Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hypertrophy training - What does the evidence say?

How to get swole

A lot is written about how best to train to make your muscles grow.  You can go to T-Nation or do a google search for hypertrophy training and get confronted with scores of routines illustrated by photos of the top bodybuilders (generally the genetic elite with pharmaceutical assistance).  There will be prescriptions of certain techniques....rep ranges....exercises and diet.  It is confusing and complicated.

What does the evidence say?

Why should you trust all these recommendations?  Surely they must be right because they are on the internet (yeah right).  This routine must be the best because Mr Olympia says so.....  or because everyone at the gym trains like this (yet they still haven't improved for months).  These are not good reasons.  We will not get into epistemology, but lets take a different tack.  What does the evidence say?

It is not fashionable....but when you look at the evidence (in terms of scientific studies) you get:

  • intensity matters - recruiting as many fibres as possible
  • one set per exercise
  • any sort of resistance seems OK (free weights, machines or bodyweight)
  • concentric, eccentric or isometric contractions all work
  • repetition speed is important in that you need to maintain tension on the muscles
  • rest between sets and exercises doesn't matter much
  • full range of motion isn't that important
  • doing endurance exercise at the same time doesn't hold things back
  • muscles and parts of muscles grow at different rates
  • a few weeks off wont make your gains disappear and might help when you train again.
That is not my conclusion....this is what Fisher, Steele and Smith found when they reviewed the scientific studies on muscle growth in response to training.

Their paper is at 

Objective: There is considerable interest in attaining muscular hypertrophy in recreational gym-goers, bodybuilders, older adults, and persons suffering from immunodeficiency conditions. Multiple review articles have suggested guidelines for the most efficacious training methods to obtain muscular hypertrophy. Unfortunately these included articles that inferred hypertrophy markers such as hormonal measurements, used older techniques that might not be valid (e.g. circumference) and failed to appropriately consider the complexity of training variables. 
Methods: The present commentary provides a narrative review of literature, summarising main areas of interest and providing evidence-based guidelines towards training for muscular hypertrophy.
Conclusions: Evidence supports that persons should train to the highest intensity of effort, thus recruiting as many motor units and muscle fibres as possible, self-selecting a load and repetition range, and performing single sets for each exercise. No specific resistance type appears more advantageous than another, and persons should consider the inclusion of concentric, eccentric and isometric actions within their training regime, at a repetition duration that maintains muscular tension. Between set/exercise rest intervals appear not to affect hypertrophy, and in addition the evidence suggests that training through a limited range of motion might stimulate similar results to full range of motion exercise. The performance of concurrent endurance training appears not to negatively affect hypertrophy, and persons should be advised not to expect uniform muscle growth both along the belly of a muscle or for individual muscles within a group. Finally evidence suggests that short (~3 weeks) periods of detraining in trained persons does not incur significant muscular atrophy and might stimulate  greater hypertrophy upon return to training.

My conclusion - train hard

It does not need to be as complicated as people try to make it.  Lots of things will work.  The different approaches that are recommended are good for marketing, but they are not essential.  There is no justification to getting so committed to any one approach.  It is interesting to read the conclusion of the paper too that there is a need for more research on things like frequency of training and whether split or whole body training is best.

If you want something that is supported by the research:  train hard.  The rest is hard to prove.....


Anonymous said...

Outstanding post!

Neal said...

Gave up my olympic weights a while back to look for something less taxing on the joints. I think isometric routines (i.e. John Little, Pete Sisco) will come back in vogue. Nothing is less joint taxing than no movement at all.

Unknown said...

Hello Chris,
excellent post. I think the fact you saw somewhat better results with multiple set Lyle's hypertrophy routine compared to HIT was mainly due to the low HIT frequency. If you did HIT twice a week, it could have been different. Certainly more efficient. I see pretty good results with it right now. The only thing I have problems with is diet, I am still a bit fat because I eat plenty of mostly real food to "gain muscle". Maybe I should just eat breakfast, lunch and dinner to satiety. For us mortals, how we look is mostly about bodyfat level anyway.

Chris Sturdy said...

Yesterday I did my once-per-week-hillfit-BBS hybrid workout. One set per exercise for 90s (once to failure at 80 s) with nice, slow, controlled movements. I knew I had done enough last night when reaching for my shoes to tie them seemed like a long way down! Excellent. Now a week of dog walking, maybe a swim, and a bit of yoga and I'll be all set.

Reading posts like this serve to reinforce that this method of training is optimal and also eliminate any potential guilt that might drive me back to the weights before I've recovered from this session.

tomas said...

