How Hypertrophy Supports Strength Goalsby Kourtney Thomas
I am not a strength athlete. In the past I would have embraced my status as an endurance athlete (running was my thing), but now I identify most with the special breed who finds a home among the bros (note: I use this as a genderless term of endearment), but who doesn’t choose to compete in a physique sport. Really, I just like to do a lot of biceps curls and somewhere in the realm of seven different leg press variations.
The focus is, to put it frankly, looking jacked in everyday life.
But alas, bro life is not for everyone. Participation in strength-oriented sports such as powerlifting (max squat-bench-deadlift) and Olympic weightlifting (max snatch and clean-and-jerk) is on the rise, and performance is the goal rather than muscle mass. It often seems as though strength athletes and physique athletes are at harsh odds with each other. We argue amongst ourselves that you should either be super-strong or super-jacked, that one sport is better than the other, that one side shouldn’t bother crossing over to another. But in reality, the lines between categories are blurred.
Which makes sense: Both powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters are usually rather heavily muscled themselves, indicating the division wasn’t as deep as it seemed. Specifically relating to the question of hypertrophy, I became curious about how it might all tie together for strength athletes — whether they knew it or not. Interestingly, I learned exactly what I had speculated: While it may not get a lot of vocal attention, hypertrophy work does get a lot of play in training for strength sports.
To determine just how hypertrophy fits into strength, I spoke with several of the most well-respected and decorated coaches in their respective fields. And the strong (puns!) consensus among these coaches in both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting is that hypertrophy unquestionably plays a role in training for and competing in strength sports.
With that out of the way, I wanted to find out how exactly hypertrophy supported powerlifting and weightlifting. And the main mechanism of support is in increasing muscle size. Basically, the more muscle you have, the stronger you can make it.
“Hypertrophy is the foundation upon which strength is built. Muscle strength is directly proportional to cross sectional area — a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, period. If any athlete wants to get stronger, increasing muscle size is certainly the number one way to do so,” says Alex Viada, MS, CSCS, founder of coaching company Complete Human Performance. And the best way to build bigger muscles that you can eventually strengthen and put to good athletic use is to incorporate some hypertrophy training.
An added – and significant! – bonus of hypertrophy when it comes to strength sports according to Erin Farmer, founder and former owner of CrossFit Center City, is that “hypertrophy training acts as a protective measure against injuries caused by the inherent imbalance of sport specificity.” Viada agrees: “Balanced musculature means fewer imbalances — the antagonists are equally as strong as the agonists, which can play a critical role in injury prevention in strength sports.” Huh, who would have thought of a little bit of pump work as a significant contributor to injury prevention? Turns out, it’s useful in a lot of applications.
Another unique way hypertrophy supports strength sports is in manipulating body composition in the off-season. Many strength sports compete in weight classes, and as Viada points out, “a slightly higher percentage of lean body mass can provide that edge over the competition.” Wil Fleming, a sports performance coach specializing in Olympic weightlifting and owner of Force Fitness and Performance, tells the tale of an athlete weighing in at the bottom end of his weight class, nearing the one below. He struggled with his jerk, and Fleming determined that while his technique was pretty good, he lacked enough mass to support the weight on his chest and was limited by his upper body muscles. They began incorporating some bodybuilding-style training into his routine to add mass, and not only did he put on about 5 kg of mass making him more competitive in his weight class, but his jerk went up by 30 kilos!
In that vein, it is, of course, important to be mindful and specific in programming hypertrophy work into strength preparation. “There are different types of hypertrophy and growth, and how you train those will determine whether they carry over into your strength work,” says Julia Ladewski, a sports performance coach and professional powerlifter. “Make sure the programming of that hypertrophy fits the goal of getting stronger.”
One way to do that is in a more general sense, and typically in an off-season. According to Fleming, hypertrophy work, similar to traditional bodybuilding, is great for building basic strength. Fleming’s athletes start with a phase of hypertrophy to build a general base before working toward their sport-specific training. The same goes for those of Chad Wesley Smith, owner and founder of Juggernaut Training Systems, who says, “Hypertrophy training is the primary goal of our earliest training blocks in meet preparation. It creates the foundation for all subsequent training by achieving phase potentiation. During a general or hypertrophy block, you establish muscle size (regaining muscle size potentially lost during peaking), improve work capacity and add variety, which helps avoid staleness and adaptive resistance.” As Viada points out, “Think of this as throwing more clay on to the potter’s wheel. You can shape the pot all year and make it as perfect as you want, but eventually you start losing some of the clay as you shape and shape. Whenever you can, throw some more raw materials on there that you can shape later.” Basically, whenever we talk about “building a base,” we’re talking about using some hypertrophy training.
Often in strength sports, hypertrophy work also comes in the form of shoring up specific weaknesses of the lifter. Using a hypertrophy phase is a method that Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake, personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis and Unapologetically Powerful coach, uses: “It is a dedicated time period for a lifter to shore up their weaker points. A powerlifter will train to increase the fiber size of their glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, and triceps, to prep their bodies for when the program begins to call for more weight on the bar.” Fleming programs hypertrophy in this way for Olympic weightlifters by looking at an athlete and their particular lift. For instance, if an athlete is weak in the shoulders, they might have difficulty supporting the bar overhead, and some hypertrophy work specific to building shoulder muscles could be added to their programming.
OK, so now we know that hypertrophy training does play a role in the strength sports of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. And we know a bit about how it supports those sports, and how it can be incorporated in both general and targeted ways. But what about the nitty gritty? The actual exercises that are beneficial in hypertrophy programming for strength athletes? The main thing to remember, as pointed out by Smith, is, “Hypertrophy training requires that volume is increased over time, and lends itself best to movements that are well-suited to high volume training.” I asked all of the coaches their go-to moves, and I think you’re going to like their answers.
Interestingly, about one-third of the movements suggested (with no prompt for body parts) were for the back, which proves essential in both sports. “It’s your base of support for squatting and benching.” says Ladewski. And don’t forget deadlifting. Blake loves to target the lats hard in training, “because strong lats will give a lifter more control over the bar on the descent of a bench press and help keep the bar locked in close to the legs at the start of a deadlift.” And in Olympic weightlifting? A strong upper back will support the lifter’s capacity to finish the pull.
A few favorites for the back? Chest supported dumbbell rows, Meadows rows, and lots and lots of chin-ups and pull-ups. “I am a firm believer in the power of pull-ups to buttress the shoulders and trunk for weightlifting,” says Farmer. “Every grip is important for the weightlifter as we spend the majority of our time pronated.”
About another third of the exercises recommended were also for upper body, ranging from Arnold presses (yes, named for the famous bodybuilder) to dumbbell presses, front raises and push-ups.
The final third were leg-focused, including important staples like posterior chain and glute builders like eccentric hamstring curls and Romanian deadlifts — both bilateral and unilateral. Also notable are machine exercises like the leg press — again, both bilateral and single-legged. It’s important to remember, as Viada points out, “Since strength athletes are all about compound movements, hypertrophy work should give some of those stabilizers a break. They get used plenty, and will easily fatigue if used too frequently over time. Machines provide a great way to focus on the targeted muscles without those limiting factors.”
Not surprisingly, many of these movements are staples in hypertrophy-only programs. These are the exercises that the physique athletes know will build muscles in all the right places. And in the end? The strength athletes know just the same. (I honestly don’t know why everyone is fighting about it!) The benefits of training hypertrophy specifically to enhance sport performance are huge (puns, again!). And really, as Fleming reminded me: Both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting competitions take place while dressed in a singlet, and you’re going to love how your big muscles look in it!
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