Hypertrophy Training for Athletes

Jul 25, 2022

I train a lot of young athletes. These high school and college kids almost always need to gain solid weight in order to compete at a higher level. In the world of sports, hardly anyone is "big enough." Bigger is generally better.

To put it crassly, if the athletes I train don't get bigger and stronger, I don't make a living.

And yet, I never train athletes with the goal of producing muscle hypertrophy. That is, I never, ever use bodybuilding methodology to make my athletes bigger. I don't train my guys to have bigger arms or pecs. I want propulsive muscle mass, muscle that can contribute to the higher goal of more explosive movement capability. I want bigger legs, a bigger back, and thicker spinal erectors.

In other words, I want bigger athletes, but only if the new size is functional, and only if it comes with minimal gains in body fat. (Some football linemen are an exception, for reasons I'll explain in a bit.)

So why would I avoid bodybuilding techniques to make my athletes bigger? Aren't bodybuilders pretty much the gold standard for their ability to gain lean mass with minimal body fat?

The answers are interesting and surprisingly counterintuitive. Hypertrophy training for athletes isn't as simple as it seems.

Typecasting Athletes

I still remember watching the Senior National Weightlifting Championships in Seekonk, Massachusetts, in the early '80s. At the time, I was a powerlifter as well as a strength coach, and as an all-around musclehead I'd been to more bodybuilding shows and powerlifting meets than I could ever recall. But this was the first time I'd seen Olympic weightlifting up close, and I was hooked.

What stuck in my mind were the physiques. They were developed exactly the way I wanted to develop my athletes -- massive through the upper back, lower back, and legs. And, aside from the superheavyweights, they'd developed this mass with very low body fat. To my eyes, it was evidence that form follows function.

But over time I learned an even more valuable lesson: the process of building a functionally bigger and stronger athlete depends on the athlete being trained. I couldn't train them all the same way and expect the same results.

Let's start with the mesomorph, the guy who gains muscle the easiest. It often seems that the mesomorph can get bigger and stronger just by looking at a weight. Put him on a bodybuilding program and he gains. Put him on a Westside program and he gains. Give him a steady dose of Oly lifts and he gains.

His training response in many ways is a false positive. A trainer who succeeds in putting muscle on a mesomorph convinces himself that his methods are uniquely effective, even though the reality is that the athlete is genetically predisposed to hypertrophy. That can cause problems for the other athletes that coach trains, because they won't respond the same way.

Another type of false positive comes when a novice lifter starts serious training. You could call this the "honeymoon period" of training, when little-used muscles like the pecs, lats, biceps, quads, and glutes spring to life, straining the seams on T-shirts and forcing him to give up his Levis 501s for jeans that offer more room to grow.

Why those muscles? Well, if you think about it, pectoral muscles on a biped are one evolutionary step away from disappearing altogether. Animals with big pecs walk on four legs. Biceps and lats? Climbing muscles -- somewhat important for us, a matter of life and death for chimpanzees. Quads and glutes? If all you ask them to do is haul your body weight around, they'll get big enough to do that task, and stop there.

When previously untrained, those muscles grow on just about any program you give them … until the body adapts to the program, and stops growing. That's when the coach and the athlete have to look carefully at the issue of stimulus and response.

Pushing the Right Buttons

TMUSCLE readers know from experience that if you aren't getting the response you want from your training program, the problem could be:

* too little stimulus

* too much stimulus

* too little recovery

If a coach is working from a template that succeeded with mesomorphs, he may not be able to detect which of these problems is in play when dealing with skinny or stocky athletes.

Particularly perplexing are the ectomorphs -- thin, bony guys, the true hardgainers.

The ectomorph seems to be doing everything right -- that is, he's doing what worked for his more genetically gifted peers -- but fails to gain size or strength. He sees his friends or teammates succeeding with volume-based programs, so he turns into a copycat, assuming he needs the same, and more. The result is years of frustration. The truth is that the ectomorph doesn't tolerate or respond to stimulus like the mesomorph.

