Hypermuscularity vs Athleticism

The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender. -Vince Lombardi


On the left, your normal, everyday whippet.  And on the right, his myostatin-deficient, albeit slow-poke, cousin.


So here’s something rather interesting — and particularly sad, too, if you’re an animal rights/dog-lover, like myself: breeding whippets for speed inadvertently produces incidences of myostatin knockout versions of the animal.  Myostatin, as you may recall, is a gene that curtails excessive and unregulated hypertrophy in animals (including humans).  Problem is, these animals — while for sure friggin’ impressive looking in their hyper-muscularity — are painfully “slow” in comparison to their less buff cousins. If not put up for adoption by the more ethical breeders, they are euthanized so as not to “taint” the racing whippet gene pool.  Because in whippet racing, performance is, of course, what ultimately matters.

The same can be said for human performance/athletics.

 This then leads us to a discussion of something that performance coaches have long ago determined: that hyper muscularity means very little in performance sports.  Even in sports where “size matters”; football, for instance.  Let me refine that statement a bit.  Added hypertrophy is great — if, and only if, — that added hypertrophy can be fully utilized for added power and speed production.  In other words, a bigger engine means nada if it isn’t also a highly tuned and productive complement to the machine as a whole.

Note: this *is not* a bash on bodybuilding.  I realize that “performance” means many different things to many different people.  Let’s just make a distinction here between sporting performance and show / visual effect.  In the later, of course, sporting performance is a moot point.  In this realm, size and aesthetics are everything.  So if you’re a member of the swole patrol, don’t get your banana hammock in a twist.  This post isn’t a judgement of merit, but rather an objective observation.

Back to our story.  So what does the hypertrophy/performance correlation mean in terms of training for performance sports?  Well, it simply means that classic hypertrophy training (higher volume / lower intensity) is not given a priority, and is generally relegated to short “recovery” blocks; the few weeks immediately following a football season, for instance.  Otherwise, hypertrophy / “repetition” work is generally used as a selected “finisher” during the speed/power/strength blocks comprising the bulk of sport-specific training.  Or, the selected exercise volume is super-high (with resultant low intensity), and dedicated toward the thickening of connective tissue in an attempt to better recoil/elasticity properties (Achilles tendon/hamstring complex, for instance).  Another story for another time.

Now, you’d think the “bigger is not necessarily better” idea would be common sense.  It’s not, however, even among athletes who participate in power sports, and even among some coaches in those sports.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with young athletes (primarily football and baseball players), who thought that “gettin’ swole” was *the* path to better performance in their representative sport.  I would always counter by asking, “I wonder why more professional bodybuilders don’t give up the (relatively speaking) measly money made in that sport for even the league minimum in the NFL?”

 Note: I use a similar analogy with strongmen to counter the “stronger is always better” mindset.

Alas, “Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane” or “all show and no go” has been uttered amongst coaches for as long as I’ve been involved in sport, and is probably as old as sport itself.  And you’d think that this is just uneducated, old-school, former-jocks-now-coaches with an anti-barbell bias mouthing off about something they just don’t understand.  And when I was younger, that’s exactly what I thought, too.  But damn if I didn’t come to the same conclusion the longer I remained involved in sport and S&C.  That the ability to lay-down muscle mass at a shocking rate seems to have very little (and sometimes even a negative) effect upon that individual’s sporting potential is something I’ve seen played out over and again.

And let me refine *that* statement just a bit.  I have seen some spectacular athletes with the demonstrated genetic *ability* to put on muscle at an alarming rate (maybe they have a muted myostatin response?), as evidenced by dramatic gains seen during short hypertrophy phases.  It’s easy to back these athletes off of hypertrophy-specific programs, though, when size begins to impede performance.  For the vast majority, though — even among an athletic population — this is rarely an issue; Phil Heaths of the world notwithstanding.  And yes, I get that Phil’s “supplementation” protocol is a bit different now than in his basketball days. ;)  Drugs alone, though, do not make that kind of physique.  There has to be a favorable genetic component at work as well.

