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Muscular hypertrophy is defined, in simple terms, as an increase in the size of a muscle. Alternatively it can be described as an increase in the cross-sectional area of muscle. So many people ‘think’ they want muscular hypertrophy. I say think because they are conditioned to strive for such a goal for various reasons. It is attractive for men to want large muscles, it shows masculinity. Women who want an increase in muscle size are usually those that feel underweight or for specific sport and strength performance goals.
In this article…
1. Two types of muscle hypertrophy.
2. Who wants/needs muscle hypertrophy?
3. Why do you want/need muscle hypertrophy and how do you attain it for that purpose?
Two Types of Muscular Hypertrophy
There are two types of muscular hypertrophy; sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. Lets explore both.
Sarcoplasmic muscular hypertrophy involves an increase in the sarcoplasmic volume of a muscle cell with little corresponding increase in muscular strength. A strength increase is something you normally expect with an increase in muscular hypertophy, however sarcoplasmic volume increases serve lesser functional purpose in terms of strength development.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is a response to training at relatively high volumes. In order for muscles to increase in size as a result of an increase in sarcoplasmic volume, they have to be trained within a higher repetition range. This is generally in the range of 8-12 and even beyond. This causes sufficient micro-trauma for the muscle to respond.
Obviously this form of muscular hypertrophy is not desirable for anyone aiming to increase strength or sports performance and maintain a high strength-to-weight-ratio. Bodybuilders are likely the only ones concerned with sarcoplasmic muscular hypertrophy. This form or muscle size increase is the main reason you see strength to weight ratio decrease as a person gets larger, even with no evidence of excess body fat.
Myofibrillar muscular hypertrophy is what most people want. This is an increase in the size of the actual contractile proteins, resulting in more available muscle for contraction applied to resistance. This form of muscle increase is commonly seen in athletes that perform dynamic sports or strength and power. Weightlifters experience myofibrillar hypertrophy as a result of their training. When a load is lifted that is beyond 75% of maximum a corresponding increase in contractile proteins occurs in order to adapt and lift a heavier load next time.
Myofibrillar muscular hypertrophy is attained through high intensity, lower volume training. However this is not always the case, it is just ideal. A muscle will not increase in strength to any great amount through repetitive lifting until fatigue. It doesn't make sense that lifting something 12 times will increase the amount you are able to lift in one-off efforts that are close to maximum strength. This is why myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs most notably as a result of training in the range of 3-7 repetitions. It's not ideal for a bodybuilder that simply wants mass as fast as possible, however it will build actual functional strength you can use and not unnecessary bodyweight, which is applicable to athletes. The size of the muscle will increase at a slower rate because the hypertrophy involves growth of functional units of muscular tissue as opposed to just volume.
Who Wants/Needs Muscular Hypertrophy?
There are a lot of reasons a person might want or need larger muscles. For some it is about appearance and aesthetics, while others need a corresponding increase in strength to compliment athletic performance or for other functional purposes.
Here we will look at muscular hypertrophy using a few examples of who needs increased muscle size and why they need it.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes need relatively large muscles in order to perform at their peak. More accurately, they need as much absolute strength as humanly possible. Myofibrillar hypertrophy helps increase a person's potential to produce greater force. It is for this reason only that a strength athlete needs muscular hypertrophy. This cannot be approached haphazardly or the athlete will increase muscular size faster than they increase strength, in other words achieving sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This may result in decreased efficiency and excess bulk that serves little purpose. Why would you want to be heavier but not stronger? This is no good to a shot putter, weightlifter, strongman, power lifter etc.
Team Sport Athletes
Team sports, particularly contact sports, require athletes to be strong and powerful while possessing skills across a broad range of domains. They need to be strong but they also need to go the distance. At times athletes such as rugby players may be out-muscled during a ruck, maul or tackle by larger opponents. Under these circumstances a contact sport athlete requires an increase in muscle size along with the potential strength that comes along with it.
High Intensity Athletes
I refer to high intensity athletes in a separate category because I am referring to someone that has short demands placed on them at a near-maximal or maximal capacity. This includes sprinters up to 400 or even 800 metres. Essentially a high intensity athlete is anyone that regularly participates in activities that involve about 75 percent or higher intensity.
The reason they may need an increase in muscle mass is to facilitate a higher work capacity. The bigger the engine (functional parts of it anyway) the more work a person is able to do within the same or shorter timeframe. Sprinters can train more effectively, power is increased, strength helps to support dynamic activity with greater force, and a host of other benefits come from marginal increases in myofibrillar hypertrophy.
Elderly people must increase their strength. Quite often an elderly person will experience muscular atrophy, which is wasting of a muscle, decreasing it in size. It is a loss of strength that puts people in nursing homes. It is poor muscular conditioning that causes falls and dependence. This poor muscle conditioning is caused by the muscle decreasing in size. This is not good because the decrease is detrimental to even the most rudimentary tasks. It decreases work capacity, which is essentially what aging really is.
Elderly people need to focus on strength and wellness in order to be functional throughout their twilight years. A marginal myofibrillar hypertophy will help muscles increase in capacity and prolong quality of life and allow for participation in a broader range of activities. That’s not to say that old people need to become bodybuilders or weightlifters. However any increase in muscle size with corresponding functional capacity is beneficial to people over the age of 60.
Of course, the regular Joe can benefit from an increase in strength, muscle size, loss of bodyfat etc. Muscular hypertrophy executed properly will increase a host of benefits including increased work capacity, greater posture, functionality during daily tasks or work-related effort and lets not forget a great looking body.
The regular Joe has a range of choices available. He/she can choose to become huge and strong or increase muscle mass slightly to cope with the demands of weekend beach volleyball with friends. Either way, approached intelligently, a non-athlete is far better off strong than weak, whatever their lifestyle.
Why do You Want/Need Muscular Hypertrophy?
Now it’s time to look at reasons for muscular hypertrophy, which we have already touched on slightly. There are many reasons for wanting increased muscle mass, however many people approach muscle gain incorrectly for the purposes they are aiming to fulfill.
I say bodybuilding but what I really mean is increasing muscle mass for any reason other than performance. In short, bodybuilding refers to muscular hypertrophy for the purpose of aesthetics.
Muscle mass can be increased in any which way you please if this is your aim. The best way to go is typical bodybuilding style training adapted to suit your experience level and tolerance. Training in the repetition range of 8-12 reps is ideal for this purpose. Perform large compound movements early in the workout and then follow up with smaller muscle groups and isolation exercises if you so wish. But keep in mind the minimum effective dose.
Pure strength is a major reason for muscular hypertrophy, particularly myofibrillar hypertrophy. During activities requiring pure brute force the larger the functional size of the muscle the higher the potential for producing more force. This is important for those such as strongmen, power-lifters, heavyweight wrestlers, shot putters and basically anyone that needs to exert maximal force without consideration of bodyweight.
In order for muscular hypertrophy to be beneficial for the increase of absolute strength it must be approached correctly. Simply pumping out sets in the weights room is not the ideal way to go. Muscles don’t get stronger in a linear fashion as they get bigger. Muscle mass is only potential strength, the rest comes from the neurological firing patterns they demonstrate. Without getting into too much science lets look at how a muscle gets stronger…
When you train against resistance your muscles will most often increase in size, this is a given. If the muscle growth is the kind we have discussed as being conducive to strength increase the muscles will increase in strength but will also increase their potential for further strength. Other increases in strength occur because the neurons that tell that muscle to contract get more effective at doing their job. They fire off at a more synchronised rate and activate more motor units the more you train effectively.
Simply increasing a muscle’s size will increase strength to a point but without further training aimed at this neuromuscular response the muscle will only get marginally stronger. So hypertrophy for this purpose is limited in scope. Aiming to increase muscle mass under these circumstances should be planned carefully. Increase muscle size in order to increase potential strength, then aim to train the neurons firing those muscles to act more effectively and synchronously.
Training for this purpose requires a plan. To begin gaining muscle mass you will likely need to train in the 6-8 repetition range. Any higher and you risk excessive sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, any lower and you are simply training the nervous system. Once you have reached a desired size you can then lower the repetition range and start performing singles, doubles and triples. This will train the neuromuscular system to be more effective at commanding muscles to contract but will also allow maintenance of muscle mass.
Power is defined as force times velocity. In other words power is the application of force at a rapid rate. Examples include maximum jumps, Olympic weightlifting, sprinting, throwing and contact during a game of American football. If power is your goal then you need to be cautious of muscle gain. Too much mass will limit your ability to move your own body. A gymnast needs to be extremely strong, but if he were as big as a shot putter he would be limited in his ability to move his own body dynamically.
Muscular hypertrophy for the purpose of power development should follow similar guidelines to that of pure strength, however the muscle mass needs to be controlled. For a shot putter mass can be gained indefinitely because they are controlling an external mass, however a sprinter might want to limit bodyweight at some point because they are controlling their own mass. Pure strength must be increased in order for power to increase at any noticeable rate. Once a desired level of muscle mass has been achieved the athlete then needs to focus on velocity training such as plyometrics, high velocity weight training (Olympic lifts) and other forms of specific power work.
Rehabilitation might not seem like the most likely reason for increasing muscle mass, however there is a need in this field for such a goal. Often injuries are caused by muscle imbalances, which in turn effect connective tissue and other structures. This results in pain and limited mobility. Increasing the size of a particular muscle or group of muscles will have the effect of balancing out weak and strong muscles and improving posture.
In addition to rehabilitation muscular hypertrophy can help overall to make everyday life more effective in terms of physical mobility. It helps to burn more calories, increases overall work capacity, improves posture and general mobility and many other benefits.
To conclude, muscular hypertrophy is beneficial for a variety of reasons and can be approached in several different ways. Done correctly and performance will increase rapidly, done incorrectly and performance can suffer or at best nothing will happen. Also keep in mind that in order to increase muscle mass for whatever reason there needs to be an appropriate diet that facilitates gains. Otherwise muscles have no fuel or building blocks.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.