What is The Key to Hypertrophy? Strength? Reps? | Give me the secret, please!

For many years, I have been trying to find what the secret to bigger muscles is. I have experimented with various approaches, but to be quite fair the results were unimpressive. In this post, I will share my observations on the most common roads to hypertrophy while putting emphasis on the abilities of the average natural bodybuilder.

Strength = Muscle size?

Many gurus such as Mark Rippetoe, Lyle McDonald, Pavel Tsatsouline and many others have been saying for years that more weight on the bar equals bigger muscles when supplemented with enough food intake.

There have always been extreme claims that once you start lifting heavy (squat and deadlift), you will grow and grow. I tried it. I have done many heavy squats and deadlifts. I guess I gained a few pounds of muscle, but nowhere near the boosted expectations of the gurus.

I remember when I did my first 2.5 BW deadlift. It was 195 kg / 429 lbs for 2 reps. I did it, felt somewhat happy and went home to take a shower. My back was hurting from top to bottom. Of course, I decided to check how I looked in the mirror, and to my surprise, I looked terrible.

Forget about abs and body fat. I just did not have much muscle on me. I remember being alone and thinking about life while trying to remember the faces of the people in the gym who did not believe such a skinny boy can lift floor shaking weights. Looking back, I missed the main point by a lot.

In the end, my conclusion was that the deadlift is not as effective as people make it to be and that lifters with average genetics can build very little muscle in general.

I had similar experience with squats. I am a much worse squatter than I am a deadlifter, but I still put a lot of effort into it. I never got to 2BW squat though. I tried and the closest I got to was 1.7 BW for a few reps. Still, I remember expecting my legs to grow after getting stronger at doing squats, but the only thing that grew was my butt.

I had a bubble Brazilian butt perfect for an adult movie or something. I hated it. My legs (hamstrings and quads) appeared small. I attributed that to the fact that I am naturally a hip dominant squatter because of my super long femurs, which was correct. However, after some time I lost over 40 pounds and my bubble butt got significantly smaller. In other words, even my glute growth was not that exceptional.

During my quest for a bigger squat and legs, I got an injured hip. It was a nasty overuse injury, which manifested at the top of the squat. My left leg would start literally shaking. The pain gradually grew and at one point my whole hip, including the hamstrings insertions, would inflame to the point where I could not walk normally. I pushed through the pain like a completely moron. I even set a PR with my hip shaking like a vibrating seat. However, at one point it became unbearable, and I went to see a therapist. He was a young man and was obviously training – big biceps and stuff.

Here’s our conversation:

‘So, you’ve been lifting?’

‘Yes. Squats 130 kg.’

‘Lol, are you a fucking idiot? Look at my legs.’ {he had big legs, shredded} I never squat with more than 70 kg and all I do are sprints.’

I felt like an idiot. He was twice my size and did not even lift heavy. Was he on steroids? This happened a long time ago, and I was not as informed on drugs as I am today, so I can’t really tell for sure. At that time I though Ed Coan, Kirk Karwoski and many others were natural. Talk about informed.

The main point is that my effort in the gym and overeating resulted in an injury, skinny fatness and little muscle growth, even though I did everything by the book. I contacted different people online and they told that I need to get even stronger since the weights I was lifting were “pussy weights”. This was quite amusing because the very same people were literally just fat fucks and their pound for pound strength was no better than mine by any means. Squatting 405 lbs. when you are 240 is not spectacular. Sorry.

Anyway, there are many examples of people who are quite strong and not very muscular. Usually, the strength they display is result of low rep work, drugs and advantageous levers. In the video below, you see Ivan Ivanov squatting 463 lbs. / 210 kg at about 60 kg / 130 lbs. personal bodyweight. Keep in mind that this is a weight that Jay Cutler and current Mr. Olympia Phil Heath would get buried by.

In the next video you see Ronnie Coleman front squatting 585 lbs. at a bodyweight of 280 lbs. + and with knee wraps. Of course, the smaller guys will always have advantage over the big guys when it comes to relative strength, but seriously – a 130 lbs. person squatting only 150 lbs. less than Ronnie Coleman?