But the potential *whys* behind the negative muscularity/performance correlation is fascinating to me.  I mean, you’d think that the body would “tune” the muscle as fast as it’s laid down, right?  But there is something else at play here.  And more than likely, a whole host of “something elses”.  For some reason — and especially in those who put on muscle rather easily (or maybe it’s just made painfully evident in that population) — that added muscle does not necessarily result in added power and/or speed production.  This is why (expert) performance coaches focus on training what really matters — strength, speed and power production — and consider added hypertrophy as just a nice, and somewhat expected, side benefit.  Size does matter to a point, of course (i.e., “mass moves mass”) — but sheer mass alone, at the expense of athleticism, just won’t cut it.

But again, back to the “whys”.  Well, maybe this study can help begin shedding light on the subject.  And this one as well.  From the second reference:

These findings clearly indicate that the increase in muscle mass of myostatin mutant animals confers no strength advantage over wild-type controls.

That, to me, is incredibly interesting.  There seems to be a kind of governor feedback loop that prevents the possibility of overtaxing the animal’s frame with this new potential for additional force.  In other words, if that hypermuscularity were to be “finely tuned”, would the resultant forces be too much for the supportive framework to handle without self-destructing?

We know that this “governor system” works with the golgi tendon organ to prevent over-force production, and is also tied to internal body temperature, and dopamine / serotonin reuptake (among a host of other things).  All of this exists so as to preventing redlining the machine in all but the most dire of circumstances.  Might there be a “swole factor” involved here as well?  And if so, can this aspect of the governor be partially muted (like the golgi reflex) via specific and targeted training?

Of course, very little in life is black and white; spectrums and gradients are the norm.  But the first study cited above might indicate that impaired E-C coupling counteracts benefits of the larger muscular cross sectional area, even in well above average (vs totally myostatin-absent) trainees.  Might this be another aspect of the governor feedback?  This is all very interesting stuff to consider.

And, of course, the very term “excessive hypertrophy” is highly subjective, and in the eye of the beholder.  I know it when I see it, though — and so does any coach who’s been in the game a while. There is a profound difference between an athletic build appropriate to the frame, and “excessive hypertrophy”.  Stay in the game long enough and you’ll know it when you see it, too.

The moral of the story?  Like many studies, the two cited above beg more questions than they ultimately answer.  Never a dull moment in the world of strength and conditioning.

In health, fitness and ancestral wellness -



  1. says


    Another layer to the onion….Some myokines (proteins secreted by muscle with autocrine/paracrine function) such as IL-15 determine how you respond on the size/strength continuum.

    Those with a double insertion of IL-15 will be quite massive but not very strong, where those with a double deletion will be very strong but with little hypertrophy response.

    Sometimes it is not (just) the training protocol, it is the inherent response of the subject to almost any protocol. To the coach it looks like something they produced via a training protocol, but it may be a selection bias at work.

    • theorytopractice says

      Very interesting indeed. Jeff Connors, the S&C coach at East Carolina, whom I’ve worked with and am honored to call a personal friend, used to say something along the lines of “muscle gonna do what muscle gonna do; train the CNS”. And it rings true in my experience. At least in those self-selected to play D1 football.

  2. Craig says

    I’m curious what you think about programs like Starting Strength, where the central theme is that you can never be too strong. These folks, of course, train for maximum strength, and not specifically for hypertrophy. But it is commonly accepted by them that you can’t get really strong without eating big, to get big. And if that means fatter as well as more muscular, so be it. (At least that is the message that sometimes comes across.) I suppose that works for strength athletes that aren’t competing in body weight classified sports. But in terms of most sports where speed is important, you can easily eat yourself out of a competitive position.

    • theorytopractice says

      Yes, you’re correct, Craig: eat big/lift big/never too strong *is* the underlying theme. But I’ll give Rip this — he did title the book *Starting* Strength. And in someone of a young training age, he’s right; strength does rule. Not that other qualities shouldn’t also be addressed, but in most cases, you can make a better athlete by making them stronger. Until you can’t. Strength and metabolic conditioning are bedrock qualities, not doubt. But at a certain point, an athlete’s program needs to be refined so as to erect a structure on that bedrock. At a certain point, strength begins to *not* be the limiter on power, speed and agility.

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