A lot of guys would like to build bigger muscles. And they may have heard that in order to do so, they need to activate something called “hypertrophy.” But what is hypertrophy and how do you achieve it in order to get swole?
My guest, bodybuilding and strength coach Paul Carter, will unpack what you need to know today on the show. We get into the difference between size and strength, the two big myths around hypertrophy, the right number of sets to do for developing a muscle group, why Paul thinks machines are better than free weights for building bigger muscles, and more.
Resources Related to the Podcast
Connect With Paul Carter
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. A lot of guys would like to build bigger muscles, and they may have heard that in order to do so, they need to activate something called hypertrophy. But what is hypertrophy and how do you achieve it in order to get swole? My guest bodybuilding and strength coach Paul Carter, will unpack what you need to know today on the show, we get into the difference between size and strength. The two big myths around hypertrophy, the right number of sets to do for developing a muscle group, why Paul thinks machines are better than free weights for building bigger muscles and more. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.io/hypertrophy. All right, Paul Carter, welcome to the show.
Paul Carter: Thanks, bud. I’m glad to be here finally.
Brett McKay: Yeah We’ve been trying to track you down for a few months. You’re a busy man, but you are a bodybuilding and strength coach and you’ve been in the game for over two decades. I’ve been reading your stuff on your own website, Lift Run Bang, T Nation, Elite FTS for a long time. And you’ve got an interesting career path because you started off in bodybuilding and then you did professional powerlifting for a decade, and that’s I found you with your powerlifting stuff, but then you shifted back to bodybuilding. So start by this. Why the initial shift from bodybuilding to power lifting? What was going on there?
Paul Carter: Well, first off, I’m glad you actually got that order correct, because a lot of people through the past few years, either finding me through social media or those means have made comments like that I made this shift to like, create a brand or whatever, when, as you said, anybody who’s actually followed me for a very long period of time knows I actually started in bodybuilding. I got started lifting when I was 14, and one of the first guys that I found at that time was Dorian Yates. And it’s kind of cool ’cause that resurgence of the Mike Minster stuff has is, remade a resurgence right now, and that’s really popular and all, and I’m glad Mike is getting his doing stuff. But yeah, I went from bodybuilding and all of those years where just kind like what’s popular now on “social media” as far as training, I was already, I’d already gravitated to when I first started training.
And then my transition over into power lifting mainly happened because when I went into the military and I came out and I was actually a computer engineer for like 15 years and I wanted to do something with my lifting and power lifting I think was probably the most popular back when I got into it. I don’t even remember what years those were, but they would’ve been around something like maybe 2010 or even maybe even quite a bit before that. But I started competing in powerlifting because at the time in my head I thought that power lifting was like a little bit more tangible than bodybuilding in a sense that bodybuilding is a very kind of subjective sport. You do your diet, you do your cardio, you slap on some, Italian salad dressing on your body and flex for people and then the judges determine like, who is the winner.
And at the time I thought, well, powerlifting is a little bit more concise in terms of you’re gonna go in, you’ve gotta hit depth in your squat, you gotta pause your bench, you gotta lock out your deadlift. And I like there were some more tangible things that you could say, okay, here is the kind of the achievement side of things and it’s more clear cut and drive. That was kind of my thought process at the time. And then I competed naturally in power lifting for quite a few years. And then, when I decided that, I was, I’ve been natural for a very long time, like 20 years, I decided I was gonna go ahead and, I’m pretty much felt like I’d maxed out by natural potential and I wanted to see what doing anabolics would do. And then that was when I started competing in non-tested federations. And then I did that for a while, then I decided to exit power lifting. I kind of had a cap on it. I said when I turned 40 I would get off drugs and get out of power lifting. And that was what I did.
Brett McKay: And why the 40 cap was just like, you’re just old and you don’t wanna do that anymore.
Paul Carter: To me, I just didn’t wanna be that guy that you see like in powerlifting. And there’s still, I think a lot of that going on where it’s like dudes are still kind of like “chasing” their glory or like 5 more pounds on the bar or this or whatever. And I just felt like having a, if I can get, I had goals. I wanted a 700 no belt, no knee wrap squat. I wanted a 750 deadlift and I wanted a 500 like close grip bench. And no, you don’t get, there’s no special division for having a close grip bench or like not wearing a belt or anything kinda stuff. It was just personal achievements for me. So I kind of decided by the time I was like, Whatever I hit by the time that’s my end game was when I get to be 40, I don’t, I get kids, I don’t wanna stay on drugs and I don’t wanna keep chasing like pounds on the bar. So I was just like, whatever I’ve got done by then I’m gonna get done.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve had that same sort of thing. So I got really into power lifting starting like eight years ago. And made, I really enjoyed it. ’cause like you, I enjoyed the tangibility of it. You are able to see your progress and it was great to have concrete goals. Like, well, I’m gonna get a 500 pound deadlift. No, well, I’m gonna get 550. But then last year I turned 40 and it’s amazing. Like it’s cliche people talk about, oh yeah, when you turn 40 things just kind of change. And I’m like, yeah whatever. And then it did. I started noticing, it took me a little bit longer to recover and I also stopped enjoying the process of chasing numbers. It gave me the chasing numbers caused more frustration than satisfaction.
Paul Carter: A 100 there’s something that I learned through those years of doing power lifting and that was the arrival fallacy philosophy. And that was that if you think arrival fallacy is the belief that if you achieve something or obtain something or there’s something in your life that you finally get that you believe is gonna give you this sustainability of happiness that it’s gonna happen. And it does for about three minutes, and then immediately you are like, okay, I could do better, there’s more so on and so on. It’s, like a, it’s just chasing the dragon. It’s a never ending pursuit of you trying to get more. And the other thing, ’cause you’re describing exactly what happened to me. I lost my joy for that type of training because, so you hit like, I hit a 700 deadlift okay. That you’re really happy for 5 minutes. And a lot of people out there that will be like kind of in your position say, well, like I wanna hit a 500 or 550. If I was to hit a 700, it’d be otherworldly. And I’m here to tell you it’s the same feeling each time you cross a PR barrier.
