Functional hypertrophy is one of those terms tossed around in the world of fitness that eludes a lot of people. This is unfortunate because training for functional hypertrophy is one of the best things you can do for your health and performance. Why is functional hypertrophy essential?
First, we need to clarify what it means. Functional hypertrophy is really just a fancy way of saying “usable muscle.” The term “functional” refers to the fact that you are training in a strategic way so that you perform at your best in athletics and everyday life. Hypertrophy means “muscle growth” and it occurs because the existing muscle fibers get larger due to mechanical loading (weight lifting).
There are two types of hypertrophy: Sarcomere hypertrophy is the increase in the size and number of sarcomeres in the muscle fiber. Sarcomeres contract to make a muscle move. This type of hypertrophy leads to greater strength.
A second kind of hypertrophy is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which occurs when there is an increase in non-contractile proteins and fluids in the muscle fiber. The cross-sectional area of the muscle increases, making the muscle larger. However, the density of muscle fibers decreases, which means that strength is reduced per cross-sectional area. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the opposite of functional hypertrophy. It is often used by body builders who want to make their physiques more imposing.
To better understand the distinction, let’s look at functional hypertrophy in different sports. Consider sprinting: A sprinter needs to maximize speed and explosiveness without gaining too much total body weight. The heavier a sprinter is, the more force will be necessary to propel the body forward during a race. Therefore, a sprinter needs to train in a way that will make them faster and more powerful without inducing too much gain in total body weight.
In comparison, a football linebacker needs to be explosive and quick, but they also need to be heavy to be able to block and push players who weigh around 300 pounds. A lineman who is very strong who only weighs 180 lbs would be run over by a 300 pounder even if the 180 pounder is stronger and can bench press more weight.
A third example is a distance runner. Endurance athletes are notorious for being unwilling to lift heavy weights due to fear that this will increase body mass. This fear is unfounded if they train properly, however, it is true that carrying excess body fat or muscle mass in the form of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy would adversely affect endurance and place a burden on the cardiovascular system.
What about people in the general population?
Most people in the general population are spinning their wheels trying to lose body fat with exercise when really they should attend to their nutrition and shift their training to focus on building functional muscle. Why is this?
First, by training for muscle, you will support your metabolism, raising the number of calories your body burns at rest. This will make achieving fat loss that much easier.
Second, it can help you get rid of chronic pain. A lot of the pain we experience on a daily basis is due to faulty movement patterns and strength imbalances. Training for strength will correct those imbalances and train us to move correctly, while also counteracting the inflammation that develops in joints, leading to arthritis.
Third, muscle mass is the strongest predictor of longevity and it is linked to greater survival of a number of diseases including cancer. Muscle mass is protective because it improves your metabolic health, while increasing your reservoir of lean tissue that will sustain you during times of disease when your body is in a catabolic, muscle degrading state.
Fourth, you hit the higher threshold motor units, training all of your beautiful muscle. You’ve probably heard of the term “use it, or lose it,” which refers to the fact that if we don’t use the muscle fibers we have, they will atrophy (the opposite of hypertrophy), shrink, and be useless. Those of us who never lift anything heavier than a suitcase off the ground never recruit the higher threshold muscle fibers that are especially powerful and key predictors of longevity.
Fifth, not only does functional hypertrophy training activate a greater proportion of motor units, but it targets the entire neuromuscular system that is made up of the spine and sensory nerves, and the motor neurons, which activate the muscles to contract. When you build neuromuscular strength, you increase the efficiency of the signal that gets sent from the central nervous system to the muscle, making it contract with more strength.
What Does Functional Hypertrophy Training Look Like In Real Life?
A functional hypertrophy program will be unique to the individual, but an example would be to use Giant Sets. A giant set is a group of four exercises that target one part of the body. For instance, a lower body giant set would be as follows:
A1. Eccentric enhanced squats
A2. Heel-elevated squats to isolate the quads
A4. Trap bar deadlifts
This is an excellent way to shock the lower body into getting stronger, while stimulating protein synthesis for muscle growth and also training cardiovascular fitness.