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How I set up my hypertrophy program

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

This article is only scratching the surface in terms of how to set up a program designed for hypertrophy, however, it may give you a clearer insight into how to organise your own training. (Video and voice over of a session at bottom of the page.

Hypertrophy Program | Arms and delts focus

Due to lockdown I haven’t had the luxury of a full equipped gym to perform my main strength work. I have access to a barbell, squat rack, bench and a EZ bar, therefore I shifted my focus onto a hypertrophy focused program. With no powerlifting competitions on the horizon, now was a great time to drop some body fat and get myself into a good position to bulk again in the future. I had much less weight to play with in this temporary home gym, however, research shows that an effective hypertrophy stimulus can occur up to your 30 rep max

I designed this program to prioritize arms and delts– As powerlifters we tend to neglect lots of the direct arm work – so would make sense to bring up this lagging area. All other body part will go on the back burner – maintenance volume (the minimum number of sets required to maintain current musculature). There are 3 studies I have come across showing that when performing drastically reduced volumes – you are still able to maintain muscle mass.

The meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues found that maintenance could be as low as 3-5 weekly sets per muscle group. However , your maintenance volume is going to be purely individual, based off many factors such as your genetic response to hypertrophic stimuli, how much volume you were performing in your previous training cycles etc. For this reason I would keep it ‘safe’ and aim for 6-10 weekly sets for each muscle group for maintenance volume.

Designing a training block (mesocycle)

To build a solid program, I generally like to start with the mesocycle. In layman’s terms a mesocycle refers to a training block or ‘phase’ These blocks generally last between 4-6 weeks for hypertrophy & strength training.

There is also the possibility of starting with a macro cycle to prepare your training, a macrocycle is made up of multiple mesocycles – it is generally an annual plan that works athletes towards peaking for competition. This is a great option for serious powerlifters or bodybuilders, however for most gym goers , it is simply , overkill. ( I will do a write up on macrocycles for powerlifters in the future – stay tuned!)

Well-designed mesocycles will allow for good progression from one block to the next. We will then reverse engineer from the mesocycle down to micro cycle - The micro is the shortest training phase – typically a week of training – Each micro cycle differs slightly as you progress through the mesocycle.

The micro cycles will differ in terms of stress, generally the increased stress will be produced by adding sets (volume), increasing weight (intensity) and increasing RPE scores (lifting closer to failure). I like to incorporate all three of these progressions over a mesocycle.

Using the RPE/RIR system

A lot of emphasis is placed on rating of perceived exertion (RPE)/reps in reserve (RIR) within this program. Reason being, it is a very easy way to autoregulate your training. RPE lets you take advantage of your ‘good days’ by allowing you to complete more reps, Alternatively if you are having a ‘bad day’ for whatever reason (stress, lack of sleep etc) you may be unable to match your previous performances, RPE allows you to still have a productive session.

RIR and RPE are essentially the same thing – RPE 8 is equal to RIR 2 (2 reps from failure)

RPEs usually start around 6-7 at the start of block, over the weeks I gradually increase the RPEs closer to failure, The benefit of training to failure is that it offers a slightly more effective hypertrophy stimulus per set, however the downside is that it is more fatiguing than not training to failure. (another study here), If this fatigue starts to really bleed into your upcoming sessions it can hinder your progress. For this reason it makes sense to have a week at the end of the block where many of the movements are performed to failure. Following this ‘failure’ week I use a deload (lower intensities and volumes) to aid in recovery and set you up for the next block of training, where the process starts over again

Give RPE a try it is a great way to auto regulate your training – it is also shown to be an accurate system as long as you are not a complete beginner.

Letting your reps drop with RPE/RIR

I like to program RPE slightly different for hypertrophy focused programs compared to strength training – for strength training I prefer to prioritize load on the bar and for hypertrophy I prioritize volume - both intensity and volume are important for hypertrophy however increased volume seems to have greater effect as long as the weight is within the 5-30 rep max range and the athlete is not exceeding his capacity to recover.

For strength I prefer to hit a specific weight for the goal but keep the reps the same e.g. 6 reps @ RPE 7. For hypertrophy I keep the same the weight the same 90% of the time (unless I am using intensification methods such as drop sets) but lets keep this simple and concentrate on ‘straight sets’, the bread and butter of the program.

So an example set might look like this – Seated barbell overhead press – 3 sets of RPE 7 @ 90kg

For each set , keep pumping those reps until you think you are 3 reps shy of failure, your reps may drop as you fatigue. For example 1st set 12 reps , 2nd set 10 reps, 3rd set 10 reps. This is a great and simple way to track your training, basically aiming to beat the previous weeks reps.

How to apply progressive overload

I am manipulating the volume and intensity (% of one rep max) through weekly increases in RPE, sets, and weight. A combination of these variables are increased throughout a block

Here is an example of an RPE progression

Week 1 - 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 7

Week 2 – 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 3 – 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 9

Week 4 – 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 10

Week 5 – Deload

Set progression example

Week 1 - 2 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 2 – 3 sets @100kg @ RPE 8

Week 3 – 4 sets 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 4 – 5 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 5 – Deload

Weight progression example

Week 1 - 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 2 – 4 sets @ 102kg @ RPE 8

Week 3 – 4 sets @ 105kg @ RPE 8

Week 4 – 4 sets @ 107kg @ RPE 8

Week 5 – Deload

However, Rarely would these progressions be performed in isolation – the weekly progressions tend to a be a combination of these progressions – here is an example

Week 1 - 3 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 7

Week 2 – 4 sets @ 100kg @ RPE 8

Week 3 – 4 sets @ 102kg @ RPE 9

Week 4 – 5 sets @ 102kg @ RPE 10

Week 5 – Deload

Remember!, each week you should be beating the previous weeks performance.

