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

Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for the Strength Athlete

Mark Clevenger

Last week I wrote a short article about my Top 6 Training Philosophies for Strength Athletes. This week I want to follow up with my Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for these same athletes. These philosophies are rooted in the concept I call ‘controlling the controllables.’ Exercising control over these variables will ensure no matter how the event plays out you walk away within the framework of success that you construct for yourself.

  1. Set yourself up for success: Going into a competition define your success beforehand with goals that are within your physical abilities. Don’t set the mark outside of your reach (I’m going to deadlift 1,000lbs!) because you’re only going to get discouraged and upset with yourself when you don’t reach it.
  2. Stick to the plan: If you’ve trained a certain way with certain equipment for certain events, compete in that manor. Comp day is not the time to change the way you do anything. Don’t allow some unknown variable into any of your lifts that could lead to a decrease in performance, even if you believe the change has huge upside to increase your projected performance. Always take the safe bet rather than the risk everything you’ve worked for bet.
  3. Savor the moment: You’ve worked your tail off to be on the platform with all eyes on you, that moment is yours. With that in mind don’t let it be bigger than the task at hand, you still have to execute the plan regardless of how the competition is playing out. In the end the moment is yours but isn’t bigger than what you’ve come to do.
  4. Throw the book out the window and take the test : To this point you’ve been thinking about everything from your goal, to your training, and everything in between. Competition day is what all that thinking has led to but is not the place for any further thought. You’re beyond prepared because everything is second nature to you at this point. Just go pass the test.
  5. Celebrate your successes: Be happy with your PR’s and goals that were met. Go out and have a drink, eat a good meal, and spend time with those who supported you throughout the process, after all you earned it. Don’t let the honeymoon period of success last longer than 1 week. Enjoy the victory then set a new goal and start the process over again. Keep the things in your training that made you successful and apply them to future goals.
  6. Own your failures: Your failures are yours and no one else’s, just like your successes. Take ownership of what you did wrong and make it a positive. Dwelling on failures does you no good and never learning from them makes you destined to repeat the same mistakes. Make it a positive learning experience and move on.

Many of you probably use most of these concepts in competition already. For those of you who don’t, write these things down, commit them to memory, and apply them on game day. I promise exercising control over these 6 variables will yield you a >95% success rate within the framework of success as you’ve defined it. This success will keep you positively engaged and competing in the sport you obviously love.