My Love Hate Relationship with Hypertrophy

Written by: Kevin Cann

I have been a very vocal proponent of direct hypertrophy work in powerlifting.  I think my argument against it gets misunderstood.  I never said that hypertrophy is not important, it most definitely is.  However, hypertrophy is built over a large number of rep ranges, but strength is more directed and developed with higher loads and lower rep ranges.

Hypertrophy is developed from a well-organized plan and more direct work is probably unnecessary.  We take a lot of singles compared to many programs out there, but that is not all that we do.

Verkoshansky states in Supertraining that a hypertrophy block/focus is not necessarily about increasing the cross sectional area of a muscle.  It is about developing the traits within the muscle that allows the lifter to place maximal strength on top of it, and actually hold onto maximal strength longer.

In many programs these periods are referred to as preparatory periods for this reason.  These periods increase the work capacity and the recovery abilities of the athlete to prepare them for the more sport specific work that comes later on.  Research has shown this to be effective, to not only allow the athlete to train harder, but also allows the athlete to hold onto the acquired adaptations longer.  This is very important in powerlifting for 2 reasons.

For one, we want that strength to show up on meet day.  The other is that we want to go into the next macrocycle of training, starting at a more developed point.  This allows us to continue to progress over time and not always play catch up from block to block.

We do not run a block periodization program.  I think block periodization can be successful when the coach implements it correctly, but I choose a more concurrent approach to training.  With that said, I do take some of the ideas of block periodization and apply it to our methods.

We perform roughly 80 max effort lifts per year, not including competitions.  This is probably more than most programs, but it is actually less than Westside.  I have found that the lifters that I tend to coach do not necessarily have the abilities to push harder than that with singles.  Perhaps this is due to being drug free and not wearing equipment, but I am not really sure.

I like changing the program around a bit from time to time to just keep the lifters more engaged.  I think this is important for longevity as well.  We have 3 phases in our training programs.  These phases typically last from 4 to 8 weeks.  This brings us to 4 to 6 months of planning, which is typically the time between competitions.

Phase 1 for us removes any deadlift max effort work.  Vince Anello said that he wished he would have deadlifted less in training and felt this shortened his career a bit.  He was built to pull and feels this way.  Also, many other long time lifters have said similar things and they also emphasized that they did not need to pull as heavy as often.  Removing this just seems to make sense to me.  We do bring in max effort deadlifts later on, but out of the 80 max effort lifts per year, the deadlifts only make up 16 of them.  It is half as much as the squats.

This phase also has a typical upper/lower split to training.  By setting it up this way we can get more spots for GPP work to bring up weak areas, and also to build general work capacity.  This makes sure we have a nice base as we get into the more specific training later on.  In an 8 week block, we will get 8 total max effort lifts.  This leaves more room for rep work along with the increased slots for GPP.

In phase 2 we bring in some deadlift max effort work and we increase the frequency a bit.  Due to the increase in frequency and the adding in of max effort deadlifts, this leaves less room for GPP exercises.  We still use quite a bit, and still attack our weaknesses, but there needs to be a slight decrease in the GPP so that the athlete can still recover.

There is a range for the total number of lifts that I want completed in a month.  Phase 1 may be closer to the middle of that range, where phase 2 is definitely closer to the higher end of the range.  Phase 3 will be more max effort lifts and closer to the lower end of that range.

In an 8 week phase 2, a lifter will get 12 max effort lifts.  You can see that the sport specific training is beginning to increase.  The rep work variations are more Sheiko-esque in their delivery and begin to get the lifter focused on that competition lift.  In phase 3 the rep work is almost all competition lifts to really nail down that performance.

Phase 2 just replaced some GPP work with higher frequency sport specific volume.  This still builds hypertrophy.  Phase 3 the lifter will get 20 max effort lifts in 8 weeks.  This will help to build sport specific strain and focus the psychology of the lifter onto competing.  The GPP work makes up the loss of lift volume here and is very important to keep in the program.

If the exercises were working on improving the lifter’s performance, why would we want to remove them before a competition?  We also want to hold onto the developed work capacity so that we can pull a monster 3rddeadlift.

The Chinese weightlifting team utilizes a ton of accessory work within their programs.  They keep this in year round and have amazing results in doing so.  I understand weightlifting is different than powerlifting, but it still applies.  Westside keeps in the accessory work year round as well.

You see, without a focus on hypertrophy, but instead on developing work capacity to place strength on and utilizing exercises such as good mornings to maintain volume levels and stress weak areas, while attacking lagging muscle groups, we build a ton of muscle.  I do not see the need to have a specific block where the adaptive goal is to increase cross sectional area of the muscle.  If we focus on the development of the skills of the sport, the hypertrophy takes care of itself.

I do think there is a misunderstanding here as the argument tends to always fall onto this 1 to 1 tradeoff of increased cross sectional area leading to a muscle with larger potential to contract and display strength.  I am not sure this 1 to 1 tradeoff is actually accurate, there is a lot of research that shows that it is more correlation than anything else.

However, this gets back to what Verkoshansky stated in Supertraining.  There are other physiological pieces that are being developed by utilizing some of those principles.  When we have this outlook, what is viewed as hypertrophy training becomes this year long endeavor and not performed a block at a time.

So did I say hypertrophy training was important or not?  I don’t fucking know, you decide.

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