Illustration of a bodybuilder doing hypertrophy training to gain muscle mass.

The Hypertrophy Training Guide: How to Lift for Muscle Size

Hypertrophy training is the style of training designed specifically for stimulating muscle growth. If you’re trying to build muscle, there’s nothing better. This will help you gain more mass than any strength training program. Plus, because bigger muscles have a greater strength potential, if you’re interested in getting stronger, building bigger muscles is one of the best ways to do that.

In this guide, we’ll teach you why our muscles and how to stimulate that growth. Then we’ll teach you the main principles of building muscle. And then we’ll go over how to min-max every variable of your workout routine, including which exercises to focus on, how many reps and sets to do, how close to failure to take your sets, how long to rest between those sets, and how long to rest between your workouts. By the end, you’ll know exactly how to train for muscle growth.

Outlift Illustration of a bodybuilder doing hypertrophy training to build muscle.

What is Hypertrophy Training?

Muscle hypertrophy means muscle growth, so hypertrophy training is the style of training designed to stimulate muscle growth. Some people call it “bodybuilding,” but bodybuilding can involve various other things: dieting, posing, and so on. When we’re talking about hypertrophy training, we’re talking purely about training for muscle mass.

Gaining muscle mass is good for a few things:

  • Strength: the bigger your muscles are, the greater their strength potential is. That’s why strongmen, powerlifters, and all other types of strength athletes use hypertrophy training to build bigger muscles.
  • Athleticism: the bigger your muscles are, the more explosive power they can produce. And the bigger you are, the more momentum your body will have. That’s why Olympic weightlifters, most athletes, and most fighters are interested in building muscle.
  • Aesthetics: one of the best things we can do to improve our appearance is to build bigger muscles, especially in our upper bodies. In fact, our muscularity may be the most important part of having an attractive physique (study).
  • Health: having more muscle mass relative to our fat mass improves a number of our health markers, ranging from blood sugar control to cardiovascular health, and in so doing, reduces our risk of all-cause mortality (studystudystudy).

Before we talk about how to stimulate muscle growth, it helps to know at least a little bit about what’s going on under the hood. The first thing that’s often talked about with muscle hypertrophy is the two ways in which our muscle fibres grow:

  • Myofibrillar hypertrophy: this is when the myofibrils inside our muscle fibres grow bigger, allowing our muscles to produce more force, allowing us to lift more weight for a single repetition.
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy: this is when the sarcoplasm surrounding the myofibrils expands, giving us more fuel and growth potential, and allowing us to do more repetitions (study).
Diagram showing the difference between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar muscle hypertrophy.

Now, if you’re looking at this diagram and thinking that there’s hardly any difference between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy—you’re right! As our muscles grow bigger, there’s always a balance between the myofibrils and sarcoplasm—usually about 80% myofibrils, 20% sarcoplasm. It’s just that the balance can lean a little bit one way or the other. Heavier training might stimulate a bit more myofibrillar hypertrophy, making us stronger, whereas high-volume bodybuilding may yield a little more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, giving us greater work capacity (study, study).

Illustration showing that sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy look exactly the same.

Some advocates of certain styles of training put a huge emphasis on the different types of muscle hypertrophy, but both types of hypertrophy make our muscles bigger and harder, and both are valuable adaptations. Myofibrillar hypertrophy lets us lift more weight for a single repetition, improving our 1-rep max. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy lets us lift weights for more repetitions, improving our rep maxes. With hypertrophy training, we want both types of muscle growth, so we train directly for both.

Diagram showing the difference between fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres.

The same thing goes with our muscle fibres. We have fast-twitch muscle fibres that are bigger and stronger, and we have slow-twitch fibres that have greater endurance and more blood vessels (which is why they’re red). Different people and different muscles have varying proportions of each type of muscle fibre. We want to hypertrophy all of our muscle fibres, so we train for both strength and work capacity.

Diagram showing how hypertrophy training is good for gaining both muscle strength and endurance.

Hypertrophy training is a hybrid approach, building muscle by developing both muscular strength and work capacity. Powerlifters are known for lifting heavy things for fewer reps, stimulating muscle growth by putting a ton of tension on their muscles. Bodybuilders are good at feeling the burn and getting a pump, stimulating muscle growth with metabolic stress. We want to build muscle in both ways, so we do both.

