As sports become more and more popular and world records are pushing the limits of human abilities, the levels of human performance seen today are unrivaled at any time in history. To even be considered an elite athlete, one must push the boundaries of what is considered possible for the human body. To reach this, athletes must be bigger, faster, and stronger than their predecessors. As knowledge of the human body increases, the ability to train the athletes to higher levels of muscle mass, explosiveness, and strength does as well.
However, an increase in knowledge does not necessarily mean it is utilized. Many programs that are put out today by top bodybuilders, sprinters, or strength athletes are based solely in empirical evidence. This presents an issue because the mechanism of the adaptations could be utilized sub-optimally yet still produce results, or not studied to check for long term viability.
Size is undeniably important. NFL linebackers top 250lbs regularly, and they aren’t 250lbs of adipose tissue. They’re mass monsters, often with lower body fat percentages than the average American. How men can grow to be so large is largely due to their style of training and the demands of their sport.
Volume is defined as both repetitions per set and the number of sets per exercise. It is generally accepted that higher repetitions are to be used for muscle growth and there hundreds if not thousands of studies that support this claim. One of the most prominent of these is, “Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men,” in which subjects did four sets of leg extension with either 90% of 1 Rep Max (RM) to failure, 30% to work matched (WM) of 90% to failure, or 30% of 1RM to failure. In terms of muscle building potential, the 30% to failure group far outweighs the 90% to failure and the 30%WM in terms of both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic protein synthesis after 24hrs. The 90% group averaged 5 repetitions whereas the 30% to failure group averaged 24 reps per set. This data provides a strong correlation between the number of reps and hypertrophy (Burd et al, 2010).
The number of sets per exercise is far less researched, but there are still several studies that provide excellent evidence that multiple sets seem to be effective. Another Burd et al. study published in the Journal of Physiology took young men and had them do leg extensions with 70% of their 1RM to failure for one or three sets. The three set group had higher markers for hypertrophy up to 29 hours post exercise, indicating that higher volume via increasing the number of sets has an anabolic effect.
The law of diminishing returns states there is a “decrease in the marginal (incremental) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased (Diminishing Returns).” This law is supported in building muscle as two to three sets were observed to have a 46% increase in muscle protein synthesis over a single set, but four to six sets were only attributed an additional 13% increase over two to three (Krieger, 2010). The researchers concluded that in order to optimize the energy spent and the hypertrophy made, only 2-3 sets should be completed per exercise.
There are multiple other variables and techniques which can be utilized and manipulated to increase the effectiveness of hypertrophy specific training, but in terms of strict weight training, most lifters can stick to the guideline of high reps(12+) for two to four sets per exercise and see substantial hypertrophy in a long enough time frame.
Sticking with football as an example, acceleration is arguably the most important factor in performance on the field. When the whistle blows, the linemen explode into each other, reaching maximal velocity in a fraction of a second trying to be faster to their opponent and knock them back. Running backs try to outmaneuver their defenders. The faster you can move, the better you can perform.
Power is defined as, and work is defined as, . Through substitution, . For an athlete, this calculates how quickly they can get their bodies moving through space. If you can do so faster than your opponent, you have an advantage. Power, like most other athletic attributes, can be trained.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2002 looked at jump squats and their relation to peak force, peak velocity, peak power, and jump height using 30, 55, and 80% of 1RM as external resistance, the participants were instructed to move all loads as quickly as possible. The 80% group was lifting at a higher load and achieved a lower peak velocity and at the conclusion of the experiment their peak force had increased but their contractile speed/jump height did not increase proportionately. The 30% group saw the opposite happen; their maximal force production increased a little while their peak velocity increased substantially more (McBride et al., 2002). The researchers concluded that training adaptations are specific to the velocity at which the training is conducted.
Kent Adams in the Journal of Applied Sport Science Research compared the effects of strictly squatting, doing plyometrics, or the combination of both on power production in the vertical jump test. Between the squatting only and plyometrics only group, the difference was statistically insignificant. This is notable because the plyometric movements were performed at a higher velocity than the weighted movements. However, the combination group improved nearly three times as much as either of the independent groups (Adams et al, 1992).
The aforementioned study suggests extremely high velocities and moderate external loads moved quickly are necessary to fully develop power in an athlete. This conclusion is not inconsistent with other studies that have been performed. In 2000, Fatouros et al., published a study with 41 subjects conveyed the same information; “the combination training group produced improvements in vertical jump performance and leg strength that were significantly greater than improvements in the other 2 training groups (plyometric training and weight training). This study provides support for the use of a combination of traditional and Olympic-style weightlifting exercises and plyometric drills to improve vertical jumping ability and explosive performance in general (Fatouros et all, 2000).”
