Hierarchies and Hypertrophy

Written by: Kevin Cann


Mike Amato shared a term with me the other day that I think is very important to this article.  That term was “shared ontology.”  Shared ontology is basically something that has been conceptualized from generation to generation without ever being questioned.


An example of a shared ontology is religion.  There are some gospels in the strength world that have been passed down without any questioning.  The scientific foundation that these claims rest on were studies done on rats in the 1930s. We have come quite a bit further from this period of time.


We need to be skeptical and open minded to the ideas that we don’t know shit.  We are still in the infancy of trying to understand the complexities of the human mind and body.  Due to being in this infancy, we tend to utilize a reductionist view of things to attempt to make them make sense.


This assumes that the sum of the parts equals the whole.  This is not true in an open complex system.  I think that there is little disagreement that the human is an open complex system.  Things are not as logical or simple as they may seem.


If there is little disagreement that the human is an open complex system, why does no one question the reductionist viewpoints we have?  This does not make sense to me.  I posted a research article that suggests that hypertrophy may not be a contributor to strength improvements and the internet blew up.


The article suggested that the evidence is merely correlation at best and there are too many inconsistencies to say absolutely that hypertrophy contributes to increases in strength.  The argument for the other side is that a bigger muscle, theoretically has greater potential for contraction.


Therefore, you perform a hypertrophy block to build muscle and then a strength block to recognize the potential of that muscle.  This seems extremely logical and makes sense.  However, the research does not support this.


Even though there is no solid evidence to support this standing, no one questions it.  When someone does question it, like myself, I am blasted all over the internet.  I never said hypertrophy does not matter.  I said that focusing on it exclusively, or any excess work outside of typical training, is unnecessary.


We put on muscle from training.  It is an adaptation to the stress applied in the gym.  Our bodies are smarter than we are with this stuff.  It knows what it needs to accomplish a task.  Strength is specific to the task.


I may not have a huge total in powerlifting.  There are many lifters with much higher totals than me.  However, if they got on a wrestling mat with me, I bet I am a lot stronger than they are.  I bet the power of my punches and kicks are far superior to theirs.  Lifting, just like other sports is a skill.


I have been punched and kicked by guys that would not have good totals and it felt like a bag of bricks hitting me.  I am pretty positive that lifting more in the gym would not have made them stronger in their sport.


I don’t think we do much in the gym for athletes as strength and conditioning coaches.  We build some confidence and possibly some tissue resiliency. Problem with the second part is, it does not seem like we are decreasing injuries in sport no matter what we do. This is a conversation for another time.


You get better in a sport by practicing that sport.  This does not mean that we just take heavy competition singles every single time in the gym.  It means that we do drills to get better.  This is similar to all of the wrestling and striking drills that I performed over the years.


This means the coach needs to understand what the most efficient positions are for each lift and guide the lifter to self-organize to them.  I utilize a constraints-led approach here.  I put them in positions that punish the inefficient technique and only leave a few options to complete the task.  These options are what I deem as more efficient.  We measure objective performance to be sure it is working.


If I am unsure if something is going to contribute to increases in strength, I am not focusing on it. I never felt that running gave me an aerobic base for doing rounds in mma.  Doing rounds in mma gave me that endurance and that base.  This is how I feel about high rep sets of the lifts.


I think the benefit that people get from high rep sets is due to the novelty of the stimulus. There are many ways we can get that novelty.  We can change positions, TUT, use pauses, bands and chains, blocks and deficits, I use 5 and 4 reps to get used to an exercise and then 3/2/1 to load it up, so the changing of reps is novelty.  This allows the sport of lifting heavier weights to still be practiced.


I view accessory work as the powerlifter’s strength and conditioning.  We can build some tissue resiliency and instead of confidence, as that is derived in the sport itself, I can build self-efficacy.  They choose the accessories based off of where they think they need some extra work.


The strength is gained from the buy in and the self-efficacy.  Not necessarily the strengthening the weak muscles. Semantics I know, but it is important for the coach’s framework and decision making.


If hypertrophy is not a contributor to strength than what biological purpose does it serve?  For one, it allows us to accomplish the task.  It is an adaptation to the stress of training. A byproduct if you will.


It seems that perceptual and active inference are gaining a lot of steam in a number of fields.  We are learning that perception drives action and there is a hierarchical process to how we experience the world.


Higher levels within this hierarchy feed information down to the lower levels.  The passing on of the information is dependent upon the lateral levels assessing them for error and noise.  My best guess is that strength at specific angles and individual muscle strength are lower level attributes.


These lower level attributes are dependent upon the higher levels.  These higher levels involve expectations, experiences, and beliefs.  These priors are what we are attempting to update as a coach.  We need to create enough feedback for the lateral levels to accept it as error and allow the message to be passed through all of the levels.


When this happens, we see an increase in strength.  With this increase in strength there may be an increase in hypertrophy.  Other times we see an increase in strength with no increase in hypertrophy.


The fact that hypertrophy alone, without specific training, does not yield increased strength outcomes for the sport should speak volumes.  I can’t just leg press my way to a bigger squat.  This would support the idea that hypertrophy is a lower level attribute, dependent on the higher levels.


If I want hypertrophic increases that are beneficial to the sport, I need to focus on the higher levels. The lower levels do not pass information upstream to the higher levels.  There is no direct evidence in the literature to support this idea.


However, there is a lot of information on this Bayesian inference and allostatic and homeostatic regulation.  These are the arguments used in classical periodization models that are based off of the Selye 1930s rat studies.  The stress requires us to raise set points through the idea of the General Adaptation Syndrome.  These Bayesian models seem like a much more appropriate explanation in light of the last 90 years of research.

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