Huberman’s Guide to Hypertrophy & Strength Training

Unpacking the science behind how our muscles respond to stimuli, Huberman sheds light on the intricate relationship between muscle size, strength, and the role of resistance exercise.

This post not only demystifies the complex science of muscle grwoth but also empowers readers with practical knowledge to harness their body’s potential.

Henneman’s Principle: Muscle Growth and Strength

Huberman delved into the intricacies of Henneman’s size principle, a crucial concept that underlies the mechanisms of muscle growth and strength development.

Huberman emphasized that while increasing muscle size often leads to increased strength, it is possible to enhance muscle strength without necessarily increasing muscle size. He highlighted the importance of resistance exercise for maintaining muscle function and offsetting the natural decline in strength and posture that occurs with aging.

Engaging in resistance training not only benefits the neuromuscular system but also helps protect against injury and enhances bone density.

At the heart of Huberman’s discussion was the Henneman size principle, which describes how motor units—the connections between nerve and muscle—are recruited in a staircase pattern from low threshold to high threshold.

This principle essentially means that when lifting a light object, the body uses the minimum amount of nerve-to-muscle energy required to move the object.

Similarly, when lifting a heavy object, the body employs the minimum amount of nerve-to-muscle connectivity and energy necessary to accomplish the task.

Huberman explained that as you continue to exert effort during movement, more motor units are progressively recruited over time. This process of recruiting additional lower motor neurons, which are located in the spinal cord and release the chemical acetylcholine to cause muscle contraction, is key to unlocking the potential for muscles to become stronger and larger.

By understanding and applying the Henneman size principle, individuals can optimize their resistance training to achieve their desired muscle growth and strength goals.

Whether the aim is to build impressive muscle mass or simply maintain muscle function and strength throughout the lifespan, leveraging the body’s natural recruitment of motor units is a fundamental aspect of effective resistance exercise.

Truth About Weight Ranges

According to Huberman, weights in a large range of 30% to 80% of one’s maximum can cause changes in the connections between nerve and muscle, leading to increased muscle strength and hypertrophy.

This means that while heavy weights can certainly help build muscle and strength, they are not the only option.

The key to building muscle and strength lies in adhering to a few key variables, rather than solely focusing on the weight being lifted.

By following these parameters, individuals can achieve significant muscle growth and strength gains without necessarily having to use the heaviest weights possible.

While powerlifters and those who enjoy lifting heavy weights may argue that heavy lifting is essential for getting very strong, this may not be the case for the average person looking to support their muscular health and offset age-related declines in strength.

For most people, using weights in the moderate to heavy range can be sufficient for achieving their goals.

Science Behind Muscle Growth: Stress, Tension, and Damage

According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, there are three main stimuli that can trigger changes in muscle strength and size: stress, tension, and damage.

Dr. Huberman’s insights are based on the extensive research conducted by experts in the field, such as Dr. Andy Galpin, a professor of exercise physiology, and Brad Schoenfield, an academic specializing in muscle physiology. Their work involves studying muscle biopsies and working with both athletes and average individuals.

When it comes to muscle growth, the key players are the myosin and actin filaments within the muscle fibers. Dr. Huberman explains this concept using a simple analogy: imagine holding a bouquet of balloons by their strings, with the balloons at varying heights. In this analogy, the strings represent the myosin filaments, and the balloons represent the myosin heads.

When a muscle is subjected to the right amount of stress, tension, or damage, an adaptive response occurs, triggering protein synthesis. Specifically, the myosin proteins become thicker, causing the “balloons” to grow in size, ultimately leading to muscle growth and increased strength.

However, the muscle itself doesn’t have the ability to know what’s happening in the outside world. Instead, it relies on signals from the nerves, which communicate through chemical messengers. These chemicals initiate a signaling cascade within the muscle, prompting the myosin to grow thicker.

It’s important to note that muscle growth is not an uncontrollable process, despite the concerns some people may have about becoming too bulky.

In fact, it requires significant time and effort to achieve substantial muscle growth. Moreover, everyone has individual variations in their ability to build muscle, with some people finding it more challenging than others.

