Muscle hypertrophy is an increase in the size of a muscle through an increase in the size of its component cells. It differs from muscle hyperplasia, which is the formation of new muscle cells.
As a dedicated trainer and as a firm believer in intelligence over experience, I have a unique perspective on muscular hypertrophy. I’ve read so called ‘experts’ who have recommended bodybuilding style training for athletes who need to gain weight. Let me make this very clear, bodybuilding is a sport in its self and the only people who should train in a predominantly bodybuilding oriented style are bodybuilders. In this article, I hope to explain the difference between functional and non-functional hypertrophy and shed some light on how we can help athletes gain useful / functional muscle.
In order for my opinions and views expressed within this article to carry weight, I felt it necessary to place myself in situations recently which are a little out of my comfort zones. This came in the form of boxing. I have been attending Unique Fight School in Chatham, Kent twice per week to put my body through the test of the hardcore and somewhat extreme boxing training. This is in addition to my 3-4 sessions of HIIT resistance training each week.
On my first session I was a little arrogant and feeling quietly confident knowing that I have 7 years of bodybuilding along with numerous years of private school rugby, hockey and other fitness related activities behind me to apply to this very unusual sport. I have spent hours in the gym forcing myself to complete one final rep and conditioned myself to years of waking up at 6am to complete an hour of morning cardio on an empty stomach so honestly believed that 1 hour of fitness with a few 11 stone boxing boys would be a walk in the park. I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG!
It must have taken less than 15 minutes before I had to sit down to prevent myself from being sick. The one thing I didn’t account for was that the whole session was high intensity. There were no intervals of low intensity or faffing around wasting time. It was a whole hour of continuous training and you had 2 choices: Go Hard or Go Home!
As bodybuilders, we convince ourselves that we are in a well-conditioned state all year round but in reality we are only conditioned to 1 very specific type of training… resistance training. Boxing requires a lot of Speed-strength training, which involves exercises in which high acceleration with moderate to heavy weights for a prolonged period of time. Compare this directly with the typical bodybuilding style training that is so popular (moderate weights, high volume, and slow repetitions) and you will find that the two could not possibly be more different. Most compound movements in bodybuilding or strength training can sometimes feel slightly Anaerobic (without the presence of oxygen) because ego can take over and we end up lifting a heavy weight for 8 - 12 repetitions but in boxing, it feels purely aerobic (with the presence of oxygen) because each exercise can be in excess of 90 seconds meaning the demand for the cardiovascular system to provide oxygenated blood to the muscles is much higher.
Most sports are played in a ballistic and dynamic manner. Training should be designed to reflect this. In bodybuilding, many athletes have phenomenal physiques (i.e. jacked with a lot of muscle) as a side effect of their strength training BUT our aerobic fitness may often be terrible because our type of training is extremely specific and often non functional. In boxing however, most don’t set out to gain a ton of muscle. Rather, they’re looking for ways to improve their performance. This tells us that muscle can be gained through other forms of training, and these forms of training can greatly enhance performance—something that bodybuilding training won’t do.
There are two different types of muscular hypertrophy—functional and non-functional. The scientific names are sarcomere hypertrophy (functional) and sarcomplasmic hypertrophy (non-functional).
In plain English, Non – Functional muscle is useful but when compared to that of Functional Muscle (which can be applied to many sports or physical activities) its much less useful as it can usually only be applied to very specific activities. For example. A bodybuilder can go for a jog but the large amount of muscle he or she carries requires an extremely large amount of oxygen in order for it to work. This results in a higher demand for oxygen within the muscles and in return places much more pressure on the cardio vascular system to supply these muscles with oxygenated blood. Hence the extreme fatigue and excessive sweating! Ever seen a bodybuilder walking slowly on the treadmill but absolutely saturated in sweat!? This is because these large muscles generate so much heat in comparison to a much slimmer and less muscular individual that the body will perspire in what appears to be excessive amounts in order to cool the body down.
Obviously, in an ideal world, we would all love to have large heavily muscled frames (well I know I would anyway) that can take part in any sport but in reality this is a near on impossible. For example, have you ever seen a bodybuilder swim length after length in a swimming pool!? I very much doubt it because muscle density in water is much greater than that of fat which is why it would be easier for a 15 stone fat person to swim than a 15 stone ripped bodybuilder. The fat is simply more buoyant than that of the muscle plus there is a much greater demand for oxygen on these very dense muscles resulting in exhaustion.
The bottom line is that there are two different types of muscle growth. We should never have our athletes gain weight just for the sake of gaining weight (unless they’re bodybuilders or sumo wrestlers). In order to gain functional hypertrophy, we should emphasize explosive movements and compound movements and keep the reps under eight. All bodybuilding style training isn’t bad and it can, in fact, lead to some functional hypertrophy. But it shouldn’t make up the majority of the program. There are always exceptions to the rule, but this is a great place to start.
Stephen Greensted – Sponsored Athlete