Gaining strength through neurological adaptation vs hypertrophy

guardian7

Level 6 Valued Member
I've very much enjoyed reading all the responses in this thread.

I'm just going to think out loud here a bit...

As I get older (29 now), I'm starting to wonder if I should start to prioritize a few times a year some hypertrophy phases to add 10lbs or so of muscle. Spending a lot of time with seniors, I see how loss of muscle mass can hurt. I wonder if building more now while I am on the younger side will have long term benefit as strength and mass inevitably declines. The crossfit/GoT video highlights how mass is helpful.
Yes, since you have a solid base of strength, I would definitely recommend building some mass by the time you are 35. At that age, we start losing mass each year. I wish I had done more before (49 years old now). As others have mentioned, it gets harder as you get older but once attained, it seems easier to get back. You could just add some hypertrophy finishing sets after your main workout. It does not have to be a lot more.

I also recommend a seasonal approach (periodization). Adopt a season for your mass focus, such as the winter when eating more is not a problem or a season when you are less busy at work and have more time. I cycle my goals in different seasons, for example, I get my doublebodyweight deadlift back each winter. It is not a focus but a maintenance goal. Martial arts for fitness and KBs the rest of the year.

A compromise position could be to add an amount of mass that does not require radical changes in what you need to eat/spend time on to maintain. This would not be optimal, but it would also help you increase your strength more and you don't want a bodybuilder look anyway. This would involve your individual genetics and the weight you feel comfortable with. If you are not willing to maintain that level of mass sometime during the year, then the returns diminish.

Another option is to use some Planstrong type principles. Work within 80-85 percent of rep max. For a set you could do around 6 max, do sets of three (50 percent), with a rest in between. If you can do 8-10 it is too light. Chad Waterbury has a good article on the value of ten sets of three rather than three sets of ten. You can use a weight in the strength zone but with breaks, even short ones, keep a higher volume as you would do for mass. You can do 2,3,4,3,2,3,4 type sets as well or mix up the intensity. It is similar but not exactly the same as ladders because the weight would be higher but the volume a bit lower than 3,4 or 5 ladders. As we know from swing sets of ten, with just a little bit of a rest, we can get a lot more work in and keep our form.
 

Bill Been

Level 6 Valued Member
To the original question I’d say we don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Lemme essplain:

When I initially teach someone how to barbell squat - it’s a mess. The movement is biomechanically wrong, poorly controlled, in dire need of refinement. t that moment- only marginally controlling his own body and the load through space - my lifter is limited almost completely not by strength, actual force production capability, but by his grasp of the movement, his motor control in an unfamiliar regime, and his ability to recruit motor units into useful contraction, etc which could be considered “neuro” if I cared about such things. Wednesday his squat will be slightly less spazzy, even less so by Friday. Monday to Friday his proficiency in the movement will have improved so profoundly that his 1RM may be up perhaps 50lbs. He will also be waaay better at recruiting MUs - the “neuro” piece of the picture. So, initially and for “a while”, strength gains will be derived from improvements on the neuro side. But, in a properly-designed strength program the load is being methodically increased, requiring ever more of that which we wish to increase - force production. Obviously you can’t just keep making “neuro gains” indefinitely or there’d be no need for weight classes in strength sports. At some point, you need more muscle to lift more, as your movement can only be perfect some percentage of the time and the ability to recruit MUs is only marginally improveable. Muscle is what creates the force and you need more of it if your goal is to get as strong as it is possible for you to get, and from then on your strength gains are driven by hypertrophy.

Now.....why none of that matters: the best hypertrophy program for an undersized, understrong male who desires to be strong revolves around the barbell squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and (maybe) the power clean or power snatch trained 3 times a week with attention paid to sleep and a large caloric surplus loaded with protein. The global stress produced by said program and its inexorable increases in load will stimulate the anabolic signaling cascade that leads to hypertrophy.

And:

the best neuro maximization program for an undersized, understrong male who desires to be strong revolves around the barbell squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and (maybe) the power clean or power snatch trained 3 times a week with attention paid to sleep and a large caloric surplus loaded with protein. The global stress produced by said program and its inexorable increases in load will automatically create the need for maximal neural efficiency and MU recruitment, getting the most outta what you got.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Senior Certified Instructor
Elite Certified Instructor
At some point, you need more muscle to lift more, as your movement can only be perfect some percentage of the time and the ability to recruit MUs is only marginally improveable. Muscle is what creates the force and you need more of it if your goal is to get as strong as it is possible for you to get, and from then on your strength gains are driven by hypertrophy.
Some of us, as I have explained my other posts, choose to be the best we can be with minimal changes in muscle mass.

There is no end to "as strong as possible" - add gear and you are stronger, take PEDs and you are stronger and, yes, add muscle and you are stronger. Is muscular hypertrophy in the same league as adding gear? Good question, IMHO - you'll lift more one way and less the other, so why bother to lift raw? And if you're willing to live with the side effects of PEDs, then why not take them? Should I wear a belt when I lift in the raw division because it would make me stronger?

"As strong as possible" is only applicable to specific sets of circumstances, and hypertrophy is not the only way to become stronger. I set a lifetime PR at age 62 with clearly less muscle mass than my previous PR 15 years earlier. My piano playing is better now, too, btw. Bigger is bigger, better is better, and bigger is not necessarily better.

-S-
 

jca17

Level 3 Valued Member
But Steve, if you follow that logic to its conclusion, you should either get emaciated before your next meet or you might as well be a geared drug user. Kind of extreme.

