The Holistic Hypertrophy Program.

The most common methods of training usually fail to exhaust one or another group of muscle fibres. Learn what the holistic hypertrophy program is and how it can help you!
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Training for mass gains sounds simple, come in, recruit and exhaust as many muscle fibers as possible. Simple right? Unfortunately most common methods of training usually fail to exhaust one or another group of muscle fibres. To understand this we need to look at how muscle fibres differ in recruitment and fatigability.

Ask any fitness buff to define different muscle fibres and you'll usually hear - fast and slow twitch. The more astute of you who have done your reading will be saying 'actually theirs slow (type I), fast oxidative (type IIa) and fast glycolytic (type IIb).' While you are right, it has been shown there is up to seven classifications of muscle fibers (type I, Ic, IIc, IIac, IIa, IIab, IIb) and they act as a continuum.2

Figure 1

The slower the fiber the lower the threshold for recruitment (the easier it is to activate the fiber), as well as being more fatigue resistant. As you move up the continuum the fibers recruitment threshold increases, but its fatigue resistance decreases.

This plays a vital role in how muscle fibers are recruited. During muscle contraction fibres are recruited in an orderly manner referred to as the 'size principal'.1 Basically the small slow fibres with their low recruitment threshold are recruited first and as increasing force is required the larger fast twitch fibres are recruited along the continuum.

Looking at fig 2 we can see how recruitment occurs with differing loads and the closer to failure we get.

Figure 2

A = Single repetition, submaximal weight
B = Non failure, multiple repetitions submaximal weight (submaximal effort method)
C = failure, multiple repetitions submaximal weight (repeated effort method)
D = single repetition maximal weight (maximal effort method)

As can be seen slow fibers are recruited first, with fast fibers being recruited when greater effort and loads are required. The interesting thing is that in order to recruit fast fibers higher loads are required, yet higher loads means less time is spent lifting and therefore the fatigue resistant slower fibers are not exhausted.

It has been stated that unless a fiber is exhausted it has not been trained1. Considering this typical higher repetition programs miss training the faster fibers whilst strength style training unfortunately does not exhaust the slower fibers, either way potential hypertrophy is going untapped. Most peoples answer to this problem is to periodise their training into alternate segments of strength training for so many weeks followed by another number of weeks of higher rep work. This type of training has some drawbacks in that as one motor ability (i.e. strength) is developed the other motor ability (i.e. muscular endurance) starts to detrain.1

As an alternative I will present a program which covers all fiber type recruitment and possible exhaustion. This program is aimed at individuals who wish to add as much possible size in the quickest time possible - I can now hear all the meatheads salivating.

This program aims to recruit and exhaust all possible fibres through a method termed holistic sets - don't worry I wont be getting you to be using crystals and funky chants, unless that's your cup of tea of course! The method basically uses the heavy to light training program in which specific sets are performed starting with high loads low reps and with subsequent sets there is a decrease in load with a corresponding increase in reps. Combining these loading parameters with specific tempos and exercise execution in each set forms the basis of the program.

Three Work Sets Per Exercise Will Be Performed In The Following Manner And Order:

Sets Reps Rep cadence/tempo* Rest
1 3 @ 95% 3RM 1,0,X 120 seconds
2 8 @ 8RM** 3,2,1 60 seconds
3 20 @ 20RM** 4,4,4 N/A

*(Eccentric, Isometric pause, Concentric in seconds. X means to explode and movement speed should be attempted to be fast)
** (Note the 8RM and 20RM are repetition maximums at the given tempo)

Warm up sets should precede the first work set; these should be gradual increasing with low reps so as to avoid fatigue. A format like so should work fine

Warm Up Set Load Repetitions
1 50% work set 1 3
2 70% work set 1 3
3 80% work set 1 2
4 80% work set 1 1

The First work set aims to recruit the fast-twitch fibers. As such the load is high (95% 3RM) with the eccentric performed relatively fast (one second) which has been shown to preferentially recruit the fast-twitch fibers 3 whilst still being relatively safe and wont rip your arms from their sockets. The speed of concentric should be fast (or at least attempted to be fast, but considering the load will move at a slower pace) as this has been shown to recruit the highest threshold fast twitch fibres. 4

After two minutes rest, commence the second set which is a standard bodybuilding affair - eight repetitions performed with a 3-second eccentric, a single second pause in the down position followed by a 2-second concentric. The overall time under tension should be around 50 seconds, which will exhaust all the intermediate fibres with an endurance time under 50 seconds.

Perform the third set after a minutes rest, this set aims to exhaust a reasonable level of slow-twitch fibers. The repetitions should be slow (four seconds each for the eccentric, pause and the concentric) and there should be no rest so the reps should be performed in a continuous tension style.

The last set should fell like hell as the lactate levels reach an unbearable level - I can now hear the masochists salivating - that's nearly everyone covered. Considering this you will have to swallow your pride and use a weight you would usually laugh at.

Considering this program aims to recruit as many fibers as possible the exercise selection should come from large multi-joint exercises.

Sample Program

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Upperbody 1 Lowerbody 2 off Upperbody 2 Upperbody 2 off off

Workout Exercises
Upperbody 1 Bench press
Bentover row
Lowerbody 1 Back squat
Stifflegged deadlift
Upperbody 2 Pull-ups
Incline press
Lowerbody 2 Bentlegged deadlift
Front squat

Click Here For A Printable Version Of This Workout!

Each exercise should only have one 'round' of holistic sets, as performing a second round will defeat the purpose (i.e. the fibers should be exhausted and it would be near impossible to develop levels of force to recruit the high threshold fibres again).

Two workouts are performed for a given muscle group within a week with two differing motor patterns (movement). It has been shown that muscles with multiple functions (biarticulate /cross two joints or are multipennate) can be recruited in such a way as differing sub-populations of the muscle are recruited for specific tasks. An example of this would be the clavicular head of the pectorals are recruited during movements in which the arms are raised toward the head as opposed to straight out in front of the body.

Once again it must be stated this is a program aimed at developing maximal hypertrophy in a short period of time, if your goal is pure strength then a strength based program will be more suitable. As long as the underlying principles of progressive overload and adequate nutrition are addressed the above program should provide satisfying mass gains over a twelve-week period. Within the second instalment I will present an advanced version of the program.

Added Benefits

As well as aiming to recruit and exhaust as many potential fibers as possible, this program also has a few added potential benefits in terms of strength and hypertrophy.

  • Post-tetanic potentiation - As the three rep set employs near maximal contractions with minimal fatigue levels there should be an increase in strength during subsequent sets due to increased neural output and increased calcium levels within the muscle. This is termed post-tetanic potentiation.
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy - higher repetition training can increase stored energy and the cytoplasm within muscle cells1. Although this does not aid in strength it will increase muscle size.
  • Increased capilirisation - The higher repetition training will increase capilirisation1, 5 (number of small blood vessels). This will again increase a muscles overall size as increase muscular endurance and aid in recovery between sets

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


1. Zatsiorsky M. 1995. Science and practice of strength training. Human kinetics
2. Staron, Hikida 1992. Histochemical, biochemical and ultrastructural analyses of single human muscle fibres with special reference to the C fibre population. J Histochem cytochem 40; 563-568.
3. Nardone, Romano and Scieppati 1989. Selective recruitment of high threshold human motor units during voluntary isotonic lengthening of active muscles. JAP 409, 451-71
4. Sale 1992. Neural adaptation to strength training. Strength and power in sport. Blackwell science
5. Foss and Keteyian 2000. Foxs physiological basis for sport and exercise. Lippincott and Williams.