More Mass with Minimal Gear

With training equipment running at an all-time low due to COVID-19 lockdowns, most people have access to nothing but their bodyweight and minimal equipment and are left scratching their heads with what to do besides countless fundamental exercises and “HIIT.” There are only so many dips, pushups, and pullups that one can do when it comes to bodyweight hypertrophy and contrary to popular belief, hypertrophy isn’t just about volume and progressive overload. If only it were that simple.

What is Hypertrophy?

When you think about hypertrophy, you must think about tension. Tension is the most significant stimulus of muscle protein synthesis, the process by which new proteins are formed to repair muscle damage resulting from significant tension during strenuous exercise. It is what makes a person stronger from each training. With a higher volume of tension, the more likely protein synthesis will be stimulated because the muscle cells sense that the contractile fibers are sustaining the damage just as inflammation is about to occur.

The factors that affect maximal tension on each individual fiber are:

  • Intensity (the level of effort needed for each exercise)
  • Volume (the total amount of significant work done)
  • Intent (repetitions executed with the aim of working every fiber from start to end)
A student performing the gymnastic rings dips

Based upon the factors listed above, here are the five main methods to achieve maximal hypertrophy:

  • Mechanical damage hypertrophy (microtrauma caused primarily through eccentric loading and/or long periods of significant tension)
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increase in the size of sarcoplasm that consist of intracellular fluid)
  • Oxidative stress hypertrophy (produced from prolonged and intense muscle contraction close to failure that activates biochemical pathways contributing to proliferation of myonuclei domains)
  • Neuroendocrine hypertrophy (hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone that are produced from high intensity training that cause a favorable environment for hypertrophy)
  • Volume of tension hypertrophy (not to be confused with volume of work but rather the time spent under significant tension per set of exercise from a strategic combination of exercise or exercises with different strength profiles)

All five of these methods are differentiated by a common denominator: the amount of significant tension.This is not to be confused with just time under tension. Time under tension means nothing if the intensity is not significant enough. For example, prolonging a set of exercise for the sake of prolonging just means time under load without enough intensity to cause favorable changes. Time under significant tension is the intensity the muscles are being exposed to for whatever time they are under. The time under significant tension is different for all of them and therefore the intensity and volume vary because of this. For example, the difference between oxidative hypertrophy and neuroendocrine hypertrophy is shown below. As you can see, the time under significant tension can be vast for each training stimulus and this is what determines the method in which you run your hypertrophy program.

The examples below use a 2011 tempo, here’s what that means:

  • 2-Eccentric portion or the lengthening of a muscle (2 seconds)
  • 0-Pause when the muscle is at its fully lengthened position (0 seconds)
  • 1-Concentric portion or the shortening of a muscle (1 second)
  • 1-Pause when the muscle is at its fully shortened position (1 second)

Oxidative hypertrophy:

  • Pullup
    • 4 x 5 (meaning 4 sets of 5 reps) at 5RM, then immediately drop set to five reps with new 5RM under fatigue, then immediately drop set again to five reps with new 5RM under fatigue at a tempo of 2011. Think of it as each set being comprised of three “sub-sets.” (The reason why a new 5RM is stated is because under fatigue from the first five reps done, you immediately want to drop to a weight that is something you can do for no more than five reps and then do that again, so you achieve 15 reps total.) For example, 20kg for five reps, immediately drop to 15kg to do another five reps, immediately drop to 10kg to do another five reps. That is one set.
      • Total time under significant tension is 60 seconds per set.

Neuroendocrine hypertrophy:

  • Pullup
    • 8 x 3 at 5RM at 2011 tempo
      • Total time under significant tension is 12 seconds per set.

How is Hypertrophy Triggered?

One of the ways hypertrophy is achieved is via mechanical damage by significant tension and inflammation. We briefly talked about tension and how it affects hypertrophy above, now let’s dig a little deeper. Hypertrophy follows three different principles:

  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (accumulation of substrates and fuel in the sarcoplasm)
  • Myofibrillar hypertrophy (accumulation of more contractile proteins)
  • Myonuclei domain hypertrophy (increases the number of nuclei in the muscle cell)
The one-arm pushup

For this article, we are going to focus on using the mechanical damage method to achieve a hybrid of myonuclei domain hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy.

Significant tension is what stimulates myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the creation of new contractile proteins which leads to permanent gains in muscle mass. These gains in muscle mass are what we term functional hypertrophy as this form of hypertrophy translates to maximal strength due to the formation of new contractile protein.

Inflammation on the other hand leads to myonuclei domain hypertrophy and it occurs due to muscle damage. The inflammation would activate satellite cell signaling via growth factors which then increases the net number of nuclei and ribosomes due to the donation of these dormant cells’ contents. This then leads to the cells’ ability to make more proteins due to more nuclei and ribosomes. Therefore, protein synthesis increases.

