“Bigger, stronger, faster” is a frequently used phrase in the strength and conditioning community and can be common goals for athletes looking to increase performance in sport. Each word represents a specific quality in athletic performance: muscular hypertrophy, strength, and power. Each quality depicts different types of physical fitness and expression. But, what do these qualities actually mean and how does an athlete train for a specific one within a given training session? This article will dive into each attribute of physical performance and the different methods used to train them.
Training for size, or muscular hypertrophy, is the foundation of any quality strength and conditioning program. Specifically, muscular hypertrophy increases the size of muscle cells, which increases the size of the overall muscle or muscle groups. With adaptations occurring at the cellular level, muscle hypertrophy is the key to unlocking more advanced physical capabilities like strength, speed and power. In the most basic of terms, an athlete must develop the motor patterns that target specific muscles in order to develop the skills necessary to express physical capabilities and the easiest way to do that is to simply increase the size of the muscles.
Training for muscular hypertrophy generally involves higher times under tension and overall higher training volume. This is typically done with lighter loads and utilizes the application of tempos to influence the correct dose response. Because the load is lighter, the repetitions must be higher in order to target muscular growth adequately. Completing reps of 8 to 15+ is a great way to stimulate the body to force blood into an area, cause more microtears in the musculature, and elicit a training response that causes the muscles to grow in size.
Muscular strength is the next quality to be developed once a foundation is established. The quote “Strength Is Never A Weakness'' from Mark Bell carries a powerful message that is true for not only athletic endeavors but “life endeavors” as well. Having muscular strength will grant all humans the ability to become more resilient and capable versions of themselves. Muscular strength is gained through hard contractions of muscles under relatively heavy loads. These movements are often called “big rock” movements and involve multiple motor components (i.e back squats involve not only the legs, but the muscles of the trunk and back as well) which cause more stress on the Central Nervous System (CNS). There are numerous ways to train muscular strength, but in general the goal is the same, to exert as much force into an external load as possible. This is accomplished by training with higher loads and intensity and usually between 1 to 5 repetitions. Having muscular hypertrophy and strength are prerequisites to the final quality of muscular power.
Muscular power is the most advanced expression of these qualities as it involves the fastest muscular contractions and expresses the greatest amount of force in a very short period of time. With that being said, not all humans need to train this aspect of performance, as it is specific to certain activities/sports/events. A human that is 60 years of age can always (and should) train for muscular hypertrophy and strength, but does not necessarily need the ability to explode through space in a very fast and forceful manner. But, for specific athletes looking to increase their overall physical performance, power becomes more of a priority in the training program. Training for power can include several different training methods. The first method consists of absolute speed work, which does not require the use of external implements. This style of training includes movements like jumping, sprinting, etc. The second and third method consists of speed-strength and strength-speed work, which includes the use of external implements such as barbells, resistance bands, medicine balls, kettlebells, etc. Both speed-strength and strength-speed train power, just at different speeds/times to elicit a specific response. Because power includes fast contractions in a short amount of time, typically loads will be lighter, around 40% to 65-70% of a 1 rep max. Too many repetitions will cause the athlete to slow down, fatigue, and not produce the necessary force. For example, if given a 10 rep set of back squats at 60%, rep 1 will be faster and produce more force than rep 10, so for this reason, the repetitions should not exceed 5, with an optimal rep range of 1-3. Because both reps and weight are lower, there is usually a higher number of sets for the exercise. As long as power and speed are maintained throughout each set, the number of sets can be anywhere from 5 to 12+. Power is where the most advanced exercise selections are utilized. Because the exercises needed to elicit power (such as the power clean or banded jumping deadlifts) require a certain level of proficiency to perform safely and effectively, it is imperative a solid foundation has been created.
Knowing what and how to train for a specific athletic outcome is no easy task. Throw in program design, nutritional interventions, and aligning lifestyle habits into the mix can make for a lot of frustration and lack of progression in overall fitness and in health. Schedule a FREE strategy session with a professional coach to see how the Central Athlete model ties all of these aspects of health and fitness together to optimize success in a way that meets you where you are today and moves you towards your goals for the new year and beyond.