by: Christopher Taber Ph.D., CSCS, USAW2, EP-C, PES
The purpose of this article is to discuss hypertrophy for weightlifters. The mechanisms of hypertrophy are well studied and we are constantly learning as new evidence emerges. This article will not get into the mechanisms but they broadly they can be grouped into three main categories of tension, damage, and metabolic stress. There are many great resources discussing the overall contributions of each mechanism and how it can be integrated into a training plan so we won’t delve into them here. The rest of this article will deal with the importance of hypertrophy and when or if you should invest time into development of hypertrophy for your lifters.
Why is Hypertrophy Important for Weightlifters?
Starting at the level of the muscle cell, evidence has been presented that the amount of total amount of force that can be produced is due to the interaction of the contractile proteins actin and myosin (1). Therefore, force production is dictated by the neural activation of muscle cells and the interaction of the activated actin and myosin. The total force production of a muscle or a group of muscles is the sum of all the activated muscle and the ability to transmit that force to the bones and create movement. By increasing the protein content of actin and myosin (hypertrophy) within the muscle we can increase the ability of the muscle to produce force.
The sport of weightlifting is based on your ability to produce power and the skillful application of that power into the snatch and the clean and jerk. Once technique has been developed, the ability to produce higher power outputs will dictate who is able to lift the most weight during competition. If we briefly examine the equation for power we arrive at:
Power= Force x Velocity
Within this simplified formula we have ability to enhance power through improvements in both force and velocity. However, in human muscle, shortening velocity is limited by the enzymes within the muscle to disassociate cross bridges between actin and myosin (2). Therefore, to increase power output we need to drive up our ability to produce force in the working muscles. This is achieved through neural activation and the size of the muscle. Neural mechanisms are related to motor unit activation, synchronization, rate coding, and inter/intra muscular coordination. The training of weightlifters who lift sufficiently heavy weights (80% of max +) will gain these neural mechanisms through structured planning. Therefore, to continue to increase the ability to generate force an increase in muscle size may be warranted.
Who Needs Hypertrophy?
The first question that needs to be asked is “do we even need hypertrophy?” The answer largely depends on your training age, body proportions, and your weight class. This needs analysis is important because lifters will need varying levels of hypertrophic focus throughout their career and circumstances may require specific hypertrophic needs at difference times.
As your training age advances you will likely require less time dedicated to pure hypertrophy training. In the beginning, hypertrophy training can help you to arrive in your optimal weight class, improve muscular imbalances, increase force, and power by increasing muscle size. However, at a certain point you will be at your optimal weight class and caution needs to be given to not out growing your weight category and having to cut large amounts of weight potentially diminishing performance. Later in your lifting career is the time for specific targeted hypertrophy based on attacking weak points in your lifting and preventing injuries.
Each lifter will be built slightly different. These differences are largely related to genetics and while we don’t have the ability to change out height or limb lengths we do have the ability to change our muscularity. Changes in muscle size have the ability to change the force production capabilities of a given muscle group (3) and may change the muscle architecture. Beneficial adaptations that can occur due to hypertrophy are increases in the pennation angle which allows for more muscle per unit of cross-sectional area favoring force production capabilities.
Each lifter will have certain weaknesses in the lifts. This could occur at many aspects in the lift and needs to be established by a technical analysis. Once this is done you can determine if targeted hypertrophy may be necessary for correcting this deficit. For example, a lifter often gets pinned in the bottom of the squat. This could be due to a technical fault or because the back-squat max is too close the clean max. First remedy, squat more. Second, hypertrophy of the quads in order to drive up the potential of the squat leading to a larger clean later.
Weight class considerations
As lifters get taller they need to get heavier to be in their optimal weight class. In general, it’s beneficial to be at the top of your respective weight class holding the most muscle at the lowest percentage body fat (4,5). As lifters age then tend to gain weight via muscle and may need to go into a higher weight class to reach their genetic potential. Because of the spread of the weight classes when you choose to move up a class you need to consider the time commitment needed to build sufficient muscle mass and the time it will take to learn how to use that new muscle in a coordinated fashion in the lifts. Depending on the size of the class change it could take a year or more for an athlete to move up to the next weight class with a reasonable body composition and muscle mass as well as the ability to integrate that new muscle into the lifting technique.
