The physique does not always represent the power it is supposed to be capable of, and vice-versa.
As much as a bodybuilder looks jacked, more often than not he is not nearly as strong as you might think. They rarely if ever focus on functional hypertrophy. In fact, I’ve seen three Mr. Olympia contestants, in the off-season when they are strongest, who could not bench press 315 pounds for six reps – not exactly NFL standard!
On the other hand, if you are in a sport with weight classes and either need to improve your performance by being stronger or want to move up a weight class, every pound counts. So better make this functional hypertrophy, or in other words hypertrophy that comes from the contractile part of the muscle cell.
Although most athletes simply want to jump into a workout that will help them build muscle mass and strength for their sport, it’s important to understand that there are many types of hypertrophy. What type of hypertrophy an athlete should focus on depends upon the nature of the sport – which means the training protocols of the reigning Mr. Olympia or even the legendary Arnold (as amazing and innovative as he was as a bodybuilder) may not be the best training protocols for every athlete.
What You Hypertrophy Is What Matters Most
The truth of the matter is that the methods used by many professional bodybuilders often do not produce the desired gains in strength and power specific to most sports. This is the difference between functional hypertrophy and non-functional hypertrophy.
Functional hypertrophy, also called myofibrillar hypertrophy, is the increase in volume of the contractile elements of the muscle cell. They will thus be able to “pull their own weight”, so to speak.
Non-functional hypertrophy is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. It comes for the increase in volume of the cell itself, but not from the contractile elements. The cross-section increases comes from stored fuel like glycogen, capillary density etc..
Of course, gains in both strength and muscle can happen, especially with beginners. This contributes to further the confusion, as for the beginner gains are easy to come by. For a more advanced athlete, especially one limited by a weight category, the focus for increased strength must be neural adaptations and functional hypertrophy.
Let’s take an example of a high school strength coach who is training a freshman lineman who is a novice at lifting weights. If he simply putting him on a standard bodybuilding program with basic movements such as presses and squat variations, he may make him a better athlete.
But even though most likely he will run faster and be able to block and tackle more aggressively, very quickly these standard training methods will lead to a point of diminishing returns compared to other training protocols. More mass will not bring more strength.
Breaking Down Muscle Fibers
Yes, there are some strong bodybuilders out there, but for them to focus on getting as strong as other athletes such as weightlifters would take away from their ability to develop as much muscle mass as possible. Likewise, for weightlifters to develop as much muscle mass as possible would take away from their ability to be as strong as possible for their respective weight class; and it would be even more detrimental for weightlifters in the non-super heavy category, as their success is based upon being as strong as possible while being as light as possible. Many sports require that athletes develop high levels of absolute strength, and these strength gains will result in increases in muscle mass.
But for best results this strength should be functional. From a neuromuscular standpoint, functional programs increase the neural drive to the muscles, improve the synchronization of motor units, increase the activation of contractile apparatus, and decrease inhibition of protective mechanisms of muscle. In layman’s terms, a functional hypertrophy program contributes more to the athlete’s power output and less to their ability to look good at the beach.
This comes in part from the type of muscle fibers one choose to hypertrophy via his programs and periodization. It is commonly accepted that there are 3 types of muscle fibers
- Type I – High endurance, low force output; runs mostly on the aerobic (oxidative) system
- Type IIa – Somewhat tolerant to endurance tasks, average/high force output; runs on the oxidative/anaerobic systems
- Type IIx (formerly IIb) – Low endurance, very high force output; runs exclusively on the anaerobic systems
This is a generality however, as science has identified up to 47 different types of muscle fibers with different characteristics.
At birth, everyone inherits a certain percentage of each fibers. This will in part dictates your athletic performance. A marathon runner will genetically have a high ratio of Type I fibers while an Olympic weightlifter will lean toward the Type IIx end of the spectrum.
Choose The Right Parents
There is little you can do to change this ratio, other than training. You can develop and hypertrophy the type of muscle fibers associated with the athletic capabilities you desire. Of course, a plow horse will never be a race horse, but a plow horse can be made faster.
It’s important to mention that you can however, change you fast-twitch fibers (another name for the type II fibers) to have more of a type I profile. Hence with training, your fibers can take on endurance properties at the expense of strength. But in order to achieve World or Olympic level strength, you have to be born with a high ratio of type II fibers.
Functional Hypertrophy: The Workouts
Let’s put all this theory into practice with an example of a functional hypertrophy workout for the lower body, and then one for the upper back. Let’s start with the legs.
