Make Gains Like a Beginner: Novelty and Hypertrophy



By Charles Staley


Charles is here on a weekly basis to help you cut through the B.S. and get some real perspective regarding health and training. Please post feedback or questions to Charles directly in the comments below this article.


Here are two quick questions:

  • If, for whatever reason, you had to make yourself sore tomorrow, how would you accomplish that? What exercise would you do, and in what manner?
  • Why do beginners make progress so readily, while more advanced trainees have to do a lot more work for the same amount of gain?

Let’s answer them in a logical order.


Challenge Your Muscles With Unfamiliarity

If, for whatever reason, I needed to be sore tomorrow, I’d do something unfamiliar. This might mean an unfamiliar exercise or loading pattern – high reps, slow tempos, or anything I haven’t done in a long time.


As it happens, I am quite sore right now, and it’s from doing ab rollouts a few days ago. Prior to doing that, I haven’t done a single rep of anything that could be termed “ab work” in well over ten years. I am not sore because of the intensity or volume of the ab work I did. I only performed 3 sets of 5 reps with bodyweight. I’m sore because roll-outs are a novel form of stress for me.


What is it exactly about novelty that has such an important impact on muscle damage? To answer that, let’s move to the second question I posed at the start of this article: Why do beginners make better gains than experienced trainees?


Intensity Can Serve as Novelty

Again, the answer has a lot to do with the novelty of the stimulus. When you’re a beginner and have never trained at all, everything you do is – well, novel. If you’ve been training for years, your body has already seen, and therefore already adapted to, almost any type of movement or loading pattern you can come up with.


“If hypertrophy is one of your primary goals, be on the hunt for techniques and methods your body has never had to adapt to before.”


No matter who you are, your body has already adapted to familiar physical experiences. Walking doesn’t make your calves sore because you’ve been doing it your entire life. But if you perform heavy standing calf raises for 10 sets of 20 reps, that’s an unfamiliar experience that will likely leave you sore.


At this point you might be thinking, “Well, it’s not the novelty of the calf raises that made you sore, it’s the intensity that sets it apart from walking.” I think this analysis is mostly wrong, because if you continued to do those heavy calf raises on a regular basis, they’d no longer make you sore.


Novelty as a Rationale for Block-Style Programming

I’ll finish up this discussion with an observation about the role novelty plays in your programming. The beneficial effects of novelty lend themselves to block style of periodization, where you train for one type of adaptation at a time, as opposed to something like undulating periodization, where you train a variety of rep brackets each week.


After all, if you do everything all the time, how is it ever possible for your body to adapt to new experiences? If, like me, you have difficulty finding an answer to this question, you just found a solid rationale for block-style programming. For example, if you perform sets of 5 for several weeks, you now have the opportunity to present a novel stimulus in the following phase of training, perhaps sets of 12.


If hypertrophy is one of your primary goals, be on the hunt for techniques and methods your body has never had to adapt to before (or at least in a long time). Then present that new stimulus continuously until it doesn’t provoke significant soreness anymore. At that stage, find and implement another set of novel stimuli. Rinse and repeat.





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