As a welcome bonus, since we’re lifting heavy weights through a large range of motion for a moderate number of reps, hypertrophy training has quite a lot in common with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), making it great for improving our cardiovascular fitness (study).

Illustration showing the muscle-building results from hypertrophy training.

Because building muscle is so good for so many things, hypertrophy training is the best default way of lifting weights. Powerlifters start with hypertrophy training to build bigger muscles, then specialize in heavy strength training. Athletes start by building bigger muscles, then focus on developing power. But if you aren’t a powerlifter or athlete, there’s nothing wrong with focusing purely on building muscle.

So when building a hypertrophy program, we don’t need to worry about which style of training develops slightly more power, work capacity, fast-twitch muscle fibres, or 1-rep max strength. And we aren’t locked into doing specific lifts. Instead, we can focus purely on which methods yield the most muscle growth, which lifts are best for our joints and health, and which muscles we’re most eager to grow.

The Principles of Hypertrophy Training

Resistance Training: Challenging Your Muscles

Most types of exercise have at least a bit of overlap. When we go running, the muscles in our legs will grow a little bit bigger and stronger. And when we lift weights, we’re often left feeling tired and out of breath, which is good for our cardiovascular systems. But there’s no doubt that to build a serious amount of muscle, we need to train for it directly.

At one end of the spectrum, we have endurance training, where the idea is to raise our heart rate, challenge our cardiovascular system, and improve our general fitness. Think of activities like jogging, biking, and burpees. At the other end of the spectrum, we have resistance training, where the goal is to challenge our muscles, tendons, and bones, making them bigger, stronger, and denser. Resistance training is what builds muscle, so that’s what we’re focused on.

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing front squats to gain muscle mass.

There are a few different types of resistance training. You can train to become stronger for your size (strength training), to develop more explosive power (Olympic weightlifting) or to build more muscle mass—hypertrophy training. And even within hypertrophy training, we can use several different tools, ranging from exercise machines to dumbbells to barbells. Resistance bands and bodyweight exercises can work, too, but they make it somewhat harder to build muscle.

I would agree with your general recommendations of free weights and machines for hypertrophy, with bands and bodyweight working in a pinch.

Eric Helms, PhD

The most important thing, though, is to train in a way where our muscles limit us. For instance, if you load up a barbell with a weight you can only lift for 8 repetitions, then your muscles will give out before your cardiovascular system limits your performance. Now compare that against something like a burpee. It’s a combination of a push-up and a squat, both of which can be good exercises for building muscle. But when the two are combined, it becomes a cardio exercise.

To ensure that you’re challenging your muscles, focus on exercises that are simple and stable, and that are done heavy enough that your muscles give out before your fitness does. Squats done for sets of 6 repetitions, the bench press for sets of 8, biceps curls done for sets of 10. That kind of thing.

Progressive Overload: Growing Bigger & Stronger

Once we’re doing exercises that challenge the strength of our muscles, the next thing we need to do is make sure we’re challenging them enough. We need to work them hard enough to provoke an adaptation—to grow back bigger and stronger than they were before. And because our muscles keep growing bigger and stronger, we need to keep challenging them with progressively heavier weights.

Illustration of Milo of Croton carrying a calf as it grows into a bull, demonstrating the principle of progressive overload for building muscle.

The idea of progressive overload is best illustrated by the story of Milo of Croton, the ancient Greek wrestler. He started by picking up a calf and carrying it up and down the street. The calf was small, but so were Milo’s muscles, and so it was enough to challenge him. His muscles grew a little bit bigger every day, and so did the calf, ensuring that his muscles were always challenged. By the time the calf grew into a bull, Milo had become the strongest wrestler in Greece.

As you can see, progressive overload is both the cause and the result of building muscle:

  • Muscle growth allows progressive overload: if our muscles have grown bigger, that means we can lift heavier weights. Muscle growth is what allows us to outlift ourselves.
  • Progressive overload causes muscle growth: now that our muscles are bigger, to continue challenging them, we need to lift heavier weights. Lifting heavier weights is what stimulates more muscle growth.
Illustration of a chicken to demonstrate how progressive overload causes muscle growth.
Progressive overload is the cause and result of muscle growth.