So like when you hit that 500 deadlift or 550 and the 600, the 650, the 700, it all feels the same. So you’re really happy in the moment. And then you’re like, well I have gotta get to 650 or the people would post that up online, like they just hit a 700 deadlift on the road to 800. Like, there’s never any satisfaction in my opinion that is sustainable from it. And when I got out, when I retired and I decided I wasn’t gonna compete anymore, is the happiest I’ve ever been about my training.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The other show I ran into with the chasing numbers is, yeah, same thing I remember my last deadlift PR was 615 and you feel happy for like 2 minutes and then you post it on Instagram and maybe it lasts a little, a little longer as you’re getting the accolades from everybody and then it goes away. And then what you think about is, well, if I’m gonna get the next PR I’m gonna have to, it takes more work, significantly more work for just barely any gain. So there’s diminishing returns at a certain point. It’s like, I don’t wanna put my body through that. It’s just, it’s stressful. It’s months and months and months of just pounding your body to get 5 more pounds.
Paul Carter: All of the things and the funny thing is that the amount of work to go from 300 to 400 not really a big deal, and going from 400 to 500 can be going to 500 to 600. Very different. Going from 600 to 700 not comparable either. And then going from 700 up to 800, my best foot was 725. So I never got to 750 or 800. But going each, like you said, each of those increments took longer periods at a time. And just for me, the amount of satisfaction each time was actually less. And yeah, that was by the end I got to that exact point where I was like, I have to put in so much work to add so little. And then it’s very, those big swings are fleeting. And the other thing was just coming off drugs.
I could never do the drugs the other guys were doing because anytime I would try to take bigger doses like them, I felt so bad and like I couldn’t do a lot of the androgens that they used and stuff like that. And I remember this world record holder I was talking to about it at the time, told me, he’s like, well what are you running going into this myth? And when I told him when I was running, he, this was his remark, he said, “they don’t give an award for highest total with lowest dose.” And I remember thinking at the time, I was like, that’s, I’m never gonna be great at this because I’m just… I can’t do like the gram a trainer week with a gram and a half a test with 300 orals a day. I mean, like that. I just could not do those things. Anytime I try to push stuff out, I felt I had horrible anxiety, I couldn’t sleep. I like, everything was bad. So I never did the massive amount of drugs that people had to do to really succeed at the highest level of those sports.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. Okay. So you’re back into body building?
Paul Carter: Yeah.
Brett McKay: You enjoy the process. It seems like that from your videos that you’re really enjoying this, but let’s talk about that ’cause I think a lot of the reasons that guys lift isn’t to pull 600 pounds. They just wanna look jacked. They wanna get big muscles and muscle hypertrophy is how your muscles get bigger. Before we talk about what happens in muscle hypertrophy, let’s talk about the difference between hypertrophy and strength, because something my kids brought up when I was into power lifting, I’d be pulling 600 pounds squatting, 450 pounds and my kids would be like, “dad, like how is it that you can like deadlift that much weight, but you don’t have big muscles, you don’t look like John Cena.” I think this is what my son told me. He said, “you don’t look like John Cena.” [laughter]
Paul Carter: Your kids are, kids always had the hot takes on this. Right? You’re like, thanks, thanks Junior, I appreciate you today.
Brett McKay: And I had to, I had, I was like, oh, I had to explain to him there’s a difference between like muscle size and strength. So like what is the difference between hypertrophy and strength? Like how is it possible for, you see these guys, these like 180 pound guys pulling 800 pounds.
Paul Carter: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What’s going on there?
Paul Carter: So, well, when we talk about the average person and these maximal strength adaptations, they really happen mostly, they’re especially the early parts of them through a lot of neural adaptations. So you have like an increase in what we call like action potentials by the nervous system, which is, well a lot of people they understand, they hear this word, it’s known as like rate coding. And then you’ll have through stuff like coordination improvements. So you have a bunch of neural adaptations that happen as you’re doing the lift that make you more efficient with the lift that make your nervous system more efficient at basically recruiting all the stuff that’s gonna be involved in the lift. So the other thing for maximal strength is that there is a loading component for the pattern learning stuffs too. So, when my goal was to get stronger, but I didn’t wanna beat my body up in doing so, I would actually do like submaximal lifting like the squat.
But I’d try to be as explosive as possible. So what that kind of does is it trains that pattern, but then you also get maximal motor unit recruitment of everything that’s gonna be involved in the squat. So you’re, in essence you’re training kind of the neuro components of that pattern without having to do the heavier loading. But in order to kind of maximally get the true amount of the motor unit recruitment that you’re gonna need to maximize your squat strength, you eventually do have to train with heavier loading to get those adaptations from the heavier loading. So the difference in that and hypertrophy is that hypertrophy is gonna be the muscular component of the adaptations that are occurring. So with strength, we’re looking a lot of neural adaptations, rate coding, motor unit recruitment. We’re looking at a lot of different things that are happening because we’re getting more efficient at that movement pattern. With hypertrophy what we’re actually looking at are the muscular adaptations that are occurring from mechanical tension.
So that’s gonna be the addition of something called either Sarcomeres or myofibrils. So that’s essentially the kind of the functional units of protein that actually create contractions and force. So the interesting part, kind of between these two things is when you look at the, if you had like a little pyramid and you were creating like the base of the pyramid and kind of going up through to the very top, the largest amount of strength that you’re ever going to have in your training it actually gonna come from hypertrophy because what do you think actually is producing the force? And that’s basically the actual muscle fibers themselves, right? So the sarcomeres and the myofibrils and the muscle fibers that actually produce force are gonna be where you’re gonna have your largest potential and your greatest foundation and for actually strength expression. So that when you stack all that stuff up, that’s kind of where that comes from.