Figuring Out Which of Your Muscles Will Grow & Get Stronger Easily

Huberman suggests that the ability to isolate and contract specific muscles is a good predictor of how efficiently you can build strength and size in those muscles. This is because the deliberate control of muscles is governed by upper motor neurons in the brain.

To test your own mind-muscle connection, Huberman recommends mentally scanning your body and attempting to contract individual muscles.

For example, while sitting or standing, try to isolate and contract your calf muscle. If you can contract the muscle to the point where it almost feels like it’s starting to cramp, you likely have a strong neural control over that muscle.

This indicates that you have a good potential to change the strength and size of that muscle through proper training.

However, if you struggle to isolate and contract a specific muscle, such as the latissimus dorsi (lats) in your back, you may face more challenges in developing that muscle. The lats are primarily responsible for moving the elbow back behind the body, not flexing the bicep.

Huberman emphasizes that muscle hypertrophy, or the process of stimulating muscle growth, is all about generating isolated contractions and challenging specific muscles in an unnatural way.

In contrast, strength training focuses on using musculature as a system to move weights, resistance, or the body itself.

The goal of hypertrophy is to isolate specific nerve-to-muscle pathways to stimulate the chemical and signaling events in muscles, leading to muscle growth. Understanding the distinction between hypertrophy and strength training is crucial when designing specific training protocols.

Between Building Strength and Growing Muscle

When it comes to resistance training, there’s a significant difference between getting stronger and growing muscle. According to Andrew Huberman, the key lies in how much you isolate the muscles during exercise.

Huberman explains that muscle isolation is not a natural phenomenon. When we walk, for example, we don’t consciously contract each calf muscle individually.

Instead, our nervous system seeks to gain efficiency by distributing the effort across various muscle groups.

If you were to attach heavy weights to your ankles while walking, your body would still try to spread the work across your hip flexors and other muscles, rather than isolating the calves. This is because the goal is to move the load efficiently, not to target specific muscles.

When it comes to getting stronger, Huberman suggests that it’s about progressively increasing the amount of weight you move. This involves compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups, such as lifting a bar or doing chin-ups.

On the other hand, if your goal is to generate muscle hypertrophy (growth), you need to focus on creating hard, localized contractions in specific muscles. This is where the “mind-muscle connection” comes into play.

By consciously targeting and isolating particular muscles during exercise, you can stimulate growth in those areas.

Huberman emphasizes that the distinction between isolating nerve-to-muscle connections (for hypertrophy) and distributing the work across multiple connections (for strength) is crucial. Most people don’t fully appreciate this difference, but understanding it can help you tailor your training to your specific goals.

Optimal Ranges for Muscle Growth and Strength

According to Professor Andy Galpin and his colleagues, whose work has been at the forefront of this field in recent years, the key to effective resistance training lies in understanding your one-repetition maximum (1RM) – the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition with proper form.

Once you have established your 1RM, the research suggests that working within a range of 30% to 80% of that maximum is optimal for promoting muscle growth and strength.

Within this range, there is some variation in the specific outcomes you can expect.

Training with weights closer to the 75-80% mark, or even higher, will tend to bias your gains more towards strength improvements. Conversely, using lighter weights in the 30-50% range and performing more repetitions will tend to favor muscle hypertrophy, or growth, and what some refer to as “muscle endurance.”

Regardless of where you fall within this range, the key to stimulating muscle growth and strength gains is to perform each set to failure or near-failure. This means pushing yourself to the point where you cannot complete another repetition with proper form.

While there is some debate around the precise terminology and subjective measures of proximity to failure, the underlying principle is clear: challenging your muscles to the point of fatigue is essential for triggering the adaptations that lead to growth and strength gains.

The science behind this principle lies in the way that nerves connect to muscles. Specific neural pathways are activated when we push our muscles to the point of failure, and these pathways are critical for signaling the body to build new muscle tissue and increase strength.

By consistently challenging our muscles in this way, we can optimize these neural pathways and maximize our results over time.

Optimal Number of Sets Per Week for Muscle Growth and Strength

For those who have been doing resistance exercise on and off over the years and want to get serious about it, the range of sets to perform per week is between two and 20.

These sets should be performed at 30% to 80% of the one repetition maximum range, getting close to failure or occasionally reaching full muscular failure.

