An effective workout to develop the type of muscle mass that athletes need
by Charles Poliquin
In the strength coaching profession it’s ironic that the trainers hired to improve athletic performance often do not possess the ideal physique for athletics. For example, a bodybuilder might be extremely intimidating in a mixed martial arts arena or on a football field, but in some situations a much smaller opponent may be significantly stronger and more powerful than that same bodybuilder. 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.
Although most athletes simply want to jump into a workout that will help them build muscle mass and strength for their sport – and indeed I will provide two examples of such a workout at the end of this article – 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.
It would be great if muscle building for athletes were as simple as just following the popular bodybuilding workouts, but the methods used by many professional bodybuilders often do not produce the desired gains in strength and power specific to most sports. It’s possible – and I’m completely serious when I say this – that for certain types of athletes the resistance training protocols used by women fitness competitors may be more appropriate than those used by most professional bodybuilders. Let me give you an example.
If a high school strength coach is training a freshman lineman who has never lifted weights before, simply putting him on a standard bodybuilding program with basic movements such as the bench press and leg press 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. Granted, traditional bodybuilding methods are better than nothing, but it is a mistake to believe that such a simplistic approach would be the optimal training method for this athlete to use throughout high school and college. If it were, you would see a lot more college and professional football players training like the genetically gifted monsters you see on the covers of muscle magazines.
Breaking Down Muscle Fibers
Studies have shown that the types of hypertrophy gains in individuals who use bodybuilding programs are different from the gains in those who use weightlifting programs. The muscle fibers hypertrophied in bodybuilding programs are primarily Type I fibers, whereas the muscle fibers hypertrophied in weightlifting programs are the much more powerful Type II fibers. And this is not a matter of opinion – these recommendations are supported by peer-reviewed research.
In a study that was published in 2004 in the respected publication Sports Medicine, Dr. Andrew Fry examined the muscle fiber types of weightlifters, powerlifters and bodybuilders. Fry and his colleagues found that among the three groups, bodybuilders had the highest percentage of Type II fibers but the lowest percentage of Type I. The weightlifters, in contrast, possessed the highest percentage of Type II fibers but the lowest percentage of Type I. The powerlifters were positioned in the middle: They had more Type II fibers than the bodybuilders but not as much as the weightlifters, and they had more Type I fibers than the weightlifters but not as much as the bodybuilders. So for an athlete, training like a powerlifter would be better than training like a bodybuilder, but training like a weightlifter would be better than training like a powerlifter.
One of the key concepts I teach is that rather than using percentages, it is more practical to “let the repetitions determine the load.” And with this perspective, I use the following general guideline to determine which muscle fiber is hypertrophied in a set: 1-5 reps, Type IIb; 6-12 reps, Type IIa; 12 = Type I. Oh, and the basic difference between a Type IIa and Type IIb fiber is that the IIb can produce a more powerful muscle contraction, whereas the IIa has more muscular endurance.
One of the most famous periodization approaches to training was published in 1981 and has been frequently quoted in North American strength research. This model used “conversion phases” in which the athlete is supposedly able to transfer the hypertrophy gains from bodybuilding protocols into gains in strength and power. It is based upon a “classic model” of periodization presented by Russian sport scientist Leonid Medvedyev in 1964. This model entails doing a large volume of work at a relatively low intensity and then smoothly transferring to a low amount of work at a high intensity.
The sample workout in the model consists of four phases, with each phase lasting three to four weeks, although the maintenance phase could be extended throughout a competitive sport season. The repetition ranges, and estimated intensity levels relative to a one repetition max (1RM), are as follows:
Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps, 67-85 percent of 1RM
Basic Strength: = 6 reps, =85 percent of 1RM
Strength and Power: 1-5 reps, 75-90 percent or 1RM
Peaking or Maintenance: 1-3 reps, vary high to low
Although this approach seems to make sense, and the “hypertrophy” phase offers many benefits, such as increasing growth hormone production, the problem is that it simply is not possible. And why is that? Because you cannot convert a Type I fiber into a Type II fiber. It would be analogous to turning fat into muscle – certainly, you can shrink your fat cells, but you can’t convert them into muscle fibers. Further, trying to develop all types of muscle fibers to their highest levels is simply not possible, as the body’s ability to recover is limited.
Yes, there are some strong bodybuilders out there, but for them to focus on getting as strong 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; 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.
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. You may want to call this method an extended set, a term that high-intensity proponents would use to give the false impression that they only did one set per workout (and without counting warm-up sets, of course).
Another description of 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. But no matter what you call this system, it 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.
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. Bent-Over EZ Bar Row, 5 x 6-8, 3020, rest 120 seconds
Obviously, you could substitute lat pulldown variations for the chin-ups, but you will get better results with chin-ups. One reason chins are so effective is that you have to move your entire bodyweight, and the stabilization required to do this (as opposed to using pulldown machines) involves more muscle mass. It’s also more difficult to cheat when performing these exercises – for example, during a pulldown you can cheat by crunching forward with the abdominals. This is also one reason that the strength from chin-ups carries over well to pulldowns, but it doesn’t work the other way around. If you cannot do a chin-up on your own, there are ways to get around this, such as by placing one leg on a knee-high platform behind you (so that you don’t have to lift your entire bodyweight during the exercise) or by having a training partner hold that leg and provide you with assistance.
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 the bent-over EZ bar row for 6-8 reps. Rest another two minutes, and then repeat the entire series for four additional sets.
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 PICP courses and my Special Consideration Training Series seminars.
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.