So that’s kind of the basis of it all is that if you’re going to train to maximize hypertrophy, you’re really talking about training with a certain degree of proximity to failure to create mechanical tension. You’re talking about a specific amount of like hard sets close to failure or to failure in order to kind of get enough of those stimulating repetitions within the training session to create the need for those adaptations. Whereas with strength, it’s not quite as important to train to failure. It’s kind of more important to become very efficient at the motor patterns and become very efficient at the movements themselves. So there’s some things that separate those two approaches.
Brett McKay: Okay. So that makes sense. So hypertrophy, you’re actually adding muscle tissue to your body with strength. I think Pavel, that guy, he says like, strength is a skill. So you’re basically, you’re training the muscle tissue you have to contract and express force in an efficient manner.
Paul Carter: Yeah. So that will be, like I said, the neural adaptations that are incurred from that will happen because there is a degree that we become more efficient. At, like I said, at that rate coding is that that’s firing those action potentials off for those particular movement patterns. One of the things that’s I find pretty interesting, I’ll give you a really kind of layman’s example of this. If you put up a little basket in the corner and you had a bunch of wadded up, like paper balls and you start trying to throw like a basketball, like throw those paper balls into the basket, at first you might be really off, but every time you throw it, you probably get a little closer and then better and better, better eventually. And you’re literally just training those motor patterns for how much force you have to apply.
Like the angle that you have to release it, all kind of stuff that’s going on in your brain that you don’t even think about. Every time that you go in to the gym and you do a workout. A lot of people used to think that those neural adaptations occur. It took like weeks or months for them to happen. They literally happen rep to rep to rep to rep. So anything that you do, the neural adaptations actually happen fairly quickly. And that’s the reason why you see these massive run-ups in strength for beginners, right? Like a beginner comes in and over from the time they start till six months later there’s strength improvement is like through the roof and then it slows down over time. So the neural adaptations that as you said from Pavel is like it’s a something that your brain learns.
So here is these movement patterns. I wanna become more efficient with it. So what are the muscular adaptations that I need to create in order to become more efficient at this? And then what are the neural adaptations that I need to create to become more efficient at this? So it’s really kind of an efficiency process. Whereas with muscular adaptations and we’re actually adding contractile units to produce force, that is a completely different process.
Brett McKay: Okay. So you can be strong but not have that much hypertrophy because you’ve gotten strong more through neural adaptations rather than gaining muscle tissue. So this is why someone can deadlift 600 pounds and not look like John Cena, like they’re not gonna be huge. But then you can also have hypertrophy and not be super strong. I mean, you’re gonna be strong. I think there’s this impression out there that bodybuilders look ripped, but they’re not actually strong. They are strong from adding that muscle tissue. But they may not be able to deadlift 600 pounds or squat 500 pounds because they haven’t been training those particular lifts and developing the muscular efficiency for them. Okay. So with that understanding, let’s dig more into the process of muscular hypertrophy. And you talk a lot about it. The myths that are out there about hypertrophy. What are the biggest ones that you see?
Paul Carter: I think over the past decade, the one, well, there’s a multitude of ones and I think the two common ones that still either come up or have come up the most was the whole like volume is a driver for hypertrophy or volume is the driver for hypertrophy, which is clearly not true. Or not, it’s definitely not true in the context that is presented. And then the, the other one that still comes up quite often, which I, every time that I debunk it, the amount of engagement gets to go crazy is the fact that muscle is torn down and built back bigger. And that’s how you end up with bigger muscles. Neither of those two things are true. So I mean, there’s a whole long list of myths that still exists and permeate throughout the social media landscape or through even throughout the educational landscape, which is pretty wild.
‘Cause there’s people that come out of school now and they have an updated textbooks, they have an updated relevant information and they will just spout off stuff they learned from their professor who has never opened a new study or textbook since like 1995. So there’s a multitude of myths that still occur and it run around. And I try to do a good job of helping people to learn past that, and some people will be like, just go to the gym and lift weights. I’m like, if you just wanna be that lunk head meathead like mentality guy, that’s cool. But a lot of us are actually interested in the physiology and the biomechanics of how all this stuff works. So that’s kind of the people that I’m trying to give this information to.
Brett McKay: Well, where do those myths come from? Like the hypertrophy? I remember hearing that. It’s like, well if you to train for strength, you train to like the three to five rep Maxs with heavy load for hypertrophy, it’s higher volume, lighter load. Like where did that even come from?
Paul Carter: So a lot of that stuff came back to their used to be the one myth, for example, that one comes back to a lot of it was fiber type stuff. So before people really understood the size principle and the force philosophy relationship and those kind of things, and how they tie into the addition of new myofibrils for hypertrophy, a lot of that tied in. Oh well, this creates explosive strength and this creates maximal strength and this creates strength endurance. And this does all this stuff. Now, to be slightly nuanced, if you’re doing higher rep stuff, there are some endurance adaptations that you’ll get that you won’t get as much from lower repetitions. However, when we’re just speaking about the hypertrophy scale and just adding muscle tissue, the mechanisms that create muscle growth are the same regardless of rep ranges. If we’re working at rep ranges anywhere from about four to five reps all the way up to 25 to 30 reps. That’s kind of the range that the adaptations occur in.
And they’re essentially similar throughout that entire range because the muscle physiology mechanisms that cause hypertrophy are the same regardless. The muscle damage stuff and the muscles are torn down and grow back bigger, that goes all the way back to around ’91. And all of that stuff was consistently disproven throughout any of the research that looked at actual muscle damage and how it needed to be attenuated in order for the same cellular processes to cause muscle tissue to accumulate. So the idea, people would say, “Well, it’s torn down and built back bigger.” There’s so many layers that that wouldn’t even make sense. And we can also look at the fact that the repair process for damaged tissue is the exact same as you’ll see from muscle damage, but actual contusions and stuff like that. But you don’t add muscle. Like if you go out, if people were just adding muscle from muscle damage and football players that get muscle contusions or lacerations that happen or all that kind of stuff, people be growing muscle out the [0:21:30.7] ____ yin yang from that kind of stuff, but it doesn’t happen.