It seems irrefutable and near universal that more muscle is more strength all things being equal. It's the "unnatural" route to get stronger without getting bigger, which is why that can actually be a more difficult path which you and others who need to stay in a weight class are ok trading off for.
 

jca17

Level 3 Valued Member
I wonder, at what point ones relative maxs start to go down even as adding more mass increases maximal strength for a natural lifter.
 

Bret S.

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
ones relative maxs start to go down even as adding more mass increases maximal strength
I don't get it, what do you mean? Specific lifts vs. overall strength? If so how would you measure the overall strength part? Or max's relative to each other in different lifts?

Seems as though 'overall strength increase' would infer max lifts would also rise with the strength tide. Just trying to understand..
 

wespom9

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
I wonder, at what point ones relative maxs start to go down even as adding more mass increases maximal strength for a natural lifter.
All one has to do for this is look at world records by weight category and do the math. I don't have the time for that right now but someone may!
 

jca17

Level 3 Valued Member
I mean your max lift at a given weight as a multiple of your bodyweight. For example, lighter lifters tend to have higher relative strength, but at the elite level that body weight is pretty high before the ratio starts coming down. But if one is natural and trying to maintain a healthy body composition, I wonder if that's a point one would hit.
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
From Greg Nuckols over at Stronger by Science:

--"About 40% of the typical male’s mass is skeletal muscle. Let’s say he weighs 100kg, and has 40kg of skeletal muscle, and totals 600kg (nice rough numbers just to make the math easy). That’s 15kg per kg of muscle, and a Wilks score of 365. If he increases his muscle mass by 25%, but that extra muscle mass is only 80% as strong, then he’s adding 10kg of muscle and 12kg on his total per kg of muscle added – another 120kg. So, weighing 110kg, he’d have a total of 720, for a Wilks score of 423. He’d only need a total of 620-625 to keep the same Wilks score while added an extra 10kg of muscle, or in other words, the extra muscle he added would need to be only 20% as strong as his original muscle to reach the break-even point."--

It would depend on how you train, but the muscles would have to be pretty large to begin losing mechanical advantage relative to smaller muscles. This does happen. Also, force production is a function of diameter, not cross section, so no mass driven increase in strength is going to be linear - you lose some efficiency there as well. These are at the extreme end of the scale though.

For me, not being into competitive lifting it all comes down to how well I can express strength in non-programed activities. In that case a bit of mass is helpful, that wouldn't be the case if I were mountaineering.
 

Bill Been

Level 6 Valued Member
I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how my post could have been construed as endorsing PED use or even geared powerlifting, but writing clearly is a tricky business and sometimes a throwaway phrase like “as strong as possible” has its meaning greatly extended despite that extension making no sense in the context of the rest of the post. I’ll try to do better.

I would however endorse fixing a messy and inefficient deadlift form, learning something about adaptive physiology so my programming is not tied to what Elite level international powerlifters do, and adding some muscle mass for all of its huge health benefits in our later years plus it’s role in keeping me from having to wait 15 years to PR my deadlift.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Senior Certified Instructor
Elite Certified Instructor
But Steve, if you follow that logic to its conclusion, you should either get emaciated before your next meet or you might as well be a geared drug user. Kind of extreme.
... which is why I do not suggest following that logic to its extreme. I'm afraid you (and the lovely Bill Been as well) miss my point.

I am a certain body type, size, and what have you. When I exercise moderately, eat what I feel I need, I weigh a certain amount and carry a certain amount of muscle. My only point here is that there are many ways one can deviate from the body type, size, and what have you that one would otherwise be. I find none of those routes - hypertrophy-specific training, drugs, and powerlifting gear - attractive or necessary, but if someone does, I don't begrudge them their choices. I truly do not look askance at my fellow lifters at a meet who use gear or who have trained for hypertrophy.

I do, however, take issue with the idea that, after a relatively short period of initiation, one can only get stronger by adding muscle. It's simply not true, and I am but one of many examples out there. IOW, don't tell me I can't get stronger in my way, and I won't tell you that you can't get stronger another way. There are many ways to become stronger, and those that I have pursued are well within the reach of the average person, can be pursued for a lifetime, and don't require significant changes to muscle mass, or powerlifting gear, or whatever else.

jac17 said:
I wonder, at what point ones relative maxs start to go down even as adding more mass increases maximal strength for a natural lifter.
From his web site, here are Hall of Fame PL'er's Rickey Dale Crain's numbers:

Weight
Class SQ BP DL Total
148 630 350 661 1609
165 800 440 716 1900
181 450 733


-S-
 

jca17

Level 3 Valued Member
In not sure that Bill or I have advocated "training for hypertrophy." I think we both believe in effective progressions to bring weak lifters up to reasonable standards without handcuffing oneself to a side goal, such as maintaining a specific bodyweight.
There are reasons to train in a way that does not increase muscle mass, but that is a decision that also means slowing down strength gains both in maximal and relative strength.
There's no value judgments attached to either way, but I used to handcuff myself based on a misunderstanding of Pavel's material, so I see it as worth it to help others avoid that if their goal doesn't include maintaining body weight.
 
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Oscar

Level 6 Valued Member
From another thread about a similar topic, I came to the conclusion that the ideal muscle mass for sports performance is near BMI of 24 (at low body fat of course). That is, for typical recreational sports, and excludes both ends of the spectrum such as marathoners and powerlifters.

I'm aiming to that: my height is 1.73 m, and I aim to weigh about 72-75 kg at 12% body fat.
 
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