Duncan Ogilvie (MSc, CSCS, ASCC) – Director of DO Training
Even though the weather in London is pretty abysmal right now, and the only holiday I will be taking this summer is trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro, for some of my readers it is nearly summer time and that means one thing….holiday time. You may have noticed recently in your local high street sweatbox gym a slight increase in the use of the peck deck, crunch machine and EZ bar, and your typical ‘beach weights’. I thought it was a good time to write an article dedicated to what a lot of you want to achieve at this time of year and that’s muscular hypertrophy. As athletes however, you need to achieve muscular hypertrophy that’s functional to your sport. Some people like to call this ‘functional hypertrophy’.
Firstly muscular hypertrophy is a huge in-depth subject that I could write pages about, so for the sake of this article I will try and break it down as simply as I can.
There are considered to be 2 types of hypertrophy, these are contractile and non-contractile. Contractile is the addition of sarcomeres (muscles fibers) in series or parallel, this will lead to increased strength and size of your muscles. Non-contractile, also known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when there is an increase of non contractile elements within the muscle, these elements are things such as collagen and glycogen (energy source for your muscles) that would perhaps give the appearance of a larger muscle but would lack the strength to go with it, or all show but little go. This type of muscular response is typical to what you would expect from a high rep bodybuilding workout. (note – some research has shown that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can place pressure on the muscle cell walls causing them to adapt by reinforcing its structure and actually cause growth) .
No more high reps high volume for athletes.
As the majority of you reading this article are athletes or coach athletes, we want to make sure that when training for hypertrophy it will add to yours/your athletes’ performance in sport. This then poses the question, which form of the above hypertrophy would be most desirable for athletes? Performing traditional bodybuilding workouts is not desirable, high reps and high volume will draw glycogen into the muscle cell causing an increase in size, giving a false impression of muscle growth, which is fine for a bodybuilder or member of the cast of Jersey or Geordie shore, but not for an athlete required to produce power and strength. Remember that one of the keys to developing strength is the ability to maximize tension. It’s thought that you can maximize tension for 5 to 6 reps, leading to a time under tension of around 20 seconds per set. This type of training will also improve the neural drive and the better this is, the better your ability to produce power from your strength on the sports field. High reps do however have their place in an athlete’s workout; we will touch on this later.
Forget about chest and arms days, focus on full body.
Another popular hypertrophy technique used by bodybuilders is body part splits (chest days and arms days). You’re an athlete there is no need to body part split. Is dedicating a whole session to your bi’s and tri’s in the effort for huge arms or having a day hitting your chest from all angles really relevant to your performance in your sport? Isolating body parts will often result in you training too long (this will cause a rise in cortisol, which will lead to elevated stress levels and hinder recovery). For this reason alone you want to keep your workouts under an hour. Body part splits will also have too much volume and not enough intensity (both of which will kill your power potential). The increased metabolic stress created by this volume will cause some serious soreness, not desirable if you want to actually play your sport between workout sessions. A wiser decision for the athlete will be to perform compound multi-joint movements that will produce greater increases in both testosterone and growth hormone levels compared to single-joint exercises that you would often perform in body part split protocols. These multi-joint exercises recruit and activate more muscle mass leading to both strength and hypertrophic gains. So when constructing a hypertrophy program, make sure you make the Olympic lifts and big compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, row, pull and press variations a corner stone of your programme. These big movements will also increase neural drive and motor unit recruitment that can transfer directly to your sport. If you want more convincing you only need to look at a power lifters and weightlifters physique’ to see that low reps, high intensity as well as adding great strength gains will also add some decent muscular hypertrophy.
Pay attention to the types of contractions.
Concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions all play a pivotal role in your training and hypertrophic gains and should be considered in your programming. You need to make sure that your concentric contractions are powerful and explosive to mimic athletic movements. By making sure you accelerate the concentric lifts as fast as possible or at least think to accelerate as fast as possible this will increase motor unit recruitment teaching your body to react as quickly as possible. This increase in acceleration also increases muscular tension which, as highlighted above, has very positive benefits on your training goals. Take care when using eccentric contractions, it has been shown that eccentric contractions recruit more motor units, resulting in a greater metabolic stress and thus increased levels of protein synthesis and growth hormones, both of which are essential in a hypertrophy programme. But do not eccentrically load for more than one exercise per session as this could lead to serious DOMS, large metabolic stress and prolong you ability to recover effectively for your next workout or sports practice.
Isometric contractions immediately followed by dynamic actions (concentric) can improve motor recruitment (and by this time we should be well aware of the benefits of this) and result in the preceding dynamic action becoming faster. So why not experiment with this by adding a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of your squat and see how you respond.
Similar to my advice on eccentric training, training to failure can have some great benefits toward mass gains but should be used sparingly and you should definitely avoid failure every time you lift. This will avoid an over training state and undesirable results.
Remember your goal is to add mass and functional mass at that. You are trying to gain size so why compromise this by doing additional cardio? Remember it’s a trade off. If your focus is on hypertrophy then lay off what might limit or impede your results. If you are worried about your conditioning taking a hit then perhaps add some finishers to your workouts, sled/prowler pushes and pulls or some high intensity strength circuits (barbell complexes). High reps can have a place in your programme too. Using the above advice might limit the development of some of the smaller muscle groups so why not add some assistance exercises for these lagging body parts with high volume and hit them hard for a few weeks at a time to ensure a symmetrical physique.
I have not touched on nutrition in this article and obviously this is a HUGE factor when looking for hypertrophic gains. Keep checking back at DO TRAINING and look out for a future article on how best to fuel your body and some supplements that might be beneficial for reaching your mass gaining goals.
Take home points
- Keep the rep range around 6 and up the intensity of your traditional bodybuilding workout.
- Use full body workouts and big compound lifts.
- Power through the concentric part of the lift and be sure to add some eccentric loading into your programme but don’t over stress this portion of the lift in each workout.
- If you can recover faster (limit soreness) you will be able to get more workouts in and see some great results.
- Ensure that your workout doesn’t exceed an hour.
As you can see this is a huge subject and developing a ‘functional hypertrophy’ programme can involve a lot of different variables. So in conclusion for your next training block why don’t you try the some of the above suggestions and see how you feel. As always comment and let me hear your opinions. If you’re a social media type of person then be sure to like, share and retweet.
- Siff, M. Verkhoshansky, Y. (1999) – Supertraining. Publisher – Colorado: Denver.
- Schoenfeld, B. (2011). “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (10) : 2857-2873.