Add Muscle to Become a More Durable and Powerful Athlete

Gethin Rhys James




Add Muscle to Become a More Durable and Powerful Athlete - Fitness, deadlift, hypertrophy, power output, mass gain, muscle mass, athleticism


Many may wonder if muscle mass is simply a by-product of an athletic strength and conditioning program. It is also questioned whether muscle mass is a good thing for athletes. Can excessive mass slow an athlete down in specific sports? 



Personally, I believe that mass has its value. Muscle mass is protection. For years, boxers have been developing their abdominals to help them take a solid punch to the gut. Hypertrophy of the deltoids may act as an armored casing around the shoulder cavity. Mass is also associated with the substantial force that one can produce. If a 90kg man tackled you at 20mph and a 110kg man tackled you at 20mph, obviously, the latter is going to hurt a lot more!


Today’s post is about increasing muscle mass in a manner that can impact athletic performance for the better. The protocol in this article will use the deadlift as a case study.


The Power of Ten and Hypertrophy

The “power of 10” was made popular by strength icons such as Pavel Tsatsuline and Dan John. This principle suggests that we can only manage 10 repetitions of heavily resisted, full-body compound exercises. If we exceed this range, we can expect a deterioration of technique which can lead to injury. These 10 repetitions are performed with a load of 75% of our 1-repetition max (1RM) or above, separated into sets. A few examples:


  • 5 sets of 2 repetitions
  • 3 sets of 3 repetitions
  • 2 sets of 5 repetitions


Another example, and the one we will be focusing on, is the three-set pyramid. This involves performing five repetitions at 75% of your 1RM, 3 repetitions at 80%, and 2 repetitions at 85%. Each set is coupled with at least two minutes of rest. This rest could simply be a gentle recovery walk, or some light mobility exercise such as the cat/camel stretch.


The benefits of this low-repetition and medium-volume range is that we can keep our technique strict, but our load high. However, this is not a method for inducing substantial muscle mass. To increase mass, there are three methods that I call my “hypertrophy extensions.”


These hypertrophy extensions should only be performed on one exercise per weight training session. I’ve found the best results with this method happen if the athlete only performs one of the protocols three times per week. Don’t overdo it, unless you want to destroy your ability to recover after a session.


Method 1: Technical Failure

After performing your final two repetitions at 85% of your 1RM, take 60-90 seconds to recover. Drop the resistance down to 60% of your 1RM and perform repetitions to technical failure.


NOTE: Technical failure is when your mechanics begin to falter. This may be a failure in posture or foot positioning, or it may involve your inability to lock out your knees at the end of the lift. Either way, it’s time to stop. You should not practice deadlifts to physical failure, where you go past the parameters of proper technique. It is also important to mention that this technique should not be used with cleans and snatches, as the technical demands are too high. This can result in injury.


Here’s how it looks:


  • Set 1: 5 reps at 75%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 2: 3 reps at 80%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 3: 2 reps at 85%
  • 1 minutes to 90 seconds of rest
  • Set 4: Repetitions to technical failure at 60%


Method 2: Weakness Management

Many lifters have what is called a “sticking point.” This is the portion of a lift that causes the most amount of difficulty. The idea of weakness management is to implement 10 solid seconds of isometrics directly after the two repetitions of 85% of your 1RM. This can be done directly by tying a rope to a fixed object on the floor, or indirectly through another exercise such as a wall sit.


Here’s how it looks:


  • Set 1: 5 reps at 75%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 2: 3 reps at 80%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 3: 2 reps at 85%
  • No rest. Superset the above with a 10 second isometric pull on a rope that is fixed to the floor. Pull the rope at the length where you feel that your deadlift is at its weakest.



Method 3: Functional Management

The third and final method that I use with athletes is functional management hypertrophy extension. This not only takes the working muscle into consideration, but also its role. In this case, the musculature of the lower back is designed to stabilize the lumbar vertebra. Furthermore, the lower back requires a high level of endurance. Therefore, we will use this fact by utilizing a light isometric exercise drill to condition the lower back for a prolonged period. The drill I’ve chosen is the glute bridge, which also develops the glutes and hamstrings to support posture. 


Here’s how it looks:


  • Set 1: 5 reps at 75%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 2: 3 reps at 80%
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Set 3: 2 reps at 85%
  • 60-90 seconds of rest
  • Set 4: 2 minutes in the glute bridge, or until technique fails.


What Body Parts Require Mass for Optimal Performance?

It is doubtful that bigger biceps will lead to an improvement in athletic performance. The same can be said for a chunky set of calf muscles. We know that muscle mass can be an important part of our performance, but it is crucial that we are highly selective in our program design.


In the name of stability, our focus may be best placed in the center of our bodies, where most of our body mass lies. As many athletes have overdeveloped their chest and anterior deltoids, adding muscle mass of various portions of our posterior chain is essential.


From an injury prevention standpoint, mass becomes even more important. Mass of the glutes and the lower back can help to prevent lumbar spine injury. Mass of the trapezius and neck muscles may aid in the prevention of concussions, as we develop the ability to absorb shock. To prevent shoulder injuries, the deltoids must be well-developed. This includes the anterior and the posterior deltoid. 


When it comes to shoulder development, I believe that people look too much into overhead pressing. If you can press overhead without losing the positioning of the spine, practicing overhead movements is important for maintaining mobility. However, muscle mass of the deltoids can be produced through rowing, pulling, and chest pressing actions. Therefore, military presses may well be unnecessary, and also a way to take time away from far more valuable exercises. 


