If you find yourself in a gym for any reason you must keep one simple idea in mind at all times: your main goal is always to get stronger. Strength is the most general physical ability; improvements in strength lead to improvements in all other physical abilities. No matter what your specific purpose for training is, you can never stop increasing your strength if you want to really excel.
Strength is primarily a neurological phenomenon. In fact, all physical movement is initiated by the nervous system. For this reason all training programs must be focused first and foremost on developing the right neurological ability for the purpose of the athlete/trainee. The only really effective way to train the nervous system in a progressive way over a long period of time is with the barbell.
If a program is focused on the developing the appropriate neurological abilities, then the work with Barbell Squats, Deadlifts and Presses will also build functional performance hypertrophy. If we use the right exercises in the right rep range, the resulting hypertrophy will provide our nervous system “software“ more effective “hardware” to produce force and power with.
There are two types of Hypertrophy – Sarcomeric and Sarcoplasmic. For athletes one is much more important than the other. Understanding the structure of muscle will make the distinction clear.
The Structure of Muscle
Muscle is made of Muscle Fibers which contain hundreds of parallel Myofibrils. Muscle fiber cells also contain membranes, cytoplasm, sarcoplasm, nuclei, mitochondria, ribosomes, and endoplasmic recticulum, all of which are important for muscle contraction and adapt to training.
Understanding the role of myofibrils and sarcoplasm in muscular action is essential for understanding how to build muscle mass. A Myofibrils are the basic contractile unit of muscle. They are the genesis of a sequence of actions which result in a physical movement of our body: the sarcomeres of myofibril contract, a group of Myofibrils contract and a muscle fiber contracts, a group of muscle fibers contract and muscle contracts, then a group of muscles contract thus pulling on the skeletal system. That is how we move our body.
Myofibrils are made of longitudinally repeating units of sarcomeres. Sarcomeres contain two primary proteins; a thin filament called Actin, and a thick filament called Myosin. At each end of a sarcomere, actin filaments are attached to Z-lines which mark the boundaries between adjacent sarcomeres. A myofibril contraction happens when the myosin filament slides over the actin filament and the Z-lines move closer together. This is caused by the expenditure of cellular energy called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). This is the basic function of muscle contraction. (See Fig. 1)
Fig. 1: The Structure of skeletal muscle.
This all might seem a bit tedious, since improving movement ability on a multi-muscle or full body scale is the ultimate purpose of training, not contracting single myofibrils. But, it is these smaller components of muscle tissue that actually adapt to training. Understanding what muscle actually is then mandatory for the trainer and trainee to optimize training.
Sarcomeric Hypertrophy: Solid Hardware for performance
As athletes and coaches, we must be primarily concerned with increasing Sarcomeric (also known as Myofibrillar) hypertrophy. Even for noncompetitive trainees this should also be the case since Sarcomeric hypertrophy is what makes people stronger, more athletic, and have that “hard” look to their physique.
When we say “Sarcomeric hypertrophy” we refer to an actual increase in the amount of sarcomeres and myofibrils in a trained muscle. Since sarcomeres are the actual contractile component of muscle, an increase in them is a true increase in actual muscular protein (Actin and Myosin). This is real muscular development. For athletes, this is the only type of positive weight gain.
It is important to remember that neural adaptation must always precede vegetative adaptations, even the development of Sarcomeric hypertrophy. An athlete should increase his/her strength and power to a level that is considered excellent for his/her bodyweight (this is know as “relative strength”) before directing training in a way that purposefully increases bodyweight. An athlete should undertake hypertrophy directed training only after his/her strength deficit has been reduced to a level that is considered good for his size and sporting qualification.
