Bigger is Not Always Stronger: Fallacies of Muscle Hypertrophy for Strength Athletes

Mark Clevenger

Today’s diet and fitness industry preys on the insecurities of the masses. We live in a world where mass-marketing movements of companies, coaches, and trainers aim to exploit these myths on unsuspecting athletes at every available turn. From the notions that juice cleanses will result in immediate weight loss to the idea that the only (and best) way to lose fat is through endless amounts of cardio, the fitness industry is in no short supply of unsubstantiated BS. So hang through some technical terms as I establish an argument against one of these particular misconceptions- the fallacy that working out to make your “muscles bigger” will make you stronger, faster, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Hypertrophy is generally defined as the growth of a tissue or organ as a result of increased size of individual cells1. For sporting performance there has been a quest for skeletal muscle hypertrophy since it was established that a muscle with a larger cross sectional area produces greater force than a muscle with a smaller muscle cross sectional area (a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle)1,2,3,4,5. Unfortunately, strength athletes are so pre-occupied with getting those ‘gains’ or getting ‘big’ that they find themselves believing, and trying, every stupid broscience tip that comes down the fitness fallacy pipeline to increase their muscle mass in the hopes that they will become their strongest selves.

There are primarily two different types of hypertrophy:

  1. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy- The growth of the structures supporting and surrounding the contractile elements of the muscle fibers such as the sarcoplasmic reticulum and sarcoplasm2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of body building style training regimens.
  2. Sarcomere hypertrophy- Growth of the contractile components of muscle fibers2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of strength speed and speed strength training, aka powerlifting and Olympic lifting style training regimens.

HypBlogPic

The problem with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is that there isn’t much growth in the parts of the muscle fibers that actually cause a muscle contraction. This can limit how strong of a contraction you can get. Since sarcomere hypertrophy has a greater proportion of contact area of the contractile elements which results in a stronger muscle contraction, sarcomere hypertrophy should be the goal of all strength based athletes. It’s important to point out that there are no distinct lines that can be drawn between these two types of hypertrophy in training, meaning while training in a bodybuilding style which produces more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy this does not mean that there is no concurrent sarcomere hypertrophy happening and vice versa. The training styles just mean that a greater proportion of one is happening over the other.

Now here is where the butthurt comes in for those coaches who prescribe inadequate, ill-advised, and malformed hypertrophy ‘templates’ aimed at exploiting strength athlete’s misinterpretation of the “muscle size equals strength”  fact. The biggest problem with this ‘fact’ is that it’s taken out of context. It completely ignores the neurological contribution to force production (strength) as well as the appropriateness of hypertrophy for the athlete given their training history2,6. In motor control and force production, the nervous system is responsible for the number of fibers active at any given instant (number coding), the rate at which fibers are firing (rate coding), and the sequence of fiber recruitment (pattern coding)2. A big muscle is no good if the neurological components I’ve outlined have not been sufficiently trained for all the different types of sporting strength an athlete requires (speed strength, strength speed, explosive strength, acceleration strength, ect…).

What this means is that every athlete has a training period of 6-8 years (6 for lightweight athletes and 8 for heavier athletes) that their body maximizes strength gains via neuromuscular coordination and development in the absence of significant muscle hypertrophy6. Essentially, it takes our nervous system 6-8 years to maximize the muscle mass we already have, so why would someone want to take concentrated training time away from strength and skill development for muscle mass to get ‘stronger’ if they haven’t finished maximizing their current muscle mass for strength? How much in strength gains are you leaving on the table by taking this concentrated time away from strength and skill? Yes, in time the increase in muscle mass will make you stronger but in the meantime you could compete in higher weight classes when you haven’t fully developed your current strength potential.  Hypertrophy training (and most techniques associated with it) will make you stronger, but not nearly as strong as you would be if your primary focus was purely on developing your sport specific strength and technique in your main lifts. This is the equivalent of an Olympic lifter concentrating on hypertrophy to get stronger before they’ve ever completely mastered the snatch or clean and jerk. This isn’t to say hypertrophy of muscle and connective tissues during those 6-8 training years doesn’t occur, it’s just not the significant contributor to the observed strength gains from training.

