The Big Guide to Muscle Hypertrophy

Pro wrestlers, your favorite masked (or caped) superhero, and your older sibling all have something in common — at a young age, they probably seemed larger than life. A big part of that kind of heroic image comes down to being in fantastic shape. Specifically, having heaps of muscle

Hypertrophy is the process by which you grow muscle. For bodybuilders, it’s literally everything. For strength athletes, it is a tangential but welcomed benefit of dedicated physical training. And, for the average human, hypertrophy is an insurance policy that helps guarantee a long and healthy life.

muscular upper backCredit: restyler / Shutterstock

No matter your motivation for gains, you need to know how hypertrophy works before you can get after it. Consider this your introduction to the machinery of muscle growth. Here’s the skinny on getting brawny.

The Guide to Hypertrophy

  • What Is Hypertrophy?
  • What Causes Hypertrophy?
  • Benefits of Increasing Hypertrophy
  • How to Train for Hypertrophy
  • How to Eat for Hypertrophy
  • Best Supplements for Hypertrophy

Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Índice
  1. The Guide to Hypertrophy
  • What Is Hypertrophy? 
  • What Causes Hypertrophy?
    1. Protein Synthesis
    2. Calories, Calories … Calories? 
  • Calorie Calculator
    1. Your daily calorie needs: Calories Per Day
  • What Is Hypertrophy? 

    In the simplest terms, hypertrophy is synonymous with "getting bigger." In the medical and scientific communities, hypertrophy describes the growth or enlargement of any organ or tissue. 

    However, in the world of fitness and physical training, hypertrophy refers to the process by which exercise creates and encourages muscle growth. (1)

    If you’re a sucker for specificity, there’s another distinction worth noting — muscular hypertrophy is about enlarging your existing muscle tissue, and not necessarily creating new muscle from scratch. 

    The latter is called hyperplasia, which hasn’t been conclusively confirmed to occur as a result of exercise habits in human beings. (Though some researchers have managed to elicit some impressive muscle gains in cats and other animal trainees.) (2)(3)

    For all intents and purposes, hypertrophy is merely what happens as a result of dedicated physical activity paired with a proper diet and the secret ingredient — time.

    What Causes Hypertrophy?

    The beauty of the scientific method is its consistency. When you mix the right ingredients together, you can (usually) produce a reliable result. The same holds true for muscle growth. 

    When your muscles are tasked with challenges they’re not used to, such as resistance training, they experience trauma. That trauma is mended in the hours and days following a bout of exercise, and in the process, your muscles rebuild stronger — and bigger — than they were before.

    muscle tissue Credit: Kurteev Gennadii / Shutterstock

    What constitutes muscular trauma, exactly? Most scientific literature has arrived at the conclusion that muscular hypertrophy is the result of three primary factors: (4)

    • Mechanical Tension
    • Muscle Damage
    • Metabolic Stress

    Mechanical Tension refers to the physical force of external resistance (think a barbell or even your own body weight) placed upon a given muscle.

    Muscle Damage is the actual physical breakdown of muscle tissue that results from excessive tension. This often occurs in the form of microscopic tears or lesions in the fibers themselves.

    Metabolic Stress can be thought of as an accumulation of biological "waste" products like lactate that build up over the course of strenuous activity, as well as the energy demands of repairing any damage. 

    Unfortunately, the jury is out regarding which of these factors reigns supreme. Some studies point toward muscle damage as the most important element, while others argue that there’s more going on behind the scenes. (5)(6) However, there’s one clear consensus. If you’re after muscular hypertrophy, you need both muscle protein synthesis and the right number of calories as well. (6)(7)

    Protein Synthesis

    Protein synthesis is exactly what it sounds like — it’s how your body uses protein (and other nutrients) to repair and regrow muscle tissue. This means understanding one crucial fact: in the matter of muscle growth, your exercise habits and nutritional choices are inextricably linked.

    While nutrients like carbohydrates and dietary fat play a role in the big picture of hypertrophy, dietary protein and total calories are far and away the two major players on the board. (8)

    Protein comes with a slew of health benefits for the average person, but your needs shoot up dramatically if you’re hitting the gym multiple times a week to pack on muscle. There are many, many papers espousing different values of "ideal" protein intake, but most modern meta-analyses land somewhere around the 1.6 to 2.2g/kg area. (8)(9)

    For an easy-to-remember figure, this means that you’ll want to eat somewhere around one gram of protein per pound of body weight. You can err on the lower side if you’re in a caloric surplus, but you’ll want to go for a bit extra if you’re dieting down so your body doesn’t chew through your existing muscle mass as a fuel source.

    Calories, Calories … Calories? 

    Even if you’re brand new to working out, it’s a bit of a no-brainer — your diet and training both matter when you’re hunting muscle gains. The question is, to what degree? 

    Your body needs calories to fuel the process of hypertrophy. As such, it is extremely difficult to build muscle if you’re in a significant caloric deficit. (10) You’ll need to consume more calories than you expend if you want to make noticeable gains, but an exact figure for the "ideal" caloric surplus is hard to pin down. (11)

    Calorie & Macronutrient Calculator

    Below, you’ll find an easy and intuitive calculator that takes much of the guesswork out of the whole process. Simply plug in the requisite information and all the math is done for you. 

    Calorie Calculator

    Imperial

    Metric

    Age

    Sex

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    Female
    Height

    Feet

    Meters

    Weight

    Pounds

    Kilograms

    Activity Level

    Sedentary: little or no exercise

    Exercise 1-3 times/week

    Exercise 4-5 times/week

    Daily exercise or intense exercise 3-4 times/week

    Intense exercise 6-7 times/week

    Very intense exercise daily, or physical job
    BMR estimation formula

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    Calculate

    Your daily calorie needs: Calories Per Day

    Daily calorie needs based on goal

    Goal
    Calories Per Day

    Maintenance

    Fat Loss

    Extreme Fat Loss

    Exercise: 15-30 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.

    Intense exercise: 45-120 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.

    Very intense exercise: 2+ hours of elevated heart rate activity.

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