If you said, “strength training involves stimulating the neuromuscular system for max force production; training for size, or hypertrophy, involves micro-damaging the muscles to instigate growth,” you’d be on the right track. Of course, that’s not say the two are mutually exclusive.
“Increases in strength must occur to help induce hypertrophy,” explains Eric Emig, personal trainer and co-founder of Evolution Fitness in St. Louis.
So yeah, you need to build some strength before you get really huge. But if your ultimate goal is to simply get jacked, there’s a clear method to the weight room madness. Learn these workout pointers to get on the right track, and then put it all together with the workouts in this list.
Mess with your reps
The recommended rep schemes for pure strength are typically quite low per set (with a higher number of sets), while the recommendations for hypertrophy are a bit higher—up to 15 reps per set for three or four sets. For the greatest gains, Emig sticks with the rep range of 8 to 12, but varies that within the workout, reducing reps while increasing load.
“It varies the intensity within the exercise, hitting the favorable rep range for muscle growth while helping facilitate the strength gains needed for optimal results,” he says.
An example would be 12 reps in the first set, 10 in the second, and 8 in the third, each time with enough weight that you can make it through the count with one rep left in the tank. You can start with the same load for all (after all, you’ll fatigue as you go), but then play with adding more weight as your rep count drops.
To cause the necessary muscular microdamage to gain size, the muscles must be loaded, or “under tension,” for an appropriate length of time. That means not rushing your reps, particularly on the eccentric, or lowering, portion.
“Usually 2 to 3 seconds on the negative part of the movement with a 1-second positive produces the best results,” Emig says. The extra time on the way down forces the muscles to work even harder to maintain control.
While you don’t want to rush your reps, you do want to keep your recovery period between sets short—60 to 90 seconds. The aim is to compound the benefits of the previous set while working the current one, and too much rest can reduce the effect.
“The best gains that I ever made were when I only trained a body part one time a week,” says Emig. “Too many people think that you need to train each body part two times a week. This only leads to burnout, overtraining, and injury.”
He also points out that many muscles typically do get a second hit during training, even if you’re not targeting them, since it’s near impossible to train your chest without your triceps and shoulders, or your back without your biceps.
Plot your days
That said, Emig likes a split routine that includes the major lifts for each muscle group, plus three or four more targeted moves. So a week might look like:
Tuesday: Back and traps
Friday: Shoulders and abs
Saturday: Arms and lower back
On Monday, for example, you might do bench press, incline dumbbell press, decline bench press, and flat dumbbell flyes.
Put it all together
Now that you’ve got the tools, here’s how to build the house. The idea with this four-week cycle is to focus on increasing the volume for three weeks, then the load in the final week.
Week 1: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
Week 2: 4 sets of 12, 10, 8, 8 reps
Week 3: 4 sets of 12, 12, 10, 10 reps
Week 4: 4 sets of 10, 10, 8, 8 reps
It’s important to note that for real gains, your nutrition plays a key role. “It’s nearly impossible to gain size or strength in a calorie deficit,” Emig says.