Deciding if hypertrophy training is beneficial or just a time-suck involves thinking through the needs of the individual athlete in their specific sport. Is mass a requirement in order to be competitive or to compete at higher levels of your sport? For a high school senior defensive tackle coming into their freshman year of college football, they will need to put on weight in order to compete at their position. Hypertrophy training for a strength athlete in this position would be appropriate. For the powerlifter who is naturally incredibly strong and wants to compete in higher weight classes for increased competition and notoriety associated with competing at that level, hypertrophy training would be appropriate. So, while the general rule for the strength athlete is that those who have less than 6-8 training experience should focus solely on strength and worry about hypertrophy after that, there are some special circumstances that must be considered from athlete to athlete.

So where have the feathers been ruffled? Wait for it… Wait for it… Right… Here. With all of these facts we can conclude that the mass produced hypertrophy templates from internet ‘coaches’ are useless for the majority of strength athletes. Almost all of them are rooted in the traditional sarcoplasmic hypertrophy style of training (body building concepts) that we all formally associated with muscle building to make us stronger… until we were further educated… like through this article. As strength athletes, this style of training and specific type of hypertrophic adaptation, does us little good and can even be detrimental to our specific sporting strength. These athletes (with the exception of those outlined above) would yield more benefit from continued strength training geared toward their sport.

Understanding that hypertrophy is not necessary for strength athletes with less than 6-8 years of training and doesn’t require special training regimens or templates is a concept that many online coaches and generally ignorant coaches alike will rebuff. These coaches make their living perpetuating the broscience falsehoods of hypertrophy training (via bodybuilding style workouts) and preying on your fear that you have to get bigger to get stronger. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is the field of exercise science. If you’re a strength athlete within 6-8 years of training (with the exception of certain athletes defined earlier) just train for strength. Don’t get lost in the fallacy that hypertrophy is your only path to getting stronger. Motor control and force production (muscle strength), at its core is a complimentary neuro and muscular system that should be trained as such. I hope this article has clarified some of the myths associated with hypertrophy for strength athletes and will save some of you time (and money) from broscience coaches who would love to steal both from you if you hadn’t educated yourself on your sport specific training needs.

References:

  1. Macinstosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  2. Siff M.C. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Sixth Edition. Denver, CO; 2003.
  3. Baechle T.R. Earle R.W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008.
  4. Verkhoshansky Y. Siff M. Supertraining. Sixth Edition. Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2009.
  5. McArdle W.D. Katch F.I. Katch V.L. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Eighth Edition. Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2015.
  6. Medvedyev A.S. A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1989.
  7. Ogborn D. Schoenfeld B.J. The Role of Fiber Types in Muscle Hypertrophy: Implications for Loading Strategies. Strength and Conditioning Journal. April, 2014; 36(2): 20-25

The Fallacy of Cardio for Fat Loss

By Mark Clevenger
December 31st 2016

I started writing this piece the other day by tactfully addressing the fat loss ignorance that permeates our culture. After 3 pages of teasing out all the misused and misunderstood information I still hadn’t started addressing the real science, the facts, about fat loss and exercise. So I decided to scrap it and write a blunt post backed by science. After all, the best argument you can make for bad or misused information, are facts.

Fact #1: Your diet dictates fat gain and fat loss1. Fat loss is simply a matter of calories out (exercise) > calories in (food). Your body must be a state of caloric deficit to lose fat1.  No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. If you eat more than you use, you will not lose weight. You can believe whatever you want about your buddy who used the pop tart diet, or took a magic pill through some Ponzi scheme, but this is a proven fact.

