The Olympic weightlifter walks around with massive quads, huge hamstrings and spinae erectors that blast out of the back of their shirt. They hold an impressive amount of muscle mass but the confusion sets in; how can Olympic lifters achieve gains in muscle mass. They don’t perform movements of resistance training in the classic “range” of hypertrophy. Heck, they almost NEVER lift in the range of hypertrophy. How can they physiologically adapt with such impressive posterior chains? What are the reasons behind this madness?!?!?!
When the Damage is Done
This brings us to the question, how are they stimulating any sense of growth in muscle mass. Common thoughts have shown us that the way weightlifters increase their strength is by improved muscular coordination, solely through the action of the central nervous system. Myelin sheathing can increase and develop around neural pathways, increasing the speed of neural drive and that’s it. Right?
In walks myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the main increase in strength that we see occur in most power-based sports (powerlifting, weightlifting, throwing implements). As weightlifters or throwers or heck, even FARMERS for that matter, participate in physically challenging tasks, their body senses a stimulus and an adaptation occurs to adapt to their body exiting homeostasis. This response is to add more or grow more myofibers and to increase the cross-sectional area of the muscle.
During the catch portion of a snatch or clean or during the eccentric portion of a front squat or back squat, there is damage that occurs to the muscle makeup. Damage occurs to the muscle and the proteins titin, actin and myosin are activated to heal and repair the muscular cells. The response is to add myofibers and additional sarcomeres, leading to a greater output of muscular output because of the increase in the cross-sectional area of the muscle which in turn can create greater muscular contraction through improved twitch strength.
Sarcomeres are likely even added in series at the end of the muscles, making the muscle mass slightly longer, something that proves to be beneficial, especially in sports where maximal forces are needed in larger ranges of motion (think deep in the squat for a lifter or a tremendously “wrapped” position for a thrower).
During the healing process from training in these specific sports, satellite cells are recruited to increase strength in myofibrils. These satellite cells will then be imprinted long term into the fibers, leading to greater muscular strength. As more myofibers are accumulated, the recovery process is extremely dependent upon having greater protein synthesis relative to protein breakdown of titin, actin, and myosin. The phosphocreatine energy system is then used during recovery and during power output overshot periods of energy bursts.
To rehash the hypertrophic development of a weightlifter/strength athlete, let’s revisit the key aspects of trophism through a simple bulleted viewpoint.
- Scrawny weightlifter enters their training, they start smashing weights well above traditional “hypertrophic” ranges
- Over 10-20 sets throughout their training, their muscle fibers and even connective tissue sustains damage during the eccentric portion of lifts, igniting actin/titin/myosin to recover
- The body also adapts by healing damaged areas with reserves of satellite cells
- Satellite cells lead to an increase in myofiber strength
- Protein synthesis is ignited to aid in recovery
- There is an increase in myofiber strength, sarcomeres, the cross-sectional area and the length of the muscle, all leading to slow development of extremely dense muscle mass over time
This shows us the importance of the phosphocreatine energy system and protein synthesis. By consuming plenty of protein and supplementing creatine, the lifter is also able to adapt optimally, leading to greater development of strength AND muscle mass. By comprehending the physiology behind myofibrillar hypertrophy, coaches and athletes will hopefully hold greater urgency, not only through physical training but also through nutrition!
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