Interestingly, Huberman states that five sets per week is the minimum requirement to maintain muscle size and strength. Failing to meet this threshold can lead to a loss of muscle, a drop in metabolism, worsened posture, and a decline in nerve-to-muscle connectivity over time.

While five sets per muscle group per week is the minimum for maintenance, the range for optimal growth and strength extends up to 15 or even 20 sets per week.

The number of sets an individual should perform depends on the intensity of the exercise and their training experience.

Ideal Balance of Training: 10% to Failure, 90% Near Failure

Huberman explains that while it may be somewhat controversial, most experts now agree that only 10% of the sets in a given workout, or 10% of workouts overall, should be performed at a high intensity level where one works to muscular failure.

However, he clarifies that this doesn’t mean true muscular failure, as there is a difference between the concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) portions of muscle contraction.

The majority of your training sets should not be taken to failure, according to Huberman. This approach allows you to perform a greater volume of work without fatiguing the nervous system and depleting the nerve-to-muscle connection in detrimental ways.

The sweet spot for resistance exercise is performing anywhere from five to 15 sets per week per muscle group, with the weight ranging from 30% to 80% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM).

Huberman suggests that working in the five-set range can help offset any decline in muscle strength, while increasing the number of sets to ten or 15 can lead to gains in muscle strength. However, he does mention that there is a caveat to this advice, which he likely expands upon in the full podcast episode.

Inverse Relationship Between the Number of Sets and the Ability to Force

Huberman suggests that individuals can assess their ability to control muscle contractions by performing a simple marching exercise.

During this exercise, the goal is to mentally control the contractions of muscles in a deliberate manner, even generating a hard contraction without the use of weights or resistance bands. If an individual is able to generate high-intensity contractions using the upper motor neuron to lower motor neuron pathways to muscle, they may require fewer sets to stimulate muscle maintenance, growth, and strength.

The ability to efficiently recruit motor units, which are nerve-to-muscle connections, plays a crucial role in this process.

The more effectively an individual can recruit high-threshold motor units, the more they will trigger the cascades of events within the muscle that stimulate growth and strength.

Consequently, individuals who are proficient at generating force within their muscles will require fewer sets to achieve the desired effect.

Conversely, if an individual finds it challenging to contract certain muscles, they will need to perform more sets to stimulate the desired effect in those muscles. This is because the less efficient recruitment of motor units will require more work to trigger the necessary muscle growth and strength adaptations.

How Long Should Weight Training Sessions Last

For those using around 50% of their one-repetition maximum and doing a high number of repetitions, three to five sets may be sufficient to maintain muscle mass.

These sets can be divided across two sessions or completed in a single workout, as the data suggests that the distribution of sets throughout the week does not significantly impact the results.

Huberman emphasized that resistance workouts, regardless of their specific structure, are most effective when kept between 45 and 60 minutes in duration.

Extending beyond the 60-minute mark may lead to increased cortisol levels and inflammatory pathways, which can be detrimental to the body and muscles.

The key takeaway is that performing five to 15 sets per week, whether in a single workout or spread across multiple sessions, is the most beneficial approach. However, Huberman also highlighted the importance of Henneman’s size principle and the recruitment of motor units, suggesting that individuals who are proficient at isolating and contracting specific muscles may require fewer sets to achieve the desired effect.

While the 60-minute mark is not a strict cut-off point, it serves as a general guideline to ensure that weight training sessions remain effective and minimize potential negative impacts on the body.

As with any fitness routine, it is essential to listen to one’s body and adjust the duration and intensity of workouts accordingly.

Optimizing Training Volume for Muscle Growth

According to the data, individuals who have been weight training for a while can benefit from higher training volumes, even for muscles they are already efficient at contracting.

The optimal range spans from a minimum of five sets per week for maintaining a muscle group to an impressive 25-30 sets per week for more advanced lifters.

However, Huberman notes that there are exceptions to this rule. Some individuals are so proficient at generating force that they can achieve significant results with just four to eight sets, and doing more could actually be counterproductive. Therefore, it’s crucial for each person to determine their own sweet spot based on their goals, capabilities, and willingness to engage in resistance exercise.

