Tips and Advice
Getting Bigger and Stronger
There has been a lot of discussion over the past 50 years about the mechanism of muscle growth in sports and bodybuilding. The two keywords surrounding this concept are hypertrophy, which is the increase in size of muscle and hyperplasia, an increase in the components of the muscle. A scientist named Felix Meerson expounded on the link between the load put on muscle and the growth of that muscle. He called this concept the intensity of functioning of structures or IFS. This means that the functional capacity of a system is related to its mass. In other words, the ability of a kinetic chain to move in certain ways has to do with it’s mass. This is understood to be “active mass”. After years of research in determining if muscles grow after training or if more muscle fibers form after training; Antonio & Goynea determined it wasn’t a question of “if” but rather “under what conditions”. The existence of muscle fiber hyperplasia is uncertain or rare, but the existence of hyperplasia of structures within the muscle fiber and cell does occur under different circumstances.
Niktuk and Samoilov determined that hyperplasia and hypertrophy occurs in two types each: Sarcoplasmic hyperplasia (increase in sarcoplasmic organelles) and myofibrillar-mitochondrial hyperplasia (increase in number of myofibrils. Then there’s Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (fluid between fibers) and Sarcomere hypertrophy (increase in size of sarcomeres which are groups of myofibrils). So basically, hyperplasia involves an increase in muscle protein and hypertrophy involves an increase in size. Herein lies the key to getting bigger and stronger. It was found that we can directly control our size through one of two phenomenons: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy or sarcomere hypertrophy. With sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the non-contractile protein and semifluid plasma between the muscle increases but there is no corresponding increase in strength. In sarcomere hypertrophy the size and number of sarcomeres increases which leads to an increase to the area density of myofibrils which leads to an increase in the ability to exert muscular strength.
Have you ever heard a coach or trainer say that someone looks like Tarzan but lifts/plays/performs like Jane? That saying in large part has to do with this topic. The key to getting the best balance of size and strength is in the proper balance of sets, reps, load, and rest. This is because we only have a certain amount of energy/ATP as we progress through different levels of fitness. Now breaking this overall concept down even further, when looking at quick high intensity exercise vs. more low intensity endurance exercise, you can manipulate your size and strength dependent on your goals. Before hitting the point of exhaustion, we have the capacity to hit a certain volume (sets, reps, load), within a given intensity (tempo, rest). The longer and more strenuous that we exercise, the less there is sarcomere hypertrophy, thus the more there is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. If you are a sumo wrestler or body-builder, this may be okay, but anyone else may have issues with this. Doing 5-7 sets of upwards of 12 reps of 80-85% of your max can lead to plateaus, a slow-down of the metabolic process, less energy, and less effificent disposal of metabolic waste products from the musculoskeletal system (Zalessky & Burkhanov, 1981). Not to mention this would probably take 3-4 hours to complete. I will say that there is somewhat of a catch though for both types of hypertrophy. Connective tissue like tendons and ligaments take longer to adapt to the exertion of exercise and changes in mass; so packing on too much mass too quickly, whether through sarcomere or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can lead to joint problems. This is another reason why it is a very bad idea to take steroids. Therefore, rest as well as a cautious approach NOT to reach exhaustion is important. Within your given energy supply, you have the capacity for exercise AND for rest. If you use up all of your energy for exercise, you actually inhibit protein synthesis in the rest stage, which leads to breakdown of muscle. Your speed, strength, and power deteriorate and you have an increased chance of injury. The bottom line: too much lifting as well as packing on too much too quickly can hurt in the long run.
The answer? High weight, low rep, medium set training plans with light and medium increases in loads over weeks at a time. I personally recommend supplementing this with cardiovascular exercise and flexibility training 3-5 times per week. If you don’t care so much about getting bigger and stronger but want to be able to exercise for longer; lower the weight and increase the reps but only to a maximum of 3 sets and 12 reps at 75% of max. Your fast-twitch muscles will start to behave more like slow-twitch muscles in an adaptive attempt to resist fatigue (Timson et al, 1985; Baldwin et al, 1992; Noble & Pettigrew, 1989). In other words, your muscles will contract like FT fibers (considering little to no load) but with fatigue
resistance more like ST fibers.
There is, of course, a “happy medium” where you can see gains in size and strength but also be able to perform for longer periods of time. This involves creating a plan where you are engaging in high weight, low rep exercise one day; then low weight, high rep exercise on another day in the same week. It’s also a good idea to engage in isometric training, which improves performance in static exercise. Bondarchuk determined that under isometric exercise the sarcoplasmic content of many muscle fibers increases, myofibrils collect into fascicles, nuclei become rounder, motor end-plates expand transversally relative to the muscle fibers, capillaries meander more markedly, and the layer of endomysium and perimysium thicken. Ever seen a gymnast? Think along the lines of that.
In conclusion, try hard to avoid sarcoplasmic hypertrophy where you’re all looks and no action. Don’t be obsessed with one type of exercise; switch it up a little bit. I like to do a mix of gymnastics, weight training, martial arts, and running. I have 44.5″ chest, 16″ arms at rest, a 33.5″ waist and 42″ hips. I consider myself to be “big” and “strong”. My goals are to be able to do a planche for 5 to 10 seconds, efficiently get through the Bar Brothers requirements, and to be able to spar kickboxing at a high level for 3-5 minutes at a time. I’ll also add that I am a mesomorph and I can get bigger and stronger quicker than say an ectomorph and sometimes even an endomorph; but I like looking like an athlete and not a meat head. I also like the fact that I can exert output for a relatively high amount of time and lift the bodyweight of most people in different positions. I’m definitely weak in some areas, so I can’t outrun a marathon runner or out-lift an olympic lifter; so if you have goals that go into a specific niche of exercise then have at it. If you can avoid exhaustion and increase loads moderately over weeks at a time, you’re in good shape. If not, you are due for injury.