So a lot of those repair processes from a cellular mechanism standpoint are identical, but they don’t grow muscle. So the idea that you would tear muscle down. The other thing is that when we see muscle damage occur, when we’re actually looking at it in research, it tends to occur anywhere from four to six to eight hours after the workout or even, a bit longer. Somewhere in the eight hour period is when those basically the cellular mechanisms occur that cause the protein degradation, at those microscopic levels. So if muscles were being “torn down” and they were. People say, well fibers are being torn. If you tear an actual muscle fiber, you’re not moving. That’s the amount of pain you’ll be in, will be incredible. But it’s not even happening until maybe six to eight hours later.
And that is because it’s a protein degradation thing from this type of protease. So it’s not anything being “torn” or micro tears or stuff like that’s occurring in there. It’s actually from the protein degradation processes that happen due to muscle damage. When those are occurring, there are a multitude of mechanisms that happen to try to thwart that off. And what we know of that now is through something called the repeated bout effect. And we think of that happening through eccentric, about of eccentric exercise. So there’s a bunch of things that happen to say, I want to protect against future bouts of muscle damage. Now, once those protective processes are in place, what we have seen at the cellular level is that that is when muscle hypertrophy starts to really happen. So we need those protective processes in place so that way those cellular mechanisms can actually go towards adding those contractile units. And that’s muscle hypertrophy. So really the fact is that if a bunch of muscle damage is happening, you’re actually not really adding muscle and you’re just creating the repair or the basically the repair and the remodeling and the protective processes in order that need to be in place before that can happen. So it’s the same cellular mechanisms, but it’s different outcomes.
Brett McKay: Okay. So to help listeners understand this difference, if muscle damage does occur during exercise, like when you’re doing a bunch of, fatiguing reps and you’re feeling that burn muscle protein synthesis is going to occur, but it’s not adding more muscle tissue, it’s not hypertrophic. Instead the muscle protein synthesis is happening to repair and replace the damaged muscle fibers like the myofibrils. So it’s not adding fiber, it’s just replacing it. And then during that repair process, there’s some stuff going on to protect that tissue from future bouts of damage. And then this repair and strengthening process of damaged tissue, it can eventually help with hypertrophy because you’re able to train the muscle and achieve mechanical tension. And we’re gonna talk about what that is here in a second. You’re able to do that without damaging the myofibrils. So the process to repair damaged muscle fibers and adding new muscle fibers, they’re different. And again, you don’t need to experience muscle damage to experience hypertrophy. And what you need is what you, what I just said, you need mechanical tension. So let’s talk about that. What is mechanical tension and how does it drive hypertrophy?
Paul Carter: So mechanical tension, the best way that you can think about it is, there’s two things that gotta happen. You have to have a high degree of motor unit recruitment and you have to have a slowing of contraction velocity. So I’ll, dumb this down. The best that I can. Is if you think about going to failure, and let’s say you’re doing a set of 10 reps and you’re not gonna make the 11th rep, your repetition starts slowing down towards the end of the set, no matter how hard you’re pushing. So during that time, there’s a lot of things going on at the basically the microscopic levels and that’s gonna be at the sarcomeres. Whereas you’re gonna have these cross-bridging between actin and myosin and it’s like a pulling type force. So as the weight is trying to pull against you, the actual sarcomeres themselves, and the Actin and myosin filaments, they’re basically trying to… They do this thing called cross-bridging where they pull on one another opposing them. They’re creating a high degree of force to oppose that external force. When that happens, that force is detected as tension and then that is actually converted into the biological process where the adaptations for adding more myofibrils happen. So that way you can produce more force. And that’s essentially the hypertrophy process. So…
I get asked like, you know, how do you explain mechanical tension? I’m like, it’s just it’s simply a pulling force within the muscle fibers and so if the external force is pulling one way and you’re trying to pull the other way then the muscles are trying to produce a high degree of force and that’s experienced as mechanical tension.
Brett McKay: Gotcha okay and so, you know if you’re experiencing mechanical tension if for example you’re doing some bicep curls and you get into that rep where things just start slowing down and it’s getting harder to complete the rep, is that mechanical tension?
Paul Carter: Yep, so mechanical tension exists on the force-velocity relationship and if anybody looks up the force-velocity curve what they’ll see is that if you’re moving very fast so if let’s say if you do if you squat down and you try to jump up to the ceiling and touch the ceiling, there’s a high degree of motor unit recruitment but there’s a low degree of force and a lot of people say or like, because they confuse they think of force as kind of the Newton force right force equals mass times acceleration but intramuscular force has nothing to do with that.
So intramuscular force has everything to do with the amount of cross bridging that is occurring so when you’re actually pushing very hard like you’re saying doing a set of bicep curls and you’re applying a high degree of effort that’s when you’re actually getting a high degree of motor unit recruitment and you get a lot of muscle fiber activation but because of the fact that they’re having to produce a lot of force they’re like, oh that’s a lot of tension.
So, what do I need to do in order to create adaptations for this tension? And that is number one, if it’s again if it’s early in the training session or if it’s a novel exercise or anything like that? There’s protective mechanisms put in place to attenuate that muscle damage. And then from there as you continue to do that week after week after week it says oh what adaptations can I put in place now? It says let me create the ability to produce more force. So that is gonna be how your muscle hypertrophy comes.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. And this going back to volume doesn’t cause hypertrophy you can experience mechanical tension without doing 10 or 12 reps. It could be three reps, four reps if you have a heavier load, a heavier weight?
Paul Carter: Yeah, absolutely. So if you’re if you do one set of five to failure and you couldn’t do six reps so it’s a five rep of max load then really all five of those reps are gonna have a high degree of force and so those fibers that are active are gonna experience a high degree of tension. So volume load or volume itself it is completely irrelevant to hypertrophy if you’re not counting sets that have a specific proximity to failure or they have a certain amount of velocity loss, so if I do… And we’ve seen this through every study that’s ever looked at this. So this is not really like one of those kind of debatable topics it’s like is what’s repeatable over and over and over and over and over again.