It’s a sort of chicken and egg riddle. One causes the other, allowing us to grow gradually bigger and stronger over time. And sometimes, that can cause hiccups. Let’s consider two common examples.

  • Not enough progressive overload: let’s say that during your first workout, you bench press 135 pounds for 8 repetitions, failing midway through your ninth rep. That’s enough to stimulate quite a lot of muscle growth. So you go home, eat plenty of protein and food, and get a good night’s rest. Two days later, you show up to your next workout a little bit bigger and stronger than last time. You load up the bar with 135 pounds again, and this time the 8 repetitions feel a bit easier. Maybe you could have gotten 10 repetitions. Great, that’s still challenging. You’ll still stimulate some muscle growth. So you go home, eat and rest, and come back two days later. This time, when you lift 135 pounds for 8 repetitions, it’s too easy. You could have gotten 12 reps. Now you aren’t stimulating muscle growth anymore. There wasn’t enough progressive overload. To solve this problem, always add a bit of weight or try to get an extra rep. You don’t need to hit failure, but always try to lift a bit more than last time.
  • Not enough muscle growth: let’s go back to the beginning. During your first workout, you bench press 135 pounds for 8 repetitions. That’s enough to stimulate muscle growth, but you don’t eat enough to build muscle, and so when you come back two days later, you still can’t get a ninth rep. So you grind and you push, knowing that you need to lift more weight. But you can’t. You can’t force progressive overload. To lift more weight, you need more muscle mass. And in this case, because you haven’t built any muscle, 8 reps is still challenging. It will still stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth. So lift those 8 reps, go home, and eat more protein, eat more food, and get more sleep. That way you can show up to your next workout bigger and stronger than last time.

So progressive overload is two things:

  1. We need to challenge our muscles enough to stimulate muscle growth, which requires gradually adding weight to the bar.
  2. And then we need to give our muscles what they need to grow: enough protein, enough food, and enough rest. That’s what allows us to lift more weight.

In this article, we’re only talking about hypertrophy training. We’re talking about how to stimulate muscle growth with our workout routines. But the other half is just as important.

For more, we have a full article on progressive overload.

How to Train for Muscle Growth

The Power of Compound Lifts

Everyone has a slightly different idea of which lifts are best, and depending on whether you’re using dumbbells, barbells, or exercise machines, they can vary. But for gaining muscle mass, these five compound lifts tend to make the best foundation:

  • The squat: the knee lift, designed to bulk up your quads. But it will also build muscle in your hips, back, and core. Think of goblet squats (for beginners), front squats, split squats, and high-bar back squats.
  • The bench press: the chest lift, designed to bulk up your pecs. But it will also build muscle in your shoulders and triceps. Think of push-ups, dumbbell bench presses, and barbell bench presses. If you’re a rebel, you might even include dips here.
  • The deadlift: the hip lift, designed to bulk up your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. But it will also build muscle in your upper back and forearms. Think of Romanian deadlifts, conventional deadlifts, and sumo deadlifts.
  • The overhead press: the shoulder lift, designed to bulk up your deltoids. But it will also build muscle in your upper back, triceps, and abs. Think of incline bench presses, dumbbell overhead presses, and the barbell “military” press.
  • The chin-up: the back lift, designed to bulk up your entire upper back. But it will also build muscle in your biceps and abs. Think of chin-ups with an underhand or neutral grip, done on a straight bar, angled bar, or using gymnastic rings. Or pull-ups with an overhand grip. Even rows can serve in a pinch.
Illustration of two women training to build muscle with barbells and dumbbells.

These five exercises stimulate a ton of overall muscle growth, allowing you to bulk up all of the biggest muscles in your body. You can do them with dumbbells or barbells. Some people even use machines. If you can get strong at them, you’ll build an impressive physique, guaranteed. And we can do even better!

The Purpose of Isolation Lifts

It’s common to hear that focusing on the big compound lifts is all you need, especially for beginners. That’s technically true. You can gain a ton of muscle mass by doing compound lifts. You don’t need anything more. But you might want more. Here’s why:

Graph showing muscle hypertrophy when training with just compound lifts.

