My main hobby is Olympic-style weightlifting. Normally this means I focus on the two competition lifts, with work on the side to improve technique and to increase strength.
A few months ago I partially tore the meniscus of my left knee. It’s been taking its sweet time healing up, in part because I kept performing certain exercises. I figured for about 8 weeks that if I didn’t feel pain, doing an exercise was OK. I was wrong.
So now I have dropped all work involving either knee extension or flexion. This includes the Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, romanian deadlifts, good mornings … in fact, all the exercises that form the staple of weightlifting training.
Instead I’ve been stranded with upper body work.
Combining Strength and Hypertrophy
Before I was injured, I became interested in the possibility of combining strength-oriented and hypertrophy-oriented training (influenced in part by Layne Norton’s PHAT program, Zatsiorsky & Kraemer’s textbook and seeing various studies being discussed in august fora). It’s common to use block periodisation to program first hypertrophy and then strength. However I have personally found that running a mesocycle of hypertrophy training causes me to get weaker, not stronger.
However, a current controversy in sports science is the degree to which hypertrophy training, involving high volumes of contraction, actually provokes myofibrillar hypertrophy versus sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Some researchers believe that high-repetition training will increase the production of all protein elements more than the traditional heavy, low-repetition training approach of strength training.
Missing from this is the nervous system aspect. Strength is as much about nervous system adaptation as it is about increasing myofibrils. I’ve experimented with 10×10 and 5×12 schemes; in both cases seeing big increases in size but no strength gains (even reversions for the 5×12 experiments).
Also raising its head is the problem of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (it too is a disputed hypothesis, but let’s move forward for now). To the degree that high-repetition training favours the storage of glycogen and fluid in the muscles without causing myofibrillar hypertrophy, it’s flatly useless for my sport. To snatch or clean & jerk weights I don’t need muscular endurance; and intramuscular water weight is dead weight that doesn’t produce contractile force.
However, my thinking has been to add a strength-biased hypertrophy component to my regimen. The thinking is firstly that additional stimulus at sufficiently high weight will provoke sufficient myofibrillar hypertrophy to justify any offsetting sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Secondly, some of the side-effects of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy might create an environment that favours subsequent myofibrillar hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy both expands the muscle fibres (creating more room for myofibrils to be created in) and leads to more mitochondria (increasing the in-cell turnover of energy and protein).
Therefore, my current approach is to alternate strength days and hypertrophy days.
Exercise Selection and Performance
First, a word about exercise selection. As I said above, I’ve injured my knee and been reduced to upper body work. I’ve focused on improving my pressing strength and retaining or improving pulling strength. The third focus of my selections is to keep the shoulder girdle, especially the rotator cuff, happy while undertaking a large amount of pressing volume and intensity.
The exercises chosen for strength days are the seated overhead press, band pullaparts, chinups, dips, pushups and face pulls. I also had seated good mornings, but these have proved to be too aggravating to the knee and I elected to drop them.
The exercises chosen for hypertrophy days are the incline dumbbell press, band pullaparts, face pulls, situps or crunches, batwings and pushups. I used to have left-hand side dumbbell shrugs to try to bring my left hand side upper trapezius into line with its substantially larger right hand counterpart. However this exercise has given me several episodes of painful neck twinges and I have dropped it for now.
Note that some of the exercises are repeated on both days. Pullaparts, batwings and face pulls help maintain scapular retraction strength and health for the both the internally and externally rotated position of the shoulder socket. This helps both to offset the punishment of high frequency pressing and retains and potentially improves strength I rely on in the snatch and the clean.
Pushups are included on both days because they are fun and have a better carryover to overhead pressing than bench pressing, while (with close hand and elbow placement) placing less stress on the shoulders.
In several exercises I use bands to either assist the movement or to provide resistance. I’ve been quite pleased with the usefulness of bands so far.
I aim to keep rest periods controlled. On strength day I aim to keep rest periods to under 3 minutes. On hypertrophy day I aim to keep the rest periods under 2 minutes. The former because 3 minutes is the minimum traditional figure given for the majority replenishment of the phosphagen energy system (a property I wish to train because of the limited rest period between lift attempts in competition). The latter because meta-studies have found that short rest periods — between 90 and 120 seconds — are positively correlated with overall hypertrophy.
