Hypertrophy Training for Athletes

Jun 22, 2022

Brian Sipotz and Drew Little discussed hypertrophy training on the Hockey Strength Podcast.  Also, there was some discussion on the Strength Coach.com forum as well.  Basically what coaches are wanting to know is why do we need hypertrophy and how do we get it. Therefore, the following is simply my 2 cents worth on the subject. 

Just why is gaining lean mass important. Gaining lean mass is important for many young players and can be key for progressing on to higher levels of play.  Regardless of what level you are working at, I am willing to bet that the players in the next level up are bigger and stronger.  Are pro players bigger and stronger than collegiate and junior players?  Are junior players bigger and stronger than midget players?  Are division 1 college players bigger and stronger than division 3 players?  Generally speaking, the answer will be yes to all of these questions.  In team sport its very simple, bigger is better.

In some of this discussion I have heard and read, coaches are saying they do not get a lot of lean mass gains with the teenagers they work with.  My point here is how do you know?  What have you done to quantify body composition?  My experience is that good coaches get lean mass gains and they are simply not measuring it.  When I first started working with USA Hockey they did 'body comp' testing simply by using s skin fold caliper to generate body fat %.  This is very inadequate to say the least and I am not a fan.  I always had hockey coaches complaining to me that the players needed to gain muscle mass and my response was that they were gaining.  It can be difficult to see these changes when you see the kids every day.  So what we really needed was an objective, concrete solid way of measuring body composition.

The process we now have in place is much better.  It involves a full frame assessment which includes measuring the players weight, skin folds, standing height, seated height, shoulder width, hip width, and depth of the chest cavity.  Based on these measurements we can determine how much muscle carrying capacity a player has.  We can get a projection of how much he should be able to gain.  If he is close to his ceiling of muscle carrying capacity his gains will be smaller.  If he is far from his ceiling gains will be much more rapid.  This gives the player and the coach something very tangible and also something that is very realistic.  For some players gaining 20 pounds of lean mass is very attainable.  For others it is biologically impossible.

A coach can get much of this information from a bodpod.  However, most coaches and players do not have access to a bodpod.  USA Hockey get this information by assessing the players manually.  Specifically the Registered Dietician that we have working with the team does the assessments.  For those of you interested in learning more about this process I highly recommend that you check out The International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry (ISAK).

Now for the "how we train to get hypertrophy" with our athletes.  This is quite simple.  A good strength and conditioning program will produce gains in lean mass.  The mistake coaches sometimes make is that they stop running a strength training program and begin a bodybuilding program.  This simply won't work for athletes.  Bodybuilding programs have lots of short comings: 1) The reps are too high, often in the 8-12 rep range. 2) They rely on non functional, single joint exercises. 3) The over all approach is high volume.

The Reps Are Too High

Spending lots of time above 8 reps is really a mistake for athletes.  The weights used for this rep range are too light and they do not require the nervous system to recruit high threshold motor units, the 'fast twitch muscle fibers'.  The high threshold motor units are the ones with the most potential for hypertrophy.  Where we really want to be is in the 5 to 8 rep range for hypertrophy training.  I honestly believe this to be true and I disagree with some of the research out there, plane and simple.  Getting our hypertrophy from the heavier weights causes an increase in sarcomere cross section and that is really what we want.  Bodybuilding will cause an increase in the cross sectional area of the sarcoplasm which is less desirable. Its the sarcomere that produces force.  I have heard Mike Boyle describe this as increasing 'propulsive mass'.

Avoid Single Joint Exercises

For athletes to gain lean mass that is going to help them perform they need to stick with the tried and true, multi joint exercises.  Yes, the ones we use to increase power and enhance movement pattern quality.  Shoulder flyes and leg extensions are a 'no go'.  Single leg squatting, deadlifting, and pulling are the go to exercises for gaining lean mass.

Avoid High Volume

Bodybuilding programs use a high volume approach in which lots of exercises are done for high reps and lots of sets.  This is largely bullshit that is perpetuated by drug using bodybuilders. This will never work in a team sport setting because there is too much training that needs to be done outside of the weight room.  The players will already be committing lots of time to things like skills, tactics, strategy, and special teams play.

Increasing lean mass is very simple.  

Consistent, hard work on the basic lifts for moderate reps is all that is needed.  And remember that the athletes body type will largely influence how much muscle mass they can expect to gain.  Having a realistic, attainable goal is very important for creating a successful program.