If you only do the bench press, your chest will grow twice as fast as your triceps (study). And it’s not hard to see why. When you do the bench press, you’re doing a movement that your chest is best at. It’s your chest that dominates the lift, your chest that’s brought closest to failure, and so it’s your chest that receives the best growth stimulus. It’s a compound lift, but the main muscle being worked is the chest.

Graph showing muscle hypertrophy when doing just single-joint isolation lifts.

Your triceps, on the other hand, are better suited to extending your elbows. That’s why if you do skull crushers, all of a sudden we see perfect triceps growth… at the cost of your chest. After all, the skull crusher doesn’t work your chests at all. It’s a small isolation lift.

Graph showing balanced muscle hypertrophy from combining multi-joint compound lifts with single-joint isolation lifts.

To develop all of our muscles in a balanced way, we need to use a mix of both compound and isolation exercises. By doing both the bench press and skull crushers, we get balanced growth in both our chests and triceps.

Here are the muscles that benefit the most from isolation lifts:

  • Biceps benefit from biceps curls.
  • Triceps benefit from triceps extensions.
  • Side delts benefit from lateral raises.
  • Rear delts benefit from rows or face pulls.
  • Neck muscles benefit from neck curls and extensions.
  • Forearm muscles benefit from reverse curls and forearm curls.
  • Calf muscles benefit from calf raises.
  • Hamstrings benefit from leg curls.
  • Quads benefit from leg extensions (for the rectus femoris).
  • Abs benefit from crunches, reverse crunches, and planks.
  • Upper chest benefits from close-grip or incline pressing.

Balancing Compound & Isolation Lifts

With that said, you don’t need to do isolation lifts for all of those muscles, let alone every workout. Compound lifts are usually enough to make rapid progress in some muscles, slower progress in others. So if you decide not to isolate all of your muscles, that’s totally fine. Most of your muscles will still grow.

Just keep in mind that some muscles may only grow at half speed until you decide to train them directly. Others, such as your neck muscles, probably won’t grow at all until you train them directly. So pick which muscles you’re most eager to grow and make sure you’re doing lifts that stimulate them. Maybe you want biceps curls for your biceps but don’t care about doing calf raises for your calves.

Before and after photo showing Ariel's results from hypertrophy training using the Bony to Beastly Program.

For an example of how this all comes together, let’s imagine a guy who wants to build muscle and be strong overall, but with some extra emphasis in his shoulders, arms, upper chest, and neck. In that case, he can build his routine around the big compound lifts, making sure to include some incline pressing, biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, and neck exercises.

Before and after photos showing a woman building a bigger butt, hips, and glutes.

For another example, let’s imagine a woman who wants to build muscle and be strong overall, but with some emphasis on her hips. In that case, the compound lifts will serve her fairly well, since deadlifts are already quite ideal for her hips. But she might want to take that further, adding in some Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, lunges, or hip thrusts.

For more, we’ve written an entire article about exercise selection.

Which Exercises Are Best for Building Muscle?

Once we’ve chosen a mix of general movement patterns that develop all of our muscles, the next thing is to make sure we’re choosing the best variations of those exercises—that we’re doing the movements in a way that stimulates maximal muscle growth.

Graph showing how training at different muscle lengths stimulates different amounts of muscle growth.

One of the most important parts of stimulating muscle growth is to lift with a deep range of motion. If we look at a recent meta-analysis, we see that by choosing lifts that challenge our muscles in a deeper stretch, we can build muscle over twice as fast. This meta-analysis was looking at isometric lifts, but we see the same thing when comparing exercises that use a full range of motion. For example, this study found that doing leg curls in a seated position (giving the hamstrings a better stretch) yielded twice as much muscle growth as doing them in a lying position (giving the hamstrings a better contraction).

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing the bench press to build a bigger chest and bigger triceps.

