T Nation

Hypertrophy Advice for Natural Lifters?

Hi Christian, There are quite a few different answers on the questions below on Tnation and around the place so I thought i’d just ask for the “executive view” from yourself.

These questions relate to hypertrophy training in natural lifters;

  • Broadly speaking, how many sets per session/week should be targeted and how much do these targets vary between different people?
  • Carb in take - should it be centred around training, spread evenly across the day or something else?
  • What weight gain target per month do you recommend aiming for?
  • Rest breaks - often 45 sec to 1.5mins seems to be the most common that I see referenced for hypertrophy training. Is there a benefit to short rest breaks, or is it just to save time? I.e. you will most likely be stronger across all sets if resting for 2.5min+… Should you rest more between sets if you are not time constrained?

Thanks for your knowledge,


There is actually a large intra-individual variation, not just because of genetic predispositions but also (mostly) because of the level of daily stress which plays a huge impact in one’s capacity to recover and training and adapt to it.

Furthermore, it depends on the level of effort (intensiveness) of the work sets and the use of special methods.

With a high enough level of intensity (going to failure and, ideally, beyond with the use of intensification methods) you can likely trigger significant growth with as little as 3 work sets per muscle per week.

On the other hand, someone who stops a few reps short of failure will likely need at least 10 work sets per muscle per week, and as much as 16 (normally split in 2-3 sessions).


It depends on goal and daily stress level.

I see carbs not only as an energy source, but as a way to reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels.

As such, I see carbs around the workout and in the evening as the most useful places to ingest them.

But someone who wants maximum muscle growth and doesn’t care that much about adding fat in the process could use a rather large amount of carbs daily and use them at every meal.

Carbs (if the amount is high enough to stimulate insulin release) actually help trigger muscle growth by activating mTOR (and enzyme that activate protein synthesis) and elevates IGF-1 (which is the most anabolic hormone in the body). Not to mention that insulin itself is both anabolic and anti-catabolic.

That having been said, consuming a large amount of carbs daily can lead to some issues like potentially reducing insulin sensitivity, leading to fat gain or even speeding up aging (mTOR and IGF-1 can speed up aging).


Again, that is highly individualistic.

First because you have outliers on both sides of the spectrum. The average person will be able to build a maximum of 2lbs of muscle per month. Even with no fat fain this would show up at around 3lbs of weight gain per month.

Now, if someone has poor muscle-building genetics OR if he is very advanced (close to his muscle size genetic potential) he might only be able to build 1lbs of muscle per month under the best possible circumstances (so likely more realistic to talk in terms of a 0.5-0.75lbs gain per month).

If someone can add 2lbs of muscle in a month and 1lbs of added glycogen, water and other substrates to support the new muscle than that 4lbs gain is fine as it only indicates a fat gain of around 1lb. But if someone can only add 0.5lbs of muscle, then that would lead to a fat gain of 3lbs.

Now, in theory, once someone is past the beginner stage the maximum rate of muscle gain (on average) is 2lbs per month. In reality, very few people can sustain that for a whole year (that is a 24lbs muscle gain in the year or at least a 32-34lbs in scale weight even with minimal fat gain). I’d say that an average of 1lb per month is more realistic, yet still rarely achieved by non-beginners. Sure you can gain more on some months, but on others you’ll gain next to nothing.

The fact is that few non-beginners who are natural will gain more than 12lbs of muscle in one year (that would normally show up as 20-22lbs of scale weight increase with a “normal” fat gain).

Then you must consider the issue of genetic potential.

On average a human male will be able to add a maximum of 40-45lbs of muscle tissue over what his normal adult body weight would have been.

So, for example, if you look at your family and body structure and conclude that you would likely have been 175lbs at around 15% body fat without training, your maximum potential would be around 215lbs at the same 15%.

NOTE: a lot of people will claim that they already gained more than that, in reality it is likely because they are underestimating their fat gain.

The further away you are from your genetic limit, the faster your gains can be. A beginner can gain 25lbs of muscle his first year then will spend his whole training life fighting to get the last 15-20lbs.

