Utilizing Undulating Methods During Hypertrophy

No matter your physical pursuits, hypertrophy should be a main focus at some point for all athletes.

Every athlete, with the possible exception of athletes near the top of their weight class, can benefit from adding more muscle mass. The benefits are obvious for physique athletes, but strength and team sport athletes can also improve performance by increasing the amount of muscle mass they have packed onto their frame.

Every athlete, with the possible exception of athletes near the top of their weight class, can benefit from adding more muscle mass. The benefits are obvious for physique athletes, but strength and team sport athletes can also improve performance by increasing the amount of muscle mass they have packed onto their frame.

Having more muscle will provide the opportunity to make said muscle more neurologically efficient and improve the potential for force production. So whether hypertrophy training makes up a large chunk of the annual macrocycle, like in a bodybuilder’s case, or is mainly placed in the general preparatory period, like most performance based athletes, hypertrophy should be a main focus at some point for all athletes.

Understanding Hypertrophy

There are literally hundreds of different loading protocols to increase hypertrophy in your athletes. Just go to google and type in hypertrophy training and it’ll come up with over five million hits in under a second. Even someone who loves reading about training as much as this coach doesn’t have time to sift through all the articles found on the internet regarding a single training goal. That’s why it’s important to understand the basic principles of hypertrophy training and utilizing this knowledge to form a template for your hypertrophy protocols.

So what causes hypertrophy? Two of the main factors to consider are mechanical tension and metabolite accumulation. Mechanical tension in the simplest terms is going to be the amount of tension placed on the muscle. So the greater the load, the more tension that is going to be placed on that muscle in that given position. Metabolite accumulation refers to the accumulation of by-products from energy production, such as lactate.

To maximize mechanical tension, the athlete must lift heavy. To maximize metabolite accumulation, the athlete must lift for an extended duration. These two things can’t be maximally done at the same time. Tell anyone who’s spent even a little time in the gym to lift 95% of their one rep max for 12 reps and they’ll, at the very least, shake their head at you. So instead, the athlete must lift as heavy a weight as possible for the prescribed time period. This generally involves lifting a moderate to heavy load (65-80% of the one rep max) for a duration of 20-70 seconds.2,3 Additional guidelines include doing 4-8 sets of 8-12 total exercises.2 There are definitely exceptions to these rules, but these are good baseline numbers for creating a hypertrophy protocol.

So is it that simple? Just lift a weight at 65-80% of your athlete’s one rep max for 20-70 seconds for 4-8 sets a few times a week? The answer is yes and no. Yes, this could be done and lower level athletes will see good results from it in the short term. Good results in the short term should not be the goal for the coach or the athlete, though. The coach has to remember that each training session is not done in a vacuum. Each session will affect the sessions after it and each microcycle will have a cumulative effect throughout the training block. With this in mind, it is made obvious that fatigue management must be considered when creating a hypertrophy block.

It’s clear that the athlete must be stressed beyond previous abilities in order to cause adaptation which can at times make fatigue management difficult, but it can be done. There are multiple ways that fatigue management can be incorporated including: periodically reducing volume, reducing intensity, reducing volume and intensity, and incorporating lower stress exercises. How these are incorporated can depend on several variables such as the period of time in the training cycle, the strength level of the athlete, and what other qualities the athlete needs to develop in the same period of time.

The Role of the Undulating Model

One method that is effective for improving performance while managing fatigue is using an undulating model. Most people are familiar with the term ‘undulating’ in regard to periodization, but it is often misused for fatigue management. Coaches will often use a high volume/low intensity day, low volume/high intensity day, and possibly a low volume/low intensity day. Another way these days are generally listed are as a hypertrophy day, strength day, and speed day. This model has been shown to be effective for many athletes who train consistently because it does create a stressful environment, which forces the athlete to adapt. However, it doesn’t account for fatigue management very well. The lower intensity of the hypertrophy days don’t offset the higher intensity of the strength days because the volume is increased too significantly.

A more effective way to implement an undulating model is to have a singular training emphasis, or at least 70% of your volume directed at a single emphasis, and undulating intensity while keeping volume relatively constant. With this model, your athletes are able to concentrate on a single quality to improve while managing fatigue. The qualities you are trying to develop need be properly organized in separate blocks so they can build off of each other, but that is a discussion for another article. This article is about hypertrophy, so now we’ll take a look at how to manage fatigue in a hypertrophy block.

Fatigue Management

As mentioned above, undulating intensity is your best bet for managing fatigue. This can be done multiple ways, but one of the easiest ways is to divide your training days into high and low intensity days. Once you’ve done that, simply take 70-90% of the load used on the high intensity day, and that will be the load you use on the low intensity day.4

For example, if you do 3 sets of 12 reps of back squats at 65-67% on the high intensity day, then you would do 3 sets of 12 reps of back squats at 52-53% on the low intensity day which is 80% of the high intensity day. This does two things. The low intensity day allows your athlete to feel fresher for their next high intensity day the following week. On top of that, it allows for additional practice of the lift, which will improve the neural qualities needed to recruit the correct motor units for the lift. If a third day of a certain lift is needed than 60% of the high intensity day should be used because it still allows for additional practice without causing additional central nervous system fatigue.1

Another way to do this is by having high intensity and low intensity days, but instead of using 80% of the same exercise, your athlete uses a less stressful exercise on the low intensity day. So if your athlete’s high intensity upper body day consisted of bench press and barbell rows at 67% of the one rep max for those exercises, then on their low intensity days they would perform a 60 degree incline press and a wide grip pulldown at around 67% of those two exercises on that day.

Since the weight being used is less on the low intensity day (if you can do more on a 60 degree incline press than you can do on a bench press, then you are an anomaly) it will cause less neural fatigue. Since the loads are the same percent of the one rep max, however, a reduction in volume of 10-50% is also recommended.4

This method is better utilized for athletes who don’t need the additional practice of certain lifts and instead need a broader range of muscular development that the variation in this model provides.

Customize to the Athlete

The type of undulating model you use, as well as what end of the set/rep/% rep max spectrum you implement, will depend on your athletes. The best program is individualized and based on your athlete’s needs, abilities, and resources. The recommendations listed in this article are merely guidelines to help build a general template for your athlete’s hypertrophy phase. Hopefully with this template, along with your own coaching experience and knowledge of your athletes, you are able to put together the ideal hypertrophy protocol.


1. Siff, Mel. “Periodisation as a Form of Organisation” Supertraining, 316. Denver, 2003.

2. Kurz, Thomas. “Strength” in Science of Sports Training, 152. Island Pond: Stadion Publishing Company, 2001.

3. Poliquin, Charles. “The Science of Tempo” in The Poliquin Principles, 23. Napa: Dayton Writers Group, 1997.

4. Israetel, Mike. Smith, Chad Wesley. Hoffman, James. “Fatigue Management” in Scientific Principles of Strength Training, 148-149.

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