Muscular hypertrophy is a complex and expansive subject; stress response, adaptation, hormonal/metabolic/immune responses, nutrition, supplementation, exertion levels, training age, physical age, training methodology etc. It is not as simple a process as many would have you believe. It is possible to gain a lot of strength with only a small increase in lean tissue mass. But it’s also possible to make large gains in lean body mass with only a marginal increase in strength and power potential. It all depends on whether you train using the Bodybuilding Methodology or for Functional Hypertrohpy. The Bodybuilding Methodology This bodybuilding methodology produces muscular gains with little emphasis placed on muscle function. For this reason, bodybuilding methods are a poor choice for anybody seeking to improve their athletic potential. To gain a better understanding of the ways in which gains in lean tissue can lead to improvements in athleticism we have to first distinguish between aesthetically-driven hypertrophy training, and functionally-driven hypertrophy training. Aesthetically-based Muscle Hypertrophy When undertaking hypertrophy training with a purely aesthetic motivation, athletes tend to utilise a high rep range (8-20 reps per set), higher time-under-tension (30-70 seconds under the bar), lower intensity sets (55-80% of 1 repetition max) and shortened rest breaks (15-75 seconds). Typically, these sessions focus on single muscle groups with the aim of developing visible muscle groups evenly. Due to the low relative intensity of these training sessions, adaptation primarily occurs in the slower-twitch type I muscle fibres. These are efficient when undertaking low-force, longer-duration endurance activities, but are of little use when it comes to activities requiring higher amounts of strength or power production, making their development less important for the majority of the athletic population. Training in this manner also tends to favour what’s known as ‘sarcoplasmic hypertrophy‘, which is a growth response in the sarcoplasm, a non-contractile mostly liquid portion of the muscle fibre, which doesn’t contribute to the strength of a muscular contraction. It will also increase your muscles glycogen capacity, which draws more water into the cell and will further increase your muscles cross-sectional area, again, without improving your strength levels. Functional Hypertrophy Hypertrophy training with the goal of improving strength and power production is a completely different process. The emphasis of this training is not only to develop larger muscles, but to improve the athletes ability to generate maximum force and muscular power, which are key elements of most sports. The focus here is on developing the bigger more powerful type II-B muscle fibres which have the greatest potential to increase force production. For functional hypertrophy the rep-range will be much lower (1-7 reps per set) and, in order to make training in this rep range challenging enough to force adaptation, the relative intensity level will then be much higher (80-100% of 1 rep maximum). This increase in intensity has the bonus of stimulating the central nervous system, which has some of the following effects:
- Increased synchronisation of the motor units: (Your muscle fibres work together more efficiently).
- Decreased inhibition of the golgi tendon organ: (Your body’s protective mechanisms won’t hold back your force production as much as usual).
- Increased inter-muscular coordination (Your muscles contract and work together in a much more efficient manner).
- Improved rate coding (The sequence in which your muscle fibres are activated is made more efficient, increasing rate of force production, aka more power!).
Training in this manner tends to favour what is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. This is an increase in size and density of the myofibrils, a contractile portion of the muscle fibre. The benefit of this type of hypertrophy for the athletic population (when compared to sarcoplasmic) is that it will not only increase the size, but also the force production capability of the muscles involved. Will muscle hypertrophy make you slow and bulky? Your New Answer: Certainly not, as long as it’s well-planned, well-executed and suits your particular goals. In part 2 of this article we will discuss in more detail how to set up a functional hypertrophy program for your particular sport and have a look at a few example programs I’ve used with my athletes. Until then, stay strong! Ryan Buchanan Ryan Buchanan is the Owner and Head strength coach at Stronger Athletics, a warehouse-style training facility located in Unanderra, NSW. Ryan’s specialties include working with speed and strength athletes as well as rapid improvements in body composition.