Where to start

I generally like to start a block between 2-4 sets per exercise – use the lower end of the range (2 sets) with compound movements that create a lot of fatigue (for me this would be something like a stiff leg deadlift) and start on the higher end of the range (3-4 sets) in smaller ‘isolation’ movements that don’t create a ton of fatigue (e.g dumbbell side delt raise)

I will do an article on this at some point because as it requires more detail , however, make sure to only increase your RPE by 1 each week – also, make conservative jumps if you are increasing weight on the bar , around 2-3% is usually the sweet spot. And keep it under a 5% increase for the entire block – this makes It easier to track your progress – its much easier to track a bench press that’s increased from 100kg to 102.5 kg than it is 100kg to 120kg. the rep ranges will be drastically different with the 120kg.

When to add sets

The longer you train, the better you will become at knowing when to increase sets intuitively week to week, however this guide is a good place to start.

Add 2 sets:

If the volume on this exercise felt easy to complete AND you had no overlapping soreness on sessions that used the same muscle group e.g quads DID NOT FEEL SORE on leg press on day 3 from day 1s squat session.

Add 1 set:

If the volume was somewhat challenging on the exercise AND you had little to no overlapping soreness that used the same muscle group

Add no sets:

If the volume was challenging AND you had overlapping soreness on sessions that used the same muscle group

What movements to use

Priority for exercise selection is based on 6 foundational movement patterns

1. Squat

2. Hinge

3. Lunge

4. Push

5. Pull

6. Direct Ab work

These movements tend to be the 1st and 2nd exercise of the day – they give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of stimulus. Regularly performing these movement patterns will give you the biggest potential for muscle growth.

It is also useful to sprinkle in some ‘isolation’ work to ‘fill in the gaps’. For example - lets say you have done 6 sets of squats – Squats are not just taxing on the quads , they are fatiguing on the lower back – if the lower back starts to become the limiting factor of the lift then the quads aren’t being as stimulated as well as they could be – isolation is very useful in this instance, jump on the leg extension and get more effective sets for the quads without the lower back compromising the set.

As I am doing an arms/delts specialisation phase – A little more emphasis is placed on isolation movements (as I think they target the arms, very well) but the compound movements still take priority in the program.

How to choose exercises

This is tough question to answer, however if you aren’t sure what exercises you respond best to – use this checklist…

1. Is there ‘room’ for a lot of progressive overload in weight? E.g., stiff leg deadlifts vs hamstring curls

2. Is there a good mind muscle connection?

3. Do you get a good pump in the target muscle?

4. Is there a long, full range of motion?

5. Is the exercise tolerable on the joints and other connective tissues?

6. Does the exercise have a good stimulus to fatigue ratio?

Stimulus to fatigue ratio

This concept was developed by Mike Israetel – the idea behind it is that some exercises provide a good stimulus without creating a huge amount of fatigue. Here is an example in my own training

Stiff leg deadlifts vs regular conventional deadlifts for hamstring development, both are great exercises for muscle building purposes, however, the conventional deadlift is very taxing on my lower back, The lower back tends to be the limiting factor of the lift and I notice the lower back fatigue can disrupt my next lower body session - The SLDL on the other hand, put the hamstrings through a bigger range of motion and puts them under more stretch. This can be a contributing factor towards building muscle. I also feel much more tension throughout the movement in my hamstrings and also get more DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the target muscle. DOMS is not a direct contributor on muscle growth, however it certainly gives you signs that you are targeting the correct musculature.

What rep ranges to use?

As discussed earlier, a great hypertrophy stimulus can be found up to your 30-rep max. So as long as you are within the 5-30 rep range – you are in the zone.

That being said, certain exercises lend themselves to certain rep ranges better than other in my experience

Movements like squats and stiff leg deadlifts feel better to me in the 5-10 rep range- If I start creeping much higher – the lower back seems to get very fatigued. Doing squats for 15+ reps is also extremely demanding on the cardiovascular system, it becomes a struggle to breath and maintain your tightness, this can take away from your concentration on the actual movement.

On the other end of the spectrum – exercises, such as the lateral delt raise, feel much better (in my opinion) in the higher rep ranges. 15+ reps give me a good mind muscle connection and pump in the delts – The lower rep ranges give me little pump and is very difficult to maintain strict form.

When to switch exercises

In general, the heavier compound movements (squats, bench press etc) will stay in your program for the longest period of time without being rotated out. These big movements tend to progress steadily for longer than a dumbbell hammer curl for example. That being said I usually like to keep all exercises in rotation for at least 4 weeks unless the exercise is having a negative impact on your training (irritates your joints) etc.

Rotate an exercise when it starts to feel a bit stale and you are struggling to beat your previous performances.

The training split

Here is how I have organised my training for week 1:

Day 1

Seated overhead press – 3 sets of 90kg @ RPE 7

EZ bar upright row – 4 sets of 15kg (+ EZ bar) @ RPE 7

EZ bar skull crusher – 3 sets of 20kg (+EZ bar) @ RPE 7

Deficit Press ups – 3 sets @ RPE 7

Ez bar curl – 4 sets of 20 @ RPE 7

Day 2

Quad compound movement

Quad compound movement

Quad isolation movement

Lunge movement

Rear delts movement


Day 3

Horizontal Push Movement

Side Delt Movement

Vertical pull with neutral or supinated grip

Bicep Movement

Triceps Isolation

Day 4

Hinge movement

Glute movement

Hamstring isolation

Quad isolation

Chest isolation


Day 5

Incline push movement

Horizontal pull movement

Bicep movement

Bicep movement

Side delt movement

Vertical pull

Here is a video that explains the first session of the block:

Thanks for reading!

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