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  • Writer's pictureJuan-Pierre Pieri

What is the most optimal training style for hypertrophy?

In order for a hypertrophy stimulus to occur, we need a) high threshold motor units to be recruited & b) the muscle fibers they innervate to experience mechanical tension.

Both of those requirements are influenced by fatigue during the workout & whatever workout was done prior to it the day before etc. So it goes without saying that the exercise you do first in the week (or after 1-2 rest days) or first in the session will have the largest stimulus for growth as the central nervous system is excitable & the muscles themselves are refreshed as well.

The training method that has been shown to promote the most growth in studies are Straight Sets. This means you do one set of an exercise, rest, and repeat. This results in more growth stimulus for a number of reasons;

  1. The central motor command only facilitates that single set & then recovers.

  2. The central motor command can achieve full motor unit recruitment at each set as we delay supraspinal fatigue.

  3. The muscle tissues themselves can clear out metabolites after each set, delaying peripheral fatigue. Peripheral fatigue directly affects the fibers ability to produce force.

It's important to note that EACH hard working set that is done during the session will receive less & less growth stimulus compared to the first working set. So your first working set in a workout will deliver more stimulus than your last working set as both CNS & peripheral fatigue increases.

What if you superset with two different muscle groups? It doesn't change the fact that a) there is only one motor cortex that governs motor unit recruit & b) even though metabolites aren't accumulating in the same muscle group, afferent feedback to the motor cortex due to metabolites reduces the magnitude of motor unit recruitment.

The second factor that plays into optimal hypertrophy training is rest durations between sets.

Studies have confirmed quite well that 3 minute rest periods between straight sets results in more muscle growth than 1 minute rest periods. 3 minutes seems absurd when we speak about hypertrophy because for the longest time we have heard we need time under tension but what good is time spent under tension when the muscle fibers responsible for growth aren't even experiencing half the stimulus required for growth? When we look at the physiology of hypertrophy & fatigue, we can see why 3 minutes rest delivers more growth; the supraspinal, spinal & peripheral fatigue mechanisms in place can be delayed.

In fact, if you did rest 1 minute between sets, you'd need close to DOUBLE the amount of volume to get the same growth as the 3 minute rest. This poses you with a new problem; do you do twice as much volume for the same growth while also receiving and recovering from twice the amount of fatigue that can impair your next few sessions?

The third factor that plays into optimal hypertrophy is the amount of working sets PER SESSION. We need to remember that hypertrophy works on a dose dependant spectrum & studies have shown beyond a certain threshold, hypertrophy either stops or regresses. So far, 6-8 WORKING SETS per session seems to stimulate the largest growth potential. This is generally seen in the same muscle group however if we consider the fatigue mechanisms accumulated from the central motor command & peripheral fatigue, it's likely that it's ONLY the FIRST 6-8 working sets in the entire session that matters. For example, you can't do 6 sets for glutes & then 6 sets for quads & expect both groups to grow to the same degree.

So we know 6-8 sets per session is a great dose to stimulate hypertrophy but what about the sets per week? While there is no specific answer, it appears to be between 12-14 working sets per week. Myofibrillar protein synthesis (Myops) appears to last around 48 hours so in reality, you could train the same muscle group every 3 days to continuously stimulate myops so long as the total weekly volume sits between 12-14 sets.

The fourth factor that contributes to hypertrophy is going to be your priority of growth. Muscles trained first in the week & first in the workout while everything is fresh will have the largest growth stimulus. If you want to emphasize your calves for example, you'd see better results training them first in the week and first in that session. This is obviously entirely up to you and what you want to give more focus.

To summarize:

  1. Programme straight sets.

  2. Rest 3 minutes between sets.

  3. Do 6-8 hard working sets per session.

  4. Keep weekly working sets between 12-14.

  5. Prioritise the muscles you want to grow first in the week & first in the session.

Remember methods like drop sets, pre exhaustion, myo reps, clusters & so on don't create MORE hypertrophy stimulus. In fact, every subsequent set from the first one you do will deliver less stimulus as fatigue increases. These things can be applied IF you're short on time but will not produce more hypertrophy & will increase fatigue which may carry over to your next training session.

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