Muscle Growth for Athletic Performance
When we look at athletes, they usually have great physiques. We’re talking about great muscle definition and low body fat. They have a ‘solid’ appearance, which is a usual sign of their athletic prowess. We know that powerful muscles are useful in our sports but, how do we build strong, useful athletic muscle? The answer may surprise you…
How do muscles work?
The anatomy of a muscle in Shrek speak, is like an onion. There are fibres, within fibres and numerous layers.
At the smallest level, tiny cylindrical, parallel threads called myofibrils are packed together to form muscle fibres. These are the actual muscle cells. The muscle cells are assembled in bundles to form fascicles. Finally, the fascicles combine to form a muscle organ.
Briefly, we need to understand how a muscle contracts and relaxes. The key players are actin and myosin. Whilst a muscle is at rest, actin and myosin are disconnected. After numerous complex chemical processes, the myosin hooks onto the actin, which causes the muscles to shorten and contract.
What causes muscles to grow?
Those muscle cells that we talked about, are able to have their mass, density and shape altered. This is muscle growth or hypertrophy to use nerd speak. Muscle growth is dependent upon what we eat and the movement demands we subject our muscles to. We’re going to focus on the movement demands.
So, it seems that causes of muscle growth are being continually researched. In “Mechanisms of Hypertrophy” by Brad Schoenfeld, 3 main factors are outlined: Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress and Muscle Damage.
Stuart Phillips argues that motor unit recruitment and activation is a big part of the driver and suggests that metabolic stress and muscle damage are not primary drivers. To support the motor unit recruitment hypothesis, he references this study, highlighting the importance of load in motor unit recruitment.
Athletes need to be able to perform a range of skills and movements in order to perform to their optimum. So, it’s beneficial to focus on the movements involved in our activities, rather than muscles involved. With this in mind, motor unit recruitment becomes very important. We want to ensure the right muscles are recruited in a way that ensures optimal performance of a movement.
Bones move, joints feel, muscles REACT
This is a thought process adopted from FASTER. There are a number of forces that affect the way the body moves: Gravity, Ground Reaction and Momentum.
Proprioceptors in our joints and muscles detect how the body is moving. For example, they detect tension, lengthening, speed, when a joint is at end range. These proprioceptors then feedback to the brain what we’re up to terms of our movement and the environment. From there, muscles can contract in such a way as to guide the body away from danger and injury and towards success. This highlights the need for specific motor unit recruitment and so muscle activation.
Let’s not get confused
If we look at a 100m sprinter, they are rapid, powerful dudes. They’re also pretty muscly. So surely, to enhance sprinting performance, we look at the muscles involved in the movement and try to find a way to grow them?
For example, we could develop lower body muscle size, power and strength by squatting and deadlifting right? Yes, we could. An issue though. For sprinting, force is generated horizontally, rather than vertically. Also, arms and legs are moving in opposition to one another. The muscles do not experience huge amounts of tension in these activities either. So whilst a squat and deadlift will definitely build muscle mass, choosing an exercise from a muscle first approach, may cause us to develop muscles in movements that are too dissimilar to the movements an athlete is trying to improve at. We should look to develop muscle mass in a movement that is true to their function so that motor unit recruitment and so athletic performance is optimised.
Again looking to sprinting, whilst many studies reach the conclusion that exercises like squats, hip thrusts and deadlifts to improved athletic performance, they do not seem to take into account the impact of the athlete’s skill and technique program which is usually occurring at the same time. So we don’t know whether or not their performance improvements are due to their performance of these exercises or their skill and technique programs.
Another issue is that, in our view, the right questions are not being asked in the research. There remains a muscle first approach, which therefore means that exercises that focus on bringing muscles under tension are compared to one another. For example, this study compares the hip thrust to the front squat. Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare how the body reacts to movements that are similar to the activity or skill we’re trying to improve vs movements that focus on the muscles in the movement? So, for sprinting, why not compare the hip thrust to a hopping protocol?
This study took 8 recreational golfers and trained golf specific movements over an 8 week period. They were also instructed not to play golf during the training period. What happened? The strength, flexibility and balance components needed to improve their performance were all improved. To the point that when retested, their swing power and driving distance improved. Bear in mind, this happened without them playing any golf in the period. They were also all fairly proficient golfers who played 2-3 times a week, so we can assume that their skill level wasn’t undeveloped, which takes out the possibility of muscle growth occurring due to being a beginner.
Our belief is that simply Training muscles involved in movements does not go far enough in improving performance. Muscles do so much more than we think. They react to movement as well as cause movement. Let’s not unnecessarily bring a muscle under tension, to make it grow, when it may not experience high levels of tension in an activity. This usually causes muscles to develop in movements that are too dissimilar to the movements an athlete is trying to improve at.
Develop Athlete Muscle
Look at how the body moves in a movement or skill. Understand how gravity, ground reaction and momentum are influencing movement and so how muscles are decelerating these forces.
You might not even need a muscle growth program to develop the muscle you need to ensure favourable adaptations on muscle. Simply, prioritising skill development may cause muscle growth in itself, as the body slowly adapts to the specific demands you are creating.
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