Take note though, you want just enough inflammation. Do not run the muscle into the ground for this phase. Stimulate, don’t annihilate. This method of total annihilation has its place, but it belongs in the oxidative phase.

Mechanical damage can be achieved via some combination of the following three methods:

  1. High intensity (choosing an exercise variation or weight that is of high intensity)
  2. Lengthen/Eccentric (choosing an exercise in which the strength profile is biased on the lengthened position and/or lengthening under load)
  3. Fatigue (performing an exercise after the agonist has been fatigued)

For the training routine given below, all the above equations for achieving mechanical damage are satisfied by choosing two exercises that are agonist, meaning the same muscle group. For example, pectorals and pectorals. Choose an exercise variation that requires a high amount of intensity to accomplish (option 1 above), choose the second exercise to be a lengthened biased exercise in the strength profile and emphasize the eccentrics (option 2 above), or use an agonistic muscle group so the muscle is working under fatigue in the second exercise (option 3 above).

The Program

Without further ado, here is your 4-week program for achieving hypertrophy via mechanical damage method. This program utilizes supersets. Each movement is listed as A1, A2, etc. This means you will do a set of A1 followed immediately by a set of A2 until all sets are complete. Then move on to the next pair of movements. To start, do the lowest rep recommended for the first week. Once you get comfortable with the movements, try adding a rep the following week and continue doing so until you hit the maximum recommended reps.

Session 1:

Session 2:

Session 3:

Conclusion

As you can see, there is more to hypertrophy than just volume and progressive overload. What I have outlined for you is somewhat “outside the box” of conventional training and I need to thank Kassem Hanson, my mentor Adam Miller, Charles Poliquin, Charles Beadsley, and Pavel for inspiring and equipping me with the wisdom and knowledge to process training out of the box.

A training program like the above example is perfect for a minimalistic setup that is guaranteed to ensure muscle growth. On a side note, I recommend you consume a diet at least moderately high in carbohydrates and calories as your body needs a surplus of energy to repair itself from this training method.

I hope you find the above useful in the first installment of hypertrophy with minimal equipment.

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Myren Fu
Myren is a StrongFirst Team Leader, director and head coach of Higher Performance, a Strength and Performance facility that is the first and only StrongFirst certified gym in Singapore focusing on kettlebell, barbell, and bodyweight strength training. Myren has been prepared under the worlds best in the industry, in a variety of performance and fitness education. He established Higher Performance, a go-to location for improving technique and performance with people from all levels. This includes youth athletes, gym owners, personal trainers, even regional and Olympic ranks—achieve their highest levels of performance and fitness goals. Here are some of the following accreditations he currently holds: OPEX CCP1, Functional Range Release, Functional Range Conditioning Movement Specialist, StrongFirst Girya Level II, StrongFirst Lifter, StrongFirst Bodyweight, Certified Personal Trainer (ACE), Certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer, FMS 2.

More information can be found at www.higherperformance.sg.

He can be reached at train@higherperformance.sg.

8 thoughts on “More Mass with Minimal Gear

  • Thank you very much for this great article Myren Fu !
    Looking forward to part 2, do you know when we can expect it ?

    • Hi Vlad B,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      I am intending to write it within these few days but it takes a month + for an article to be edited usually. So you may expect it then 🙂

  • Including INTENT (repetitions executed with the aim of working every fiber from start to end) and specifying SIGNIFICANT tension gave a lot of food for thought and goes well beyond time under tension and arguments for “proper form.” It also fits Naked Warrior principles. The workout is a bit advanced for me but the concepts are gold. Exposing the SF audience to the value of rings as a tool to help maximize tension was also valuable. Until you have done a ring dip or pushup, you have not really done a pushup. 🙂 I was wondering how this issue relates to super slow reps or very slow tempo and the SF plank. We should find our maximal tension output (probably 8-12 sec) for various bodyweight movements by manipulating leverage etc. maybe?

    • Hi Guardian,

      Thank you for your input and kind words.

      I understand the workout is on the side of advanced and on part 2 of this article, I will write a program for hypertrophy with kettlebells and gymnastics together that is much easier to follow yet yield amazing results with new methods not listed here.

      I just wanted to give an advanced perspective to bodyweight hypertrophy.

      Help me understand more what about super slow reps as well and SF plank pertaining to this article?

      Max tension output wise, it really depends on what are we trying to acheive for training stimulus. Isit max tension for strength or neuroendocrine hypertrophy or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy etc

  • Do you think a diet of (Bodyweight x 15) + 200-400 calories would be sufficient, or moreso? I haven’t done a mass routine since my twenties, but this came across my feed as just the right time.

    • Hi Robert,

      That is actually a decent number however if you have someway to do an Inbody test, that would be preffered as I prefer to use lean body mass as a better indicator as weight could represent bad weight.

      I would actually go with 17-20 cals x lean body mass in lbs.

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