When choosing our exercise variations, then, we want to choose lifts that allow us to challenge our muscles with a deep stretch. Here are some good examples of that:

  • The front squat, leg press, and leg extension all challenge our quads under a deep stretch. More than the back squat and the split squat.
  • The bench press, deficit push-up, dip, dumbbell fly, pec deck machine, and chest press machine all challenge our chests under a deep stretch. More than the cable crossover, pin press, push-up, and floor press.
  • The deadlift, Romanian deadlift, and good morning all challenge our glutes under a deep stretch, and do a fairly good job for our hamstrings, too. More so than the hip thrust and squat.
  • The skull crusher and overhead triceps extension both challenge our triceps in a deep stretch.
  • The incline curl challenges our biceps in a deep stretch. But regular barbell and dumbbell curls are quite good, too. Spider curls and resistance band curls, not so much.
  • The pullover challenges our lats under a deep stretch, but the chin-up is quite good, too. Rows, not as much.

When doing these lifts, we want to focus on going deep and getting a good stretch on our muscles at the bottom of the movement. It’s still wise to lift through a full range of motion, contracting your muscles at the top, but it’s the deep part of the range of motion that will stimulate most of the muscle growth, and so that’s what we want to emphasize.

You might notice that this is a little bit different from other styles of training. Unlike in powerlifting, we aren’t doing low-bar back squats to maximize our leverage. Instead, we’re doing front squats to maximize our depth. Unlike in CrossFit, we aren’t doing kipping pull-ups to maximize how many reps we can do. Instead, we’re lifting methodically to work our lats under a deep stretch. And unlike some bodybuilders, we aren’t emphasizing the contraction to get a big pump. Instead, we’re choosing lifts that let us fail at the bottom, at longer muscle lengths.

Illustration showing how the dumbbell pullover can be used as an alternative to the lat pulldown exercise.
Training the lats under a deep stretch.

With that said, there are many different ways to lift, and many different exercise variations to pick between. The most important part of hypertrophy training is choosing lifts that challenge your muscles, and then gradually fighting to lift more weight and more reps over time. If a lift is aggravating your joints, causing you pain, doesn’t feel good, or you simply don’t like it, that’s okay—use another one. We aren’t powerlifters. There are no mandatory lifts. We can choose the ones that suit us best.

Doing Enough Repetitions Per Set

In hypertrophy training, we’re optimizing our workout routines for muscle growth. Gaining strength is part of that, absolutely, which means lifting heavy weights. But so is our work capacity, which means doing enough reps to cause some metabolic stress. So to get the best of both worlds, we want to sink low enough to gain strength and reach high enough to improve our work capacity. Anywhere from 6–20 reps is amazing for that.

  • Muscle strength: 1–8 reps per set.
  • Muscle hypertrophy: 6–20 reps per set.
  • Muscle endurance: 15–40 reps per set.
Illustration of a man doing drop sets to build muscle.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot of overlap there, even when training for a very specific type of adaptation. With hypertrophy training, we can dip down to 6–8 reps per set to develop more maximal strength while still building muscle at full speed. Similarly, we can go up to 15–20 reps to improve our work capacity without sacrificing muscle growth.

Now, just to be totally clear, anywhere from 4–40 repetitions per set will build muscle quite well, it’s just that we tend to gain more muscle more easily when lifting in the 6–20 rep range. For example, this systematic review of 14 studies found that we gain about twice as much muscle from sets of 6–20 reps as we do from sets of 1–5 reps. That means that we can still build muscle with low-rep sets, it’s just less efficient. For example, take a look at this study by Schoenfeld et al:

  • The strength training group did 7 sets of 3 repetitions. It took them 70 minutes to finish their workouts, and by the end of the study, they were complaining of sore joints and overall fatigue. Two of the participants dropped out of the study due to injuries.
  • The hypertrophy training group did 3 sets of 10 repetitions. It took them 17 minutes to finish their workouts, they were eager to do more lifting, they finished the study feeling fresh, and they gained the same amount of muscle mass.

What’s happening is that when we lift in lower rep ranges, we aren’t able to lift as much weight per set, and so our muscles do less work overall. For example, if we imagine someone who can lift 315 pounds for a single repetition, here’s how much weight they can lift in different rep ranges:

  • 1-rep max: 315 pounds for 1 rep = 315 pounds lifted.
  • 5-rep max: 275 pounds for 5 reps = 1375 pounds lifted.
  • 10-rep max: 235 pounds for 10 reps = 2350 pounds lifted.

