When Should Weightlifters Focus on Hypertrophy

by BarBend

Hypertrophy focused training periods are a natural phase of any long-term weightlifting program. 

Performing a hypertrophy-based train block, which can last 4-12 weeks, is a great way to recover from hard training phases and competition cycles, build new muscle tissue, and improve injury prevention. 

Additionally, the increased training volume often will allow for increased caloric expenditure, which may be a need for lifters who are looking to lose weight.

In this article, we will discuss in more detail everything you need to know about hypertrophy training for weightlifting, such as:

  • When Should Weightlifters Focus on Hypertrophy?

  • 5 Benefits of Hypertrophy Training for Weightlifters

  • How to Program Hypertrophy for Weightlifters?

  • Should You Do Higher Rep Snatches and Cleans for Hypertrophy?

When Should Weightlifters Focus on Hypertrophy?

Ideally, every training program should begin with a hypertrophy phase to set a good foundation to progress training intensity and volume. Generally, in order to get stronger over time, more muscle must be created, making training a cyclical process that often starts with hypertrophy, progresses to strength centric protocols, and ends with peaking for competition.

The most optimal time to train for hypertrophy is farthest out from a competition, as you are able to train hard and in high volumes, drop the intensity since you do not need to be hitting above 85+% of your lifts, and you can afford to be sore during training. 

As you get closer to competitions, you want to taper yourself off of higher volume training to allow you to increase your intensity (volume and intensity have an inverse relationship). It is suggested that a hypertrophy program precedes a strength program to allow for increased adaptations to occur to the muscles, connective tissues, and structures that are stressed during more intense (heavier) training.

5 Benefits of Hypertrophy Training for Weightlifters

Below are five benefits of hypertrophy based training for weightlifters. Note, that the below benefits apply to nearly every level of lifter. 

It is recommended to perform hypertrophy based training blocks further away from competition, as the overall loading (% of rep max) is often lower to allow for increased training volume and training frequency, which have been shown to increase muscle mass more than high intensity, low volume training (which is often necessary for max strength and power during competition peaking).

Increase Muscle Tissue

Hypertrophy training is a pillar of increasing muscle tissue growth, as it allows you to decrease the amount of weight you are lifting (relative to your 1RM) so that you can increase your training volume. 

Hypertrophy has been shown to occur in a variety of rep ranges, (2-5, 5-10, 10-15, 15-30), however you also need to get enough training volume in without excessive systemic, neurological, or physiological fatigue. By lifting with moderate loads, you are able to get enough training volume in and still optimize recovery, which is why most compound lifts can be trained in the 5-10 rep range whereas the accessory exercise can be trained in the 8-15, or 10-20 range, for best results (high stimulus to the muscle tissue without excessive fatigue and strain to the body and nervous system as a whole, also referred to as the stimulus to fatigue ratio).

Decrease Joint Stress

During a hypertrophy phase, absolute loading should be lighter as you need to increase the repetitions in order to increase the volume. Assuming you are performing exercises properly, and with control of the eccentric and concentric phases, and monitoring overall training volume, you may find joint stress to be lower as well. 

It is always a good option to enter a hypertrophy base phase following a hard strength and competition speaking cycle to drop the loading and allow the joints and connective tissues time to recover.

Increased Caloric Expenditure (Helpful for Weight Loss)

Increasing the amount of overall work you do within a session will increase your energy expenditure, which may be a great way for some lifters to train hard, build muscle, and lose weight. 

While nutrition has the biggest impact of weight loss, hypertrophy training can be used in the off-season to increase lean muscle mass, decrease body composition (in individuals who are less lean), and improve overall performance in the long run. 

Can Address Muscle Imbalances and Weaknesses

When we train above 80%, it often becomes harder and harder to focus on the finite control needed to attack a muscle weakness or movement asymmetrically. Just like you wouldn't try to learn snatches or correct a technical error in the clean with max loads, you may need to improve your knee health and elbow lockout with hypertrophy exercise to build the muscles, reinforce proper stability and neuromuscular control, and help you as a lifter take the time to feel the muscle activating and contracting. 

Hypertrophy training allows you to build muscle and stay aware of the muscle contraction, which is helpful for injury prevention training and/or rehabilitation purposes.

