Here is another Poliquin article that I really like. As usual, he communicates some uncommon sense truths in a direct and often humerous way. Go Charles!
(I will interject some comments in Red)
Is Functional Hypertrophy the Key to Athletic Performance?
The answer is more complicated than stating that “bigger muscles are not always better”
by Charles Poliquin
“All things being equal, the strongest athlete will always win!”
“The strongest shall survive!”
“You can never be too strong!”
These are all inspirational slogans that you might find on the walls of any high school or college weightroom. I've used all of these over the years.There is much truth to them, but here’s the catch: There are many ways to get strong, and for an athlete sometimes the type of muscle mass associated with these methods is not the optimal way to train. What I’m talking about, more specifically, is the concept of functional hypertrophy.
Don’t confuse functional hypertrophy with functional training. I’m not talking about doing squats on Swiss balls or juggling kettlebells [excuse me while I throw up in my mouth] but the best protocols to develop muscle mass for athletes. The term functional hypertrophy is exactly what it describes, which is “muscle mass that contributes directly to sports performance or the activity you are training for.” As such, there can be one type of functional hypertrophy training for a tennis player, and another for a football lineman and still another for a fireman. “One size of muscle,” you might say, “doesn’t fit all!” Right on. For a fairly current example; about a year ago or so, maybe 2 now, Jose Canseco, a former major league baseball player who was famous mostly for craving fame and a pumped up physique, challenged anyone to a fight in the ring. It seemed that Jose was still craving attention and needed some money to continue his major league lifestyle outside of the major leagues. Vai Sikahema, a Philadelphia area sportscaster and former NFL football player (and BYU alumni) took the challenge. Vai was also a former Golden Gloves boxer. Vai took this challenge as a motivation to get back into top shape in his mid 40's and to donate the money to charity. Vai has always been undersized for football, weighing about 185 or so. Canseco weighed in about 240 lb. of pumped up bulk. Supposedly he had been practicing martial arts of some kind. Vai also expressed his desire to show some respect for the sport of boxing and the fact that being a boxer and thinking you can fight are two different things. To make a long story short, the fight was over in one round and Jose did not ask for a rematch. (Who in his right mind would ask for a fight with a Tongan?) Vai was quoted as saying, "There is a reason why boxers do not look like bodybuilders."To the general public, sometimes there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between muscle mass and athletic performance. Watch a men’s basketball game at any level and you’ll find exceptional players with tremendous physiques, along with exceptional players who look as though they could gain weight by sucking on an orange. The same state of affairs exists with women’s tennis, as you’ll see heavily muscled champions such as Serena Williams and champions with fashion model figures such as Maria Sharapova. Even in the sport of weightlifting you’ll find considerable variation in the physiques of the competitors; in fact, because the Olympic press was eliminated from competition in 1972, as a group the champions of the modern era are less physically impressive than the champions of 50 years ago.
Talent. First there is the belief that “Talent prevails.” Is it just possible that the Division 1 college football teams that consistently finish in the top 20 in the polls generally have more talent than the teams that finish in the bottom 20? Ya think? Nevertheless, many football strength coaches still play “follow the leader” by copying the strength programs of the current championship teams. Yes, talent does make a coach’s job easier, which is why for team sports in countries that don’t have the financial means of the US, athletes often must go through extensive screening to determine if they are worth the investment.The strongest guy on our football team at BYU when I was there, was a 3rd string guard. Lifting big weights did not make him a better player. Other factors are involved, obviously. Coaching Quality. The quality of coaching is also an important factor in athletic success, especially when you consider that many coaches of young athletes in the US have no academic background or credentials in coaching. Further, the expenses associated with hiring the best coaches limit the number of talented athletes who can afford to work with these coaches (especially in costly sports such as skiing, golf, tennis and figure skating). The story of the Jamaican bobsled team was certainly fascinating and entertaining, but without the funding for proper equipment and training, the success of these athletes must be regarded as an anomaly. The same goes for buying ice skates and golf clubs, reserving practices times on the courts and the greens, and travel expenses. Sure, some high schools have exceptional coaches and training facilities, but elite athletes are training year-round in most sports, and that means outside sport teams and working with higher-level athletes.
