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Skeletal muscle is highly adaptable and has consistently been shown to morphologically respond to exercise training. Skeletal muscle growth during periods of resistance training has traditionally been referred to as skeletal muscle hypertrophy, and this manifests as increases in muscle mass, muscle thickness, muscle area, muscle volume, and muscle fiber cross-sectional area (fCSA). Delicate electron microscopy and biochemical techniques have also been used to demonstrate that resistance exercise promotes ultrastructural adaptations within muscle fibers. Decades of research in this area of exercise physiology have promulgated a widespread hypothetical model of training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy; specifically, fCSA increases are accompanied by proportional increases in myofibrillar protein, leading to an expansion in the number of sarcomeres in parallel and/or an increase in myofibril number. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that myofibrillar protein concentration may be diluted through sarcoplasmic expansion as fCSA increases occur. Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic, are numerous investigations reporting that pre-to-post training change scores in macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular variables supporting this model are often poorly associated with one another. The current review first provides a brief description of skeletal muscle composition and structure. We then provide a historical overview of muscle hypertrophy assessment. Next, current-day methods commonly used to assess skeletal muscle hypertrophy at the biochemical, ultramicroscopic, microscopic, macroscopic, and whole-body levels in response to training are examined. Data from our laboratory, and others, demonstrating correlations (or the lack thereof) between these variables are also presented, and reasons for comparative discrepancies are discussed with particular attention directed to studies reporting ultrastructural and muscle protein concentration alterations. Finally, we critically evaluate the biological construct of skeletal muscle hypertrophy, propose potential operational definitions, and provide suggestions for consideration in hopes of guiding future research in this area.


This article was originally published in Frontiers in Physiology, available at DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00247.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0).



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