Chris, I wonder if you are aware of J. Krieger's response to Fisher regarding training volume and number of sets that can be found here

As much as I like HIT and one-set-per-excercise training, I think that article can't be dismissed

Sifter said...

I hear you, I hear you... and yet, anecdotal or not, I know people who make really nice size gains by doing multiple sets and higher volume. I know this is contrary to your cited science, but the eyes don't lie. I would also suggest for working stiffs like me with limited time and family/workaholic boss/ other pressures, that high intensity to failure with the required recovery simply isn't a viable option for us.

Chris said...


Thanks for the comment. Diet I think is not as complex as people make it. If you want to lose fat you need a calorie deficit. Keep protein high for satiety. Push for fat loss every now and again, but in general take it easy - life is stressful enough

Chris said...

Tomas - thanks.

I like Kreiger but don't follow too closely because Weightology is behind a paywall. This article is interesting and it seems like he has a point. I will see what James Steele has to say in response.


Chris said...


I probably came across as more dogmatic than I needed to be. Lots of things work. In fact that is the message that I took from the article - lots of things work.

As for fitting training into a stressful life, well i've got a job that takes a lot out of me (50-60 hour weeks usually) shit-loads of stress, worry about elderly parents, a relationship to try to maintain....

HIT once a week would surely be one option in there? I actually train differently at the moment - a daily 2 mile jog plus some easy weights on 3 or 4 days a week (goblet squats, pushups, chins, bridges).

As I say, the message I got from the paper was that lots of things work

sifter said...

Yes, I agree it would work. FUnny, I get caught up, too, in all the programs from Tnation, IGX, this n' that fitness guru, but at the end of the day, unless you are a trust fund teen with lots of time on your hands, its' pretty hard to follow all of these different programs. I can see where HIT would have its' advantages.

Mike M said...

James Fisher looked for "evidence" that HIT was the way to go and it's no surprise that he found the answer that he already "knew" was true. If the "study" had been done by a multi-set proponent who changed his belief based on what he found, I would be more inclined to take his statements seriously. However, Mr. Fisher has long been an ardent proponent of HIT and discounts that which does not support his preconceptions.

So, what works - in terms of exercise - for hypertrophy? Based on a combination of research and observation, my opinion is that for myofibrillar hypertrophy - growth of the contractile elements - low (1-5) reps against maximal resistance works the best, whereas, for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (what we associate with bodybuilders) reps in the 8-12 range using sub maximal resistance (not to failure) and short (30-90 sec) incomplete rest intervals is preferred. Of course, this is not to say that sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy occur exclusively in either of the aforementioned rep scheme, merely that one or the other forms of training are more optimal for the desired outcomes. In both cases, multiple sets produces results superior to single sets.

That is not to say that HIT or single (or low) set, infrequent training does no have a place. Indeed, it is useful particularly when a trainee has other training demands such as in-season or for athletes in skill sports where many repetitions of his or her sport skill are needed to improve technique versus strength.

Fisher and Steele do a disservice to the training community when they disseminate misleading information intended to promote themselves. HIT is good for what it's good for (as noted above), but for someone looking to maximize hypertrophy and/or maximize strength, there are MUCH better options.

Unknown said...

Mike M: Are there any particular programmes available in book form or on the web you'd recommend for hypertrophy, preferable with limited equipment? (Dumbbells, bench)

Chris G said...


Good to see that despite a hectic life you are keeping up a sustainable training regime. I think its an excellent program you have there.

A daily 2 mile jog will keep you fit for the hills when you cant get away for long periods and gives a base on which to build on if you fancy the odd 10k or longer race. The resistance training can be done anywhere that you can find a bar to hang from. I remember reading a Runners World article whee the writer wanted to maintain what he termed 5k fitness at least into his 70s instead of banging out weeks of high mileage marathon type training. Your program is the same sort of thing I think.

I am curious. How long have you trained with this?

Did you drop the hypertrophy thing with weights/machines as a result of your recent hamstring injury and try this simpler approach or for other reasons?

What set/rep scheme do use use, more Hillfit/HIT or multiset, circuit style training?

Have you noticed any noticeable results and benefits

Sorry for all the questions! Happy New Year! I hope 2014 is a good one for you.

Stuart Gilbert said...

Mike M, you not think that multi set researchers such as Stone, Kraemer,and Kriegel et al, will also have their own biases, and will also point to research that favours their view points? Obviously the debate is far from over. But I think you confuse Chris' standpoint. He has already written an article on here that expresses the opinion that neither he, nor ( in his best guesses ) his readers are elite athletes. Therefore for this population group good enough is literally good enough. No need to seek perfection, or maximal results when you are not a full time athlete, with other demands on your time. If, as Chris alludes to above, everything works, then for the busy, average trainee, efficiency (of time and energy ) is a consideration that should be high on anybody's list. You point this out and admit to this consideration in the second half of your post, but still keep it in the realms of athletic training. Well, most of us here ( I assume ) are average trainees looking to keep our fitness at reasonable levels, in the realms of busy lives.