“Strength is the performative quality upon which all others are built.” – Brady Singleton
The relationship between increased maximal strength and an increase in most all other areas of performance has been widely documented. In a two-year study with 134 elite youth soccer players, half of them underwent strength training, via the front and back squat, in addition to soccer training while others only participated in their regular soccer training. The study measured running velocity every 5m for 30m and the strength training group saw anywhere from 1.9-6.6x as much improvement over two years (Sander et al, 2013).
In 2009, the National Strength and Conditioning Association published an update to their position statement which also served as a literature review of 258 papers concerning resistance training in children. The NSCA found benefits ranging from cardiovascular health, bone health, to all-around improved motor performance and reduced injury rates (Faigenbaum et al, 2009). Where power is arguably the most important quality to possess, it appears that strength is the most advantageous to train.
There is very little debate about the methodology of building maximal strength. Much like how high volume lends itself towards hypertrophy, high intensity lends itself to strength. In 1999, Tan Benedict released a review of several hundred articles. He concluded, “In general, maximum strength is best developed with 1-6 repetition maximum loads, a combination of concentric and eccentric muscle actions, 3-6 maximal sets per session, training to failure for limited periods, long inter-set recovery time, 3-5 days of training per week, and dividing the days training into 2 sessions.”
The human body is very complex, and our knowledge of it laughably incomplete. But for now, the training guidelines that the research recommends are as follows:
Hypertrophy – 12+ reps for 2-4 sets
Power – Bodyweight plyometrics and light, externally loaded, ballistic exercises
Strength – 1-6 reps for 3-6 sets
Specificity is key, it would make no sense to train an athlete for hypertrophy if the athlete does not require size. The only attribute which shows evidence of being advantageous to train, regardless of sport requirements is absolute strength. Elevated levels of strength, either directly increase other areas of performance, or allow them to be trained higher than without strength training. However, these guidelines should be accompanied with caution for several reasons:
- Athletes with different levels of experience will not respond the same way to training.
- There is more to power than jumping and linear acceleration, changing direction and stopping must also be considered.
- There are hundreds if not thousands of methods used within the categories of hypertrophy, power, and strength that can further enhance adaptations. These must be explored and implemented correctly.
Adams, Kent., John P. O’Shea, Katie L. O’Shea, and Mike Slimstein. “The Effect of Six Weeks of Squat, Plyometric and Squat-Plyometric training on Power Production.” Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, Volume 6, Number 1.
Benedict, Tan. “Manipulating Resistance Training Program Variables to Optimize Maximum Strength in Men: A Review.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 289.
Burd, Nicholas A., Daniel W. D. West, Aaron W. Staples, Philip J. Atherton, Jeff M. Baker, Daniel R. Moore, Andrew M. Holwerda, Gianni Parise, Michael J. Rennie, Steven K. Baker, Stuart M. Phillips, and Alejandro Lucia. “Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men.” PLoS ONE: E12033.
Burd, N. A., A. M. Holwerda, K. C. Selby, D. W. D. West, A. W. Staples, N. E. Cain, J. G. A. Cashaback, J. R. Potvin, S. K. Baker, and S. M. Phillips. “Resistance ,Exercise Volume Affects Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis and Anabolic Signalling Molecule Phosphorylation in Young Men.” The Journal of Physiology (2010): 3119-130.
“Diminishing Returns.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diminishing_returns>.
Faigenbaum, Avery D, William J Kraemer, Cameron J R Blimkie, Ian Jeffreys, Lyle J Micheli, Mike Nitka, and Thomas W Rowland. “Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: S60-79
Fatouros, Ioannis G., Athanasios Z. Jamurtas, D. Leontsini, Kyriakos Taxildaris, N. Aggelousis, N. Kostopoulos, and Philip Buckenmeyer. “Evaluation of Plyometric Exercise Training, Weight Training, and Their Combination on Vertical Jumping Performance and Leg Strength.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 470-76.
Krieger, James W. “Single vs. Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 1150-159.
Mcbride, Jeffrey M., Travis Triplett-Mcbride, Allan Davie, and Robert U. Newton. “The Effect of Heavy- Vs. Light-Load Jump Squats on the Development of Strength, Power, and Speed.”Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 75-82.
Sander, André, Michael Keiner, Klaus Wirth, and Dietmar Schmidtbleicher. “Influence of a 2-year Strength Training Programme on Power Performance in Elite Youth Soccer Players.”European Journal of Sport Science: 445-51.