Let me ask you this: why’d you start lifting?
You probably started for the same reason as the rest of us. You wanted to look good! It started with a cookie-cutter template, “doing your own thing,” and just generally focusing on aesthetics. You were out to build muscle, one way or another.
But if you’re reading this as a powerlifter now, things changed at some point. Somewhere along the way, you started enjoying the process itself. You stopped lifting just for muscle growth and started training to get stronger. The temptation to test your 1RM each week became increasingly tempting, and without a coach or a hard-and-fast program, you started giving in just a little too often.
And when you start neglecting hypertrophy, you run into trouble.
Mass moves mass, as the saying goes. That’s why most powerlifters alternate their focus between developing muscle size and strength. Strength is always the top priority, but it is also extremely important to focus on increasing lean tissue.
If you look at the top lifters in the majority of weight classes besides the Super Heavy Weight categories, then you will notice a trend. Typically these lifters are incredibly jacked and relatively lean, their frames are packed with muscle mass, and they're built to perform. These physiques were not built overnight and were probably not built from just following 5x5 and 5/3/1 programs.
In fact, experts have known for a long time now that the best way to increase muscle mass isn't with sets of 5, 3, or 1. Instead, we need a combination of both the strength and hypertrophy rep ranges with a variety of loads to see reliable gains in muscle mass.
Eventually, you'll get to the point where you've tapped out the amount of muscle mass you can add to your frame naturally. This will most likely mean a shift to more strength work (i.e. sets of 4-6 reps) and peaking work (1-3 reps) with a focus on neural adaptations.
Neural adaptation is an often-overlooked but vitally important factor in strength training, by the way. If hypertrophy is the first guaranteed way to increase strength, then neural adaptation (your nervous system's ability to produce sufficient force) is the second. Both should be considered staples of a given macrocycle for powerlifting.
The earlier you are in your training career, though, the more the focus should be on hypertrophy. Your hypertrophy training will lay the groundwork for progress for years to come. The more hypertrophy training you do, the more work capacity you will have, which means the amount of volume you can recover from will be higher. In other words, the more volume you can handle, the more progress you will make.
Your body is not in “shape” yet, and training stimulus is still relatively new. If we look at training from a long-term approach, beginners should spend a lot of time doing different activities.
The bottom of the pyramid has to be the largest portion so that the pyramid can be as tall as possible. Your total work capacity and general physical preparedness are the bottom of your pyramid — the base if you will. When you are at the bottom of the pyramid, your hypertrophy mesocycles should out number the amount of strength and peaking mesocycles you do.
For every two hypertrophy cycles, you could do one strength and one peaking cycle. As you progress in both strength, and experience your training can become more sport specific (focused around the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift) and your pyramid slowly tapers up. At the halfway point of your pyramid (intermediate level), we can hopefully assume you have made some significant strength and size gains.
Now, we can focus less on adding size as often, and training heavier a little more often. This doesn’t mean we skip our hypertrophy mesocycle, but the ratio of hypertrophy to strength to peaking cycles are more evenly distributed. Your macrocycle might look like one hypertrophy cycle, one strength cycle, and one peaking cycle or even one strength cycles.
The volume is higher than that of a strength block or peaking block meaning you have more repetitions to practice good technique. The weights will also be relatively lighter, meaning holding good technique should be easier.
With that being said, the number one goal of a hypertrophy block is, well, hypertrophy. Meaning we want to get the muscles bigger that need getting bigger (often weak points). For some, this may be their quads, for others their chest, it is highly individual. This means that making a proper assessment as to what a given lifter is lacking based on their lifts is crucial before writing a hypertrophy program.
A typical Bench Press hypertrophy day in a training program may look like this:
*RIR = Reps In Reserve.
This training day includes the bench press first. This allows the lifter to have an abundance of energy to complete the competition lift to the best of their ability. The goal should be technical consistency rep to rep practicing the same motor pattern over and over again. Following the bench press is the close grip bench press. This movement is great for triceps hypertrophy, and will have direct carryover to a stronger lockout on bench.
After the barbell work is done, the lifter will move to their accessory work. For accessory work it is just as important to use progressive overload and track your progress. Just like the main lifts, the volume and/or intensity of these exercises should increase week to week.
“It is fairly common for hypertrophy training to take the back seat in a lot of lifters programs. Often coined “off-season” training, but in reality it is crucial to “in-season” training, too.”
When lifters don’t allow their bodies to grow and become more muscular, there is less support for the joints and risk of injuries as a lifter progresses can increase. This is why it is best to maximize your muscular potential first, and then as you become more experienced (and jacked),your strength programming can increase.
If you find your progress stalling, take a look at your training, and maybe in the mirror. Have you been focusing enough on muscular hypertrophy? Are you spending too much time lifting relatively heavy, and not enough time building out your frame? Switch the focus to spending some time on growing your muscle mass, and reap the benefits as you transition into strength and peaking mesocycles after that.
It's one thing to read it; it's another to do it. And when you're training without a coach, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.