It’s important to note that resistance training doesn’t necessarily require weights or a gym setting.

Bodyweight exercises like chin-ups and push-ups can be equally effective, as long as they challenge the individual within the 30-80% range of their one-repetition maximum.

When it comes to the ideal number of sets per week, Huberman suggests that most people will find success somewhere between five and 15 sets per muscle group.

This recommendation is based on the extensive research conducted by the aforementioned exercise physiology experts, who have focused on translating their findings into practical, real-world protocols for the average person, not just athletes.

If an individual chooses to divide their sets across multiple sessions throughout the week, it is crucial to allow for adequate recovery between sessions. This recovery pertains to both the systemic level, involving the entire nervous system, and the local level, which includes the nerve-to-muscle connection and the muscle tissue itself.

Range of Motion and Speed of Movement in Resistance Training

Huberman explained that the ability to move weights as fast as safely possible, especially under moderate to heavy loads, can increase explosiveness and speed.

This effect is primarily due to changes in the neurons, specifically in the way that upper motor neurons communicate with lower motor neurons to generate efficient neural circuits.

For those looking to increase strength, Huberman noted that slowing down the weight as the exercise becomes more challenging is key to recruiting high-threshold motor units. The goal is to isolate the muscle and challenge it, rather than relying on momentum to lift the weights.

When it comes to generating hypertrophy, the speed of movement is less important as long as the effort is focused on the targeted muscle.

As the set becomes more challenging, the number of recruited motor units and muscle fibers will increase, leading to growth.

However, for those aiming to improve explosiveness and speed, Huberman advises against using weights that cause the movement to slow down significantly. He suggests using 60% to 75% of a one-repetition maximum and moving the weight quickly throughout the entire set, without going to failure.

New technologies are emerging that can inform users about the speed of their movements during a set, helping them maintain the desired pace.

While some exercise physiologists and advanced trainers may disagree with these findings, Huberman welcomes the discussion and invites experts to share literature that challenges his conclusions.

Customizing Training; 1-6 Month Experiments;

Huberman noted that the neuromuscular system undergoes rapid changes at the beginning of a training program, with remarkable improvements often seen in the early stages.

However, these changes tend to slow down over time, necessitating adjustments to the training regimen.

To maintain muscle mass, Huberman recommended performing at least five sets per muscle group, while around ten sets are required for muscle growth. He also suggested that moving weights of moderate to moderately heavy load at a quick pace is optimal for developing explosiveness.

Isolating muscles and focusing on hard contractions is crucial for improving hypertrophy and strength.

Huberman proposed a simple test to assess your capacity to engage and improve a specific muscle: try to cramp the muscle hard outside of your training session. The ability to contract a muscle forcefully is inversely related to the number of sets you should perform to isolate and stimulate that muscle effectively.

Focal Contractions Between Sets To Enhance Hypertrophy,

Huberman explained that performing contractions of about 30 seconds between work sets can facilitate hypertrophy, the process of muscle growth.

Although these contractions may compromise performance on the actual work sets, they have been shown to improve local muscle metabolism and increase stress, tension, and damage in the targeted muscles.

The key to making this technique effective is to isolate the specific muscle being worked on and ensure that it is a muscle that needs improvement.

Huberman jokingly referred to the phenomenon of “skipping leg day,” where some individuals focus solely on upper body muscles while neglecting their lower body.

While the practice of flexing between sets has gained popularity, Huberman also noted the trend of taking selfies after each set. He observed that the most successful athletes and recreational gym-goers tend to have better control over their phone behavior, both in and out of the gym.

Protocol To Optimize Testosterone Release

Andrew Huberman discussed the optimal resistance training protocol for increasing testosterone levels in both men and women. The protocol, based on research by Duncan French and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut, involves performing six sets of ten repetitions with compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, or chin-ups, using a rest period of about 120 seconds between sets.

Interestingly, the study found that there is a limited threshold for increasing testosterone through resistance training. While the six sets of ten repetitions led to significant increases in serum testosterone, increasing the volume to ten sets of ten repetitions did not result in further testosterone increases.

In fact, the higher volume protocol may even lead to reductions in testosterone and a more catabolic, cortisol-like response.

