Hypertrophy explained


Hypertrophy lies at the heart of fitness, alongside mobility and flexibility. For those not familiar with the term it’s the enlargement of muscle fibres through the increase in the size of each cell. It’s also the element that must be focused upon to develop total fitness in the most efficient manner.

A keystone of fitness

When I take on any client (even an experienced athlete) I view them as a novice until they can complete certain movements or tests. One can quickly judge a neuromuscular system; one that is well developed can be identified if an individual can switch on, or contract, any muscle instantly. Few people can do this, making hypertrophy the initial focus.

From as early as possible in training it is vital to:

  • feel the correct muscle working when performing a movement
  • know that you will be able to switch that muscle on to perform the movement
  • be conscious of how you move
  • be conscious of what is moving
What’s the secret?

For the beginner, the key rules are:

  • don’t rush the movement
  • spend time performing the movement
  • become almost robotic about the movement

To give an example, in a ‘row’ or ‘pull’ we need to ensure that our back muscles, say the lats, are initiating the movement, rather than our wrists or forearms. It is essential to engage these muscles first. In the case of pulling, this is optimally done through retracting the scapula (shoulder blade) and then pulling through the elbow. Then, in the reverse, keeping the scapula retracted while the arm straightens and then allowing the scapula to stretch and relax.

By developing this almost robotic technique in every exercise you may not be able to move much weight, but this is better in the longer term if it ensures better technique. The important question is not how much we can lift, but can we perform the movement correctly and without any compromise, especially in the spine. Once the right movement pattern is built in, the movement will become smoother and less robotic until the stage where you will be able to switch on the lats to initiate the movement without even thinking about it. It is at this point that performance can become the focus and your ability to enhance it will have soared.

For the initiated

If you wish to build muscles on the scale of a bodybuilder, the issue will be maximising hypertrophy as the main performance aspect of fitness.

Isolation exercises are a likely component – and one of the few instances where I would encourage them, emphasising again only after a strong enough foundation movement has been achieved.

To perform any isolation exercise it is important that the only part of the body doing the work is the muscle you are focused on training. This means no jerking or creating inertia to move the weight. Failing to do this you will deceive yourself, fail to maximise hypertrophy and radically increase the likelihood of injury. For example, in a standing dumbbell bicep curl, the body must be totally rigid to ensure the biceps are doing the work and nothing else: form over weight every time.

If your aim is to develop muscle size, remember that just moving more weight will primarily build strength, but maximally contracting a single muscle against more resistance develops size. If hypertrophy is your main aim then creating tension in the muscle is the primary variable, strength gains a long term secondary variable.

Having already covered endurance, flexibility, mobility, power, agility, balance, coordination and strength, this finally encompasses what it means to be fit – all built upon the critical relationship between muscle and movement. Whatever your goal I hope you now appreciate the importance of the interaction between these elements in building a healthy well-rounded individual. Too often we neglect this aspect of our humanity; we are designed to move and function in many ways and by taking all aspects into account we can improve our health as well as our physical, mental and even spiritual wellbeing; becoming better humans in a way ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates or Plato would have understood and appreciated very well.

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          About the author

Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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