Q&A Part 2: How Long-lasting and Beneficial is Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy? Where Does Volume Training Fall into a Training Regime for Performance and Aesthetics?

Q: How long-lasting and beneficial is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy? Where (if at all) does volume training fall into a training regime for performance and aesthetics?

First a couple definitions to make this a little more reader-friendly. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the growth of muscle cell due to enzymatic adaptions and swelling of the cytoplasm – It’s considered to be “show muscle” in that it doesn’t lead to much strength gain, and tends to skew the strength to weight ratio in the weight direction. Myofibrillar hypertrophy, also known as “functional hypertrophy” is the creation of new cross-bridges- the part of the muscle fiber that actually actively contracts. Myofibrillar hypertrophy skews the strength to weight ratio in the strength direction, but will not lead to as much size

A: Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is stable for 16 +/- 4 days; individual drop off rate will vary but after 6 weeks most will be back to baseline. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is considered to be “permanent” for the most part, but still subject to loss due to inactivity, age, or cortisol regulated pathways. High volume training absolutely has it’s place in both a regime for performance and aesthetics. Many very effective eastern block programs employ a high-volume approach towards myofibrillar hypertrophy: German volume training, Russian fatigue cycling, block training and it’s variants (Vladimir Issurin) all use an incredibly high sub-maximal workload to accumulate structural changes that will be transformed and transmutated (a fancy word transferred) to other special-strength performance factors like starting strength, top end speed, speed endurance etc etc. Whereas routines like Sheiko, Smolov, ladders and reverse pyramiding use incredible frequency and volume to force adaptation before neurological peaking to attain maximum strength.

High volume can be used to create myofibrillar hypertrophy, the determining factors are going to be the predominant energy system used, the relative intensity of the contraction in comparison to a 1rep max, and the repetition reserve. To make an easy illustration of this let’s take an athlete with a 100LB squat. A standard (predominantly sarcoplasmic) hypertrophy program would have this athlete squat 70lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps where for most athletes 12 reps would be the maximum possible and each set would be taken to failure or near failure. For myofibrillar hypertrophy the same athlete would take 85lbs for 6 sets of 4 reps where 6 reps would be maximum possible if taken to failure.

To quickly illustrate the factors: 70lbs vs 85lbs = 70% vs 85% relative intensity, 10 of 12 reps vs 4 of 6 reps = 17% vs 33% repetition reserve

Although the loads are similar 2100lbs (sarcoplasmic) vs 2040lbs (myofibrillar) because the myofibrillar group used a relatively short contraction duration >10s and the sets are not taken to failure, the limiting factors will be size of creatine phosphate stores, the amount of cross bridges within the muscle-fiber, and the neurological recruitment of high threshold muscle-fibers (motor units) therefore the adaptations will be predominantly to these systems. The sarcoplasmic hypertrophy program has medium duration contraction >25s and the sets are taken to failure – the predominant energy system is the anaerobic-lactic system (also known as the fast glycolytic system) and although cross bridging is a limiting factor, metabolic fatigue comes into play, therefore some of the adaptation will be to an increase in the glycolytic enzymes to provide adequate energy for a medium intensity contraction.

So how does this all fit into a plan for performance? Use the myofibrillar hypertrophy style during the off season before undertaking neurological peaking and sport specific training.

For aesthetics, use a combination of both but focus on myofibrillar hypertrophy in the earlier off season and a combination as the season approaches, with a slight shift towards sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as a competition nears: the main reason being that enzymatic adaptations are attained faster and peak around 6 weeks of training. For non competitive aesthetic training use a combination of both always or alternate between the two styles with planned blocks. 

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