Normally this amount of volume on both strength and hypertrophy days would take a very long time. To cut down “lost” time, and to stave off boredom, I have frequently supersetted exercises. In a superset the trainee performs one exercise, then immediately performs a different exercise, and sometimes a third and so on. There are many ways of programming these, mine is to pick antagonistic or unrelated exercise pairs. So the presses are followed by band pulls; the chinups by dips; pushups by face pulls; face pulls by situps; batwings by pushups.
The goal on the strength day is to preserve and improve the specification of strength, with a secondary goal of provoking myofibrillar hypertrophy.
The two key schemes used on strength day are 10×3 and 6×5.
I use 10 sets of 3 reps at a high intensity (the second and third reps should be difficult, but not grinders). 10 sets are used to provide sufficient stimulus for myofibrillar hypertrophy; triples are chosen to provide a working weight that challenges the nervous system to adapt.
Currently scheduled for 10x3s are seated overhead press and band pullaparts.
In the 6×5 section I use a slightly less intense weight (the 4th and 5th reps should be hard). This is chosen to allow the nervous system to become accustomed to movements I have not used in training before. Myofibrillar hypertrophy will be slightly less pronounced. For 6x5s I have been using band-assisted chinups, band-assisted dips, band-resisted pushups and unilateral band face pulls.
Lately I have added negative repetitions to the chinups. These involve jumping up and resisting the downward portion of the pull. I am not yet able to pause the downward movement, but overloaded negative or eccentric repetitions have been shown to provoke more myofibrillar hypertrophy than regular repetitions. They also lead to bloody unpleasant soreness.
Similarly, with dips, I have sometimes replaced or augmented the band-assisted dips with straight dips. In these cases I am aim for “AMRAP” — As Many Reps As Possible.
On hypertrophy day, the goal is provoke some myofibrillar and some sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. I have chosen as my basic pattern 8x8s — 8 sets of 8 repetitions.
In the lore of weight training, 8 repetitions is seen as where strength training ends and hypertrophy begins. In an 8-set the goal is for the last two or three repetitions to be difficult. In contrast to 10-sets or 12-sets, the 8-set allows a higher weight to be used, hopefully retaining a balance between the myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. One should not be “feeling the burn” in an 8-set. It should be difficult to complete because of the heaviness of the selected weight, not because of a burning sensation.
8×8 provides a handy amount of volume to provoke hypertrophy in any case — a total of 64 repetitions per exercise.
Some confusion may arise amongst bodybuilding afficionados, for whom 3×8 is a popular pattern. The confusion arises because bodybuilders will often use multiple, different exercises for a muscle or group of muscles. Beginner trainees often ape the programs of advanced bodybuilders, unaware that the program listed is a snapshot of what the pro is doing right now to address some perceived aesthetic short coming. Bodybuilders have an enormous lore for bringing out this or that part of this or that muscle and the advanced and professional bodybuilders rely heavily on it to respond to the currently fashionable body shape.
But I don’t need that. What I’m trying to provoke is the development of functional mass — myofibrils and some sarcoplasm — that I can immediately train my nervous system to recruit on strength days. I don’t need some particular part of some particular muscle to “pop” or be bigger or smaller than some other muscle. I just need to add size and through it strength.
Hence the focus on keeping things simple. A few exercises, preferably multi-jointed and non-isolated, performed at a higher volume than a bodybuilder might use.
Conclusion and the Future
Right now I have been working on this program for 3 weeks. I have noticed an accumulation of minor twinges and in particular, soreness in ligaments and tendons (which, due to their low blood circulation, typically take longer than muscles to adapt to stimuli). Thus I will be taking a traditional programming step: next week will be a programmed “deload” week. I will drop from 6 days to 3 days, I will drop several exercises from rotation, and I will drop the volume of work. I will however retain a high intensity on training days to maintain and consolidate any nervous system adaptations.
The thinking on this program has evolved slowly over several months, then quickly over the past few weeks of actually putting it into practice. It’s been an interesting change of pace and very demanding. I look forward to experimenting with these principles with more systemically demanding exercises (such as snatches, cleans, squats, RDLs) in future.