So if we lift in lower rep ranges, we lift less weight per set, and so we need to do more sets to make up for that. But lifting in lower rep ranges is hard on our bodies and requires long rest times, making it hard to do enough sets to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth.

On the other hand, as we do more reps per set, we’re doing more total work, which can get quite hard on our cardiovascular systems. If we’re doing a big lift, such as a squat or deadlift, it’s easy to get winded before our muscles give out, turning them into cardio exercises. That’s why we can’t let the reps drift too high, either.

That’s why doing 6–20 repetitions per usually allows us to build muscle faster, more efficiently, and more easily. With the bigger lifts, we can stick to the lower side of that rep range so that our cardiovascular systems don’t hold us back. And with the smaller lifts, we can delve deeper into it. Now, that isn’t to say you should never do sets of 3 or 30 reps, just that you should invest most of your effort, most of the time, into the so-called “hypertrophy rep range” of 6–20 reps per set.

For more, we’ve got a full article on how many reps to do.

Doing Enough Challenging Sets

Most research shows that doing somewhere between 3–8 sets per muscle per workout is enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth. Thing is, if you’re challenging yourself with each set, choosing good exercises, lifting with a deep range of motion, and doing enough repetitions per set, then each set is quite powerful. You might be able to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth with just 4 hard sets per muscle per workout.

Outlift illustration of a woman doing chin-ups to build muscle.

Now, the trick is to choose exercises that truly challenge your muscles. As we covered above, doing 4 sets of the bench press might be enough to stimulate a maximal amount of hypertrophy in your chest, but not in your triceps. So that might mean doing 4 sets of the bench press, and because your triceps are partially worked, maybe 2–3 sets of skull crushers.

So think about training each muscle hard with around 4–8 sets per workout, starting at the lower end of that range and working your way up as needed.

For more, we’ve got a full article about how many sets to do.

Training Often Enough

Once we’re doing enough hard sets every workout, the next thing to consider is how often we should be training our muscles. Each workout stimulates 2–3 days of muscle growth (study), so if we want to keep our muscles growing steadily all week long, we should train them every 2–3 days… right?

Graph showing that training a muscle 2–3 times per week stimulates more muscle growth than training a muscle once per week.

If we look at a meta-analysis of all the relevant studies, we see that training our muscles 2–4 times per week results in 48% more muscle growth than training them just once per week. Beyond that, it’s hard to find a difference. It doesn’t seem that training our muscles 4 times per week builds more muscle than training them just twice per week.

There are a few different ways to train our muscles at least twice per week:

  • 3 full-body workouts per week. This allows us to train all of our muscles 3 times per week, which is perfect, especially for beginners and early intermediates. Note that with a full-body workout, we don’t need to do every lift or train every muscle. The idea is to do a few bigger and smaller lifts that work most of the muscles in our bodies.
  • A 4-day push/pull routine, training pushing movements (squat, press) one workout, our pulling movements (deadlift, chin-up) the next workout. This has us training our muscles twice per week, which is perfect, especially as the weights get heavier and we need more rest between sets and between workouts.
  • A 5-day training split. Maybe that means 2 lower-body workouts, 3 upper-body workouts. That way we’re training our muscles 2-3 times per week and each workout is short and manageable. This works great for very strong lifters and for people who prefer doing a bit of weight lifting every day.

All of these methods work equally well, it just depends on your personal preference, strength, fitness, and experience level.

For more, we have a full article on hypertrophy training frequency.

Training Hard Enough

The next thing we need to do is make sure that we’re actually challenging our muscles with every set. After all, if we aren’t challenging our muscles, why would they need to grow bigger? They’re already big enough to do what we’re asking of them.

With that said, we’ve already listed progressive overload as one of the most important principles of hypertrophy training. And if we’re always trying to lift more than last time, our workouts will always be challenging enough.

Graph showing that intermediate lifters build more muscle if they stop their sets shy of muscle failure.

If we look at the research, though, we can get more precise. Ideally, we want to be lifting close but not all the way to total muscular failure, finishing most of our sets with something like 0–3 reps in reserve (studystudystudystudystudy).

For more, we have a full article on how close to failure to lift.

