It’s well known that the three main factors that matter for building muscle are metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscle damage. All three can be achieved with higher volume training and moderate loads, which is why most bodybuilders rarely focus on heavy weights. The typical bodybuilder workout uses moderate loads (60 to 80 percent of maximal), more sets (3 to 6), and higher reps (8 to 15).
Of course, always training with hypertrophy-parameters will leave you with diminished gains compared to a periodized program that includes heavier weights and lower volume. To force the muscles to grow, you must use planned variations in volume and load, alternating accumulation phases that maximize volume with intensification phases. But what happens when hypertrophy gains stagnate and you hit a training plateau?
A new review highlights superior hypertrophy techniques that should not be ignored:
Use Eccentric Training
Eccentric-enhanced lifting is one of the most powerful tools available for stimulating muscle growth because it causes significant muscle damage and allows you to use supramaximal loads that hit the highest threshold muscle fibers.
Here’s how it works: Exercises have a concentric contraction when the muscle is shortening and an eccentric contraction when the muscle is lengthening. The easiest way to understand this is that the concentric action is when you are raising the weight and the eccentric motion is when you are lowering the weight. For example, in the bench press, deadlift, or squat, the eccentric contraction is when you are lowering from the top position. In cable exercises, such as the pulldown and seated row, the eccentric contraction occurs when the bar moves away from your body as it returns to the starting position.
The simplest way to emphasize the eccentric portion of the lift is to use a longer tempo for the eccentric phase. Tempo refers to the speed with which you perform the concentric and eccentric contractions, and allows you to prescribe any pauses in between the two contractions. Research shows that incorporating longer tempos in the 4- to 8- second range provides a superior stimulus for hypertrophy than relying solely on short eccentric tempos.
Use Heavy Eccentrics
You can ratchet eccentric training up a notch by employing heavy eccentrics. This technique works because you are significantly stronger eccentrically than concentrically. Think about the deadlift and how you can lower much more weight to the ground than you can lift from a dead stop position.
Heavy eccentric training typically requires specialized equipment or time consuming set up, but a relatively easy way to emphasize the eccentric motion is to employ “cheating.” For example, as you near failure on the overhead press, you can “cheat” by giving a bit of leg kick on the latter reps and then lower the weight as slowly as possible to emphasize the eccentric contraction.
For the biceps curl, allow yourself to bend your knees a little and use the momentum from extending your knees to curl the weight up. Then use slow and controlled form to lower the weight back to the start position. Repeat until you've completed your final reps.
It is best to cheat on no more than the last 3 to 5 reps of a set. If you're cheating too early in the set, the weight is too heavy and you won't be working the prime mover enough before resorting to the cheat method.
Use The Pre-Exhaustion Technique
Pre-exhaustion is a popular technique among bodybuilders seeking to maximize growth of target muscles.The rationale for this technique is that performing a single-joint exercise first fatigues that muscle in isolation, thereby placing greater stress on the agonist and increasing its activation during a subsequent multi-joint exercise for greater growth potential. For example, one study found that when athletes performed a lying triceps extension to pre-exhaust the synergist muscles in the bench press (the triceps brachii and anterior deltoid), they experienced higher activation during the multi-joint movement (bench press) as compared to doing the multi-joint movement alone.
Do Forced Reps
Forced or assisted reps are another great tool for enhancing muscle mass by recruiting more motor units. Perform forced reps with a load that is heavier than normal for the given number of repetitions rather than doing extra reps: For example, for a program that includes 3 sets of 12 of bench press, identify the maximal load you can perform for 12 reps. Then increase that load and perform 12 reps, getting assistance from a training partner or coach when necessary.
Use Drop Sets
Drop sets are a great way to pound out a ton of volume and create a high degree of metabolic stress and motor unit fatigue. A style of drop sets that is especially effective is a high-intensity set followed immediately by the same exercise at a low-intensity with 50 percent of the 1RM. Such a protocol yields a greater hormone release and larger increase in muscle cross-sectional area than a strength protocol alone.
Ideally, you can start with an above maximal eccentric load that is 20 percent greater than your concentric 1RM. Once you hit failure, you can drop the weight down to 50 percent of your 1RM. Over time, you can increase your starting weight to 50 percent greater than the 1RM.
Understanding the training parameters that maximize hypertrophy will allow you to overcome training plateaus and achieve peak muscle and performance.
Persistence in training is essential. Being consistent with a minimum of 4 high-quality training sessions a week is necessary to maximize hypertrophy.
Diet shouldn’t be overlooked. High-quality nutrition that provides ample protein, healthy fat, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables will maximize protein synthesis and support muscle recovery.