When should we include it into the training year?
Now that we have considered who may benefit from targeted hypertrophy we can consider where it fits best into training. Hypertrophy can be developed may ways but the biggest driver of hypertrophy is the training volume. One issue that occurs with large volume is the associated training fatigue that accompanies this volume. Because we know that fatigue will be developed with the volume we want to intelligently structure it into the training process. With this in mind, the logical choice for hypertrophy work would be first phase back to training after a major competition that we would consider the offseason or preparatory phase.
During this time the focus should be on developing the critical muscle groups that are serving as a bottle neck to technical needs of the athlete. Ideally, for athletes they will have a few months in between big competitions allowing you to adjust training and work on weak points. Establishing 4-8 weeks after a big meet for hypertrophy work may be necessary for certain athletes. We choose this time course because it takes time to develop hypertrophy with sufficient training, calories, and rest required to maximize this development.
Hypertrophy work should be avoided prior to competitions, specifically the big meets where you are fully peaking to maximize performance. During that time hypertrophy work may be too fatiguing which may lead to an increase in injury potential or missing the peak due to large amounts of fatigue. Much of the hypertrophy you develop will be maintained due to the heavy lifts the lifters will encounter so this can be placed on the back burner as you peak for the meet.
Where should it be implemented into the training plan?
Now we can consider how to train to develop hypertrophy. Ideally, you will pick critical muscle groups to develop such as the legs, posterior chain or the shoulder girdle based on technical analysis and an athlete evaluation. From here, consider what other work you are completing as normal training such as squats, pulls, and presses. Once you calculated the total volume load (sets x reps) each muscle group is experiencing during training we can start to add in additional exercises in the form of special assistance work to develop those muscle groups.
Following the normal training exercises, you can add these special assistance exercises in at the end of training when less focus is needed for technical development. Typically, one to two exercises done for 2-3 sets of 6-12 repetitions at the end of every other workout will suffice to target a given group of muscles. Consider carefully what training will follow during the week because this type of training can cause delayed onset muscle soreness which can persist for up to 72 hours following training. You may want to start with one exercise per workout and build to more as the athlete becomes more resilient to the hypertrophy work. By implementing this structure of training, you will add an additional 6-9 sets per week to start per muscle group as a starting point. This should allow you to see how much fatigue is developed and how the athlete is tolerating the increase in training load. From here you can slowly add volume as the weeks progress until you finish out your preparatory training blocks.
In this article we have discussed why hypertrophy is important for weightlifters, who may benefit from hypertrophy, and how to incorporate it into a training protocol. This should help to serve as a guideline and thought process how when and how to use these methods with your athletes to help them maximize their potential. If you are struggling to implement these ideas into your own training or with your athlete feel free to reach out to us at Totten Training Systems so that we can help you.
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2. Nyitrai, M., Rossi, R., Adamek, N., Pellegrino, M. A., Bottinelli, R., & Geeves, M. A. (2006). What limits the velocity of fast-skeletal muscle contraction in mammals?. Journal of molecular biology, 355(3), 432-442.
3. Trezise J, Collier N, Blazevich AJ. Anatomical and neuromuscular variables strongly predict maximum knee extension torque in healthy men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016;116(6):1159–77.
4. Siahkouhian M, Hedayatneja M. Correlations of anthropometric and body composition variables with the performance of young elite weightlifters. J Hum Kinet. 2010;25:125–31.
5. Lietzke M. Relation between weight-lifting totals and body weight. Science. 1956;124(3220):486–7.
Christopher Taber is an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University and head coach of the Sacred Heart weightlifting team. His research is focused on strength and power development for athletes as well as athlete monitoring and testing. Christopher is an Instructor fo Totten Training Systems, coaches and competes for East Coast Gold Weightlifting team. He lives with his wife Lucy and their dog Marble in Connecticut.