Is that as we train closer to failure and we have a high degree of simulating repetitions then that is what’s gonna cause myofibril protein synthesis to be elevated and that’s kind of the biological the physiological mechanism that creates the ability that adds those new myofibrils. If we train very far away from failure we can do all the volume in the world that we want to but those fibers will not experience that high degree of tension they won’t produce a lot of force so they don’t actually grow. They’re not giving a reason to grow so the idea that volume was king because I’ve heard guys say that volume is king volume drives hypertrophy. I’m like, no not really.
It’s now, I need to quantify that because every set you do is gonna have a degree of if let’s say we’re talking about sets to failure or very close to failure every set that you do has a certain number of repetitions in it like we just talked about that are stimulating repetitions that go towards creating that muscle growth process they also come with a certain amount of fatigue so there’s a nonlinear relationship with a volume and hypertrophy to where one set really causes this enormous response one set to failure causes an enormous response to create muscle hypertrophy. The second set causes a nice response to but comparatively it’s much smaller than the first set because there’s also been a degree of fatigue that’s been created from that first set.
The third set also causes a nice response however, again comparatively it’s smaller can go a lot smaller than the first set so from the first set you have to do in order to double the degree of stimulus that you’re gonna get from that first set you have to do five more sets so it’s a nonlinear relationship so it’s not like if you were thinking in the hypertrophy and something as basics like units say like one set causes one unit of hypertrophy.
And two sets cause two units and three sets cause three units. It doesn’t really work that way there’s a nonlinear relationship and in all the research has kind of looked at how volume equates off to hypertrophic adaptations. It’s that nonlinear relationship to where it kind of it goes up kind of up and then it essentially levels off so that anything you’re doing extra after that either doesn’t add anything to what you’re doing or potentially even causes a regression.
Brett McKay: Okay, and this is where this idea of Mike Mentzer his, you know, heavy-duty training like you train one to two sets really hard and that’s all you do.
Paul Carter: Yeah, and I mean I think depending on how people have actually counted their sets over the years. They may have already been training like that anyway or may not have so all depending on what you’re counting as a “set” so if you go in and you do like four sets of 12 but each set you’re having to add weight and the only ones you even got close to failure was the last set did you do four sets or do one set in my opinion you did one set.
Brett McKay: Right. Okay, so mechanical tension, you know, it’s mechanical tension if you’re getting close to failure and it doesn’t have to be to failure I think you’ve highlighted research. It has to be near failure.
Paul Carter: So yeah, I think that’s something that people kind of they don’t so that we had the meta-analysis that came out a while back and people were saying that hypertrophy is the same if you’re training three RIR to train to failure and I’m like, okay that all of that stuff needs really in-depth nuance so in no world is three RIR the same as training to failure or one RIR.
Brett McKay: There’s… Just for listeners who don’t know, like three RIR, that’s like your three reps away.
Paul Carter: Three reps in reserve.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Three reps in reserve. So it’s when you reach the end of the set, you could have done three more reps?
Paul Carter: So I heard that said by some people and I was like, yeah, that’s not even what the research is showing. It still shows there does appear to be a somewhat linear relationship with training to failure and hypertrophy. When the meta regression came out and it was a much better overall look, what they found was what I’d already felt like, what really we saw in the research is, and that is if you’re using heavier loading, it’s probably not as important to actually get to failure. But if you’re using lighter loading, it’s probably a bit more important to actually try to get to task failure than with heavier loading. With heavier loading, you’re gonna have that full motor unit recruitment from the very first rep. I’m talking somewhere around 86% to 88% of one rep max.
And that’s gonna limit you to somewhere around five or six reps. But that’s where you’re gonna have essentially a set that’s done where all of those repetitions are gonna be stimulating and have a high degree of mechanical tension. Whereas if you’re using lighter loading and both the meta analysis and the regression found this exact same thing. And I think this was the part that most people missed out on. They couldn’t explain in the first one, the meta analysis, why that higher reps or light loading with higher reps needed failure to kind of achieve that same hypertrophy stimulus. Whereas in the second one, they found the same thing, but they didn’t… Neither one explained it. So the whole reason is just motor unit recruitment.
So when you’re doing higher reps, there’s a lot of things that are happening on your way to getting to failure. So if you’re doing 15 reps to failure, if you think about it, those first 10 reps or even 12 reps are just there to create fatigue feedback to say, this feels really painful. This is really difficult. And each the repetition that you do creates a degree of fatigue. They’re not creating really a degree of stimulus. So they’re there to create fatigue. So by the time that you’re getting towards the end of it, you have to really push to failure in order to get full motor unit recruitment or get maximal motor unit. You don’t ever get full.
To get maximum motor unit recruitment as comparatively as you do with the heavier sets, because you have those negative feedback mechanisms in place and that afferent feedback and those negative feedback mechanisms actually don’t really allow you to get as much motor unit recruitment ’cause they don’t exist when you’re doing heavier loading. So you know this, if you go in and you do like a three rep max or five rep max, there’s nothing fatiguing in there. There’s no burning sensation. There’s no like fatigue. There’s nothing in those that create fatigue as you’re getting. If you’re only gonna if you’re doing a deadlift with a five rep max and you can’t do six reps, you can’t do the five rep max ’cause you can’t produce any more force.
When you’re doing a set of 15, there’s a lot of negative feedback sensations that happen on the way to that 15th rep that essentially create kind of an interference effect. So it’s more important with that lighter loading that you get to failure than with the heavier loading. So I think that’s why some people end up misinterpreting that as, oh, it’s perfectly okay to do three RIR. I’m like, no, it’s not. Three RIR at a set of 15 reps is not the same as getting to 15 reps and hitting test failure. And they really showed that in that research. So getting to failure is probably more important if you’re gonna do something like 10, 12, 15 reps actually getting to test failure than if you’re doing, say, five or six reps with a heavier load.
