Last week I wrote a broad article about some of the things that you can do during the offseason to become a better athlete. This week, let's jump into something a little more specific: hypertrophy. A lot of athletes across many sports, not just strength sports, use their offseason training as an opportunity to put on some muscle mass. But why would an athlete care specifically about growing more muscle mass? Isn’t that what bodybuilders do? Having larger muscles certainly increases someone’s aesthetic appeal, but it’s not the only benefit. Hypertrophy has a big performance benefit, too. More muscle mass means that someone is able to handle more loading. While technique and programming certainly play crucial roles in developing strength, adding more muscle mass makes that process a bit more efficient. The more muscle fibers a person is able to recruit during a movement, the easier it is to do that movement. Internet critics like to abuse this phrase in an attempt to criticize someone who is strong, but you have heard that mass moves mass. That doesn’t mean that someone who is large is inherently capable of moving a lot of weight, but the chances are much higher. Having more muscle mass also means that you are less likely to sustain an injury. Being a larger person does mean that you can handle more abuse. There’s a reason that football players tend to be big. Their size allows them to take contact. The same can be said for strength sport athletes. The guys and girls who tend to compete for longer lengths of time tend to have more muscle mass. They are capable of meeting the physical demands of strength training.
If your offseason goal is in fact to increase your muscle mass, then you will need to look at how you are programming your training. There is a lot of back and forth on how to train for hypertrophy lately, but I like to look at what guys and girls have been doing for decades. Go look at the bodybuilders’ programs and take a peak at what their sets and reps schemes look like. They are mostly high volume programs. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, and yes, you can grow muscle mass with high intensity training, but most people who train for hypertrophy do so with high volume. To the “anything more than five reps is cardio” crowd, suck it up. The goal here is hypertrophy. Besides, this is the offseason. We want to take a break from the super heavy singles, doubles and triples that we use to peak for a competition. Start thinking about doing sets of eight to fifteen or twenty. Drop the intensity a little bit, and push those reps. Really push for fatigue. The more you fatigue your muscles, the more muscle fibers your body will try to recruit to push through those reps. Don’t be afraid to really feel a good burn. Running a high volume program is not only good for hypertrophy, it’s also good for conditioning your body as a lifter. Training your body to push through reps in a fatigued state increases your work capacity and overall ability to sustain a higher level of effort. This will carry over when switching back to high intensity training. With the high volume training, you will be able to create a base on which all of your future progress will grow.
When it comes to progression in your program, start thinking in terms of increasing overall volume instead of increasing the weight. When you were preparing for a competition, you were incrementally increasing intensity week after week so that you could get as strong as possible. Now, the goal has changed. Instead of adding weight every week, add reps. You can achieve this by either adding sets or increasing the number of reps in each set. Obviously, you don’t want to be using such a light load that you can bang out 200 reps and not even feel it. Use a moderate load, maybe in the 65% to 70% range, and push hard. Now, you need to be smart about how much you’re increasing your volume from week to week. Just like when you were programming for intensity, you can’t just blast your way into insane numbers and expect to be able to sustain them for an extended period of time. Start of week two or three sets, then gradually increase them every week. You can either add a set or add reps to those sets. You need to be able to recover from your training, so make sure you take that into account when deciding whether or not to make jumps in either weight or volume. A method that I like to use for my main compound movement (squat, bench, overhead press and deadlift) is to use AMRAP sets. AMRAP sets (as many reps as possible) is the last set that I’ll do for that movement. The goal is to take that exercise to failure. Generally, however, I don’t reach total failure. What I will do is reach a point where my technical proficiency declines, then the set is over. The risk of injury increases when lifting with bad form for an extended time.
When it comes to exercise selection, I like to follow a guideline. Bodybuilders select exercises based on their body parts. They like to have days dedicated to legs, arms, back, chest, shoulders and so on and so forth. I like to think in terms of movement, generally the big four compound lifts (the bench, squat, deadlift and overhead press). I will start my session off with one of the main lifts, then program my accessories from there. For example, if I have a squat day, I will start with the squat then break down the body from there. I’ll do some kind of deadlift variation to work the posterior chain, isolation leg exercises, like leg extensions and leg curls, and a core exercise. Each training session will be dedicated to one of the main compound lifts and follow that template in relation to the main lift. When it comes to picking specific exercises, start thinking in broad terms. It’s time to get away from things like log pin presses and floor presses that are designed to train a specific range of motion in a specific movement. Select exercises that reach greater ranges of motion. So, instead of the floor press, think about doing things like tricep extensions or JM presses. Instead of box squats or block pulls, think goblet squats and stiff legged deadlifts. This is also a great time to use those machines that you don’t ever touch because you think only bodybuilders use them. Machines are fantastic for hypertrophy training because they provide external stabilization. Whenever you perform a barbell exercise, you are solely responsible for stabilizing that weight. Your body has to physically brace itself to move that load. Which means you will at some point be limited on how many reps you can achieve. With machines, you can push past that limit. Let’s take a t-bar rower, for example. The load is fixated to the machine and your chest is being supported by the pad. Because of that, you don’t have to worry about stabilizing the load. You can grab the handles and rip those reps out until you can’t physically do one more. Machines are fantastic for pushing the threshold and cranking out those tough reps. Don’t be afraid to program a few extra exercises, too. For example, if tomorrow you want to train your overhead press, have a shoulder day to go with it. Do some pull ups, tricep extensions, lateral raise, front raise, side raises, rear delt raises and get that juicy pump. Crank out the reps and round out your upper body with the extra isolation exercises. The more you fill in and develop those smaller muscle groups, the better off you’ll be when training for intensity again. The more well rounded your physique is, the more muscle fibers you’ll be able to recruit later on.
Training with a high volume program with the intent of hypertrophy may not be what you want to do, but it will bring a ton of benefits. Go look at anyone who competes at a high level, and you will find that they spend at least some time of the year rounding out their physique. If you are serious about being a competitor and you take pride in the work you do in the gym, take some time to phase your training throughout the year. That means using the offseason to get a little bigger, and you will enjoy the dividends it pays you.
If you are within driving distance of Baton Rouge and need a place to train for your next strongman competition, powerlifting meet or weightlifting meet, check out the Atlas Strength shop for all of your training needs. Send an email to email@example.com for your next visit. You can also check out our apparel line and programming options on our website. Be sure to like our Facebook page, here, and follow us on Instagram, here. Do you need a high quality energy supplement that won’t leave you with that crashing feeling? Check out veteran owned strikeforceenergy.com and use promo code ATLASSTRENGTH at checkout to get 20% off of your order. If you’re like me, and you like to bite down while lifting, you need to protect your teeth. Check out Impact Mouthguards and their custom molded mouth guards. Use promo code ATLASSTRENGTHSHOP at checkout to get 10% off of your order. But wait? What if you have a glorious Beard? Check out FerociousBeard.com and use Promo Code “ATLASSTRENGTH” to save 15% on all o your beard care!!
On November 19, 2022, the Atlas Strength Shop will be hosting its third annual strongman competition, the Rougarou Classic. If you are interested in competing, check out the event page on ironpodium.com
“The only easy day was yesterday.” -US Navy SEALS