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: Swollen but not stronger
Unfortunately, the average gym goer doesn’t usually know how to structure his/her training program in a way that efficiently develops sarcomeric hypertrophy. Most random exercise (even when done with great effort) produces more of what I call the fools gold of strength training: an over-development of Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy is characterized by the growth of sarcoplasm and non-contractile proteins in the muscle. Sarcoplasm is the semifluid interfibrillar substance which surrounds myofibrils. It cannot contract, so it cannot be used by the NS, so it cannot directly contribute to the production of force.
When sarcoplasm content of a muscle increases the filament area density of fibers decreases, while the cross-sectional area of the fibers increases, without an accompanying increase in muscle strength. See Fig. 2:
Fig. 2: Examples of 3 different muscle fibers, the first from the left being the the pre-trained fiber, the second being one in which sarcomeric hypertophy has occurred, and the third one in which sacroplasmic hypertrophy was the result of training. Notice how in the middle fiber the density of myofibrils has increase while the total size did not change, while in the fiber to the right the density has decreased while the overall size has increased.
Performance Hypertrophy: Training Protocols are the key
In reality the two types of hypertrophy never occur separately. A certain amount of sarcoplasm is necessary for muscle function and will be developed through appropriate training. Heavy resistance training leads to a mix of sarcoplasmic and sarcomeric hypertrophy. Intelligent training should be directed first towards developing the neurological ability to produce high force, which will naturally develop the appropriate amount of sarcomeric hypertrophy necessary to mechanically produce this force using the skeletal structure. Any sarcoplasm needed to support contraction it will develop naturally.
The specific exercises and set-rep schemes used in training determine whether or not neural improvements and the right kind of hypertrophy are developed.
Muscular Hypertrophy is always the product of Work done. I mean Work with a capital W, as in Force x Distance = Joule/Newton Meter (Work). The more force your muscles have to produce over a longer distance, the more Joule they must produce, and this is what cause degradation of the muscular proteins (actin and myosin) and the subsequent restoration and super compensation of them.
Large compound barbell exercises like Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, Clean & Jerks, and Snatches are the most effective for building sarcomeric hypertrophy, while exercise machines tend to produce more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is why (non-super heavyweight) elite Weight Lifters, Powerlifters, and Boxers/MMA fighters always have that hard look to their physiques; there strength training is centered around compound barbell lifts.
Exercise machines lack a sufficient neurological component and are not effective for developing a proper ratio of sarcomeric-to-sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. They should be avoided (other than a cable pulley for some specific exercises) by all trainees, especially athletes.
Along with the choice of exercises, the amount of reps in a set is also a key component for developing relevant muscle mass. If functional hypertrophy is the goal sets with reps in the range of 5-12 performed with 60-80% of 1 repetition maximum is best. This intensity range is perfect for specific hypertrophy training because the weight of the barbell (its Force) will be high enough to cause protein degradation and the amount of reps that can done will ensure that plenty of Work is done.
Reps below 5 are best for strength (neurological) development purposes. Some amount of hypertrophy will of course occur with heavy training, but weights above 85% of maximum cannot be lifted enough times to develop enough overall Work to develop as much hypertrophy as the moderate weight-moderate rep protocol.
20 reps per set and above are best for training to delay the onset of blood lactate accumulation which has great value for endurance athletes like distance runners, bicyclists, cross-country skiers, triathletes, rowers, or Ironman competitors. To total Work done is highest with type of training, but the weights are too light to cause much protein breakdown. This type of training will result in a higher ratio of sarcoplasmic-to-sarcomeric hypertrophy, so for athletes looking to increase power and force abilities and trainees trying to get that hard look this rep range should only be used sparingly.
Success in any physical endeavor fundamentally determined by the entity’s ability to produce a sufficient level of force. Any force generated by human body is the product of muscular contraction. The basic element of muscle contraction is the sarcomere. So it becomes obvious that development of sarcomeric hypertrophy is of central importance to those serious about dominating in sport and in life.
Compound barbell exercises prescribed with the appropriate intensities, sets and reps are the only way to continually build and hone quality sarcomeric hypertrophy over time. This is the science of getting jacked.