For any athlete or bodybuilder, getting big, powerful muscles is a goal that directly contributes to better performance and true athleticism, but muscles are more complex than we often give them credit for. The process of building muscle is known as hypertrophy, a science that relies on genetics, diet, and dozens of other factors. Let’s take a closer look at muscle hypertrophy and what you can do to stimulate hypertrophy for huge gains.
What is Muscle Hypertrophy?
Hypertrophy simply refers to the process of enlarging the cells of any organ or tissue, thereby increasing the size of that organ or tissue. Muscle hypertrophy refers to adding muscle to your body, and for a long time, muscle hypertrophy was divided into two separate forms: myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to increasing the size and amount of myofibrils, which are the threadlike proteins that make up muscle cells and allow your muscles to contract. By contrast, the sarcoplasm is the viscous plasma inside muscles cells that contains water, proteins, glycogen, collagen and all the other elements necessary to maintaining your muscles. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy involves increasing the volume of this fluid.
In the past, it was generally understood that increasing the size of your muscles involved sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which could be achieved through more reps and certain supplements, like creatine. Increasing strength and definition involved myofibrillar hypertrophy, which required fewer reps.
However, numerous studies have since found that trying to single out either form of hypertrophy was something of a myth. Some research even suggests that these two divisions of growth do not have any basis in good science. Realistically, both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy are closely intertwined. Your sarcoplasm won’t stay stagnant if your myofibrils grow, and vice versa.
Essential Amino Acids, Leucine, and Muscle Hypertrophy
Essential amino acids are compounds necessary to your health that your body cannot naturally produce on its own, meaning you have to get them from your diet. Research has known that essential amino acids play a big role in building muscle mass, but one of the most important is leucine. Leucine is one of the three most prominent branched-chain amino acids present in muscle tissue. Leucine, along with isoleucine and valine, are unique for being the only amino acids that get used up for fuel during exercise.
Amino acids are the building blocks for protein, making them an important component for muscle. Studies show that leucine is particularly special because it stimulates protein synthesis, which in turn builds muscle. Furthermore, research suggests that leucine activates a compound called mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR. mTOR exists in your muscles and acts like a switch that turns on all the mechanisms that create muscle proteins.
If you want to add leucine to your diet to increase muscle hypertrophy, you can find it in most any animal protein and whey protein. You may also consider supplements, like mTOR PRO™ from MYOKEM™. This supplement uses a unique formula that offers 10.5 grams of essential amino acids, including leucine, with each serving and acts as an active mTOR signaler.
The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy
There are three main mechanisms for stimulating muscle growth:
- Muscle tension – Muscle tension can be difficult for many amateurs to understand. The main way to create muscle tension is to increase the amount of weight you lift over time. However, when lifting weights, it’s easy to get lazy. Your form might change slightly and your joints may take on more of the weight, essentially keeping your muscles from taking on 100% of the load and preventing proper muscle tension. To create proper muscle tension, focus on your full range of motion, making sure that your muscles don’t take a break as they stretch, pull and squeeze.
- Metabolic stress – Metabolic stress refers to that burning, sore feeling after pumping weights. It involves the lack of oxygen in your muscles on top of lactic acid and other metabolic products building up in your muscle tissues. Aside from telling you that you have worked hard, metabolic stress activates your muscles cells for growth while bringing in more water into each individual cell and increasing cellular swelling.
- Muscular damage – As intimidating as it may sound, muscular damage is actually a good thing. The act of lifting weights causes damage to muscle fibers in the form of microtears. These microtears heal with proper rest and a healthy diet. As the muscle repairs, it becomes denser and larger. Unfortunately, as you continue lifting weights, it becomes harder to cause damage as your muscles adapt to better protect themselves. This forces you to lift heavier weights, try new exercises, lift from different angles and changing the rhythm and speed of your exercises.
All three of these mechanisms work in conjunction to help you develop muscle, but muscle tension tends to be the most important. The most weight you can workout with, the more muscular you will be.
Tips for Stimulating Muscle Hypertrophy
Focusing on variety and a full range of motion are the best ways to stimulate all of the above mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy. While that doesn’t mean you need to completely overhaul your workout, it does mean rotating the different movements and the number of reps you do. Keep in mind these three main rep ranges:
- Low reps (1-5)
- Moderate reps (6-12)
- High reps (over 15)
Deadlifts, squats, presses and other compound lift exercises are great for gaining muscle. However, you should also challenge your muscles by doing variations of these lifts, either from different angles or in different positions. Performing isolation exercises using low weights can create muscle tension and add growth, but you should mainly be doing big, compound movements that force you to activate more joints and muscle groups at once. Furthermore, make sure you even cycle your rest periods. Shorter rests allow for a boost in metabolic stress.
From there, add to your load slowly. Increasing your reps, sets and weights all at once can potentially cause injury or simply stunt your progress. Add a small amount of volume each week to prevent any plateaus.
All that said, keep in mind that everyone builds muscle differently. Some people may see better results by starting with higher reps and moderate weights. However, as long as you aim for progressively heavier weights at a moderate volume, you should have no problem packing on muscle.
PRO TIP: Lifting right is only half the battle. Make sure your diet plan is on point by calculating your macros and following your plan. Bodybuilding supplement can also help give you an edge in reaching your goals faster.