Andrew Huberman and Andy Gilpin's thoughts on hypertrophy

I love Andrew Huberman's podcast, but there's so much information there that I tend to get lost. Just for my own use, I decided to summarize his ideas on various topics. This post is on hypertrophy.

Everything here is based on Huberman's conversation with Dr. Andy Gilpin. If you want more information on any of these points, it's worth listening to the entire conversation.


Gilpin begins by saying that you have a bunch of variables that you can control when you exercise, and how you dial up or down those variables determines the kinds of adaptations you get. In other words, the adaptations you get are a function of the demand you imposed. Adaptations are things like strength, size (hypertrophy), power, speed, endurance, and so on. The variables are things like exercise intensity (weight), volume (number of sets x reps), training frequency, exercise choice, and so on. In this post, I'm only going to summarize what Gilpin recommends for hypertrophy. There are a couple of advantages to focusing on hypertrophy, as Gilpin points out: 1) hypertrophy-type training gives the most adaptations across a range of categories, and 2) it's idiot-proof (albeit high in effort).

Hypertrophy Protocol - 3-4 sets per body part to failure, compound exercises hitting all body parts, 3x/week

The main driver of hypertrophy is volume.

Volume - 10-20 sets per muscle, 5-30 reps per set

Gilpin recommends at least ~10 work sets per muscle per week, and probably 15-20 work sets per week for optimal growth.

How many reps? Gilpin says that a wide range of reps have been shown to drive hypertrophy, anywhere from 5 to 30. Gilpin recommends you mix up your rep ranges from week to week to keep things interesting. It's a spectrum--lower rep ranges will tend to come with more strength adaptations, while higher rep ranges will stimulate more endurance and cardiovascular adaptations. All of them can lead to protein synthesis. The main factor is...

Intensity - work to failure on each set

For hypertrophy, Gilpin says you have to push the muscle to failure in order to drive the adaptation that leads to production of new muscle. The weight is whatever needs to get you to failure on whatever rep range you've selected. So if you're doing 10 reps to failure, your weight is going to be higher than if you're doing 20.

And for the purposes of hypertrophy, Gilpin defines failure as not total failure, but "almost failure." I interpreted it as you still have 1 rep left in the tank. He was explicit in saying that it's not extreme failure to where you need a spotter to help you lift the bar off your chest.

Frequency - 3x/week

Doing 10-20 sets to failure per muscle is difficult and fatiguing, so we have to spread it out. Furthermore, the adaptation we are trying to drive is protein synthesis (building new muscle), which takes 48-72 hours. The "gene cascade" begins within 4 hours, but protein synthesis starts between 24-48 hours, with 72 hours being optimal. You also want to give the biological signal time to reset back to a baseline before you hit it again.

Balancing these three factors comes out to working out 3x week, giving 2-3 days of recovery between each workout.

Exercise choice - full range of motion on each muscle

Gilpin says that you want to put each joint through a full range of motion. He suggested one workout could consist of four exercises:

1) Upper body press (e.g., bench press)
2) Upper body pull (e.g., pull ups, rows)
3) Lower body press (e.g., squats, lunges, goblet squats)
4) Lower body hinge (e.g., deadlift, glute bridge)

I assume you could mix these up from workout to workout. The important thing is to do something that you can maintain good form on, with a low risk of injury, while working to failure.

Rest - 1-3 minutes between sets (?)

It wasn't clear to me how much you should be resting in between sets for hypertrophy. Gilpin said that for strength, you want to rest between 3-5 minutes between sets. Given that 3-5 min is a long rest period, I assume that the rest periods for hypertrophy should be shorter--maybe 1-3 minutes between sets.

How do you know if you've had a good workout?

Gilpin says that soreness is not a good barometer of workout quality. He says that if you work out to the point of extreme soreness, you are compromising your ability to get the 10-20 total failure sets per week that you need to maximize growth rate. Missing workouts due to soreness is not good.

Gilpin goes on to say that there are 3 drivers underlying this "effort" signal: metabolic stress (the burn), mechanical tension (the weight), and muscular damage (soreness). You don't necessarily need all 3 to have a good workout. But if you don't feel any of them, you're probably wasting your time. Huberman and Gilpin discuss a guideline from Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization, who suggests asking yourself three questions:

- Did you feel the contraction of the muscle during the workout?

- Did you feel a pump after?

- Did you feel sore after?

If the answers to these are 0/3, then you did no real work. Gilpin says that if you're in a range of 3/10 to 5/10 on each of them, you had a good workout. Importantly, you don't need to go to 10/10. Particularly on soreness, you don't need to go too high because it'll compromise your ability to get more good workouts in later in the week.

Other factors: mind-body connection, breathing, cardio and water

Huberman and Gilpin touch on a few other things that can help you have a good workout.

Mind-body connection. Huberman mentions that several recent studies have shown that intentionality, or a mind-body connection, can improve growth during workouts. I remember an old interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he said that he would visualize the muscle growing as he was doing reps. Gilpin strongly advises against distracting yourself during workouts by looking at your phone between sets, or listening to other stuff with your headphones. Instead, they suggested that it's better to look at your muscles during and between sets, like a bodybuilder might do (not sure if they were joking or serious). Furthermore, Gilpin says that if you're tired, it's better to do a short workout with full intentionality and concentration than your normal workout absent-mindedly. Don't "go through the motions."

Breathing. Gilpin said that when you breathe during a set depends on what exactly you're doing. If you're doing one high jump, it's impossible to breathe during the movement. If you're doing 30 reps of lunges, you need some kind of strategy of when to breathe. As a general guideline, he suggests holding your breath on the eccentric or the most dangerous part of the exercise, and exhaling on the concentric or the easy part. I assume you breathe in during a stopping point between reps, but I didn't fully understand this point.

One thing they agreed on was that you should do intentional breathing routines in between your sets. Doesn't matter what exactly you do, but focus on some regimented breathing technique--box breathing, triangle breathing, or 2x exhale/1x inhale are all good. Do it for however long you're resting.

They also added that it's important to do the same after your workout is over, to down-regulate your system from the intensity of the workout. This helps to shift your mind frame after you're done with exercise, and could be anywhere from 1-5 minutes.

Cardio. Gilpin and Huberman advise 150-180 minutes of Zone 2 cardio per week for general health. They also suggest getting to your max heart rate once a week for 30-90 seconds. They add that getting to maximum heart rate is really hard, so if you can't do it consistently, it's better to get to max heart rate once every two weeks than merely getting to 80% every week. To get the beneficial adaptation you really have to hit the max, so don't bother going halfway. It's also important to down-regulate after this kind of exercise. This part of the podcast was about general health (I think), and not specifically about hypertrophy. But I don't think these exercises impede hypertrophy.

Water. I'll probably do a separate post on Huberman's nutrition guidance, but a few words on water. Gilpin advises that you get half your bodyweight in ounces of water per day. That's not just glasses of plain water. He says that coffee and tea (1-2 cups per day) count towards that target. Even though caffeine is a diuretic, he says the diuretic effect is mostly prominent if you're drinking a ton of coffee or if you're taking caffeine pills without water (they hate caffeine pills, by the way). Presumably water from food sources like vegetables and meat also count towards this goal.

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