Getting Enough Rest Between Sets

As a rule of thumb, hypertrophy training means resting long enough to perform well on your next set, lifting heavy and getting plenty of repetitions. If we’re doing big compound lifts, always fighting to improve, and bringing our sets within a couple of reps of failure, then those sets can be quite hard, leaving our muscles fried and our lungs winded. We could rush back into doing another set, but our performance would surely falter. That’s why we need to rest—to regain our strength and endurance.

If your performance is dropping from set to set, consider resting longer. Maybe we squat for 9 reps in our first set, rest a minute, and then only get 5 reps in our second set. Then we rest another minute, but only get 4 reps in our third set. We’re hemorrhaging reps with every set, lifting less total weight, which usually means less total muscle growth. That’s why resting until our breathing has returned to normal tends to lead to more muscle growth per set (study, study).

As you get stronger, you’ll need to rest longer. When we’re smaller or newer to lifting, our muscles aren’t as big, we aren’t lifting as much weight, and so we aren’t asking as much of our cardiovascular systems. Resting 60–90 seconds is often enough. But as we get bigger and stronger, we’re doing more work with every set, and so our cardiovascular systems get worked much harder. That’s great for our health, but it can mean resting 2–5 minutes between sets, especially on the bigger compound lifts.

Fortunately, there are two good ways to keep your workouts shorter, denser, and more efficient:

  • Supersets: this is when you do two exercises together as a pair. For example, while taking a 5-minute rest between sets of the bench press, you sneak in a set of barbell rows. Your chest muscles still get plenty of time to recover between sets, but you’re training your back muscles while you wait. This is great for gaining strength, great for building muscle, and allows you to cut the length of your workouts in half.
  • Drop sets: this is when you strip weight off the bar instead of resting. For example, going go from curling 100 pounds to immediately curling 70 pounds, then 50 pounds. The rest times are minimal, but you’re still getting quite a few reps per set. Because you’re lifting less weight, drop sets aren’t as good for gaining strength.

For more, we have a full article on how long to rest between sets.


Hypertrophy training is a style of resistance training that’s designed to stimulate muscle growth. To do that, we train to maximize the strength and work capacity of our muscles. That allows us to build muscle faster, build more balanced musculature, and develop more versatile strength.

Here’s how to train for maximal muscle growth:

  • Challenge the strength of your muscles: the most important thing is to choose a style of training that allows you to challenge the strength of your muscles. If you’re limited by your balance, your coordination, or your cardiovascular system, that means you aren’t being limited by your muscles, and so they might not have any impetus to grow bigger and stronger.
  • Always strive to outlift yourself: progress won’t be linear, especially as you get more advanced, but the focus of hypertrophy training should always be to get stronger. Focus on adding weight to the bar over time or on eking out extra reps.
  • Choose good exercises: we want to build our routines on a foundation of compound lifts, such as the front squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. After that, we can add in smaller lifts to work the muscles that aren’t being fully stimulated, such as our biceps, triceps, neck muscles, and so on.
  • Do enough reps per set: anywhere from 4–40 repetitions per set will build muscle fairly well, but we tend to gain more muscle more easily when lifting in the 6–20 rep range. Usually, the big compound lifts are done for lower reps, the lighter isolation lifts for higher reps.
  • Do enough sets per week: most research shows that doing somewhere between 3–12 sets per muscle per workout is ideal for building muscle. If you choose good exercises, train in the hypertrophy rep range, and you lift hard, 4 sets per muscle may very well be enough, and makes for a good place to start.
  • Train often enough: to maximize our rate of muscle growth, we want to train our muscles 2–4 times per week. That could be 3 full-body workouts or a 4–5 day workout split.
  • Rest long enough between sets: we usually need to rest somewhere between 2–5 minutes between sets, allowing us to keep our performance high from set to set. To speed up your workouts, though, feel free to use supersets (and the occasional drop set).
  • Train hard enough: taking each set close to failure is needed to stimulate muscle growth. For the best results, that usually means stopping 0–3 reps shy of failure (without actually failing a rep). But if you’re always trying to lift more than last time, that means you’ll always be testing your limits. This one usually take care of itself.
Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds in these principles, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 65 pounds at 11% body fat and has ten years of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.