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Performance Hypertrophy. Riding The Gain Train by Chris Woolley

Olympic bobsleigh performance coach Chris Woolley is back with an important take on considerations for athletes seeking to get big and stay fast. It's bobsleigh-themed but the takeaways are suitable for any athlete/coach working in a speed and performance environment. Take it away Christopher...

Big Bruce Tasker, one of Chris Woolley's biggest exports, a monstrous athlete who combined size with speed to great effect using Woolley's programmes

We work, train and compete in a sports environment that is weight controlled. We know there are certain advantages from being a certain body mass in each of our particular disciplines and how that can impact overall performance. Similarly, how being ‘x’ amount of kgs away from this ideal mass can present disadvantage.

This is usually accompanied by evidence such as the gross weight of the sled having an upper limit: we know the conundrum of minimum weight sled, maximum weight crew and its impact on the start and in-track performance.

I’ve still yet to see absolute, consistently demonstrable evidence of kg added or lacking seriously affecting either.

But anyway, let's talk about hypertrophy. Principally, we know that:

mass moves mass.

This is well understood and makes a lot of sense in our sport. However, the relationship between mass and speed in our sport is not so clear-cut. In a majority of sports, mass can be the enemy of speed, however a Bobsleigher over their career path is likely to become heavier - and faster. There will likely be a critical mass for each athlete whereby mass will increase to a certain point before becoming a detriment on athletic performance.

While mass increase may come from a reduction in proper training, and maybe a few too many high protein supplements, we will for now focus on the mass increments associated with the Gain Train (yes, I used those words) that is hypertrophy.

Science-y Bit

Muscular hypertrophy would be defined as the increase in size of muscle fibres, their mass, and cross-sectional area. This can be further divided into myofibril hypertrophy: relating strictly to muscle fibre development and related to force production. Or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy: suggesting an increase in available glycogen stores, and referring more to energy system training.

While an aerobic base is wise in a sport that functions at altitude, in cold climates, and can have mind-numbingly long days of training and equipment preparation, our performance aspect is anaerobic in its nature. So, for this article, we will refer to myofibril hypertrophy as the primary (but not only) objective.

Muscular hypertrophy is not exclusively reserved for shameless reps of curls at the dumbbell rack, and can and will occur in every skeletal muscle fibre in the body all being well. Without going too deep into muscular physiology and morphology I think it is quite commonly understood that muscular components exist in different fibre types and are susceptible to change depending on the physical and chemical stresses they are subjected to. Some muscle groups are more receptive to hypertrophy, others not so much.

The majority of hypertrophy gains will come from an increase in volume specific to that fibre type: spend a lot of time lifting heavy loads, those fibres associated with high force will hypertrophy, usually with a significant change in body shape. Similarly, spend more time engaging in low intensity, steady-state cycling or running, and these fibres will hypertrophy for their specific purpose.

Typical hypertrophy-targeted training as I’m sure we are all aware will come in the form of high-volume sets of lifting, and moderate rest periods. This creates the desired chemical stresses to create the anabolic environment for growth.

Example Time

Let us assume you are barbell back squatting. You use something around 60-80% load to make these reps. You start off quite confidently for about 5 reps, then start to feel the load a little, and the grind begins. By the time you hit the last rep your lifting speed is 25% of that of the first rep. You have 2-3 mins recovery. Then you go again. Likelihood of getting faster in these sets???

Yes, you will create the environment for growth, but this kind of training is not conducive to simultaneous performance development.

This example was something along the lines of 4 x 12 @ 120kg giving you a total volume load = 5760kg.

So How Do We Adapt Volume To Retain Speed?

When volume is key to hypertrophy, but we cannot afford to step away from quality or speed then we can adopt a different approach. Higher individual load (closer to 90%), better overall speed, greater quality, and still achieve the same environment for growth through strict short rest intervals. Much more specific hypertrophy.

Sounds good right? Here's how you do it. It looks more like 12 sets x 3 reps @ 160kg, volume load = 5760kg.

Same volume load, much higher quality of movement, much more transferable movement speed. When coupled with ≈1 minute rest intervals this becomes a very plausible method of training.

A similar approach can be adopted with more explosive movements (Oly lifts), more commonly referred to as ‘clusters’ which can also help avoid the usual temptation to chase the max-out each session.

Another significant point in time where conventional wisdom lives strong, and often incorrectly dictates our view of training. Buzzwords such as “AMRAP”, “GVT”, or “Super Slow” here are ignorant to performance requirement.

Do I Want To Hypertrophy?

Not an unusual question and will often be asked under several different guises.

In short, of course you do.

Hypertrophy is part of generation and therefore regeneration of tissue. It’s just a question of why, how, and when?

Personally, I don’t believe in a ‘Hypertrophy Period’. Especially in well trained adult athletes. There can be periods of differing volume, and overreaching, but the requirement to programme specific hypertrophy into a cycle is not required so long as the right training volumes are properly handled.

If you do fall foul in our beloved sport of being a little on the small side, and think you’ll try to make up the difference with some hardcore hypertrophic enhancement - please take it slowly. As mentioned above, everyone has a critical limit of load on their person before performance starts to decline. If you are looking to ‘carry more load’, where would you normally carry a load? On your shoulders – like a backpack. Pectoralis, Trapezius and Latissimus muscle groups are large, and highly susceptible to increasing their mass. These are the best places to carry more load without negative impact - in a bobsleigh context - on what’s happening from the waist down.

Another Consideration

If you’re more concerned with maintaining mass with a specific outcome objective, then using targeted auxiliary sessions in your programme can help handle the additional volume load, without impacting on the main training session's quality. This is a good way to help reduce the associated damage (DOMS) that comes with targeted growth.

We are preparing for an anaerobic sport. So, focus your preparations on anaerobic muscle fibres and their contribution to your training and performance.

With this in mind it is important to remember that hypertrophy does not only happen in the gym. No matter what the mode is, the critical elements are the reps completed, metres covered, or seconds engaged. And this is where we meet the crossover point of myofibril, and sarcoplasmic development pertinent to our sport's requirements*.

* beyond the scope of this piece but will be addressed in future articles.

Sum It Up

Specific hypertrophy, created as a result of exposure to the correct training environment will both increase fibre sizes, and energy stores, enabling your (repeated) anaerobic performance to operate at a higher volume. It is this environment in which our friend creatine absolutely excels! Clue is in the name 😉.

This article is just a short review and a couple of examples of this training method. Your own personal situation and objectives likely won’t change as a result of reading it. My hope however is that it may help you understand a muscle-gaining process related to speed and power performance a little better or find a way to make your training more effective in general.

Chris Woolley


Chris almost never posts on Instagram but feel free to follow him here anyway, might kick him up the arse to produce more great stuff like this.

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