Integrating Strength And Hypertrophy Training

by tffitness on April 9, 2016

Strength-24Most of us should prioritize the development of strength and hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) as two essential foundations of their training. Sure — there are other fitness characteristics that are also important for most of us — cardiovascular conditioning and mobility come quickly to mind — but these qualities can be at least partially addressed through a well-designed resistance training program.

I’ll start with two statements that underscore the importance of the topic we’ll be talking about here:

1)    Even if strength is your only training concern, developing muscular hypertrophy will still play an important role in your overall preparation.

2)    Even if you’re only interested in body composition or aesthetics, strength development will still play an important role in your training.

I’ll flesh out the rationale behind these two statements shortly, but the overriding point I’m making here is that no matter who you are, and no matter what your goals, you need to know how to develop your musculature, and you need to know how to make those muscles stronger.

Should We Train Concurrently, Or Sequentially?

This is a fundamental question for anyone who needs to develop two (or more) different capacities at the same time: are we better off trying to develop these attributes simultaneously (in one week or one workout for example), or in separate “phases” of training?

While either approach will “work,” the latter method is somewhat superior, for at least a few different reasons:

1)    The body can adapt in one direction faster and more successfully than if it is asked to allocate its resources in multiple directions at the same time. This is especially true if those adaptations are in vastly different directions (for example, maximum strength and aerobic endurance).

2)    Continued long-term adaptation requires novelty — occasional (but not constant) new challenges. This is especially true for muscular hypertrophy. If you constantly attempt to train “everything,” you’ll quickly paint yourself into a corner, physiologically speaking. But if you (for example) train with sets of 5 for perhaps 6 weeks, and then switch to sets of 12, your body’s adaptation mechanisms suddenly go into overdrive in an attempt to respond to the new “threat.”

3)    Some adaptations (such as hypertrophy) create a foundation for the development of other characteristics (such as strength). If a strength phases is initiated after a hypertrophy phase therefore, it will be more successful than if you never did a phase specifically dedicated toward muscular development.

How long should each unidirectional phase last? The quick answer is, until your body “figures out” the new threat.

So for example, if you switch to a completely new exercise menu next week, these new workouts will leave you with significant soreness after the first week. After each new week however, the soreness will be less and less pronounced, until, after perhaps 4-5 weeks, you’ll have no soreness at all. At this point, you’ll need to change your program to get that wheel spinning again.

Another indicator that adaptation has slowed to a crawl is when, despite your most sincere efforts, you can no longer add more weight to the bar for the same sets and reps. At this point, you need to change exercises, set/rep brackets, or both.

Development Versus Maintenance

A key principle in the previous discussion is the idea that whenever you’re trying to improve two or more fitness characteristics simultaneously, rather than placing equal emphasis on these different targets at the same time, you’ll see better results if work on improving one quality at a time, while you put the other qualities on “maintenance” loads. Maintaining a previously-developed level of fitness requires much less work than it took to improve it, which allows you to shuttle more energy into whatever quality you’re trying to improve.

A competitive distance runner for example, might work on improving her strength during her off-season by doing the bare minimum amount of roadwork necessary to maintain her running times while she diverts greater amounts of time and energy to strength training. Then, as she enters her competitive season, she’ll switch gears: Now, she’ll maintain her previously-developed levels of strength (with perhaps 30% of the volume it took to improve it), and divert the lion’s share of her time and energy toward roadwork.

Appreciating the distinction between development and maintenance work can be very helpful in terms of understanding how to most effectively manage your training efforts, especially if you’re attempting to improve two or more fitness characteristics simultaneously. I hope that this post will give you the tools and strategies needed to accomplish just that!

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