Brett McKay: Okay. So knowing that mechanical tension is what drives hypertrophy and mechanical tension is when you’re getting close to failure or failure, how do you program for mechanical tension? Like how do you So one thing people know is that you have to progressively overload to get stronger. What does progressive overload look like in a hypertrophy program with this mechanical tension idea?
Paul Carter: So progressive overload is like, it’s another myth one, right? Like the people would take forever progressive overload is adding more sets or doing more exercise or whatever. And that’s consistently been misconstrued. So progressive overload is how we measure if a program is working. So if I did 200 pounds for eight reps last week, can I do 200 pounds for nine or 10 reps this week? So in my programs, how I set this up is people after their warm-ups will do one or two sets to failure or very close to failure for that exercise.
And then we have a certain number of what we call like hard sets that have effective reps in them within the session. So as long as somebody is able to add reps or they can add load or even potentially both, that’s what we see as progressive overload. What that means is that is feedback that these adaptations that we have talked about, whether they’re neural or muscular are occurring within the training program.
Brett McKay: So yeah, the way I’ve been doing that, so I’ve been kind of shifting to more of a hypertrophy program. I’ll have a load and then I’ll start at maybe eight and then I’ll work up to 12. And once I get to 12, I’ll bump the weight up and then go back down to eight. And that’s how I’ve been doing it. That’s been working for me.
Paul Carter: That was, I actually… That was the exact method I used when I was younger. What’s really weird to me at times is I figured out stuff through when I was like a kid, like a teenager, I figured out a lot of these things just from what I felt like was just good critical thinking and just made sense than the stuff I read in the magazines. So that was the method I used forever was I figured if I could take a weight that I could only get maybe seven or eight reps with and I could get to where I was doing 10 or 12 reps with it, I would be bigger. That was the basis of what I figured out and it’s 100% true. Like you can get into the deepness of all the physiological mechanisms and all that stuff.
But at the end of the day, if I can take a weight that I was doing eight reps with and I get to 12 and then I add load to something that brings me back to eight and I just keep repeating that process over years and years and years of doing that, that’s how you’re gonna get larger. It’s really that simple, right? And that is like the, now you can do that with say, I’m gonna go from six reps to 10 reps or six reps to eight reps or eight reps to 12 reps, just somewhere within that range where you just have some way of progressively overloading those motions.
You don’t have any other, any other outcome that’s gonna happen other than you’re gonna get larger. And I think that, it’s weird to me that so many people overthink this stuff and just miss the forest for the trees, right? Like that’s right there in front of you. Like if you can, how I remember when I figured this one out, it was the 100 pound dumbbells was the largest dumbbells that we had in the gym I was in at the time. I was probably, I think I was 15 and I was doing the 100s for like eight. And I remember thinking if I could get those to 12, my chest would be bigger. [laughter] That was my whole process. That was it.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Carter: Like that was the whole process. So from there I just did that with like every, every, I was like, well, I guess I just do that with everything. So I’m doing this for eight reps and I can get that weight to 12 reps, then I’ll be bigger. And then when I’d get to 12 reps, I’d add weight.
Brett McKay: So that’s why tracking your workouts is important. ‘Cause you can see, well I did this last week, I’m gonna progressively overload by either adding a rep or adding weight. I’m curious how many sets should you do? So you mentioned there’s a non-linear connection between hypertrophy and sets. So how do you know when to stop? Is it just one set, two sets, three sets? Let’s say you got programmed bicep curls for the day, right? How many sets should you do of a bicep curl in that workout?
Paul Carter: Well, it depends on how many bicep exercises that we’re doing and depends on the entire structure of the program. So sometimes it’s just one set, but then it might be two or three different curl exercises or two or three different forearm flexor exercises. Or it could be just two sets of curls. So a lot of people will be like, well that doesn’t meet the, whatever. My philosophy, we just talked about progressive overload. My philosophy has never been, let me do the maximum amount of volume that I can recover from. I think that is a really backwards mentality. I think the idea about how you should approach training is how do I get the maximum amount of progressive overload with the least amount of volume.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay. So if, let’s say maybe you have a, an arms program, like you’re doing arms day. If you’re doing two bicep exercises, you maybe just have to do one to two sets of each of those. That’s it.
Paul Carter: So if I’d literally had like an arm day, and that’s what I said, kind of like the, if you’d have to be talking like the whole program, but if you had like an arm day, it might be something as simple as three tricep exercises and three bicep exercises. But they would each just get like one, one set to failure.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Paul Carter: I can’t ever see myself doing like six sets for triceps or biceps. That’s, I, in all of the research that we’ve had, generally the cap overall I’m talking about for everybody has been eight steps for a muscle group within the session. And that’s really pushing the upper limits. So somebody’s gonna listen this and go, Paul said eight sets. I’m not saying 8 effing sets. I’m saying for the absolute highest on the outlier scale of we’ve seen people of using volume with long rest periods. It’s around eight sets, six sets looks like it’s the cap for the majority of people before the point of diminishing returns kicks in. So I can’t see myself even doing success for biceps and workout, I don’t think, and a lot of people will go, why such low volume? That’s not low volume. That’s the, the other argument that comes up that really grinds my gears.
I’m like, that’s not low volume. If you’re taking longer rest periods, that’s on the upper end of the volume scale. So you have to do when you’re taking the rest periods thing cleared up a lot of the confusion over the years. So if you take a short rest period, you basically have to do twice as much volume to get the same hypertrophy stimulus due to the amount of the fatigue that’s accumulated. So if you’re doing an arm day and you’re doing three or four good sets for biceps, that’s gonna be plenty. If you’re doing three or four good sets for triceps, that’s gonna be plenty because you’re still gonna have other days in the week, right, where you’re doing some pulling and pushing and there’ll be a, a certain amount of stimulus that they’ll still get from that stuff.
