Hypertrophy Is Not a Bad Word: Functional Hypertrophy Training

Don’t be afraid to say it – hypertrophy. You might have a use for it. In fact, it could be great for building muscle, leaning out, and boosting your health. Here’s how I advise you do it.

As I wrote about recently in regards to the future of the fitness industry, one of my big picks for training trends is a return to hypertrophy training. This won’t be your mama’s bodybuilding training in the chrome and fern caverns that prohibit deadlifts, though. This will be in small-scale boxes and use full body compound lifts with a variety of non-machine based implements. Let’s call our back-to-the-future-style of bodybuilding functional hypertrophy training.

There are many reasons to add some muscle, including helping prevent the effects of aging, boosting hormone production, having a positive impact on body composition, and, of course, looking good naked. These days gyms are well attended by all ages, but the biggest demographic is the 35 to 50 age group. The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying, “Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.” This group is keen to reclaim as much of their health and youth as possible and one of the key factors in youthfulness is the amount of lean tissue you carry, so functional hypertrophy training is ideal for them.

Believe it or not muscles are pretty dumb. The only thing they can do is contract when told to. When it comes to adding muscle there are two main ways to do it. The first, and let’s call this the traditional bodybuilding model, is that you need to do a reasonably high volume of work per muscle to see it stimulated enough to grow. After stimulating it you rest for as long as necessary, so it is fully recovered before hitting it again. Typical set and rep schemes for bodybuilding style training are 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise, with large body parts (chest, back, and legs) seeing four or five exercises each for a total of around 20 sets. Smaller muscle groups might get the same number of sets per exercise, but only two or three exercises per muscle group.

The other option, and let’s call this the weightlifter option for ease of reference, is to take a really heavy weight and lift it a few times, resting completely between sets. Total volume for an exercise might only be around 10 reps over 3 or 4 sets, with a total of three or four of exercises being performed each day. The difference here is that you’ll likely train the same movement multiple times in a single week. For example, it’s quite common that weightlifters will squat daily. By the end of a week they’ll have probably done the same number of total reps as the bodybuilder, but they’ll have done them at much higher loads, spread out over multiple workouts.

hypertrophy, building muscle, growing muscle, strength trainingThe true trick to hypertrophy is followed by both camps – eat like a horse. You often hear tales of hardcore training but really big guys will tell you the secret to massive muscles is hardcore eating, especially if you are eating clean. It is really difficult to eat 4,000 calories a day of clean food and there will be times when the mere thought of stuffing more food down will not be pleasant.

The main thing is that both of these models work. The weightlifter option is going to be much harder on the body and the joints, though, and if we’re talking about using this training on a slightly older client base we need to be mindful of the issues that are associated with them. So the best choice for the older client is going to be slightly more reps and a lower load.

One of the things that has fallen out of favor over the last few years is split programs. Once upon a time it was normal to hear about people having a chest day or a leg day, but the modern fitness world has gotten away from that. We think about every workout as whole body. That’s not a bad thing, and is certainly in line with our functional hypertrophy approach, but the real definition of a split program isn’t that you do only certain body parts on certain days. The definition of a split program is that you do different workouts on different days. So even if you do a whole body workout one day and another whole body session the next time you train, if they are different workouts you’re doing a split program. That’s a good thing as this allows you to cover more movements, or change exercises slightly to avoid overuse of a single movement (for example, swapping back squats for front squats).

Here’s an idea of how a two-day split for functional hypertrophy training might look. This workout would be done with Day 1 done Monday and Thursday and Day 2 on Tuesday and Friday.

Day 1

  • 1A Power curl 4 x 6-8 reps
  • 1B Double kettlebell clean and press 4 x 6-8 reps
  • 2A Triangle pull-ups 3 x 8-12 reps
  • 2B Lever push-ups 3 x 8-12 reps

Triangle pull-ups are done by pulling yourself firstly towards one hand, lowering then pulling towards the other hand.

Lever push-ups are a step towards the one-arm push-up (which is too difficult to do for the rep ranges we need for hypertrophy work). The arm performing the push-up will be in close to the body, as if performing a single-sided tricep push up. The other arm will be extended out to the side so that not much weight can be put on it. Like with the triangle pull-ups do one side, then at the top of the rep slide your weight over onto the other arm and repeat.

hypertrophy, building muscle, growing muscle, strength trainingBoth of these exercises, but particularly the lever push-ups, will also work two key aspects of the core – the ability to maintain a brace as well as oppose rotation. One of our goals with this functional hypertrophy is to get as much of the body working as possible in every exercise. If we can get core strength work while attacking other areas of the body, then it means we can get in and out of the gym faster and back to our real life sooner.

Day 2

  • 1A Barbell front squats 4 x 6 reps
  • 1B Kettlebell swings 4 x 10 reps
  • 2A Step-ups 4 x 10 reps each leg
  • 2B Prowler push 4 x 20m

Like with some of the upper body exercises that allow us to target elements of core stability during other exercises, the leg sections allow us to cover elements of fitness work. You can label this anyway you want but a little bit of work at a high heart rate is good for our health as well as our body composition. At the same time it addresses elements of hip and thigh action. Don’t skimp on weight for the swings and Prowler pushes either – a set of ten swings should leave you as exhausted as a set of six front squats in this plan, so you will need a heavy bell and some serious weight on the sled.

One of the main, often forgotten, elements of resistance training is the progression. When you can get all your reps make sure to add weight. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to keep the body adapting and working hard. Make sure to eat plenty and rest enough to allow the growth to take place.

My final suggestion is if you want to do some extra work to stay lean then keep it at a low intensity. We recommend our clients walk for an hour daily to keep body fat levels low and not interfere with their recovery and muscle building.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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