“You don’t need to worry about building muscle to get stronger; strength is all neurologic!” -somebody on the internet
Anybody else heard this before? I know I have. People will read a few out of context studies about untrained lifters and think they’ve got it all figured out. Just like everything else in science, however, it’s not that simple. While neurologic changes are the primary drivers for increased strength in novice athletes, this isn’t true forever. Let’s talk about why.
It is the muscles that exert contractile force on their tendons, which then move the bones in such a manner that these levers move weight. Are muscles solely composed of neurons? Definitely not. Contractile fibers make up a large percentage, and the size of these fibers determine their maximal strength potential. How do you make said fibers bigger? HYPERTROPHY WORK!
Have you ever seen a weak pro bodybuilder? Hell no. The size of their muscles alone allows them to exert a lot of force! These guys have hypertrophy down to a science, and we can learn a thing or two from them as strength athletes. We need larger muscles just like they do to produce maximal force and the best way to get there is volume. TONS of it.
Unfortunately, performing lots of high-volume training while also hammering heavy singles and strongman events is pretty hard to do. That’s why I recommend a hypertrophy phase early on in the offseason (yes, strength athletes need offeasons too) to grow. Your work capacity should already be pretty high from contest prep, so stepping into high-volume hypertrophy work should be pretty straightforward. Aim for ranges of 15-20 sets of 8-20 reps per body part per week, depending on your experience level. Be careful with exercise selection, though. More technically challenging, full-body exercises are going to break down at higher rep ranges, increasing your risk of injury. Experience level is again key here.
Getting stronger isn’t the only benefit of hypertrophy work. It also protects you from injury. Larger muscles are more likely to withstand the pounding of being a strength athlete, especially because all of this volume is going to hypertrophy your connective tissues as well. The best way to get strong over time is to stay healthy, so this is crucial. Aim for even higher reps 20-30+ on a few sets of single joint exercises per week to really push blood into your tendons (I personally like 100 rep sets of bicep curls and pushdowns with a light band). Other ways to get to these higher rep numbers is to do timed sets with light weights.
This is obviously a very bare-bones, simplified explanation of the importance of hypertrophy training for all athletes. The detailed mechanisms of sarcoplasmic vs sarcomeric hypertrophy, the biomechanics of increased fiber diameter and how it affects downstream contractile force, and the importance of motor unit recruitment are much more in-depth topics better saved for another time and read from a sport physiology textbook. That being said, the above tips are easy ways to add in some hypertrophy work to your training. As always, though, don't forget to pay attention to total training volume and intensity when introducing this stuff. You don't have to be lifting at maximal intensities to get overtrained. Even if higher reps and chasing pumps aren't necessarily your favorite parts of lifting, who doesn't want to get huge? Now go get after it!