Hypertrophy training is training that is mainly focused on building muscle size and most often seen used by bodybuilding athletes and avid gym-goers.
But, should powerlifters do hypertrophy? Yes, powerlifters, like many other sport athletes, are strongly encouraged to do hypertrophy training (5-12 rep range) to help build lean muscle mass, improve their strength potential, improve technical proficiency, reduce injury risk, and give them a break from heavy lifting.
Although building size can have its drawbacks, like making it harder to stay in your preferred weight class, or not necessarily help you maximize your 1 rep max. It can, and should, be used throughout the year to help build your foundation of strength especially as a beginner.
In this article, I will go over:
- The benefits of doing hypertrophy as well as some drawbacks
- How it can differ based on your experience level
- How often you should implement it
- Some sample workouts to show you how to structure training for muscle building as a powerlifter
5 Benefits of Doing Hypertrophy For Powerlifting
There are several benefits of doing hypertrophy training as a powerlifter and they include:
1. Increase Strength Potential
The goal of powerlifting is to improve and maximize strength and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your muscles are responsible for harnessing that strength. Therefore, it is believed that a muscle that is larger and can withstand more stress will likely be better positioned to handle more load over time.
Interestingly, while the evidence for a relationship between size and strength does exist, the exact mechanism for why or the degree to which size influences strength is still inconclusive according to a 2020 review by Reggiani and Schiaffino.
A 2019 commentary by Taber et. al. on the subject did acknowledge that while you can get stronger without increasing muscle and you can increase muscle without increasing strength it doesn’t mean that hypertrophy does not contribute to an increase in strength in the long run.
This benefit makes it especially important for beginners and novices to spend time working on hypertrophy in their early years because they likely have lots of room to build more muscle and can start to set themselves up for success down the road.
2. Improve Weaknesses/Technique
Powerlifting training consists of a lot of sets but relatively low amounts of reps. While attitudes are changing regarding how much volume of work is done in a week, you technically can still get stronger in the 3 lifts without doing much more than just the 3 lifts themselves.
However, assuming general health and fitness is important to you and longevity within powerlifting is important to you, it’s important to work in a variety of different rep ranges so you get enough practice in many ranges of motion and strengthen all your joints.
Especially among beginners and novices, more reps means more opportunities to improve technique, practice and become more proficient. Therefore, working in larger rep ranges is extremely important when learning technique or wanting to improve certain techniques.
For more advanced lifters, hypertrophy blocks are an excellent opportunity to work on any specific muscular or skill weaknesses you have. For example if your glutes are holding you back from getting stronger in the squat, use your hypertrophy block to really focus on building your glutes mass.
3. Improve Body Composition
Resistance training in general is an excellent way to improve body composition because it helps build lean muscle mass which improves your health and longevity.
According to a 2017 study by Schoenfeld et al, hypertrophy can, and will, occur across many different rep ranges, including lower rep ranges, but volume must be equated. While this may seem like it’s making a case for sticking to only low rep ranges, it’s important to realize that doing a ton of volume with very heavy loads is quite difficult and unrealistic in practice.
Therefore, sticking to what is conventionally regarded as the hypertrophy rep range of 8-12 can be easier to really work the muscle in an effective way and apply enough volume and stimulus for growth. For example, doing 3 sets of 10 is less time consuming and mentally taxing than 10 heavy sets of 3 and can still provide great improvements for body composition.
4. Provides a Mental and Physical Break
While you’re probably only looking to know about the benefits to growing a muscle through hypertrophy and how it affects your strength, it’s important to look beyond the objective goals.
Training for powerlifting is tough, both mentally and physically. It’s not uncommon for athletes who train for maximal strength year round to become burnt out and fall out of love with the sport because of its demands.
Training can often be 2-3 hours long, if not more, and the mental energy it takes to lift very heavy can get exhausting. Therefore, including hypertrophy work can serve as a much needed mental and physical break for the body and keep motivation and focus high throughout the year.
5. Manage Injury Risk
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes injury and what actions will lead to injury since there are so many potential variables and individual differences.
However, a systematic review from 2017 found that while more research is needed on individual characteristics, overall, athletes are at higher risk of injury or illness during periods of intensification (heavy loading) and when training loads accumulate (heavy loading over a prolonged time).
This can lead us to infer that switching up the way we train and utilizing a variety of rep and set schemes can help attenuate injury risk.
In addition, a 2017 meta-analysis concluded that psychosocial factors can contribute to injury risk and psychological interventions may be useful for athletes at risk of injury. Therefore, by switching up training as a powerlifter to give yourself a mental break may be a way to improve your longevity.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
2 Drawbacks of Doing Hypertrophy For Powerlifting
While hypertrophy work comes with many benefits, it’s also important to consider the trade-offs you may be making and go into it aware of any drawbacks.
1. Not Specific to Competitive Powerlifting Goals
When it comes to any sport, specificity is incredibly important. This means that in order to do well at a competition you need to actually do the movements required of you in competition.
Therefore a long distance runner will never be a good long distance runner if they never run long distances and a powerlifter will not get maximally stronger by never lifting heavy weights.
This has been demonstrated in several studies including a 2021 study by Kubo et. al. that found evidence for hypertrophy when doing sets of 4,8 and 12 but did find that strength gains were not as great in those doing sets of 12 compared to the other two.
In addition, Shoenfeld et. al also determined that powerlifting-style training was more effective in producing strength gains in well-trained men.
With this in mind, it’s important to know that while hypertrophy is important, it will not be the best strategy for the weeks leading into a competition and there is still a time and a place for pure strength training.
