Note: If you missed it, be sure to read our interview with Bryan Haycock titled Mr. Hypertrophy in last week's edition of T-mag.
Recently, there's been a buzz about Bryan's new training program called Hypertrophy-Specific Training or HST. According to Bryan, most weight-training programs are based not on principles of muscle growth, but on the outdated and misapplied research of European strength researchers and coaches. In other words, most programs you see today aren't really geared toward what most of us are after: big muscles.
Bryan dug into the relevant research, applied what he found to the real world, and came up with a program designed not to increase strength or improve athletic performance (although there is an overlap, of course), but to simply cause muscular growth.
Several core T-mag staffers have taken a look at the program and opinions are mixed. However, we all agree that HST is damned interesting and worth trying, so we asked Bryan to come up with an introductory HST program just for T-mag readers. Check it out, and if you want, give it a fair try and let us know how it worked for you.
Hypertrophy-Specific Training is a training method designed specifically to cause muscle hypertrophy (growth). Although significant increases in strength are often experienced while using HST, the program is not centered around strength gains.
HST is based on principles of muscle growth that have been demonstrated in recent research. In light of current published research, it would be incorrect to say "we don't know how muscle grows in response to training." Yes, we do! The whole point of HST is to present the body of research that explains how hypertrophy occurs and the method of training that we can derive from this research.
As we go over these hypertrophy principles, you'll notice that you'll already be familiar with several of them. This should come as no surprise. After all, though our understanding of muscle growth has expanded, our tools in the gym remain the same. When all that we know about how muscle cells grow is laid out on the table, a picture begins to emerge. HST, I believe, is that picture.
You might be thinking all this sounds a bit presumptuous, or at least pretty cocky. Well, the principles of hypertrophy were gathered, a method was tailored accordingly, and the results speak for themselves. What's most interesting is that much of the positive HST feedback comes from people who've made serious gains even after years of training. Guys training naturally usually gain about five to eight pounds during their first HST cycle.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty. HST is based on the following principles:
Mechanical load is necessary to induce muscle hypertrophy. This mechanism involves, but isn't limited to: calcineurin, satellite cells, growth factors, calcium, and a number of other fairly well-understood factors associated with tissue strain. So, the primary stimulus for muscle-fiber growth is the physical effects of loading the muscle (lifting and lowering a weight), not the "effort" required to lift or lower it.
You may be wondering how in the world you're supposed to focus on the load and not on the effort it takes to lift it. To better understand the principle of mechanical load, keep in mind that fatigue (or exhaustion) isn't inseparably linked to the effect of load on muscle growth. Lifting a weight doesn't have to make you tired in order to make you grow; it only has to be heavy enough to strain the muscle tissue a bit.
So in the gym, you needn't focus only on how tired you are to judge whether you've had an effective workout. Instead, focus on whether you're lifting more than you did the last time you trained that muscle. If you are, your workout will be effective.
High Frequency Principle (Chronic stimuli to create growth "environment")
In order for the loading to result in significant hypertrophy, the stimulus must be applied with sufficient frequency to create a new "environment," as opposed to seemingly random and acute assaults on the mechanical integrity of the tissue. The downside of taking a week of "recovery" every time you load a muscle is that many of the acute (immediate) responses to training, like increased protein synthesis, prostaglandins, IGF-1 levels, and mRNA levels, all return to normal in about 36 to 48 hours. So, you spend two days growing and half a week in a semi-anticatabolic state returning to normal. (Some people call this recovery.) Research shows us that recovery can take place unabated even if the same muscle is loaded again in 48 hours.
So, true anabolism from loading (proper training) only lasts two days at best once the load is removed. The rest of the time you're simply balancing nitrogen retention without adding to it. With HST you're going to train the muscle every 48 hours. This training frequency is based on research that demonstrates you can train a muscle before it's fully recovered structurally and not inhibit its ability to continue to recover.
HST uses this evidence and calls for repeated loading (training) every 48 hours or so to keep the anabolic activity of the muscle high, while trying to stay slightly ahead of the structural recovery curve by constantly increasing the load each workout. Staying ahead of the structural recovery curve is really key in eliciting growth in a person who's lifted for quite some time.
The muscle is sensitive not only to the absolute load ("absolute" meaning how heavy it is, as opposed to how heavy it feels), but also to the change in load (up or down). Therefore, you can get a hypertrophic effect from increasing the load from a previous load even if the absolute load isn't maximum, assuming conditioning (resistance to exercise induced micro-damage) isn't too extensive.
Over time, the tissue adapts and becomes resistant to the damaging effects of mechanical load. This adaptation (resistance to the stimulus) can happen in as little as 48 hours (known as Repeated Bout Effect or Rapid Training Effect). As this happens, hypertrophy will stop. The load must then be increased consistently and frequently for growth to continue. This means if you aren't increasing the weight you're training with every two weeks or so, you're at best only maintaining your muscle mass.
Strategic deconditioning (taking some time off) re-sensitizes the muscle to weight loads that once were able to promote growth, but since have failed to do so. Once a muscle has grown significantly from the current weight loads, it's necessary to either increase the load (progressive load) or decrease the degree of conditioning to the load (strategic deconditioning).
