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Now that the main training variables for hypertrophy have been discussed in part 1, we can get to the more nuanced but less important training variables. The following topics are discussed in this post;
- Good exercises allow target muscles to be trained through a full range of motion.
- Use mostly compound, dynamic exercises. The order your exercises are in within a given session should be logical.
- Make sure you have a rationale for using a certain rep range on certain exercises.
- Include 2-4 exercises for each muscle group in your program.
- Special techniques are a good way to accumulate lots of volume in little time, usually with a relatively light load.
- Periodisation is a useful tool to prepare for events, train for specific goals and keep training feeling fresh and fun.
Range of motion
A good hypertrophy exercise for a given muscle group allows you to work that muscle group through its full range of motion without pain or a high risk of injury. Numerous studies suggest that a full range of motion is superior to a partial range of motion for hypertrophy.
Select exercises that allow you to work a muscle through the largest range of motion possible without exposing yourself to an increased risk of injury.
Order of Exercises in a session
As you get increasingly fatigued from training throughout a session, the quality of the sets you do decreases. This means that your performance on the last exercise of a session will usually be much worse than if you’d started with that exercise – that’s also a reason I advocate for higher frequency training. What this also entails is that you want to hit the exercises/body parts you want to prioritize first in a session, so that they receive the highest amount of effort and quality work.
In most lifters, I recommend doing compounds first. Since these will lead to the most overall muscle growth, we want to maximise their relative impact as much as we can. Unless you have a very lagging bodypart, the isolation work comes afterwards.
There are two main ways of determining the order in which you perform compounds/isolation exercises:
- Placing priority on a lift/muscle group. If you have to bench and barbell row on a day, but you care more chest/bench than you do about back/barbell rowing (or they are disproportionately weaker), you might want to bench before barbell rowing. Be cautious about using this method, as I find that you are subjected to many biases that do not necessarily play to your advantage.
- Maximising performance across as many lifts as possible. To use the same example as in the previous point – if you notice that your performance in the barbell row really decreases if you bench beforehand, but that your bench performance does not decrease nearly as much if you barbell row beforehand, then you would look to barbell row before benching. If you organise all of your exercises in this manner, you will achieve the best potential total-body training stimulus you could achieve. I recommend most people (particularly beginners) use this method over the first.
Dynamic vs Isometric Exercises
Exercises that involve a concentric (the portion of a movement where the working muscle shortens) and eccentric (the portion of a movement where the working muscle lengthens) phase are usually better for muscle growth than exercises that only involve an isometric (muscle remains at constant length) contraction. This means that, usually, a shrug would be better than an isometric hold (ie. rack pull with hold) for the traps.
Compound vs Isolation exercises
Compound (multi-joint) exercises usually outperform isolation (single-joint) exercises for hypertrophy. They work several muscle groups at once while also giving each of them a robust stimulus. This means that the majority of your training should be compound exercises, with isolation exercises added where necessary and beneficial. Compound exercises will be much more useful in adding overall muscle mass than isolation exercises. For that reason, they are also much more time efficient.
For three reasons, you probably want to have several exercises (2-4) in your program for any given muscle group.
- Reducing overuse injury risk. Usually, an exercise causes some wear and tear on certain areas of connective tissue. If you were to repeat an exercise over and over for many reps and many sets with much weight, that area would become aggravated and result in an overuse injury. A cool way to circumvent this issue is to include several exercises in your program, so that no exercise is ever performed so often that it has a high chance of resulting in overuse injury.
- Staleness. When you do the same exercise over and over again, you eventually get sick and tired of it – even if you loved that exercise to begin with. Hence, variation is useful for the purpose of keeping your training from becoming overly monotone.
- Different exercises involve different resistance curves, joint angles, implements etc. This means that each exercise places different demands on your muscles, resulting in different stimuli in different areas of your muscle. For even development, using a few different exercises is recommended.
The more advanced/strong/muscular you become, the more of a need for exercise variation there is. This is due to reason 1 – as you advance, you will probably be performing more sets with more weight and for more reps than a beginner.
Ideally, you’d use 2-4 exercises in your program for each muscle group for a while, and, every now and then, you’d switch exercises out. There’s a ton of ways of going about this, and it depends on how advanced you are. The more advanced you are, the more frequently you probably should switch exercises, whereas a beginner can get away (and probably should) keep the same exercises for a while.
Reason for failure
Another practical consideration is the reason for failure. What’s the weak link that causes you to fail the set after a certain number of reps? Is it cardiovascular fatigue/heavy breathing, glute fatigue or chest fatigue?
