difference depends on how you focus your training.
Training for Sarcoplasmic and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
Depending on your goals and what you want to achieve, you may benefit from a focus on one or the other kind of hypertrophy training.
Those looking to develop their strength and not necessarily muscle growth will want to focus on intense, low rep training for maximum power. You’ll want to focus on mostly compound exercises and rest for four or five minutes between sets for maximum output. This training style is important for strength athletes, for example, and they can benefit more from focusing on myofibrillar hypertrophy.
For those wanting to focus on muscle growth and size, they’ll want to utilize different rep ranges in the 10 to 12 range. Rest periods here should be shorter to activate slow-twitch muscle fibers. Bodybuilders will benefit greatly from focusing on this approach as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will produce much more visible muscle growth and mass.
It’s fine to utilize both methods for a well-balanced approach, but for maximum results, it’s better to have a focus. And of course, diet plays a significant role in this entire process and is going to be quite different between powerlifters and bodybuilders, so there are other things to consider when you’re planning your focus and routine.
Benefits of Hypertrophy
Now that we understand the science behind hypertrophy, we can start looking at the good stuff: The benefits. Adding muscle to your body has endless benefits to your performance and health, and not just because it makes you look great. Improved overall health and body function across all levels can be had by focusing on hypertrophy training.
Continued Gains in Strength and Power
This much is obvious: Working out makes you stronger. But once you’ve progressed to a certain level, hypertrophy training becomes necessary to continue seeing progress.
Without activating your body through hypertrophy training, your muscles can only get so strong. Once you’ve reached this plateau, the only way to see continuous improvements is through building new muscle fibers through hypertrophy. So if you’re the kind of person that wants to continue to see progress, it’s a no-brainer. You’ll need to add to what you already have.
Reduced Chance of Injury
As you age, muscle loss is one of the main causes of injuries. So adding to your mass is never a bad thing. Moreover, hypertrophy results in thickened tendons, and bigger tendons are far less likely to be injured than smaller ones.
Lean muscle requires more fuel than any other tissue in your body in terms of caloric consumption. Adding muscle to your frame is the single best way to up your caloric burn, increasing your active calorie consumption. In other words, hypertrophy will go a long way towards increasing your overall metabolism, which is critical for your health.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Hypertrophy increases insulin sensitivity by creating more room in your muscle fibers. The more space you have in your muscle fibers, the easier it is for your body to store essential nutrients, meaning you’ll need to produce less insulin to access them.
Improved Anaerobic Endurance
The more muscle you have, the more potential power you have for immediate use, and this allows you to sustain more for longer. Creatine is responsible for high-output muscle contraction, and by adding more muscle to our bodies, we’re increasing our capacity to store more of it. This increases how much endurance we have in our power output.
Focus on Nutrition
Without the right nutrition, you won’t see any muscle growth, so a goal with hypertrophy in mind is going to cause you to focus more on what you put in your body. You’ll focus on your diet rather than simply eating whatever as you’ll always be thinking about how to work toward your goal of increased muscle.
There’s nothing wrong with desiring a muscular frame out of vanity. And the results are more than just pleasing to the eye: Your clothes will fit better, you’ll see real progress and, in turn, you’ll feel much more confident and motivated to continue your journey.
How to Get Started with Hypertrophy Training
Your body and your muscles respond to strength training, so adding the stress of hypertrophy will cause your fibers to adapt, meaning the next time you do the same exercises, they’ll take less effort. The key is to continually push your body to induce muscle growth.
It’s critical to apply progressive overload during your workouts. You want to keep adding to your workouts to continually push your muscles to grow. For example, if you’re always doing three sets of ten squats at 225 pounds, your muscles are going to adapt to the point where these are no longer an effort. Once you’ve hit this ceiling, you need to push your muscles more to trigger a response.
For a focus on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, you’ll want to aim for higher reps and lower weights. This focuses on your muscle endurance and triggers higher strength output. Likewise, it’s important to continue to push your muscles by increasing reps and resistance.
A focus on myofibrillar hypertrophy requires prioritizing strength over reps. Fewer reps with higher weight will cause damage to your muscle fibers, which is the core premise behind hypertrophy training. During the process, your muscles repair themselves, grow new fibers and you get bigger. A rest period of at least two minutes between sets is a good idea for maximum benefit. And again, be sure to continually increase the weight to apply progressive overload.
It can be easy to lose sight of everything that’s going on in our bodies when we go to the gym, but understanding the process can give you insights into how to approach your workouts better and more efficiently. It can all be a little complex to understand, but it’s important to do so.
Regardless of your preferred training process, understanding sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy will help you find the right balance and give you the knowledge you need to get exactly where you want to be with your physique and performance. Regardless of whether you’re going for more strength, better health or purely aesthetics, ultimately, hypertrophy should be your main goal.