There’s a great debate in the strength world on the necessity and utilization of hypertrophy work for the competitive athlete. Most programs and strength and conditioning professionals understand it’s necessity for sports performance, injury prevention, and base preparation. However, as the athlete gets more elite and more defined in their program and exercise selection we see less and less hypertrophy in their training. This is especially true in sports like Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting. I have my theories on why this is but let’s chalk it up to say that most of the athletes in those fields just don’t like the pain that typically comes with those repetition ranges. They would much rather do one rep and rest for four minutes than do ten reps with a one minute rest. I can’t say that I blame them. However, there are some distinct advantages to spending some time in hypertrophy at the beginning of your training plan especially far out from competition. Before we consider what those advantages are let’s define hypertrophy briefly.
Hypertrophy is the creation of muscle size and density through the mechanism of muscle damage, metabolic stress, or mechanical tension. Simply put it’s the creation of bigger muscles by applying a specific stimulus to a grouping of muscles or a single isolated muscle. This can be done any number of ways including tempo training, repetition rep ranges between eight and twelve around 60%-70%, or blood occlusion impact through timed rest intervals. (There are a couple other ways but those are the major ways that we see them in the strength community without using fancy equipment that most coaches don’t have access to) If I could simplify that entire paragraph hypertrophy is the creation of bigger muscles, stronger ligaments and tendons, and denser more stable muscle fiber groupings.
With that in mind why does a weightlifter need hypertrophy? After all, weightlifters are power athletes. The most successful weightlifter on the planet will be the one who can create the greatest amount of force applied, absorb the greatest amount of force at the highest velocity with the most neuromuscular control. That doesn’t generally look like a bodybuilder. However, a weightlifter who can exhibit all of those characteristics while also being more stable and stronger through the usage of hypertrophy will be better than his less stable less strong opponent.
All things considered hypertrophy is functional for the power lifter in the weightlifter for three reasons:
- Injury prevention: stronger, bigger, more stable muscles in conjunction with more durable tendons and ligaments prevent injury from happening. This is especially true if hypertrophy is done through full range of motion in multiple planes of movement with regular and measured variance in volume and intensity.
- Bigger muscles become stronger muscles: It’s true that a big muscles are not always strong muscles but a bigger muscle has a greater capacity for strength then a smaller muscle. This is why the transition from hypertrophy into strength work is so critical. Hypertrophy is important but it’s meant to be a means to an end not the end itself. Hypertrophy is the gold standard for physique athletes but for a weightlifter or a powerlifter or sports performance it’s merely the means to a stronger more stable performance. Why create size? Because that size then becomes strength and strength facilitates power. A stronger muscle is able to produce more force which makes an athlete more powerful.
- Intermuscular facilitation: Without dropping into the deep dark doldrums of nerd land, succinctly put hypertrophy facilitates the secretion of important hormones like HGH and IGF–1. These hormones are critical to recovery, protein synthesis, and therefore performance. Furthermore, when performed under the proper protocols and guidance, hypertrophy training can dampen the release of a muscle growth blocking hormone called myostatin and prevent the type I muscle fibers from taking over. This allows for the far more important type II fibers to perform work for longer under a greater amount of tension where they would have easily allowed the slower more oxygenated type I fiber to take over. (Without dropping too much information here the type II muscle fiber types are critically important for explosive power and thus critically important for the Olympic lifts)
In summary, we all know that hypertrophy training sucks. Nobody likes it, it’s boring, it hurts way too much, and we all got into the sport of weightlifting to do one rep really heavy one time and then go rest. If you’re a fan of the high repetition, slow eccentrics, or timed efforts you probably picked the wrong sport. All that to say, at the beginning of a training cycle when you see those repetition ranges, ten second eccentric protocols, or strict rest requirements, remember that it’s only a phase and it’s for the purpose of letting you lift more weight one time over your head before you sit down and rest.
- Periodization Training for Sports. Bompa , Tudor. Loc.145-218
- Practical Programming For Strength Training. Rippetoe, Mark. Baker, Andy. Loc.1321-1371
- Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Hard, G Gregory. Triplett, N. Travis P.439-470
- Mashjacked. Mash, Travis
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