It is simply not specific enough to get you to a point where you can express your maximum strength and a way some individuals and coaches will implement this is to keep relatively heavy singles sprinkled into the program even while in a hypertrophy-focused block of training.
Related Article: Do Powerlifters Train To Failure? (Not Often, Here’s Why)
2. Can Shift Your Weight Class
While this may be seen as a positive for some athletes, gaining muscle will likely lead to gaining total body weight and can shift you out of your current weight class.
If you are not able to reach qualifying totals for the next weight class up it’s important to be mindful of how much weight you may be putting on and to ensure you continue to increase strength along the way.
Long term, settling into a weight class where you have maximized muscle for your frame is ideal, if that isn’t your preference at this time it’s just good to keep this side effect in the back of your mind and adjust your diet or training accordingly.
Is Hypertrophy Training Different For Beginner and Advanced Powerlifters?
Hypertrophy training for beginner and advanced lifters has the same overall goal: more muscle. However, the amount of work done will change based on your experience level and your goals.
Hypertrophy For Beginner Powerlifters
Beginners should spend more of their time on hypertrophy work because their technique has the furthest to go and their muscle size and volume growth potential is the greatest. For a beginner, they are also more likely to increase strength through any style of training due to neuromuscular adaptations.
Therefore, you might as well spend most of your time in hypertrophy rep ranges since it will give you ample opportunities for improving technique and will help you get enough volume for gaining muscle and strength at the same time.
For example, a beginner can comfortably spend 8-12 weeks in a hypertrophy block of training and then, if they wish to hone in on strength, they can switch to strength work for 4-6 weeks after the hypertrophy phase.
If a novice or beginner has the goal of improving body composition, strength and technique then spending months at a time doing ample volume will only serve them in the long term.
Hypertrophy For Advanced Powerlifters
Advanced powerlifters should also be open to hypertrophy work but benefit from different pros than a beginner may benefit from.
An advanced powerlifter is likely one that competes regularly at a high level, has been moving relatively heavy weight for many years and has put on a significant amount of muscle over the years already.
Therefore, an advanced lifter should be interested in hypertrophy work to provide both a mental and physical break from the intensity of training as well as keep the joints and heart healthy to manage long term injury risk, energy and motivation.
For an advanced lifter, hypertrophy phases can be shorter in duration around 4-6 weeks, but can be sprinkled in more frequently, particularly after a competition or between strength blocks as a “reset” tool.
An advanced lifter may be able to handle less total volume in a session while doing hypertrophy training since they are much stronger than a novice; therefore, even just 75% of an advanced lifter’s 1RM is lots of stimulation for the muscle. This also means fatigue should be monitored and volume should be adjusted based on the athlete’s ability to recover.
How Often Should Powerlifters Do Hypertrophy?
Powerlifters should aim to work on hypertrophy at multiple points throughout the year depending on how long their strength blocks are and whether they are peaking for competition.
A hypertrophy block can be anywhere from 4-12 weeks in length and the length you choose will determine how often you run it. Those with strict competition schedules where they must be maximally strong on specific dates should organize their hypertrophy around their strength and peaking phases of training.
For more recreational lifters who are flexible with how they organize training should aim to focus on hypertrophy for longer stretches of time in between strength blocks to maximize gains. This is especially encouraged for beginners to intermediates.
How To Structure Hypertrophy Training For Powerlifting?
Hypertrophy should be a time in your training where you can focus on your weakest areas and add some variety to your exercise selection that makes you excited to train and feel challenged in a different way than you’re used to.
It’s important to note that you don’t need to have a purist view on hypertrophy where absolutely everything is at exactly 5-12 reps. You can still incorporate some lower rep sets if your concern is losing too much strength.
In general, you’ll want to make sure to hit your upper and lower body more than once a week and mostly stick within the 5-12 rep range for about 3-5 sets at about 50-75% of 1RM and about RPE 7-8 for all accessory movements.
Here are some sample workouts organized for hypertrophy:
Powerlifting Hypertrophy Workout #1
- Pause Squat – 4×8 @ 65% 1 Rep Max
- Incline Bench – 3×10 @ 50% 1 Rep Max
- Foot Elevated Split Squat – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
- Barbell Hip Thrust – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
- Bent Over Row – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
Powerlifting Hypertrophy Workout #2
- Competition Bench – 4×8 @ 65% 1 Rep Max
- Overhead Press – 3×10 @ 50% 1 Rep Max
- Push Ups – 3x @ RPE 7
- Cable Chest Flys – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
- Tricep Extensions – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
Powerlifting Hypertrophy Workout #3
- Deadlift – 4×8 @ 65% 1 Rep Max
- Front Squats – 3×10 @ 50% 1 Rep Max
- Leg Press – 3×10-15 @ RPE 7
- Cable Lat Pulldown or alternative – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
- Bird Dog Dumbbell Row – 3×12-15 @ RPE 7
Other Hypertrophy Resources For Powerlifters
- When To Switch From Strength To Hypertrophy (8 Signs)
- Do Powerlifters Do High Reps?
- 5 Benefits of High Rep Bench Press
- What Are The Benefits of High Rep Squats (Science-Backed)
- High Rep Deadlifts: Should You Do It? (Benefits Explained)
- Repetition Method: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
Hypertrophy work is a necessary aspect to being a successful powerlifter and should not be avoided by any athlete regardless of training experience.
While it won’t be the approach you’ll want to use leading right up to a competition or a 1RM test, it should be incorporated into your annual training plan to help improve body composition, strength potential, reduce injury risk, reinforce good technique and help give both your body and mind a break from the monotony of powerlifting training!
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.