Fact #2: Resistance training is better than aerobic training at burning fat2. This is because resistance training for fat loss is shown to reduce fat and preserve fat free mass (muscle) during times of caloric deficit2. Aerobic training (cardio) on the other hand shows a reduction in both fat and fat free mass2. Reduced lean mass is contrary to your fat loss goals. Don’t believe me? See Fact #3.

Fact #3: Muscle burns energy substrates (fat, carbohydrate, and protein) for fuel to perform work3.  With this fact known we can logically conclude that someone with 100lbs of fat free mass uses twice as much energy as someone with 50lbs of fat free mass doing the same amount of work. So having a little extra muscle only helps you get the desired effect of fat loss quicker. Muscle is our friend in the fight against fat loss.

I can hear the women reading this now in my head as I write, ‘but I don’t want to get bulky.’

Fact #4: If you’re lifting weights while on a caloric deficit diet you won’t put on mass. The body doesn’t have the substrate quantities necessary (because of the deficit) to build new muscle and make you ‘bulky.’

What should you take from all this? First and foremost, your diet dictates fat gain or fat loss1. Second, resistance training is better than standalone ‘cardio’ for fat loss because it preserves muscle while burning fat2. This resistance training will not make you bulky when dieting, regardless of your gender. Muscle is our friend because it burns substrates, like fat, for fuel. The more muscle we have, the greater potential to burn these substrates. So please, please, please, get off the cardio train at the next available stop and get on the resistance training bus with a one way ticket to less body fat. Or just keep running all the time and complaining to your friends about how you look skinny-fat instead of just skinny.

References:

  1. Hall K.D. What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008; 32(3): 573-576.
  2. Geliebter A. Maher M.M. Gerace L. Gutin B. Heymsfield S.B. Hashim S.A. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nut. 1997; 66(3): 557-563.
  3. Gaitanos G.C. Williams C. Boobis L.H. Brooks S. Human muscle metabolism during intermittent maximal exercise. J App Phys. 1993; 75(2): 712-719.

Building the perfect pressing platform: Part 2

By Mark Clevenger
July 26th 2016

In part 1 we covered everything from the feet to the shoulders. Here in part 2, we’ll discuss the shoulders themselves and how to position them with the arms for the press. We will look to marry the safest known biomechanical principles of the shoulder to optimal performance in order to create the safest and strongest pressing position possible. This will allow you to safely move big weights for many years to come.

Everything we do from now is in an effort to create a giant helipad that the barbell lands on, rests, and takes off from. Doing so requires several talking points that must be flushed out. We will need to discuss hand placement, bar placement, define and apply scaption, forearm angle, and upper back engagement. To start, the general rule of thumb for hand placement is somewhere between the tip of the shoulder and approximately 6 inches wider than the tip of the shoulder. Anything wider than that generally creates instability, which is no bueno. As far as traditional vs thumbless grip, it’s really a matter of preference. Yes, pressing overhead with a thumbless grip can be unsafe but so can leaving the toilet seat up in the middle of the night. Understand you can drop a barbell on your head, or get stuck in a toilet at 3am, both are risks that are up to the individual to take.

barplacementNow that we have a place for our hands on the bar, we need to have a place for the bar on our shoulders. As we rotate our elbows under the bar the torque created around our shoulder creates natural tension of the musculature. This tension usually creates a shelf with the shoulder muscles that the bar can rest on. Generally the best place on this shelf for the bar is as far back toward our neck as we can tolerate.

Scaption is defined as approximately the 30-450 angle of our upper arm from the frontal plane (see picture below for clarification)1. This position creates the least amount of mechanical stress in the shoulder joint and allows for the greatest amount of muscular engagement from the shoulders and upper back1. This muscular engagement with decreased joint stress creates stable shoulders to press with.

scaption

Forearm direction should be pointed in line with the theoretical point over our heads where the weight will end at the lockout of the press. This ensures a natural path during the press from its starting point to its lockout centered over our heads. Finding this position requires some shoulder mobility by demanding us to rotate our arms under and around the bar. If this position is difficult to find then the issue is one of shoulder flexibility and requires specific exercises to increase the range of motion of the shoulders.

forearmangle

The upper back is responsible for keeping the shoulder blades retracted and elevated. By keeping your upper back engaged you make the press easier by decreasing the distance traveled by the bar and by providing functional stability for the shoulders to operate through. Both of which are necessary for efficient and successful presses at higher relative loads.