There's a limit to the number of times you can add more weight once your muscle adapts. You'll eventually reach your maximum voluntary strength. This is why once your muscle is as tough as shoe leather, all the work in the gym serves only to maintain what size you already have. Strategic deconditioning primes the muscle to respond once again to the training stimulus and allows growth to resume.
Once growth has stalled, a period of about one to two weeks should be taken where no training is performed to let the muscle decondition and become sensitive to the effects of training again.
In summary, to apply the principles of hypertrophy just explained, you're going to:
Train each body part every 48 hours, or basically three times per week.
Increase the weight each and every workout.
Decrease the reps every two weeks.
Decondition the muscle before you do it all over again.
Sound pretty simple? It is, but don't let that fool you into thinking this is for beginners. HST applies the most-potent growth stimulus of any method you can use.
With all that out of the way, let's talk about how to set up your own HST program.
Determining weights for each workout
Find all your RMs (repetition maximums) for each exercise you're going to use. You'll need to know your 15 rep max, your 10 rep max, and your 5 rep max for each exercise, and you'll need to know these numbers before you start the first HST cycle. Your maxes will determine what weights you'll use throughout the entire cycle. For the second cycle, simply add 5 to 10 pounds to all lifts where necessary.
(This may sound complicated, but I'll provide charts and examples later on in this article.)
There's an obligatory increase in weight in increments of 5 to 20 pounds each workout from beginning to last. Your last workout of each two-week block will be your max weight. This means that at times you'll be working with less than your maximum weight for any given rep scheme. This is by design. You'll reach max poundages for a given rep range on the last workout of each two-week block.
Assign your max weights to the final workout of each two-week block. Then, in 5 to 10 pound increments, assign weights in decreasing fashion starting from the last workout working backward to the first. So, for example, if your 10-rep max on a given exercise is 200 pounds, assign 200 pounds for the last workout of the 10-rep block, then assign weights that build up to your max in six workouts (two week's worth of training sessions). For our example, using five pound increments, the weights for the whole two week block of 10 reps would be 175,180,185,190,195, and 200. Do this for each exercise and for each rep scheme.
Repetitions will decrease every two weeks in the following order: 15 reps for two weeks, 10 reps for two weeks, 5 reps for two weeks, then continue with your 5 rep max for two weeks or begin two weeks of negatives.
The decrease in reps simply accommodates the increasing load. However, the high-rep workouts serve an important purpose. Higher rep sets that really burn benefit the tendons and muscle by both increasing resistance to injury (i.e. promotes tendon healing) as well as increasing functional capacity respectively.
Here's an example of what your weights might look like for your HST cycle. This particular chart is just a sample of a 10-rep block of HST. Keep in mind that your choice of exercises and maxes might be different.
If necessary, you can adjust any of the weights for each workout as you go, but try to stick with a constant progression in weight from workout to workout. Sometimes, due to lighter weights for high reps (e.g. lateral raises), it might be necessary not to increase the weight every workout, but instead use the same weight for two consecutive workouts.
There will only be a few exercises that will be appropriate/practical to use for negatives. For those exercises that aren't practical to use for negatives (like squats, legs presses, and the like) simply continue an additional two weeks using your 5-rep max each workout for those exercises.
Sets will be limited to one or two work sets per exercise. There's no problem with a single work set per body part as long as the frequency is sufficiently high and the progression in weight is consistent followed by an appropriate period of strategic deconditioning. There's nothing wrong with doing more than one or two sets, it's just more taxing on the central nervous system without significantly contributing to growth.
Each muscle group should be trained three times per week. This adheres to the frequency principle. A loading stimulus for hypertrophy must be frequent enough to create a consistent "environment" for the muscle to adapt to. This frequency is also based on the time course of acute anabolic effects of training (see "High Frequency Principle" above).
Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday are rest days. Light cardio (20 to 40 minutes) may be performed on rest days. Incline treadmill (brisk walk) should be your first choice. Adequate rest is important. Although it's fine to experience some accumulation of fatigue, adequate and regular rest is important to avoid injuries and control central fatigue.
Complete each workout using designated poundages, even if your muscles are slightly sore from the previous workout. It's important to know the difference between an injury and ordinary muscle soreness. Never train a muscle that's at risk of injury. Always warm up sufficiently and use correct form to avoid injury. Listen to your body.
Following each 6 to 8-week cycle, a nine day period of strategic deconditioning should be taken during which no training should be performed.
The whole workout can be split into a morning and afternoon session if you want. It can likewise be doubled, performing the same workout morning and evening. Keeping volume (number of sets and exercises) low is critical if doubling the workout.
To summarize, you'll do fifteen reps per exercise the first two weeks and train the entire body three times per week. You'll only be performing one or two work sets per exercise in this full body workout. In the second two week block, you'll increase the weight and drop the reps to ten. In the next two week block you'll do the same, only this time dropping the reps to five. Finally, you perform only negatives where appropriate (continue using five reps where not appropriate) and then take nine days off for the strategic deconditioning period. During this off time, you can perform light cardio.
Here's another sample program:
Note: In the program above, you're alternating between squats and leg presses, hence the "0's".
Again, this may all seem complicated, but if you study the charts for a few minutes, it should all become clear to you. Try it and you'll see why HST is getting so much attention!