JamesSteeleII said...

Just a quick response,

@tomas - I commented briefly that I agree in hindsight with Kriegers dismissal of our weak critique in that review and highlighted that reading both Carpinelli's critique of his meta-analysis as well as his rebuttal is required for people to make their own decision regarding it.

That being said, and in response to Mike M's comments, neither myself nor James Fisher would qualify ourselves as 'HIT' proponents any longer. I avoid use of the acronym entirely now due to the ambiguity in what 'intensity' means for most people.

Regarding strength gains I would tend towards agreeing now that multiple sets are likely greater than single sets, particularly for complex movements, though whether this is really worthwhile for the majority of persons is debatable. However, I do not agree that the same can be said for hypertrophy. Even in the meta-analysis from Krieger his sensitivity analysis lost significance when the only individual study suggesting a significant difference was removed. Skyler commented on a study from Paul Marshall's lab (who I was fortunate enough to meet at conference in October and chat about this with him; which highlights that while strength may improve to a greater degree, muscle mass may not.

Chris has brought out the main point from this recent review though. The main variable that can be manipulated in a training program that likely has the biggest impact is effort. As long as this is high enough everything works. Just do what fits best and make it safe. If you've time for multiple sets and want to get some lifts real big then go for it. Will it add extra muscle? Maybe, but I think likely not and certainly not to any significant degree.

I commented the following on another of Chris' posts when Krieger posted his response to Carpinelli regarding the strength meta-analysis and I still stick by it.

"I'm finding myself becoming more and more agnostic with regards to various area's, openly saying I don't know and happy to continue using the simple persistent approach I currently use for myself and those who I work with. It may not squeeze out the last few percent of performance, but its pretty damn effective and I've more interesting things to spend my time doing (like finishing writing up the RPG I am running with my group of friends - I know, massive geek). That social interaction and fun is worth far more to me than obsessing and mentally masturbating over the minutiae. It still interests me, but its my job and I'm learning more and more to switch off from that when I get home and leave it at the office.

I was chatting with my brother before we headed to the gym for our training session today about how some of my thoughts are developing with regards the set volume debate. Looking at James Kriegers rebuttal to Carpinelli I've reopened the question in my mind as to whether multiple sets are superior to singles. But my brother brought it home to me when he flatly said he wouldn't want to practically spend 3x, let alone 6x, as long in the gym doing what I put him through. He's got other things in his life to be getting on with. I had to agree with him. In a busy public gym our training session takes ~1hour for the both of us.

Simplicity makes application much easier."

Hope everyone has had a great festive break and enjoys a happy new year!

Chris said...


Thanks for contributing to the discussion. It is good to get some comments directly from one of the authors of the paper.

I was aware of your ambivalence towards the term "intensity" and it was interesting to see that word crop up several times in the paper, although the qualification of the concept in terms of intensity of effort / maximum recruitment of muscle fibres was useful.

The more that time passes, the less dogmatic I tend to get about many things, including training. There is so much that is just not known or not proven, that battling for a particular approach is foolhardy. That applies to "HIT" whatever that is. Lots of approaches work.

Introducing thoughts of time efficiency is useful. Is the extra size or strength you *might* get from extra time in the gym, more sets or whatever, worth the time away from the rest of your life. It is these marginal increments that are useful to think about especially as you get older with more going on in life.

Chris said...

@Chris G

The main reason that I am running a bit at the moment is that I've entered a local BUPA 5K race on 11 January, with some guys from work and I don't want to embarrass myself. I do this race most years, often on no training at all and always get around OK. That idea of 5K fitness is a good one I think.

My usual training at the moment is in the gym at work about 2 or 3 times a week, usually some mix of goblet squats, pushups, chins, deadlifts and some stretches. it is all about keeping moving and keeping strong.

For example Dumbbell bench press for 3 x 8 supersetted with chins, then a circuit of goblet squats, pushups, deadlift and farmers walk. I try to make sure I do a push, pull, hinge and squat.

I am not arguing that this is optimal, but I want to enjoy training and the rest of life too.

Anonymous said...

If you've been training a while and are still looking for the set/rep/frequency scheme that will get you the results you want, consider that what you want might not be achievable by you. High potential tends to show up early, no matter what one does. So, keep it efficient, accept what you have to work with and be happy.