Although the muscle mass of a pro bodybuilder such as Ronnie Coleman is impressive, his training methods may not be the best for an Olympic lifter. Coleman photo by Milos Sarcev.
Yes, bodybuilders look strong – and there are many bodybuilders who are as strong as they look. Eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman could squat and deadlift over 800 pounds. And yes, the top strongman competitors are very, very strong. Canadian strongman Hugo Girard, who gave a presentation at our Eleiko Strength Seminar in June, could bench press 804 pounds for 2 reps and deadlift 848 pounds – oh, yeah, he could also flip a car! Does this mean the training programs that enabled Coleman and Girard to do these exceptional feats of strength will help a tennis player serve at 140 miles an hour? Or a sprinter run 100 meters in under ten seconds? Or a baseball player hit a home run out of the park? Maybe not.Probably not!Because strength training is only one factor in athletic success, often strength coaches and personal trainers can get away with prescribing inferior workout programs – which in turn will create a multitude of unfortunate and unpredictable factors. Charles, have you been to B YU? That being said, let’s talk about muscle fibers.
Muscle Mass: the Variables
Developing functional hypertrophy is not just a matter of telling all athletes to focus on using relative strength training methods. Perhaps for female athletes who are in sports with an aesthetic component, such as gymnastics and figure skating, this might be the way to go throughout their entire athletic career. In contrast, athletes in contact/collision sports such as football players often need a significant amount of muscle mass to perform at a high level, and if these fibers are not trained at an early age, the athletes might not be able to activate them later in their career. In fact, I believe this is one reason that I’m not good at performing high-rep sets with heavy weights, at least compared to sets I can perform for low reps.
When designing protocols to develop functional hypertrophy for a specific athlete, many variables need to be taken into consideration. Here are a few. Some good applied science here...Muscle Cell Growth. There are basically two types of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic and sarcomere. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy involves the increase in non-contractile proteins and fluids between the muscle fibers – in other words, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy presents itself as an increase in muscle size but does not contribute to an increase in strength. Sarcomere hypertrophy involves the increase of contractile fibers that do work. These differences help explain why bodybuilders may display enormous size in their chest, shoulders and arms but cannot translate this development in a big bench press. Not that it’s necessary to bench press to get a great physique, but I think it’s rather odd that I have seen three Mr. Olympia winners who could not bench press more than 315 pounds for 6 reps in the off-season, when they are supposedly at their strongest.
Fiber Typing. Back in the ’90s when I first published The Poliquin Principles, I discussed the importance of working a variety of muscle fiber types, both high and low threshold, to achieve maximum results. The rationale came from the observation of top weightlifters who focus on the high threshold fibers with low reps – often they have exceptional levels of muscle mass. (Examples of outstanding bodybuilders from the past are Franco Columbu, John Grimek, Sergio Oliva and Bill Pearl, who reached the highest levels in bodybuilding while also being able to perform well in the Iron Game sports.) So it makes sense that for the highest levels of muscle mass, a bodybuilder should also perform lower reps.
For a general overview of the variety of hypertrophy methods, start with a copy of The Poliquin Principles.
Neurological Efficiency. Neurological efficiency refers to how effectively an individual recruits the higher threshold muscle fibers, and is of special concern to prepubescent athletes and all female athletes. Having these groups focus on sets of 1-2 reps may not be an efficient use of training time as they often cannot recruit a significant number the high-threshold fibers in the first place, especially if they have no previous weight training experience. Because neurological efficiency is such a complex subject, earlier this year I held two Special Considerations seminars: “Training the Prepubescent Athlete” and “Training the Female Client.”
Muscle Dampening. This next concept concerns the way muscles contract. The sliding filament theory involves the sliding of the contractile elements (thick and thin filaments such as myosin and actin) past each other. The relevant training issue here is that this sliding occurs at different rates depending upon the muscle fiber being activated, and these reactions are not independent. As a result, creating too much hypertrophy in the lower-threshold fibers can have a dampening effect on overall speed of muscle contraction.