Ironically, both lifters are on steroids. There is no doubt that weightlifting and bodybuilding were built on the usage of drugs. One would be naive to be believe that there are professional word class drug free lifters and bodybuilders. The natural period ended many decades ago.

The logical conclusion for me is that big weights do not equal extremely big muscles by default. You can be very strong for your weight and still look unimpressive/average when it comes to muscle size. You can also be bigger while lifting relatively lighter weights.

Do reps equal hypertrophy?

Another popular method that is supposed to build a lot of muscle are high volume routines. Many people believe that pumping a ton of volume will result in growth. There are even programs such as the one arm day cure, which promise an inch of arm growth in day. Is this really possible? Of course, not.

I have done a lot of volume routines with really light weights, tons of pump and soreness but without good results. One could speculate that my genetics are average, but isn’t hypertrophy supposed to work for poor people too?

My observations in the gym concluded that untrained individuals will experience hypertrophy even if they train with light weights (60% of 1 RM). This lead me to my main muscle growth theory when it comes to naturals:

All humans have some potential to grow. That potential is quite small when you are natural. There is only so much testosterone in your body to support muscular growth. This factor cannot change naturally. I believe that almost anything challenging whether it’s low reps with heavy weight or higher reps with moderate weight (at least 60% of 1 RM) will get you to your maximum muscular potential, or at least very close. However, unless you are underweight, we are talking about something like 20 lbs. / 10 kg over your untrained self. That is if you are average. People with better genetics will do better (30 lbs. or so).

Whatever the case one would, be a fool to deny the obvious – the king of muscle and strength is testosterone. The next important part is food intake, and finally we have “stimulus” in the form of lifting weights.

Ironically, lifting weights remains the least important part and yet the one naturals can potentially control the most. Of course, we control our food intake as well, but we don’t choose how much of it will be used for muscle growth…etc. You put it in your system and the body takes over. The fact that you are loading yourself with protein does not mean that it will be used for growth.

In the end, we arrive at testosterone which is the one variable that cannot be controlled when you are natural. Sure, you can buy some boosters which are supposed to “triple your test levels”, but those things just do not work. Period. You can take them but all you are getting is acne and probably better erections or something.

The fact that training and nutrition give us the illusion of control is what causes so much controversy in the muscle industry. There is a lot of room for speculations. Genetics + nutrition + training are the back door of the muscle gurus. Whenever their bullshit ideas fail, they explain it with one of the three, while presenting drug loaded lifters as success examples.

Obviously, different professional bodybuilders train differently. Some prefer high volume while others say low volume is best. Some say high carb diets are best while others use low carb diets to get ripped. Whatever the case, there is one thing bodybuilders always agree on – drugs make you grow. However, when we are talking about drug free bodybuilding ( I mean real drug free bodybuilding) there is little that can be done as far as muscle mass is concerned.

As a natural you can get strong, you can get ripped, you can develop some serious physical skills, but growth will always be pathetic compared to the 200 lbs shredded guys pushed in your face. You can try many different diets and routines, but in the end you will always hit the wall. I learned that by doing exactly that – wondering like a moron in Wonderland and following the ideas of some muscle prophets, who never tell the truth.

To summarize:

  1. You can build muscle with high reps (at least 60% of 1 RM – anything less does not provide sufficient intensity).
  2. You can build muscle with low reps (85% of 1 RM).
  3. You can use both methods – a few heavy sets followed by light sets.

In all three cases, you will end up at the same place.

There are many ways to fill a bottle, but once it’s full – it’s full.

  1. Steroid users will be bigger than naturals even without training. Yes, that is a fact. Higher testosterone is one of the reasons men are bigger than women. As a woman you can train all day, you will still be smaller than many men who do not do much besides playing League Of Legends and chatting on their smart-phones.

This is why I recommend to people to specialize in some sort of skill training while keeping themselves in good shape. (Never get fat to lift more! ) It could be barbell lifts, bodyweight or even kettlebells. What’s important is that you don’t focus solely on muscular growth as a natural because this will probably drive you crazy. I still feel the side effects to this day.