Ever wonder why bodybuilders are bigger than powerlifters? If all a muscle “knows” is tension, wouldn’t it stand to reason that powerlifters would possess more muscle than bodybuilders, since powerlifters regularly lift greater loads in their training? But this just isn’t true. Despite using lighter loads, the bodybuilder is typically more muscular than the powerlifter. In a classic review article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning titled “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training,” researcher Brad Schoenfeld points out that there are three primary mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.

First, let’s consider mechanical tension. Creating maximum tension doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to use maximal loads. What it does mean is that you need to use impeccable form and utilize your mindmuscle connection to keep as much tension as possible on the targeted muscle. Since heavier loads will indeed need to be used to maximize mechanical tension, pyramid sets, are a viable strategy that allows for sufficient volume and time under tension. In terms of exercise selection, compound movements are ideal here, so think bench press, weighted dips, military press, weighted chins, barbell rows, barbell curls, squats, and deadlifts. Make sure you’re engaging in progressive overload and increasing your strength over time. Since muscles contain functional subdivisions, exercises like rear-delt raises, incline presses, and lying leg curls are necessary to fully develop certain regions of the muscle and ensure that maximum muscularity is reached.

Now let’s consider metabolic stress. Think of the burn you feel when you perform a high-rep set of calf raises. The burn and pump are evidence of metabolic stress occurring in the muscles. There are several ways you can target metabolic stress in your programs. One way is to perform high-rep sets with lighter loads. This is valuable because it will ensure that the type I fibers achieve an optimal training stimulus, which contributes significantly to a muscle’s volume. Another method is to perform multiple medium rep sets with moderate loads and short rest periods. But what’s often ignored with regard to training for metabolic stress is exercise selection. Certain exercises are better suited for creating metabolic stress due to the constant tension they place on the muscle. Think cable crossovers, lateral raises, wide-grip pulldowns, concentration curls, rope extensions, and barbell hip thrusts. Finally, pausing at the end range of these exercises or holding the last rep for a 10-second count can increase the amount of metabolic stress that’s created.

Last, let’s consider muscle damage. There are several ways to increase the amount of damage. The first is to simply perform unfamiliar exercises or methods. Variety is good for preventing boredom and stagnation, but never stray too far from time-tested exercises and methods. The second way is to accentuate the eccentric portion of an exercise by lowering the weight more slowly and under control with each repetition. But just as in the case of training for metabolic stress, exercise selection tends to be largely ignored when training to optimize muscle damage. You want to choose exercises that activate muscles while they’re stretched to long muscle lengths, so think dumbbell flyes, cable lateral raises, dumbbell pullovers, incline curls, overhead extensions, and Romainian deadlifts. But don’t go overboard on the muscle damage front.

For maximum hypertrophy use the proper loads, tempos, and exercises to optimize your training and maximize your muscle growth.