Understand that in applying these concepts there will be variation from person to person at every position we’ve discussed because no two people are built exactly alike. Variation does not mean incorrect, it just means two peoples execution of the same concept do not look exactly alike. Remember, building this perfect platform for the press is a complex process that involves the entire body. Understanding how to achieve maximal pressing performance from the application of safe biomechanical principles is the key to your overhead pressing longevity. Now go forth, apply these concepts, and press the world regardless of your sport of choice. The skys the limit.

References:

  1. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation Second Edition. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

Building the perfect pressing platform: Part 1

By Mark Clevenger
July 8th 2016

Regardless if you’re a Crossfitter, Strongman, or Olympic lifter, the press is a cornerstone of your training. The concept itself is very simple, press the weight over your head. The proper execution of said concept is anything but easy. I want to take a look at the press from an osteokinematic, biomechanical, and maximal performance viewpoint, in an effort to marry the three into the safest and strongest pressing position possible. This first part will cover everything from your feet to your shoulders.

The stability of every platform starts with its base so that’s where we’ll begin. We want a base of support that is wide enough to offer sufficient stability while not being so wide that we lose the ability to generate maximum power from hips for any power variation of the press. A general rule of thumb is the wider your feet get past your hips, the greater the decrease in force production through the hips1. I have found the happy medium between base of support and power production for most people lies with the feet directly underneath their hips or just slightly wider than their hips.

We can’t sufficiently discuss the position of the feet without addressing the toe angle. This angle of the foot itself serves two main purposes: First, it positions the entire leg for maximum recruitment of the lateral rotators of the hip and the gluteus maximus. Recruitment of these muscles is important not just for producing force in the power variation of the press, but they also help stabilize the pelvis during these dynamic movements1. A stable pelvis during these power movements will decrease the risk of lumbopelvic injuries and increase force transmission from the legs and hips to the bar2.

The second main job of the toe angle, in conjunction with a wide enough base, is to allow the vertical dip and drive of the torso. This movement is a combination of lateral rotation of the thighs, abduction of the thighs, flexion and extension of the knees, and slight flexion and extension of the hips. All of these movements increase the overall amount of active musculature involved across the hip which produces a more stable pelvis and generates greater force production. Lateral rotation and abduction of the thighs are what create room for the pelvis to drop vertically. Without this, athletes will be inclined to hinge forward at the waist which will create horizontal displacement of the bar in the drive. This displacement creates an external moment that makes the execution more difficult than it has to be.

Gym Log Press

Moving up from the pelvis we get to the area that creates stability in both the thoracolumbar and pelvic regions, the ‘core’. Our posterior back muscles are actively engaged when we are vertical and under load by supporting our torso to keep it upright. The other anterolateral (AL) muscles of the core must also be braced to share the weight of the external applied load and to help stabilize the pelvis. These AL muscles have anterior, lateral, and posterior attachments to the pelvis, the ribcage, and around to the fascia of the lower back2. Without the active engagement of these muscles the pelvis is more susceptible to movement and because of the relationship the pelvis has with the lower back any movement here will create some sort of flexion or extension in the lumbar spine2. Any flexion/extension here under load is a can of injury soup with your face on the cover.

Hopefully you’ve found this information useful and applicable to your press.  Stay tuned for ‘Building the Perfect Pressing Platform: Part 2’ where you will learn how to position your hands and arms.

References:

  1. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the hip: A focus on muscular actions. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Therapy. 2010; 40(2): 82-94.
  2. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation Second Edition. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.