I can certainly relate. I was something of a hardgainer myself, and found I did best with HIT-like programs from guys like Ken Leistner and Stuart McRobert.

So when I'm training a tall, skinny basketball player, we'll achieve hypertrophy with a high-intensity, low-volume workout program combined with a hypercaloric diet.

At the opposite extreme is the pure endomorph, like the collegiate linemen with 30% body fat. No matter how I train him, any muscle he gains is going to be accompanied by some fat. The fat he gains isn't functional, but it doesn't encumber him the way it would on a running back, shortstop, or point guard.

I'll give him a moderate-volume training program, and try to reduce his body-fat level with a high-protein, limited-carb diet.

Render Unto Weider That Which Is Weider's

This brings me to a much larger question: Is conventional hypertrophy training -- based on high-volume bombing and blitzing of individual muscle groups -- a mythical effect produced by drugs? Or is it an actual response to volume?

I ask because the way we train athletes today isn't all that different from the way bodybuilders trained through the 1970s, when I started lifting. Back then, the physique-training guidelines still focused on mastering basic exercises like the squat and deadlift. Even the bodybuilders who came up in the dawn of the steroid era, like Reg Park and Franco Columbu, were extremely strong in the major lifts.

By the time the super-high-volume training protocols were ubiquitous, it was hard to know if they worked for drug-free lifters. The bodybuilders who promoted them in magazines were all using steroids. If a drug-free bodybuilder had success with them, he was probably a mesomorph who would've had success with lots of different programs.

Hardgainers like me just got smaller and weaker when we tried bombing and blitzing individual muscle groups. Stuart McRobert described the problem succinctly: If you aren't getting bigger or stronger, your program doesn't work. You can't stray too far from progressive resistance and expect to get results with drug-free training, whether you're talking about hypertrophy or athletic performance.

No-Pump Zone

Classic linear periodization includes a "hypertrophy" stage, in which athletes do higher-volume, lower-intensity workouts "to increase lean body mass and develop an endurance (muscular and metabolic) base for more intense training in later phases and periods." That's a direct quote from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, the textbook of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

But even when I have my athletes use higher-volume workouts, the focus is never on hypertrophy. It's never the outcome that determines the success or failure of that phase of the program. There's no correlation between muscle size and performance, but there seems to be a very direct correlation between muscle strength and fundamental athletic skills like the vertical jump and short-distance sprints. If my training programs produce athletes who jump higher and run faster, I'm doing my job and earning my pay.

Putting size on our athletes is an ongoing concern, but we pursue it with basic exercises -- squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, chins -- and the proper diet for the individual athlete.

If we choose to focus on particular muscles -- isolated shoulder training, for example -- it's to maintain balance and prevent injury. Beyond that, you would never see my athletes doing anything that reminds you of conventional bodybuilding … unless the exercises I just mentioned above are your idea of conventional bodybuilding.

But there's another reason why I push back against bodybuilding-style training for athletes: In my experience, it takes their focus off the goal of training, which is performance. If my athletes have extra time to spend in the weight room, I want them working on their weaknesses, not pumping up their biceps or pecs to improve their appearance.

I've told athletes, male and female, who worry more about their appearance than their performance that they've come to a crossroads. It's time to make a choice. If they're interested in modeling, they should by all means pursue it. But if they want to play sports, they need to train like an athlete.

The Right Outcome

As I said earlier, I'm not interested in hypertrophy for its own sake. I'm only interested in it as a response to strength training. I want the athletes I train to be the strongest on the ice, the court, or the field. Whether they look like muscle-magazine cover models doesn't matter to me.

A lot of athletes are going to develop that look, but it's not because we're trying to achieve it. They're natural mesomorphs and their training produces rapid rewards. Some of these guys can train poorly and eat wrong and still look like they're doing everything right. They're the outliers who constantly confuse the rest of us.

On the other hand, some of my hardest-working athletes will look like they've hardly trained at all. Doesn't matter. As long as their performance reflects the time and effort they've put in, I'm happy.

The bottom line is this: I don't want my athletes to train to look better. I want them to look better because they train.

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