Functional hypertrophy gains in muscle mass in the legs are crucial in sports such as rugby, bobsleigh and the throwing events. One of the best ways to develop functional leg strength is to superset front squats with back squats with only 10 seconds between the two exercises. This is a classic that my friend Dmitry Klokov enjoys doing
This type of program is an improved-leverage set, as you pair an exercise in which leverage forces you to use lighter weights (e.g., front squat) with an exercise that enables you to use heavier weights (e.g., back squat). For more examples of this type of training system, see Beyond 2001: The Next Real Step by Jerry Telle, an innovative personal trainer out of Littleton, Colorado.
This system can be used to develop the functional leg strength you need to perform at the highest levels that your genetics will enable you to achieve if you properly plan the loading parameters. More than systems, the loading parameters are the actual data that will allow you to target the quality you want to develop in specific muscle fibers. In this case, functional hypertrophy of the type II fibers is the goal.
Lower Body Functional Hypertrophy Workout
A-1. Front Squat, 5 x 3-4, 4010, rest 10 seconds
A-2. Back Squat, 5 x max reps (probably 1-4 reps), 4010, rest 120 seconds
A-3. Leg Curl, 5 x 4-6, 3110, rest 120 seconds
Select a weight you can lift for 3-4 RM in the front squat. For example, if your best front squat is 220 pounds, your best for 3-4 reps might be 200 pounds. Using the weight you selected, perform the exercise until you reach concentric failure, return the weight to the rack, and then count for 10 seconds as you prepare to perform the back squat. At the end of the 10 seconds, you should already be in position to begin the descent of the back squat. Now perform as many reps of the back squat as possible with the same weight you used in the front squats. Rest two minutes, and then perform some leg curls for a set of 4-6 reps. Rest another two minutes, and repeat the entire series for four additional sets.
If, when you performed the front squats, the weight was light enough to enable you to perform 5 or more reps, then use a heavier weight. If you only performed 1-2 reps, then the weight was too heavy and you need to lighten it up. As you get used to this workout, you will find yourself better able to predict the weights to use to stay within the rep range.
Now let’s move on to a functional hypertrophy workout for the muscles of the upper back. This type of training would be ideal for a gymnast or a wrestler.
Upper Back Functional Hypertrophy Workout
A-1. Wide Pronated-Grip Chin-up, 5 x 4-6, 3010, rest 10 seconds
A-2. Medium Supinated-Grip Chin-up, 5 x max reps (probably 1-4 reps), 3010, rest 120 seconds
A-3. Dumbbell Chest Presses, Semi-Supinated Grip, 5 x 6-8, 3020, rest 120 seconds
If you can’t do chin-ups, then do not use this method on lat pulldown. It would be far better for you to develop the strength to do chin-ups. This is the approach I used with Olympic gold medalist in 53 kg women’s wrestling Helen Maroulis, to train her for her win at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She came to me unable to do a single chin-up, and I trained her to be able to do set of 2 reps of chin-ups on the rings with a 30 kg dumbbell between her leg.
This has proven functional hypertrophy indeed as her strength was a determining factor over Saori Yoshida, the formerly-undefeated champion in the 53 kg women’s wrestling.
For this workout, start by using a resistance that will enable you to complete 4-6 reps using the wide pronated-grip chin-up. Rest 10 seconds, and then switch to a medium supinated-grip chin-up and perform as many reps as possible. Even though you are fatigued from the previous set, the improved leverage should enable you to complete several reps. If you are using additional weight, do not decrease the resistance, as your intensity level will fall outside the range of functional hypertrophy. Rest two minutes, and then perform a set of Dumbbell Chest Presses, Semi-Supinated Grip for 6-8 reps. Rest another two minutes, and then repeat the entire series for four additional sets.
There Is More Than What Meets The Eye
All this is solid information, but keep in mind there is much more to know about functional hypertrophy. For example, I often prescribe a “back-off set” of 25 reps in certain exercises after the primary sets of a functional training protocol. Research from Japanese sport scientists has found that this additional set increases the production of growth hormone and as such leads to greater gains in anaerobic lactic capacity (basically muscular endurance) and strength. There are many other methods, which are covered in my higher-level Advanced Strength Program Design seminar and Hypertrophy bootcamp.
Just about any workout program that follows the concept of progressive resistance will produce gains in muscle mass. But if you want to be as strong as you look and be able to display that strength on the athletic field, focus on functional hypertrophy.
The Weight Category Conundrum – More Than Just The Muscle
A final word on weight class; most athlete fear gaining muscle mass because they might go over the weight limitation. The reality is, in my 39 years of experience, most athletes should drop a couple of pounds of fat in order to replace this with functional muscle mass. I’m not talking esthetics here, but performance. Not only does fat impose a static load you have to carry around, it also cause more friction between muscle fibers, making the contraction more energy-costly. This will be the subject of a future article though, but keep in mind that in athletics, body composition matters.
Coach Charles R. Poliquin