I don’t believe in directly focusing our muscle mass efforts on our quadriceps and hamstrings. Although they are very close to our center of mass, and although they are a crucial part of our stability, I often find that they are very receptive to heavy load. Therefore, the hypertrophy extensions that focus on isolating these areas, in the manner we used in our lower back example, are perfectly unnecessary. If we wish to perform optimally throughout an entire training period, whether it’s for the session or for the year, we must not over-exhaust ourselves. Firing up the quadriceps and hamstrings is very stressful on the body, and can therefore increase our recovery time. 



Add Muscle to Become a More Durable and Powerful Athlete - Fitness, deadlift, hypertrophy, power output, mass gain, muscle mass, athleticism


When Should We Focus on Mass?

The offseason is an important time for prehabilitating, rehabilitating, and hypertrophy. Injury prevention is essential for prolonging the career of the athlete. Hypertrophy plays a role in protection and the development of force. 


As the preseason draws closer, assess your conditioning by measuring the ratio of your body mass and the weight you can deadlift. If we consider the work of Nike’s Ryan Flaherty, we can appreciate that he has found a direct correlation between top-performing sprinters and the amount of force they can produce in relation to their mass. We must aim to deadlift a minimum of 2.2 times our bodyweight. Flaherty has found this to be the ideal lifting capacity for top end speed. 


If you cannot lift 2.2 times your bodyweight, you must reassess your program as soon as convenient. It will be important to drop the hypertrophy extension, or perhaps change the program altogether. 



An important suggestion would be to take away the eccentric portion of the lift, and drop the bar after the concentric phase. This will limit the micro-tearing of the skeletal muscle fibers, which are associated with the development of muscle mass, but as the season draws closer, this may also prevent injury in the weight room. 


Hypertrophy Extension for Your Offseason Training

As mentioned earlier, this protocol should only be performed three times per week at the very most. My programs are currently using this method twice each week. After all, it is highly stressful on the muscles and the central nervous system.


Warm Up

To initiate the program, a standard RAMP warm up protocol can be used.


  • Raise the heart rate and blood flow.
  • Activate the motor neurons around a specific muscle to lift its force potential.
  • Mobilize the full range of motion for the intended movement pattern.
  • Potentiate the specific muscles and movements for the activity that is about to be performed.


For improving range of motion, spend some time on the foam roller with direct focus on the musculature of the thoracic spine. You can also use a peanut-shaped myofascial release product that aids in thoracic spine mobility. Then you may gently cycle for four minutes to raise the heart rate and improve blood flow. This is done at a slow speed, where you could hold a conversation. Then perform two sets of 15-20 air squats with the hips lowering below knee height. 



Plyometrics act as a fantastic activation protocol. However, the air squats may be enough for some athletes and therefore, the plyometrics can be skipped. Many coaches like three sets of 10 or five sets of five for plyometrics, but I’ve found three sets of eight to be ideal. You can drastically lower your amortization phase with just eight repetitions, which is far more power-specific. 


A level-one plyometric exercise should be performed. This means that there is no focus on multi-twitch, and that there is a break between each jump. Beginners to this program should perform a standard squat jump, while more advanced athletes can perform a box jump.


Power of 10 With a Hypertrophy Extension

Keep the power and hypertrophy protocol early in your session. Because of how fatiguing this protocol is, introducing it later would not be as beneficial. 


As far as deadlift selection is concerned, I prefer the hex bar or trap bar. This allows you to distribute force straight from the midline of your body, which will replicate sprinting far more adequately.


If you only have a standard barbell available, I encourage athletes under 5’10” to practice a standard deadlift, where the feet are positioned shoulder-width apart. If you exceed this height, you may wish to practice the sumo deadlift, where the feet are pointed outwards at one and a half shoulder-widths apart. Either way, the arms are positioned in line with the shoulder joint. Don’t use a narrower or a wider grip, as this is a much weaker position and works against your biomechanics. 


If you feel more comfortable with another form of deadlift, by all means use it. After all, there are physiological exceptions, such as shin length, femur length, and the length of the torso. 


As a final note on the deadlifting protocols, ensure you maintain an elongated spine. Although a rounded upper back may be a stronger lift, and although it is very common to see this in powerlifting, to be sports-specific, we must keep the spine elongated. 



Additional Exercises

After the main lift, three additional exercises can be added. In a training cycle that is dominated with continuous practice on the field, a huge load of anaerobic work, and little time to recover, I do not believe that performing more than three additional exercises is wise.


These exercises usually involve a unilateral drill, such as a Bulgarian split squat for four sets of six repetitions at 65% of the athlete’s 1RM. There is often a focus on lateral movement, such as a lateral step up. Lateral work is important for the conditioning of the vastus lateralis, the outer portion of the quadriceps. Weakness in this area is associated with anterior knee injury.


As a strong believer in the importance of abdominal strength, an exercise that does not stress the legs is selected. My favorites are the roll out, or the body saw on the TRX. For any abdominal exercise, the repetitions should be kept high to mimic the role of these muscles, and allow them to have substantial time under tension. I usually prescribe three sets of 12-20 repetitions for abdominal exercises. 


Closing the Workout

Train hard, but recover harder. When finishing the workout, spend a minimum of 10 minutes on the form roller, then perform a full-body static stretching routine. Also pay attention to the importance of post-workout nutrition and re-hydration. 


The protocols in this article have been used with great success by rugby players, football players, and combat athletes. Not all sports will require substantial muscle mass, but there is value in working on your gains if you’re involved in team sports or combat sports.




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