The Science of “Gains”: Dissecting Hypertrophy

Muscle mass or “gainz” (the “z” is apparently popular) is the most common goal I hear about in regards to male fitness. Most men want to lose excessive weight but build large quantities of muscle to look “shredded”. It’s a pretty big feat (no pun intended) and most people hoping to achieve the lean and mean look struggle to make any progress. So why is increasing muscle size (hypertrophy) a challenge? To answer this, we must first breakdown the science.

What is muscular hypertrophy and what causes our muscles to increase in size? Hypertrophy can be defined as an increase in muscle cross-sectional area. The muscle undergoes stress and hormonal changes that increase girth leading to a much larger muscle and muscular appearance. The process to undergo hypertrophy can be pinpointed to three essential components: muscle tension, muscle damage and metabolic stresses.

The primary factor is muscle tension. What this comes down to is how long the muscle is under stress (duration) and at what intensity (the load or weight). Simply put, muscle tension signals adaptation of the muscle fibers due to the disruption. This signals satellite cells and myofibers to change and produce a hypertrophic response to adapt to the new stress. Combine this with greater rate-coding of motor units and you will see an individual’s strength increase. In layman’s terms, lift more, longer and you will see a greater response.

Muscle damage is another causal factor for hypertrophy. The inflammatory response signals satellite cells and growth hormone. Muscular growth hormone is particularly sensitive to localized muscle damage. Greater myotrauma, greater hypertrophic response. Simply put, more damage, more gains.

Metabolic stresses include the breakdown of ATP (primary energy molecule) and it’s subsequent by products. The breakdown resulting in lactic acid, hydrogen ions and phosphates. Although not fully understood, it is hypothesized that this build up results in anabolic effects, including stimulation of multiple growth hormones.

So there you have it. The causal factors of hypertrophy. Now let’s explore how to achieve these three causalities to maximize your training. There are many combinations of training methods one can use to maximize a hypertrophic response. I should first point out that the following methods are more appropriate for experienced lifters. Reason being is that a novice would likely see improvements in strength not size initially. This comes down to neurological processes including rate coding mentioned above. After a certain point, strength improvements become more so correlated to muscle cross-sectional area.

Let’s first address drop set training. Drop set training is a method where an individual performs reps to muscular failure and then proceeds to reduce the weight and continue repetitions until failure again. This method is successful for hypertrophy as it provides a high rate of muscular stress and tension with one continuing to repeat lifts till failure. This type of training has proven significant in increasing muscle cross-sectional area while allowing the athlete to train independent of a spotter. A word of caution as this type of training may lead to burnout and stress if used too often.

Super set training involves muscular failure during repetitions of an agonist group while then proceeding to muscular failure of the antagonist group. In English, train a “push” muscle group and then proceed immediately to train a “pull” muscle group. This training provides sufficient tension while limiting fatigue to the proceeding exercise. Although super set training is popular, research has not significantly linked super set usage to growth. Instead, it is hypothesized that the decrease in rest time led to a greater response simply due to lack of recovery time.

The last training type I will mention is heavy negative or eccentric training. This typically requires a spotter who assists the athlete during the contraction phase of a lift and then proceed to let them fight to control the weight during the eccentric or down phase. Heavy negatives have been proven to significantly increase muscle size for two reasons: 1) time under tension is high and 2) muscular damage is even higher. The result is an immense hypertrophic response due to inflammation and satellite cell signalling. This type of training has highest reviews for success, however it limits independence as a spotter is required. Furthermore, eccentric training has a high rate of over training response as many individuals do it too often. They feel good, think more is better and the result is excessive damage and burnout.

These three methods are just some tools one can utilize to build muscle mass. As mentioned previously, caution must be used as these are highly stressful training methods. Burnout and/or injury may result if not used appropriately in a training plan. Here’s a tip, USE AN EXERCISE SPECIALIST. They are skilled in program design and highly educated in the field of physiology. We hate burnout just as much as you do and will do anything to avoid it. So to all you out there struggling to put on muscle, it can seem pretty simple. Lift more, lift longer and replenish appropriately. Sound easy? Certainly. But how much is enough or too much? Call us. We’ll help you. Anyways, if you stick to these methods, I guarantee you will notice a difference. Grab your spotter and hit the gym, it’s time to make dem gainz!

Coach Matrixx