So answering your question is really hard. People will gain muscle at different rates and they will also accept a different level of fat gain. Some don’t mind adding 3lbs of fat for every pound of muscle they add (losing 3lbs of fat being a lot easier and faster than gaining one pound of muscle) while others mentally can’t accept gaining fat.

I’d say that adding 3-4lbs per month is fairly “safe” for most and if fat gains start to be too much, simply do a short dieting phase.


Actually there are studies showing better muscle growth when longer rest intervals are used. This allows you to lift more weight on average (with very short rest periods there is a decrease in performance potential from set to set due to incomplete recovery).

A lot of people training for hypertrophy prefer shorter rest periods mostly because it allows them to keep their pump better. If you rest 3-4 minutes between sets you clear out for the accumulated metabolites and oedema that accumulates in the muscle and make the muscles look and feel swollen. But feeling more swollen doesn’t mean that you are triggering more growth.

That having been said, short rest also have some benefits. Mostly when it comes to releasing more growth factors and lactate, both of which can help with muscle growth.

So it really depends on the purpose of each exercise in your program.

If you are using an exercise to cause muscle damage then resting for longer to be able to use more weight will be beneficial:


*Lengthening/stretching the muscle fibers while they are under high tension

*The muscle being stretched the most will be the muscle being stimulated the most.

*We must go with exercises what puts a lot of load on the pectorals and in which this muscle is lengthened as much as possible (while it’s still under load)

*Heavier loads (6-10 reps per set)

If you use metabolic factors to simulate growth, then muscle damage isn’t that important, it doesn’t matter if strength goes down from set to set due to fatigue:


*Keeping the target muscle(s) under constant tension

*Ideally a peak contraction exercise

*Higher reps and longer TUT (10-15 reps/40-60 seconds)

BUT it is important to understand that metabolic factors are not as effective as muscle damage/mTOR activation to trigger growth.

Let me use the following analogy:

Growing muscles is like growing plants. When you want plants to grow you will need good soil, the sun and water. If you add fertilizer you can speed up the growth even more BUT if you only use the fertilizer (no soil, no sun, no water) you won’t get any growth.

The soil, sun and water are your muscle damage/mTOR activation and the fertilizer is lactate and growth factors.

The moral of the story is that when you are focusing on heavier weights and compound movements, it’s best to rest a bit longer to have optimal performance and when doing the minor assistance exercises at the end, you should use shorter rest intervals.


Christian, thank you so much for this very detailed explanation. I have so much respect and gratitude for your effort here. Thank you my man.

And thanks also to OP…those are all questions I am much interested, but with my level of english I would take a week to write all this in concise manner. So thank you :slight_smile:
And I think this should be sticky.

Christian, thank you so much for your response. Each of your posts crystallises years of reading/learning for me.

Regarding the volume question, in your experience, for natural individuals with low physical stress outside of training, which is typically more effective - lower sets with higher intensity or higher number of sets with lower intensity?

Or is this just down to the individual and you need to try a range of sets/intensity for yourself and see what works best?

I tend to go more toward the higher intensity side. Probably not going as far as the “one set to total muscle failure” extreme (although I do use that from time to time) for most people.

It’s more that I feel like doing a lot of lower stress sets (leaving 3 reps in the tank or so) is inefficient when it comes to triggering growth. Not saying that it doesn’t work, but it requires a lot more work for the same result.

I went to the low volume extreme with the Best Damn training for natural lifters. But now have moved toward slightly more volume (the plan might be updated in the near future). I like 2-3 work sets per exercise, close to failure (not always to failure, it depends on the exercise), doing a total of 4-6 exercises per workout. Training half or 1/3rd of the body at each session (I prefer half).

And I feel like for continuous hypertrophy development, variation of training methods might be more important than volume and intensity (you still need enough volume and intensity). I feel like the body adapts to the stimulus you impose on it, and once it becomes adapted to the type of training, progress is very hard to stimulate.

Volume and intensity are only ways of making a certain stimulus stronger, but it doesn’t change the type of stimulus. And once you are adapted to that stimulus, even increases in volume and intensity will yield limited (if any) gains. Especially considering that a natural lifter has a limited capacity to recover from physical stress.