The Problem with Hypertrophy Programs

I spend far too much time with people who want to gain lean body mass.

The problem, among dozens of things, is that most people need to get stronger before they can add mass. I know that somewhere researchers are figuring out an injection to ramp up the body's ability to build mass through some kind of genetic mutation, but for most of us, we're going to head off to the weight room.

And, that's the problem.

The Problem Child

The problem with standard hypertrophy programs, beside their built-in boredom, is the inability to jack up intensity. We tend to let accumulated fatigue – which is good in the case of high-rep squats – limit the load. But by breaking apart the sets just a little bit, you can add more weight to the bar and actually cut rest periods between what we traditionally call "sets."

For example, I've shared an interesting way to do German Volume Training – you remember, the ten sets of ten workouts. Rather than letting reps 60 to 100 dictate the load, we play with this rep scheme: 2-3-5-10. We use the same weight for each set and rep, striving to do a total of five of these clusters. It adds up to 100 reps, with only five sets consisting of that rep-reducing tough set of ten.

What's amazing about this program is that often times when you put the bar down you almost immediately do the double because that set of ten was hard but anybody can do two. Oddly, the triple is done quite quickly, and, as I often think, "Might as well do the five, too."

So, between those hellacious tens, you nail ten more reps with surprising little rest.

If hypertrophy is honestly time under tension, it logically follows that more load (because you aren't doing ten sets of ten and roasting yourself in the process) in less time would lead to greater muscle mass.

Now, you don't have to do 100 reps. Oddly, I've found that doing three clusters (2-3-5-10, 2-3-5-10, 2-3-5-10) seems to be enough for any athlete. It's better to leave a little in the tank, especially for a drug-free athlete, than to go to the edge with this magic 100-rep barrier.

Five Times the Excitement

What's actually more exciting is a very interesting variation on the five by five workout. The reps simply drop out the last set of ten, so we have 2-3-5.

There are two very innovative changes that seem to really work well in the realm of big lifts such as the bench press, the military press, the squat (with all its variations), and the deadlift.

The big issue, of course, is, "What do you mean by five by five?" Here are the two simple innovations for workouts geared towards bulk and power.

First, stick with one weight throughout the workout. Of course, you know that, but with this rep scheme of 2-3-5-2-3-5-2-3, you can handle far more load than the traditional five sets of five. You aren't held back by that heavy last set of five that often forces one to go lighter on the first four sets.

Certainly, some of the options, like the wave, have value, but this has been an issue for many of us for years. Yes, I realize that someone is going to post something like, "I thought five by five was obvious," and then add a whole new variation that no one has ever seen before.

With this first option, the lifter only has to deal with two big sets of five. So, try to find a weight that forces you to give it your all on that second set of five. (Obvious note: Get a good spotter on the bench and squat.)

This is where the same odd rest issue shows up. For whatever reason, and I'm sure the science guys know the biology behind this, it's a quick recovery to get that double in after the heavy set of five. And, once again, since you have nothing better to do, that triple often happens out of breath.

I'd suggest only timing the whole duration of this variation and see how fast all 25 reps are finished. Honestly, it goes fast even with a serious load.

Small reminder: This is not a powerlifting workout! It's intended for those interested in a nice mix of power and bulk. Again, if you have more plates on the bar and the workout finishes faster, isn't that hypertrophy training?

The second option is really opening eyes. The adjustment is so simple that many will dismiss it with an "I've been there, done that" attitude. Well, good for you.

Let's review the second option.

  • First cluster: 2-3-5
  • Now, add weight!
  • Second cluster: 2-3-5
  • Add more weight.
  • Third cluster: 2-3-5
  • Add more weight.
  • Fourth cluster: 2-3-5

You can use the first cluster as a warm-up of sorts, and what's funny is that the program begins to take on one of the earliest recognized programs in lifting, the DeLorme workout.

Doctor Thomas DeLorme worked with some guys rehabbing from World War II, and he found that weightlifting worked wonders on injury rehabilitation. Originally, he thought that 70 to 100 reps were the key, but later discovered that, "Further experience has shown this figure (the number of sets in a workout) to be too high."

The number of sets was reduced from seven to ten to a much more realistic three sets. During the first set, weight was at 50% of the person's ten-rep max. The second set was increased to 75%, and it finished at 100% of the subject's ten-rep max. This became known as the "DeLorme technique," although a guy named Watkins also authored the study.

This second variation can reflect those numbers except we focus on the five-rep max (a number in many people's experience that rewards bodybuilding training more so than higher reps). Try this variation in a simple workout after any kind of intelligent workout.

I've been training my athletes with the second variation (40 total reps, three plate changes) with the front squat, bench press, and power clean (or the power curl, a curl grip clean using the legs) mixed with some hurdle walkovers and some farmer's walks.

This isn't a fancy workout, but the load really impacts the athletes. If you can do some kind of hurdle walkover or hip mobility work during a training session that has a squat, deadlift, or clean variation, I strongly recommend it. I also like to finish this workout with a farmer's walk, but keep it within reason.


A Problem Solver's Workout

A sample workout might look like this:

  • Front squat: 135 x 2
  • Bench press: 135 x 2
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 135 x 2
  • Front squat: 135 x 3
  • Bench press: 135 x 3
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 135 x 3
  • Front squat: 135 x 5
  • Bench press: 135 x 5
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 135 x 5

Add weight

  • Front squat: 185 x 2
  • Bench press: 185 x 2
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 185 x 2
  • Front squat: 185 x 3
  • Bench press: 185 x 3
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 185 x 3
  • Front squat: 185 x 5
  • Bench press: 185 x 5
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 185 x 5

Add weight

  • Front squat: 205 x 2
  • Bench press: 205 x 2
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 205 x 2
  • Front squat: 205 x 3
  • Bench press: 205 x 3
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 205 x 3
  • Front squat: 205 x 5
  • Bench press: 205 x 5
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 205 x 5

Add weight

  • Front squat: 225 x 2
  • Bench press: 225 x 2
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 225 x 2
  • Front squat: 225 x 3
  • Bench press: 225 x 3
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 225 x 3
  • Front squat: 225 x 5
  • Bench press: 225 x 5
  • Hurdle walkover or hip mobility movement
  • Power curl: 225 x 5

Finish with a farmer's walk with 85 pounds in each hand to exhaustion. Then, bring them back.

It's simple stuff. It's simple, but it works.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook