Category Archives: Hypertrophy

Will cardiovascular training kill strength

One of the most poorly understood interactions in the sport and fitness world is that of cardiovascular training and strength levels. One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that cardiovascular training or “Cardio” will hinder or even reduce strength levels. In particular low intensity, high volume cardio has been touted as a strength killer.  Many will agree with this statement and anecdotally it seems to hold a lot of truth. Then we look at field athletes such as rugby players for example. Some have pretty impressive strength levels as well as excellent cardiovascular conditioning. How do they achieve this if the training methods counteract each other? In addition why do so many scientific studies with tight control and experimental design show conditioning to be improved alongside strength and power? There are similar misconceptions of strength in the endurance world. Endurance athletes believe strength training makes them slow and bulky.  How can so much confusion and mixed opinions exist in this.

 

The answer all comes down to one simple factor -Load! When we use the term load we are not referring to load as a weight, we refer to it as external stress. In this case the stress is training volume or overall training load. Typically cardiovascular training, especially the low intensity variety, is done in high volume to have effect.  Large volumes of training have high energy demands. These demands can be hard to meet nutritionally. In addition to this, large volumes of training can accumulate considerable microtrauma and damage to muscle cells. In practical terms there is an accumulation of fatigue.

 

If one wishes to increase or maintain strength levels one must train to the upper limits of one’s current ability. The neuromuscular system improves when its current capacity is placed under higher demands than it is capable of meeting. Over time and consistent stimulus it responds and adapts becoming more efficient. This is the basis of a strength program. Progressive overload is the simplest mechanism for adaptation.

 

An athlete must lift enough to elicit adaptation and increase strength.

An athlete must lift enough to elicit adaptation and increase strength.

When we train while fatigued it has obvious implications for what can be achieved. One will simply not be able to reach a level of intensity that would be considered maximal or required for any real stimulus. In short we cannot train hard enough to push our limits. With the result that the mechanism of progressive overload is never achieved as we remain well within our limits. Not being able to train maximally or at our upper limits will make it extremely difficult to see any improvements in absolute strength. In addition, prolonged periods of training in which we fail to reach intensity will result in detraining. If we don’t use it we lose it. We can lose strength as we don’t really get to the point where it is stressed.

 

Large volumes of cardio training take up a lot of time in our schedules. Larger volumes have been shown to be very effective in terms of improving cardiovascular conditioning. The issue is allowing enough time in a week to complete cardio, recover and then train strength. If it is not scheduled carefully there is bound to be latent fatigue when going into the subsequent training sessions. This is where issues arise and cardio begins to have a negative impact on overall training effectiveness.

 

Another argument is that physiologically the adaptations of cardio training counteract those of strength training. This is usually the argument used to explain why cardio kills strength. In reality the structural adaptations are largely defined by genetics. Smaller people tend to suit endurance sports just like larger individuals are suited to power type sports. Yes there is some influence of training but generally speaking we naturally sort into the sports we are suited to at a young age. Our size will influence our success in a given sport and there’s not much an individual can do about it. Larger people can be very well trained cardiovascularly but must move more mass and therefore tend to be slower as a result. Likewise smaller endurance athletes can be very strong pound for pound but will simply lack the mass to shift heavier weights. This is a major reason for weight categories in strength sports such as weightlifting.

Successful distance runners are physiologically suited for the sport. They have lighter rangier frames. Perfect for covering distance efficiently.

Successful distance runners are physiologically suited for the sport. They have lighter rangier frames. Perfect for covering distance efficiently.

 

In short genetically we are predisposed to certain characteristics which fool us into thinking the type of training we do is the reason for our abilities or weaknesses.  When looking at concurrent training the main factor that influences our improvements is fatigue. If training is carefully planned and one does not overtrain a capability or underecover from sessions, we can improve both simultaneously. Looking practically it is a lot easier to focus on one or the other but this is not always a possibility.

 

The point of the article is to highlight the fact that one can train strength and cardio simultaneously and see improvements in both. Strength can go unhindered and endurance can be improved with increases in strength. Poor understanding of the relationship between the two has led many individuals to neglect their conditioning in favor of strength or vice versa. When planning a training program one should consider the length of time it takes to recover from different training types. Progress will be ensured if one considers the differing timescales of recovery and appropriate training stimulus needed to promote adaptation. When this is accounted for concurrent improvements in both strength and cardiovascular conditioning are very achievable.

 

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Will bulking up slow me down? Not if you do it right!

Manu Tuilagi

This is a dilemma faced by many athletes in many sports. The debate relates to an increase in body mass and its impact on the speed of the athlete. Traditionally heavy athletes are considered slow but strong. Light athletes are considered quicker and more nimble but lack mass which is beneficial in contact. In the modern era of sport, athletes are statistically bigger and faster. It seems our traditional thinking is being proven wrong.

When we think of speed we usually are thinking of a mixture between the ability to change direction quickly and top speed. They are closely linked but not the same. Change in direction involves both deceleration and acceleration. Top speed is more a case of overcoming braking or decelerative forces. In both examples the rate of force development is key. The more force one can produce the more they displace their mass, the more they move. Strength is required to produce force but also to control deceleration. Stride rate has been shown to have little impact on top end speed. Stride length however, has a great impact.

Athlete’s strength levels tend to have a narrower range than their bodyweight. This means that lighter athletes will tend to have a better relative strength to weight ratio. This generally translates into them being quicker. In recent years, bigger athletes have begun to demonstrate similar levels of speed and agility. They also show greater strength levels. One important factor in strength to weight ratio is lean body mass. Bodyfat contributes little to the generation of force yet will contribute significantly to decelerative forces. Therefore excess body mass in the form of fat will have a negative impact on speed.

Gaining mass is traditionally accomplished using high volume weight training to induce muscle hypertrophy. Programs which aim purely at achieving hypertrophy tend to promote modest strength improvements. Athletes may put on extra mass over the course of a short offseason. They then feel sluggish when they return to competition. This is often because their relative strength to weight ratios have become less favorable.

In some very rare cases there is structural influence in the muscle mass which can inhibit the rate of muscle contraction. Muscle fibres contract through the sliding filament theory. This sliding of fibres creates friction. The more muscle filaments the more friction. Friction reduces rate of contraction. Rate of contraction is very important when we need to produce power. This has only been witnessed in a handful of circumstances where specific muscle groups may be overdeveloped. Track cycling is one such sport where this can occur from time to time.

Robert Forstemann, some of the biggest legs in sport

Robert Forstemann, some of the biggest legs in sport. Despite his enormous quadriceps he is still one of the fastest track sprinters in the world.

So the question is, how is it possible to increase mass and maintain functional speed on the field of play. Simply put the key factor is time. An athlete who gains mass over a longer period will be able to spend time keeping other capabilities at a relatively similar level. Speed strength and neural training can be implemented ensuring these also develop. These are key components in the rate of force production. A program which cycles between short blocks of training, gradually developing each capability will achieve the goal. This is known as periodization. An athlete could also train all three capabilities in the same training block, but would witness more modest improvements.

Most of the time losing speed when bulking up is a result of doing things too quickly. Athletes may gain 3-5kg in a three month period with little emphasis on pure strength or speed. They have the new mass but have not yet trained to carry it on the field. Often they panic and attempt to lose the weight again. This means they never have a chance to train to their new potential. This usually promotes a reluctance to attempt to increase mass in the future.

In summary gaining weight will only slow an athlete down if the weight gained is in the form of fat. Initially they may lose speed only if their rate of mass increase exceeded their rate of strength improvements. Some top sprint coaches suggest that a sprint athlete would need to be able to back squat twice bodyweight before they will reach full potential. Hypertrophy style rep schemes are also not typically associated with neural improvements. Neural training in the form of speed strength style training is essential to maintain fast rates of muscle contraction.

Obviously speed is a skill and technique in sprinting and change of direction is important. The issue is that athletes tend to want things quickly. They focus on one thing while neglecting another. Genetically we are predisposed to be big or small, fast or slow. We rarely give a whole lot of time to our weaknesses as it distracts from our strengths. If athletes are a little more patient and approach things with a patient and diligent attitude then they tend to be more successful in the long run. Many athletes do not have the technical skill mastery to reach their potential to begin with. In this case they cannot blame their body mass.

 

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Ma’a Nonu at 100kg+ has little issues outrunning defenders significantly smaller than him.

The conclusion is that there are many aspects of increasing body mass which can have a negative influence on speed. Despite this, increased muscle mass can improve power output through increasing force production capabilities. If they support these changes with a period of speed strength and neural focus training then they should see no major loss in speed. It is difficult to achieve dramatic changes in body mass without it having an impact.

Athletes must weigh up the benefits, versus the time in which they have to make changes. At some point size will have a detrimental influence but most athletes never get close to this point. Athletes who fear that they will get slower should be assured that this is rarely the case when their training is appropriate and gradual.

 

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HIIT, fat loss and muscle!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular training method. When used correctly it effectively improves cardiovascular conditioning, burns fat and promotes new muscle growth. In addition a relatively short HIIT session is sufficient to elicit substantial performance gains. Like any training method, understanding the basic physiological principles will make a big help to using it effectively. This article will explain a bit about this type of training and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

HIIT is popular because it is time effective. An individual can burn a lot of calories in a short space of time. As the name implies it is an intense form of exercise. Our energy systems function on a simple mechanism of energy charge. The rate of energy (Adenosine Triphosphate/ATP) utilization in the muscle cell must be matched by an energy supply system. Slow rate of energy expenditure during low intensity work is supported by oxidation. Oxidation supplies a lot of energy but at a slow rate. High intensity work is supplied by the glycolysis and phosphate systems which have a much faster supply. Supply must meet the demand. There is often a slight lag between utilization and supply. This means that even during rest intervals and post exercise energy consumption is still elevated. In simple terms our metabolism is increased and we continue to burn more calories than at normal rest conditions. For this reason even though a 20min session burns, for example 500kcals, energy expenditure is raised throughout the day. A low intensity session lasting one hour may burn 800kcal with minimal elevation in metabolisms for the rest of the day. For this reason HIIT may actually burn more calories on a daily basis. This is why it is so effective at fat burning.

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

In addition, the power output which is produced during the work period of HIIT is high. Higher power output during work periods are often effective in improving your conditioning. It also helps maintain strength and power simply by utilizing larger motor units. The main issue to consider with HIIT relates to energy supply. If we cannot supply the cells with adequate energy then they become damaged. This is known as metabolic stress. A certain degree of metabolic stress or damage can be reversed. This is what promotes new muscle growth. Moderate metabolic stress during training can, at times, be quite effective for promoting hypertrophy.

If we place too much stress on the muscle cells the damage can be irreparable. The cells will begin to die. When this happens on a regular basis muscle wastage can occur. It also places the body under larger amounts of general stress which will begin to impact on our immune system. There is a large list of potential health implications that this can eventually lead to.

Preventing this scenario is relatively easy but not always something we think about. One of the determinants to energy supply is our energy store. In the case of HIIT we need adequate stores of glycogen for an adequate supply of energy. If we do HIIT in a fasted state we are putting ourselves under severe metabolic stress, as there is little energy supply to fuel it. In addition the lack of energy will dramatically reduce performance so conditioning benefits may also be lost.

The take home message is this. Fuel up for intense exercise! Low intensity exercise can be done in a fasted state as the oxidative system works effectively to provide fuel. With intense exercise such as HIIT style training, you must have some glycogen stores or glucose in the bloodstream. If you are in a totally fasted, glycogen depleted state then consume some simple sugars close to training. By doing so you can maintain high intensity and reduce cell stress. You will still achieve an elevated metabolism that promotes fat burning. You also place the cells under just enough stress to help promote hypertrophy

It is important to understand training methods as the smallest oversight can cause more harm than good. HIIT is an effective tool but if it is not adequately fuelled it loses a lot of its benefits. It is a popular successful way to train and should be used in any program. Like any training method the process is the important part. It needs to be considered and managed properly in order to see the full benefit.

Our top 5 finishers to a strength workout!

Following on with our offseason theme I have decided to give out some our favourite strength workout finishers. When we go into the offseason period usually our volume of gym based training increases. After a while sessions can become a bit boring and monotonous. We recommend using finishers as a way to add some fun into a workout and provide a challenge that benefits towards the athletes goals. Here are some great ones to use when you have an athlete undertaking a hypertrophy program.

1) Density circuits:

These look to add volume in a short space of time but also play off the competitiveness of an athlete. Step 1 Pick two or three multi joint excises. You can use complex exercises with more experienced athletes but generally the simpler the better. Step 2 choose a reasonable time frame. Anywhere form 3-10mins should be sufficient. Step 3 choose a simple rep scheme that allows you to perform multiple rounds of your chosen exercise before the time runs up. As always technique must be the priority and the athlete should perform the reps at a speed which does not compromise form. Here is an example.

8 minutes of as many rounds as possible: 5 deadlifts @100kg, 5 Chin ups and 10 Pressups.

2) Chipper

The chipper concept was made popular by crossfit but is a nice way to add some simple volume in a fun way especially with a group of athletes. All you have to do is choose a simple multijoint exercise and a perform a large number of reps for time. Keep it simple so the athlete can concentrate on form. Having a group to compete with makes this pretty effective. Here is an example.

For time: 100 BW squats & 100pressups

3) Mega Drop sets

Drop sets are popular in the bodybuilding world as they are fantastic ways to fully fatigue a muscle group. We use mega drop sets to do the same thing with the added benefit of providing a little cardiovascular work into the mix. Pick a simple exercise that can be done for high reps with load. Chose a very high amount of reps to complete. Try and complete these reps as quickly as possible reducing the weight as necessary to maintain the pace you complete reps. For example.

200 rep leg press dropping 20kg every 50 reps.

4) The pyramid

This is one of our most utilized finishers. Usually done at the end of upper body sessions. The athlete performs one pressup and holds at the top for two seconds. He then performs 2 pressups and holds at the top for 2 seconds, then three reps and so on up to ten reps and back to zero, holding for 2 seconds between each rep cluster. Seems simple but will often be quite humbling to an elite athlete when they fail to do a pressup. We’ve never seen an athlete get to ten reps!!

5) Tabata medley

Tabata is 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off for 8 reps. A total of 4mins work. We chose 4 exercises and simply rotate through following the tabata timing so they are all completed twice. For example

Tabata of Pressups, Situps, Inverted row and Air squats.

While these options are pretty simple they can have a significant contribution to improvements made by an athlete. As long as the majority of they’re program follows a strict progression plan, small finishers will do no harm. Most of the time athletes look forward to these as it provides them with a little competition to keep them going in a non competitive portion of their annual program.

The critical factor to gaining muscle!

There are thousands of young athletes desperately trying to increase lean muscle mass. There are also an equal amount of training programs, diets and supplements which promise results. With these distractions it can be easy to overlook the basics. In the end the basics are what will get real results.

Most of us are now familiar with the concept of hypertrophy. When we lift a heavy weight, the tension placed on the muscle fiber during a contraction causes microscopic tears. The body reacts to this by repairing these tears and increases the size of the fibers. This adaptation allows us to react to, and survive the stress placed on us. This cycle can be repeated with training, eventually producing noticeably bigger, stronger muscle. As we adapt to a level of training we must progressively increase the level of stress to continue to progress.

The body can only repair itself when at rest. Structural repair will also take a certain amount of time to occur. If we apply further stress too soon after a session we only cause more trauma, not adaptation. When looking to increase muscle mass it is important to be well recovered on a regular basis. If we train too frequently without rest, results will be mediocre. Generally, because we see reasonable progress from training we assume more will be better. There comes a point where we are doing too much and lose sight of the process we are trying to promote.

The fact is that there is only so much the body can cope with. New muscle is created during rest, not during training. If we train too frequently there is no opportunity for the growth to take place. An athlete must be aware of this and schedule rest days as part of a hypertrophy program.

The best approach is to start with a simple hypertrophy focused program and progress things slowly. The trick is to remain patient and stick to a plan. It is very easy to get excited and add extra sessions, thinking it will accelerate progress. Recovery needs to be as much a priority as the training itself. If an athlete neglects recovery and rest they will put themselves at a great disadvantage.

When looking to gain lean tissue an athlete must follow a gradual progressive overload program. They must ensure rest and adequate nutrition. Hypertrophy is a slow process and patience is key. There are no magical programs. A coach must monitor the athlete to ensure that he sticks to the process. Young athletes must be especially careful as their inexperience can create insecurities with the program. In a competitive environment, where team selection may be a factor, athletes must learn to trust the program and commit to it.

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Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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