Decreased Neurological Stress

Heavy loads not only stress the muscles, joints, and connective tissues; they also place high neurological demands on the body. During strength and competition peking programs, the goal should be to excite the nervous system maximally so that it can increase neural drive and improve maximal strength and power output on the platform. 

This ability, however, is one that should be trained and harnessed for 4-6 weeks at a time, and then allowed to recover through decreasing intensity (through a hypertrophy training phase). 

When we talk about overtraining and central nervous system fatigue, this is often due to lifters lifting too heavy, too often, for too long, which can end in chronic fatigue, decreased performance, mood disturbances, weight loss, bowel issue, and injury.

Hypertrophy training is a great way to productively increase muscle mass and improve GPP (general physical preparedness), while simultaneously allowing the nervous system to recover so that it is ready to go the next time you enter a strength and peaking phase.

Should You Do Higher Rep Snatches and Cleans for Hypertrophy?

No. Snatches and clean & jerks are some of the most inefficient exercises to drive muscle hypertrophy, as they have very little eccentric loading or time under tension.

During a hypertrophy program, the muscles should be trained for hypertrophy purposes using the non-competition lifts, however slow tempos can be used during the lifts to highlight some time under tension properties. 

When performing snatches and clean and jerks during a hypertrophy period, it is recommended to keep intensities below 85%, and to focus more on addressing technique, building work capacity (2-3 reps per set), and do just enough to maintain performance or improve technique; but not have the goal of driving your maximum higher (that is what the strength and peaking block is for). 

Most lifters will find 3-5 sets of 2-3 reps between 70-80% to suffice dring hypertrophy blocks, as this will allow them to add more lift variations, address technique, and have enough energy to attack the compound lifts and accessory exercises with intensity (these are the ones that build bigger muscles).

How to Program Hypertrophy Training for Weightlifters?

In the below section we’ll discuss how to program hypertrophy training in weightlifting programs. When programming for hypertrophy purposes (see benefits above), it is important to note that the below recommendations do not always apply to the olympic lifts themselves (snatch, clean, and jerk). 

Exercise Order

During a hypertrophy program, you typically want to place the main compound movements and target muscle exercises of the day earlier in the session. 

If you are performing the Olympic lifts in the session, the main hypertrophy movements would often follow those so that skill and technique can be practiced in the formal olympic lifts first, before the muscle is trained hard. 

Generally speaking, choose 1-2 heavy compound movements (such as front squats and lunges for a leg day, or push press and bent over rows for an upper day) first, and then follow them with 2-3 accessory movements. The specific order of these exercises can vary greatly depending on the goal of the program and coaching style.

Exercise Selection

This is where the skillful coach will shine, as the ability to select exercises that target the muscles that need to be trained, and do so in the most effective way based on the athlete, and how the overall program is designed. 

For example, if someone is in a hard volume phase, having them do back squats and RDLs a few times a week, and also train back on upper body days may just be too much volume on the lower back and erectors. 

Instead, coaches could understand the goal of a certain squat session (stronger quadriceps for example) and do front loaded squats (or even hack squats or leg press) to take pressure off the back, or even through pauses to increase the stimulus without having to add more weight. 

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Recommendations

This is one of the main factors that separate a hypertrophy program vs a strength and more traditional competition prep weightlifting program. During hypertrophy programs, the sets and reps are often higher than they are in other phases, however the overall training intensity (% of 1RM) is lower. 

Most olympic lifts are trained for 2-4 sets for 2-3 sets in the 70-80% range. The main compound strength lifts are often trained in the 5-10 rep range for 2-4 sets, or sometimes 3-5 rep range for more sets, such as 5-10 total sets. Performing lower reps but more sets will allow you to accumulate just as many reps as more reps and less sets (10 sets of 3 reps is 30 total reps, whereas 3 sets of 10 reps is 30 total reps), however be able to use more loads, which would have more strength specific properties. 

It is important to note that higher and lower rep training both have their benefits, and can be used in the same training program.

Final Thoughts

Hypertrophy programs play a critical role in overall muscle development and long-term strength gains for Olympic weightlifters. Additionally, taking the time to build a more solid foundation, and revisist hypertrophy phases after hard, high intensity training cycles (competition and strength blocks) will improve injury resilience and improve neurological recovery. Coaches and athletes can get creative with training programs, as long as they monitor overall training volume, track progress, and ensure adequate recovery.

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