A good exercise for a given muscle group is limited by fatigue in that muscle group, and no other reason. Ideally, for a compound movement, you’d want all muscle groups to be near their limit simultaneously, so that each receives a good training stimulus.
Some exercises are better for higher reps, while others are better-suited to lower reps
A practical consideration is how well suited an exercise is to a rep range. If you perform a set of 10 hack squats, the limiting factor will most likely be quadriceps strength. On the other hand, when you perform a 100 rep set of hack squats, your heavy breathing might be your limiting factor, suggesting that your quads aren’t fully fatigued and stimulated yet.
Because of this reason, some exercises are better suited to lower or higher reps. In this example, machine hack squats are probably better suited for lower (5-15) reps while leg extensions would be a good exercise for higher reps (10-30).
The quadricep’s main function is knee extension.
The leg extension moves from a 90 degree extension angle to a 180 degree extension angle. That’s 90 degrees of knee extension.
The machine hack squat moves from a ~30-45 degree knee extension angle to a 180 degree knee extension angle. That’s ~140 degrees of knee extension. Thus, the hack squat outranks the leg extension for range of motion.
Both exercises are dynamic, so they rank equally on that aspect.
In the case of both the hack squat and the leg extension, you usually end a set because your quads are too fatigued to perform another full rep. In this regard, both these exercises are optimal for the quads.
Hence, the machine hack squat is probably a better quad exercise than the leg extension. However, that doesn’t mean the leg extension is worthless – if you need a low systemic fatigue, relatively high rep isolation movement for the quads, the leg extension might be a good bet.
- Select exercises that allow you to work target muscle groups through their full range of motion, pain-free.
- Carefully consider the order in which you place exercises within a training session.
- Most of your exercises should be compound movements. Additionally, dynamic exercises usually outperform isometric exercises for hypertrophy, so they should constitute the vast majority of your training.
- Include 2-4 exercises per muscle group in your program and change them periodically. The more advanced you are, the more regularly you probably ought to vary them.
- For any given exercise, the muscle group you are targeting should be the limiting factor of performance. If you fail to perform another rep, it should be because of muscular fatigue, not systemic/cardiovascular fatigue.
- Remember that some exercises are better suited to higher reps while others benefit from using lower reps.
These are just the icing on the cake. Special techniques are a time efficient and “fun” way of training. They allow you to accumulate lots of volume in relatively short periods of time. They ought to be supplementary to your training program of normal, straight sets of 5-30 reps with normal rest periods. I’ll list a few of them below that you can check out.
- Bloodflow Restriction Training
- Marathon Sets – Pick a relatively light weight (20-30RM). Perform as many reps as you can until you’re 1-3 reps shy from failure. Rest for roughly a minute. Repeat the set. Do this until you hit a certain number of reps.
- Supersets for the same body part – This technique involves going from one exercise to the next for the same bodypart without any rest. The recommended way of doing it is to go from an isolation exercise to a compound exercise. Other ways are going from one isolation exercise to the next or going from one compound exercise to the next.
- Supersets for different body parts – This technique involves performing one set of one exercise for a given body part, and following that up with (either with our without rest between sets) a set of an exercise that doesn’t train the same body part. This is great for saving time during your sessions.
- Myo-Reps/Rest Pause Training
Special techniques are best used:
- when time constrained; and/or
- when injured and/or trying to minimize absolute loading; and/or
- when trying to accumulate lots of volume in a short timeframe; and/or
- under specific circumstances; and/or
- usually by intermediate or advanced trainees; and/or
- only occasionally – not all of the time.
Periodisation probably isn’t super important for hypertrophy. The way I see it, it’s helpful because of three reasons:
- Allows training to be less monotone and make sure you enjoy training.
- Allows you to provide different stimuli for muscle growth over the week/month/year – perhaps providing a small hypertrophic benefit.
- Allows you to prepare for specific events ie. vacation, a bodybuilding competition etc.
The type of periodisation you use probably also doesn’t matter much as long as you have some kind of periodisation, unless you like to keep things really stable and constant. Some people prefer variation and change, while others prefer routine and order. Most people, however, do benefit from some amount of periodisation.
Periodisation basically encompasses all the other variables. For the reasons outlined above, you want to make sure you periodically change rep ranges on exercises, perhaps how many sets you do, probably which exercises you do, how often per week you train, how you distribute your training (Upper Lower vs PPL vs Full Body) etc. These aspects can be changed from session to session and/or from week to week and/or from month to month and so on. Don’t take it too far, but don’t be afraid to structure your training in a way that makes it fun. Just make sure there’s a goal to your training and you’ll be set.