Brett McKay: All right. And I think the takeaway there is you don’t have to spend two hours in the gym to get results. I think that’s another myth there.
Paul Carter: I, at no point have I ever in 30, I’ve literally been training 34 years, have I ever spent more than like an hour in the gym?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Carter: And this belief that I think for years or when I was in power lifting, and I don’t know how much you know about this, but there was definitely a long period of time, I think it was like when the Kelly start stuff was popular. The whole Supple Leopard thing was going on was people would go in and spend half an hour doing warmups and then mobility drills and stuff like that. I’ve never done that stuff. I go in, people ask, how do you warm up? I’m like, I walk in, I find the first exercise that I’m doing and I do like eight to 10 reps on it. [laughter] That’s how I like, I don’t walk on the treadmill and I don’t like do a bunch of stretching or a bunch of mobility work or stuff like that. I walk in whatever exercise I’m doing first I find that machine and then I put a load on and I can do maybe eight reps with it. And that’s how it gets started.
Brett McKay: Speaking of programming, there’s all different ways you could skin this cat, but just like for a starter hypertrophy program, what do you typically recommend? Do you recommend doing upper, lower, body parts? How do you like to do it for beginners?
Paul Carter: So I actually, I’m starting a brand new, it’s a beginner program. It’s a tier one and a tier two based program under my train hero groups. And we’ll be starting that next month. And so the first way I would actually start that out is something as simple as three days a week full body because the beginners are still gonna grow great off that kind of stuff. And you don’t need a massive amount of variety. And then to split it up from there would be more like a tier two after maybe six months where you go to like an upper lower type split, and you start incorporating a few new exercises than you what you were doing. And for beginners, that’s going to be as much as you’re really gonna need. You don’t need a vast array of trying to hit iliac lats and some like the causal division of the pecs and all that kind of stuff, beginners don’t need that kind of stuff. They’re gonna grow a really nice foundational level of muscle mass from using a select number of motions within the program. And that doesn’t have to be squat a bench deadlift, like that’s we, Chris and I just did the exercise essential books and we do not have squat bench and deadlifts in there anywhere.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of exercise selection, something that you talk a lot about on your socials is the benefits of machines. And for a while I think a lot of people said, oh, machines aren’t good. You use free weights. That’s the way to go. But you argue that free weights have their limitations when it comes to hypertrophy. What’s going on there with the free weights versus machines?
Paul Carter: Well, I’m always gonna choose a more stable exercise over a less stable exercise. Now, over time, as we talked about forward strength stuff, you develop the coordination and stuff by that you get, I mean, you’ll develop that ability to be more stable with an unstable exercise, but you’re still always gonna have that stability component challenge with a less stable exercise. So if you think about it, if you’re always gonna have a little bit higher of basically agonist activation, the prime mover that you’re using in a motion and with a stable exercise, then it’s always gonna be slightly better, than using a less stable exercise, because I’m just removing a component that is a limiter component for that muscle group. So if I’m doing dumbbell, why would I do a dumbbell bench press when I can do a machine bench press and load the pecs better and not worry about stabilizing the dumbbells?
To me, that’s a very simple way to kind of explain that. So if I’m not trying to develop a… Like to me, like after all these years, that’s one of the things I look back now and go, can you use dumbbells and grow muscle? 100% absolutely. And that always gets taken way outta as soon as you say on social media, I think a machine press for the chest is, better than [chuckle], like a dumbbell press, somebody will go, so you’re saying dumbbells are worthless? I’m like, yeah, that’s totally what I said.
I 100% said they’re worthless. No, I just said, I think this is probably a better option because I’m removing the stability and coordination component. So if I don’t need that, I’m not trying to develop that and I’m actually just trying to load my pecs, why would I choose a motion that’s less stable?
Brett McKay: I can see this with the squat particularly. That’s, I never like the squat. I still don’t like the squat.
‘Cause it’s a high skilled. It’s a high skilled lift ’cause you’re just, you’re thinking about so many things like, all right, I am going down. Have I…
Paul Carter: I don’t think that people think about the fact, I don’t care what anybody says. One of the things, I think why you need so many warmups sets for your squat is for that reason. I think it’s a much higher skill lift than people give it credit for. Don’t give a credit for whichever way you’d like to phrase that. I do agree. Like when I was squatting, it was the one motion, like when you’re bench pressing, you go in, you set up, however you’re bench pressing, you’ve probably got it nailed down. Getting set up and doing your warmups and then getting to a top sub bench press doesn’t take a whole lot of warmup sets. Doesn’t take a whole lot of thought once you kind of get your motion down. But I squatted for decades and decades, and I still had plenty of days where going in squatting would feel off or weird or not quite perfect, so on. You probably had those, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Carter: And I think it’s actually a far more coordinated exercise than people want to talk about. And one of the things, you can put somebody on a hack squat and get their feet in the right place, they can go in and repeat that every single time, and it feels the same every single time because you’ve removed all of those coordination and stability problems with the squat. So why would I choose a squat if I’m trying to load my quads when I can get on high squat and know exactly where I need to put my feet in the same position every time and get the same kind of output every time? Why would I choose something different or a pendulum or a leg press or whatever, right? So I’ve removed that whole coordination component and now I’m like, oh, I just wanna load that tissue. So now if I’m using a very highly stable exercise, I can just load that tissue and get in almost like perfect position every time without a lot of thought going into it.
Brett McKay: Okay. So yeah, if you’re looking at hypertrophy, machines are gonna be the way to go ’cause of the stability aspect and you’re able to…
Paul Carter: 100%
Brett McKay: Focus on the mechanical tension instead of thinking about, oh my gosh, I’m shifting here to the right. I need to, like, you don’t have to worry about that…
Paul Carter: How many times? Yeah, I think that’s a good discussion, right? Because that’s a really great one because I haven’t squatted for but you’re bringing up a lot of stuff I remember thinking about. You go in on that squat day and then for whatever reason, like why did I shift to the left there? Why is this filling off? Why is this wonky and that kind of stuff. Well, if I’m just trying to load my quads, why am I worried about all that stuff?