Stuart Gilbert said...

A quick question. When you go for your jogs do you practice nasal breathing? I've learnt a lot from this site, but that was one of the best tips that I have taken from here. I go for 20 to 40 minute jogs 3 to 4 times a week. I breathe nasally in all of them. I find that it is a nice effort limiter, no heart rate monitor required. I know my heart rate can still climb fairly high breathing nasally, but when I struggle to breathe through my nose, I simply slow down....or I will break my 20 to 30 minute jogs into 10 or 15 minute segments with 5 to 10 minute brisk walks in between. Gone are the days where I would run myself into the ground. I find my runs far more enjoyable and relaxing this way. The only time that I now breathe through my mouth is when I am doing interval training either on the track or on a treadmill. Just wondering how you do things.

Anonymous said...

For most people, I suspect that the value in any training regime is how "do-able" it is. An example: Pavel's Power to the People deadlift/press combination may not be the optimal way to get stronger, but it's cunningly designed to hook you, because it starts off easy (two sets of 5, on 70% of max and then 63% of max, for two exercises) and also gets easier over the course of the brief workout (if you've done the first set, you'll easily get the second one). And adding small daily increments to the bar ensures that it doesn't get hard until you've progressed some way in.

The same applies to Dan John's 2,3,5 or 2,3,5,10 workouts, or to any ladders. The relief as it gets easier after the top of each ladder keeps you going.

So, for me, and I suspect for most frequenters of gyms, the genius of programme design isn't whether it's optimal but whether it's sustainable.

The PTTP example is great in this respect, as you're in and out of the gym in half an hour or less (even allowing for warm-ups, some pull-ups, etc.) and you're never worn out from it. And as soon as it gets really challenging, you reset to somewhere a little higher than where you started, but far below where you stopped.

Ultimately, a regime that gets you into the gym four or five times a week without having to overthink things is going to have much more benefit for people who have limited time for training than one which exhausts or dispirits them. Whether the effects of such a programme are greater or lesser than a less "do-able" alternative doesn't really matter.

John B said...

Chris is right. Training consistently and training hard should be the focus. The rest is just marketing. Get to the gym and bust your ass and you'll grow.

Chris said...

@Stuart Gilbert

I like the idea of nasal breathing as a way of moderating your effort, but I broke my nose as a kid and my air intake through there has never been the same since. So, I must admit I am something of a mouth-breather!

FeelGoodEating said...

Great discussion...

James (and thank you for contributing) said " I avoid use of the acronym entirely now due to the ambiguity in what 'intensity' means for most people. "

Herein lies to me the crux of the "problem" for us mere mortals.

Why do you think there is so much armchair quarterback discussions on line?
Because the majority still wants a "do this, take that and you will have listen to ME"

The reality is that like diet, it's so very individual and you must figure out for yourself what works for YOU and YOUR life.

YOU have to put in major/intensity effort into your training... and that for many seems to be very challenging.

consistent, enjoyable, effort based movement is all you need to reap enormous benefits.

just my 2 cents.
Happy New Year Chris!!

FeelGoodEating said...

And VERY timely from your blog roll
(and one my favorite wow guys online)


Anonymous said...

No one ever talks about the endurance aspect of strength that comes from multiple sets. It's always about maximal strength or hypertrophy, yet strength/endurance is the most practical type of conditioning for most people in their everyday lives. SAID - Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands! (Not to mention the neurological value of repeating sets to groom those nervous system pathways.)

Unknown said...

gain muscle doing simple exercises and eating healthy foods. Never stop the work. Notice the improvement and note down on a paper.gain muscle burn fat

Enlite said...

If anything and everything is valid then nothing is valid. How is it possible that all training methods have merit!? If that's the case then crossfit is just as effective as " HIT " , which is absolute nonsense. Of course we don't know everything about training and the human body, but we do know certain things. We know that intensity/effort and duration are inversely related. We know that beyond a certain point results or outcomes are not improved by increases in training volume. We must use logic to filter whatever we hear and/or read about exercise and nutrition. Logic and common sense enable us to discern truth from falsehood.

Jacob said...

Interesting but as far as exercise choices I can't see how it can be accurate.
If you look for max hypertrophy (vs a local one - say on your biceps), then exercise choices can make sure you recruit more fibres over the body at one go. That saying, doing an exercise sitting - doesn't engage the core and the stabilizers in the same way and we lose connection - part of the reason modern training, kinesiology and isolation all creates movement dysfunction as they ignore the functional relationships and break them over time by creating inefficiencies and imbalances, therefore giving you less over-all hypertrophy and more trouble over the long run.

Just saying...