Athletes & Muscle Gain: The Problem and the Solution
Competitive athletes need to lift to prevent injuries and enhance sports performance. Weight training is the best way to build tissue resilience – increasing muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone integrity. And of course weight training enhances strength and the explosive ability to tackle, jump, cut, sprint, and hit.
Training methods that don’t serve these purposes don’t have much use. BOSU balls, neon-colored dumbbells, and single-leg stability ball overhead squats (exercises with too much going on) are not efficient or effective.
However, if training methods serve both injury prevention and performance enhancement, then you should build your program around them. Building maximal strength, using full ranges of motion (most of the time), correcting movement patterns, and getting strong in all planes of motion are the ticket to making long-term progress.
This can help you clear up a lot of programming confusion. But there’s still one question it fails to answer: If you’re interested in explosive power gains, should you train for hypertrophy (muscle gain) or should you train solely for strength, power, and speed?
The Problem with Most Hypertrophy Training
Typical hypertrophy training has a few features that are needed to optimize muscle gains:
- High volume. In general, more volume (sets x reps x weight) leads to greater size gains. The volume should be a mix of the next two hypertrophy mechanisms.
- Mechanical tension. The greater the load, and the greater the active range of motion, the greater mechanical tension.
- Metabolic stress. Metabolites must be built up in the muscle from lighter, longer sets of high reps.
So, a typical scheme looks something like 3-5 sets of 6-15 reps at 65-75% load.
This combines high amounts of volume, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress for gains. Train a few days a week, eat in a caloric surplus, recover well, and you’ll gain muscle mass.
However, there’s an issue. With a typical set of 10 at this intensity, velocity decreases with each rep. Less velocity (at the same load) means less power. And over time, low power training isn’t the way to preserve or optimize athletic power. In fact, this is a recipe to DECREASE explosive power.
The Solution: Cluster Hypertrophy Training
The fix is simple: Do fewer reps and more sets. Instead of doing 4 sets of 10 reps at a 65% load, do 8 sets of 5 reps at a 65% load.
By lifting in this manner, power output is maintained. Volume is the same (40 reps), mechanical tension is the same (65% load), and metabolic stress is maintained to a degree. To preserve time, you’ll only need about 60-90 seconds of rest with 8×5 instead of 2-3 minutes of rest with 4×10.
Another added benefit of cluster training is the maintenance of mechanical performance and quality of work. This means no more grinding, sloppy reps which can set you up for injury and ingrain bad motor patterns.
The short-term benefits are pronounced, but what if this is taken long-term?
Jonathon Oliver et al put this to the test, and after 12 weeks found a greater increase in power, a greater increase in strength, and similar lean mass gains in a cluster group vs. a traditional group. In other studies, clusters showed greater volume load (as traditional got so fatigued they had to drop weight).
So, if you want to preserve and optimize explosive power during hypertrophy training, look no further than cluster training.
Hypertrophy Train for Explosive Power
Do 8×5 or 10×4 at 65-75% load with 60-90 seconds rest. Use this set/rep scheme for the major, compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, pushes, and presses).
For assistance exercises, use a variety of rep ranges. This can improve strength and endurance better than sticking to only one rep range as well as stimulating different pathways of growth.
With hypertrophy clusters, you get all the injury prevention and performance enhancement benefits with none of the downside of traditional size training. You can gain muscle, get stronger, and increase explosive power all at once.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D, Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of low- vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-63.
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-72.
- Izquierdo, M., González-Badillo, J. J., HŠkkinen, K., Ibáñez, J., Kraemer, W. J., Altadill, A., Eslava, J., Gorostiaga, E. M. (2006). Effect of loading on unintentional lifting velocity declines during single sets of repetitions to failure during upper and lower extremity muscle actions. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 27(9), 718-24.
- Lawton, T. W., Cronin, J. B., & Lindsell, R. P. (2006). Effect of interrepetition rest intervals on weight training repetition power output. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(1), 172-6.
- Oliver, J. M., Jenke, S. C., Mata, J. D., Kreutzer, A., & Jones, M. T. (2016). Acute effects of cluster and traditional set configurations on myokines associated with hypertrophy. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(13), 1019-24.
- Iglesias-Soler, E., Carballeira, E., Sánchez-Otero, T., Mayo, X., & Fernández-del-Olmo, M. (2014). Performance of maximum number of repetitions with cluster-set configuration. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 9(4), 637-42.
- Denton, J. & Cronin, J. B. (2006). Kinematic, kinetic, and blood lactate profiles of continuous and intraset rest loading schemes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 528-34.
- Oliver, J. M., Jagim, A. R., Sanchez, A. C., Mardock, M. A., Kelly, K. A., Meredith, H. J., Smith, G. L., Greenwood, M., Parker, J. L., Riechman, S. E., Fluckey, J. D., Crouse, S. F., & Kreider, R. B. (2013). Greater gains in strength and power with intraset rest intervals in hypertrophic training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(11), 3116-31.
- Oliver, J. M., Kreutzer, A., Jenke, S., Phillips, M. D., Mitchell, J. B., & Jones, M. T. (2015). Acute response to cluster sets in trained and untrained men. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115(11), 2383-93.
- Oliver, J. M., Kreutzer, A., Jenke, S. C., Phillips, M. D., Mitchell, J. B., & Jones, M. T. (2016). Velocity drives greater power observed during back squat using cluster sets. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(1), 235-43.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Ogborn, D., Galpin, A., Krieger, J., & Sonmez, G. T. (2016). Effects of varied versus constant loading zones on muscular adaptations in trained men. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(6), 442-7.
- Burd, N. A., West, D. W.., Staples, A. W., Atherton, P. J., Baker, J. M., Moore, D. R., Holwerda, A. M., Paris, G., Rennie, M. J., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 5(8), e12033.