Brett McKay: Right.
Paul Carter: You know what I mean? Like, if I have a pendulum or I have a hack squat that’s right there, or even a Smith machine squat, I think a Smith machine squat is even better because in a Smith machine squat, you can get set up in the exact same position over and over and over again. Like you’re not having to think about it. And a leg press, if you know exactly where your feet need to be, you can get set up there over and over and over again. You don’t have any of these things now, something could feel off or wonky that day because of overuse, or maybe you did something previous day or you pulled something in a workout. But I’m saying from the aspect of doing the motion, I think that the squat is really far down the list for being good for hypertrophy.
Brett McKay: And, but that’s not to say like, let’s say a guy’s listening, he has a garage gym and he wants to do hypertrophy. It’s like you can still squat and you can do it for hypertrophy. It’s just, it would be easier if you had a hack squat machine or leg press.
Paul Carter: Oh, totally. Like I think people conflate that right with me again saying, something’s useless, worthless, whatever. I’m like, I’m not saying that. I’m saying if I have a list of, druthers then and there and I have a long list and people say you can pick from whatever you want to, the actual, like a barbell squat is, pretty low down the list. So I mean it’d be like a pendulum squat, a good hack squat, a Smith machine squat, a leg press, and then you had to get into something like a safety bar, heel elevated squat. Now we’re talking about quads here, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Paul Carter: So all of these things have context. So it’s basically down there around fifth on the list. And then it even needs what I’d consider like a special bar and heel elevation. Now that’s for quads. Now if I was doing something, I just wanted to do a lower body exercise where I’m getting the adductors and I’m getting the quads and I’m getting some glutes, then I could do something like a low bar squat with a nice forward lean angle. I could get deep into the squat. I’m not overthinking it. I’m just like, Hey, I’m just doing a squat pattern. I’m loading everything that’s gonna be involved in it. But if we’re talking about like hypertrophy and we’re talking about, I would just wanna load this particular tissue and I’m trying to take my physique to the next level, I do think those kind of little nuances matter over a long period. Do they matter for beginners as much? No, not really.
Brett McKay: Okay. So exercise selection for hypertrophy, that’s your goal. Machines are gonna be optimal, but you can still get it with dumbbells or barbells. And even the cable machines, you use a lot of the cable stuff as well.
Paul Carter: I use more cables now. I would say probably for mainly arm work, delt work doing lateral, I love the line cable laterals. That’s actually shout out to Joe Minute. The who I think came up with those. That is the, honestly, in my opinion, the best lateral for the lateral deltoid exercise that you can do. I like machine laterals too. Now I used to not like those, but I’ve actually mainly that was because there was a multitude of those that sometimes do give my left shoulder problem. I have a subluxation in my left shoulder. It’s so basically got a certain amount of separation in the GH joint that it’s caused by, I think it was in a football injury.
Some of the lateral machines cause me pain and some don’t. So I kinda use on them for quite a while, but I can actually get set up in some of them now, not all of them, but most of them. [0:53:52.4] ____ Toward them that cause me pain I do like those too. They’re highly stable. You’re doing abduction. But the lying cable lateral I like the most because there’s a little bit of that freedom of movement that gives my shoulder the least amount of problems. And that’s the also that plays a factor in with everyone too, is your structure and then your own injury potential, or your injury history or your injury potential or any of that kinda of stuff.
So If somebody’s like, every time I do this motion, this causes me pain. If I can look at it and see maybe if there’s something wrong in their mechanics that’s causing the problem. But for some people, some stuff just hurts, right? There’s not always, like, if somebody goes, well, you’re doing this wrong because it bothers your shoulder. I’m like, no, it bothers my shoulder because I’ve had injuries in that shoulder.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Carter: There’s certain movements that just bother it. Those are things that take it to account too.
Brett McKay: Right? You got to work around those injuries. Okay, so let’s do a recap here of what we talked about today. If you wanna train for hypertrophy, if you want to get your muscles big, the key is to achieve mechanical tension during your working set. That happens when you train to failure or close to it. And to achieve hypertrophy, you don’t need as much volume as you might think. If you’re using lighter weight, you’re gonna have to do more reps. But if you’re using heavier weight, you can get hypertrophy with just, five to six reps. Yeah, you don’t have to go to the gym for hours and thrash yourself all the time to get huge. Well, Paul, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about what you do?
Paul Carter: You can find me everywhere. If you type in Lift Run Bang. I have said this on my own podcast so many times, I really want to change my name because a lot of people were like, oh, when I started the blog and that name, I just wanted to use something that was catchy. And people always think the Bang part has to do with sex. It has nothing to do with sex. The idea behind when I started Lift Run Bang was, you’re lifting, you’re doing some conditioning. And then the Bang was… I was a computer programmer and engineer for 15 years. The Bang was what we call a variable in programming language. It could mean whatever you wrote in the program. A variable would be one word that would contain a string of commands within that one word. Within the program, if you called that one word, it would execute that string of commands.
So Lift, Run, and then the Bang, the Bang was a variable so what’s your string of commands that you execute in your life that you’re passionate about? Whether it’s being a dad or whether you’re into jujitsu, whether you’re into coaching little league or something, but some variable in your life that is more than just lifting weights and doing cardio or whatever. That was the whole idea. And I like now people… I think just something as simple as Coach Carter would be good or whatever, but that was the whole premise behind it. But if you type in Lift Run Bang on pretty much all social media, you should find me in some form or fashion. I think the only place I don’t go to anymore is Twitter.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Paul Carter, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Paul Carter: Absolutely, man. I’m glad we finally got this done.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Paul Carter. You can find him across social media platforms at Lift Run Bang. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/hypertrophy where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple or Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to all listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.