Huberman emphasized that this testosterone-boosting protocol should be performed no more than twice a week to maintain the desired hormonal response. He also noted that individuals can incorporate other types of resistance training throughout the week, provided they allow for adequate recovery between sessions.

The podcast also touched on the importance of distinguishing between systemic and isolated effects of resistance training.

Systemic effects, such as the lactate response associated with the “burn” sensation during training, send beneficial signals to the brain, heart, and liver. On the other hand, isolated muscle training may generate a different kind of lactate response.

Repetition Speed, Rest Times, and Pre-Exhaustion Techniques

When it comes to repetition speed, the literature suggests that anywhere from half a second to eight seconds per repetition can be effective for hypertrophy and strength gains. However, if the goal is to build explosiveness or speed, the approach may differ.

Huberman also addressed the “selfie effect” of flexing muscles between sets, noting that while it may enhance muscle growth and nerve-to-muscle isolation, it can be detrimental to performance on subsequent sets.

For those aiming to move more weight or distribute work effectively, it’s best to avoid flexing between sets and instead focus on rest and recovery.

Rest times between sets play a crucial role in optimizing training outcomes. For hypertrophy and strength gains, a rest period of around two minutes has been shown to be effective. However, longer rest periods of up to six minutes can be beneficial for expanding the volume of work performed at high intensity.

Huberman also discussed the concept of pre-exhausting muscles, which involves performing isolation exercises before compound movements.

For example, performing leg extensions before squats can help target the quadriceps more effectively. However, this technique may compromise performance on the compound movement, so it’s important to consider individual goals and priorities.

Ultimately, the optimal approach to resistance training depends on various factors, including training frequency, volume, and specific goals.

Whether aiming for hypertrophy, strength, or performance, understanding the nuances of repetition speed, rest times, and pre-exhaustion techniques can help individuals tailor their training programs for maximal results.

Nutrition: Leucine and Protein Density

Andrew Huberman discussed the crucial role of nutrition in supporting muscle growth and performance.

One key factor is the intake of the essential amino acid leucine. Huberman recommends consuming 700 to 3000 milligrams of leucine with each meal to support the synthesis of larger myosin structures, which are crucial for muscle hypertrophy and strength. While leucine can be obtained from supplements, it is generally recommended to source it from whole foods.

When it comes to protein sources, Huberman emphasized the importance of protein density. Animal proteins, such as steak, chicken, fish, and eggs, tend to have a higher density of essential amino acids per calorie compared to plant-based sources like beans and nuts.

However, this does not mean that vegans and vegetarians cannot support muscle growth; they may simply need to be more mindful of their essential amino acid intake and consider supplementing with leucine.

Huberman also addressed the question of meal frequency, debunking the old-school thinking that one needs to eat six or seven times a day to support muscle growth.

While this approach may be suitable for drug-assisted athletes experiencing heightened levels of protein synthesis, it is not necessary for the average person. Instead, consuming protein-rich meals two to four times a day, ensuring sufficient amino acid intake, is sufficient to support muscle repair, growth, and strength improvements.

What Time Of Day Is Best To Resistance Train?

While personal preferences play a significant role in deciding when to work out, there are some scientific factors to consider.

According to Andrew Huberman, the time of day you choose to train may have an impact on your performance and overall results.

Huberman suggests that training 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 11 hours after your normal waking time can be beneficial. This is due to body temperature rhythms and cortisol release, which can provide a sense of predictability and regularity to when your body is most prepared to train effectively.

By aligning your workout schedule with these natural patterns, you may be able to optimize your training sessions.

Interestingly, some evidence indicates that training in the afternoon may be better for performance. However, when it comes to body composition changes and strength gains, the time of day doesn’t seem to matter as much.

This means that whether you prefer to train in the morning, afternoon, or evening, you can still achieve your desired results as long as you maintain consistency and follow a well-designed training program.

It’s important to note that while timing can play a role in your training, it’s equally crucial to ensure that your workouts are compatible with your sleep schedule and work commitments.

Prioritizing sleep and managing stress levels are essential for recovery and overall well-being, so finding a training time that allows you to balance these factors is key.

Ultimately, the best time of day to resistance train is the time that works best for you and your lifestyle.

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