Biomechanics. Speed is king in sports, but it’s important not to confuse the slow muscular contractions associated with aerobic training with slow movements that occur in many eccentric training protocols. This is because the intent of moving quickly can activate high-threshold fibers. Pierre Roy, one of Canada’s most accomplished weightlifting coaches, has had excellent success using eccentric training protocols with his elite athletes. But there are exceptions.
Consider that even though an exercise may have an exact movement pattern, at high speeds it's possible that different muscle groups are recruited. For example, the brachioradialis muscle is not recruited at slow speeds during a biceps curl, but it is recruited at fast speed. Likewise, Russian weightlifting coach and sport scientist Robert A. Roman has published papers citing research showing that performing pulls with especially heavy weights (such as above 90 percent of 1RM in the classical lifts) adversely affects the coordination pattern of the pull.
Vascular Adaptations. It’s pretty much accepted that carrying excess bodyfat will adversely affect endurance, and in fact one way to make dramatic increases in VO2 max results is to simply lose bodyfat. But it’s also true that excess muscle size also places a burden on the vascular system and as such this hypertrophy could adversely affect athletic performance. It’s been said that endurance is a big factor in the fourth quarter of a football game, but sometimes it’s a case of being tired going into the game. Lighter football players often need more muscular endurance, as they have to work harder to deal with heavier players on the other side of the ball. Again, this is why I won’t say, “To develop functional strength for a football player do 4-6 sets of 2-5 reps with 30-second rest intervals.” It’s not that simple.
Specificity Principle. Performing a high volume of muscular endurance work for a prolonged period causes the fast-twitch muscle fibers to behave like slow-twitch fibers in an attempt to adapt to the high levels of fatigue. This is related to the specificity principle, which refers to the body’s ability to adapt in a specific manner to a specific stimulus. Can a man bench press 600 pounds? Many have, some without any supportive equipment, and the current world record is 1,075 pounds by Ryan Kennelly of the United States. Can a man run a marathon in less than two hours and 20 minutes? Many have, and the current world record is 2:03:59 by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. Has anyone ever been able to bench press 600 pounds and run a marathon in less than two hours and 20 minutes in the same week? No – and for that matter, no one has been able to do it in the same lifetime.
Marathon running and being able to bench press major household appliances are certainly extreme examples, but studies have shown that even small amounts of aerobic training can compromise strength gains. In fact, focusing on aerobic training during prepubescence can prevent an athlete from achieving their full power potential when they get older – so, consider aerobic training a form of brain damage! I've always said that Fun Run is an oxymoron.Jim Thorpe was a great athlete,(and a Native Warrior) as was Babe Didrikson. The winner of the decathlon is considered the greatest athlete, but that’s just a title. The performances of Olympic champion Bryan Clay in the 2008 decathlon are amazing but still are far from the absolute world records or the best performances at that Games. For example, Clay won the discus component of the decathlon with a throw of 53.79 meters (176 feet, 6 inches) and the 100 meters with 10.44. The winning throw at the Games in the main discus event was 68.82 meters (225 feet, 7 inches) and the 100-meter winner ran 9.69. When it comes to multiple sports, with the exception of a few superstars as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, athletes simply cannot compete at the highest levels in more than one sport.
Simply put, the functional hypertrophy of one athlete may not necessarily be the functional hypertrophy of another.
And the Answer Is…
...complicated. As you can see, due to a vast number of variables, there is no easy way to prescribe appropriate strength training protocols for all athletes at all levels of development. And even if you can’t expect to find all the answers to your questions about achieving functional hypertrophy from reading only one article or one book or from attending one seminar, I hope you won’t stop there. Although no one can guarantee you’ll find the absolute best answers to your strength training challenges, if you’re willing to keep learning, you’re destined to find better answers that will make a difference! Great Stuff!