Tuesday, June 5, 2012

CrossFit for Hypertrophy?

I have a special treat for you guys today, the first ever guest post! This was written up by my good friend and co-worker Dan after we visited the CrossFit Northeast Regional Games this past weekend at the Reebok headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts. Dan is extremely knowledgeable and I've been bugging him for some time to write a guest post. These are his thoughts, not mine (even though we often share the exact same thoughts). Enjoy! - M.A.



This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Northeast Regionals for the CrossFit Games.  I say pleasure because it was really an incredible experience.  As an athlete and avid lifter/meathead/training junkie, it was everything I love all wrapped up in one.  Vendors selling barbells, protein shakes, cool shirts with awesome sayings (the winner of the weekend was a shirt that sported the famous Rippetoe quote "Strong people are harder to kill"), attractive well-muscled women in spandex, and awesome athletes pouring their heart and souls into competition.  It's easy, and fairly common, for people in the strength and conditioning world to bash CrossFit, but those who do are usually un-educated as to its inner workings and purpose.  CrossFit, as a sport and fitness modality for the general population (when applied properly), is fantastic and entertaining. Only when they try and apply their training principles to other sports does an issue arise. I am familiar with the whole CrossFit scene, as I am a "Level 1 CrossFit Trainer," but something struck me a while ago and I could never figure it out..the awe-inspiring levels of hypertrophy possessed by many of the elite athletes (males and ESPECIALLY female).


I am a student of science: I've spent a lot of my time with my nose in the books, and would like to think I have a fairly solid grasp of the physiological mechanism of hypertrophy.  Traditionally, hypertrophy has been defined as the physiological adaption of increasing the size of a sarcomere or sarcoplasm (or both) of a muscle in response to an imposed mechanical demand; ultimately resulting in increased muscle size.  Countless textbooks and meathead library essentials like Arnold's "Encyclopedia of A Bodybuilder" have been written talking about various methods for building muscle size and not one of them mentions wall-ball or double unders. But the more closely I examine the over-arching principles of hypertrophy, the more I realize CrossFit has many built into their sport. Lets take a closer look, shall we?

It has long been thought of that hypertrophy comes from training in the 8-12 repetition range, with sets lasting between 40-70 seconds achieving the "ideal" time under tension (TUT) for muscle growth, but is this the only way to get bigger? I personally don't think so. I don't want to get too far in depth into the science of muscle growth so I'll try and be as clear as possible.  Studies have shown that a hypertrophy stimulus is best achieved with the aforementioned time under tension. Any longer and the load is deemed too light to illicit that response and becomes muscular endurance work. Fair enough. But In most of these studies they used single joint exercises and had subjects that probably weren't willing to go until the point of developing rhabdomyolysis. (I don't have the exact studies on-hand, and don't feel like digging them up at the moment so feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt). CrossFit may not obey these guidelines, but their system possesses many elements that can potentially lead to hypertrophy.The following is a quick list of some of what I deem the ...

"Hypertrophic Element of CrossFit" 

1) Full body barbell movements for a shit-ton of reps: The human body is unaware that you are only exercising when you lift weights, it views this act as necessary for survival and function, and adaptation occurs accordingly.  So when you do a workout like "Grace" (30 Clean and Press for time) the body doesn't know you are trying to beat a PR; it sees a load that needs to be moved and it recruits the necessary motor units to do that job.  The mechanical stress on the body will, in fact, cause an adaptation to occur, and the sheer repetitive volume/TUT of the lift will in fact produce a favorable hormonal response leading to the hypertrophy. Its no surprise to anyone that a high volume of the tried and true barbell lifts will result in lean mass gains so lets continue on to our second hypertrophic element of Crossfit.


2) Constant Variation: Part of CrossFits' central defining tenant is that it is "CONSTANTLY VARIED high intensity functional movement."  If you survey any top bodybuilder, or any strength coach in the know they will tell you that one of the most important factors for hypertrophy is a program that offers ample variation of one training variable or another.  When I asked a now very controversial strength coach what the most important factor in hypertrophy program was his response was (loosely quoted) "Variety and hard work." By attacking different motor units through working in different rep ranges and movements you force the body to adapt into growth, this is the same principle we see when a bodybuilder may go from a high rep volume intensive phase to a lower rep intensity focused block, except in CrossFit this happens on a much more frequent basis.

3) Proper eating: If there's one thing CrossFitter's and CrossFit nailed, it's diet.  They largely espouse the "Paleo Diet" which consists of meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and not a whole lot else.  If we look at diet as the raw material for hypertrophy to occur, this covers that need pretty well. The "glaring" weakness this diet has in comparison to a traditional bodybuilder diet is the lack of starchy carbs, which certainly have their place when one is looking to gain LBM (lean body mass). However the diet does make concessions for things like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and squash, which if eaten in proper amounts would sufficiently bridge that gap. I don't want to focus too much on nutrition, I only want to note that many CrossFitter's pay ample attention to nutrition and food quality, and cover their bases for essential amino and fatty acids.   

4) Advanced Body-weight/Gymnastics Movements: Look at a high level gymnast. Now, feel like a small pussy. Ok, now back to reality.  Gymnasts sport impressive levels of hypertrophy (specifically in the upper body) especially those involved in the ring and parallel bar events.  While the movements CrossFit incorporates aren't exactly Maltese holds and Iron Crosses (totally savage movements), the muscle up and hand stand pushup aren't exactly anything to scoff at (I used to...then I tried them). By using the more difficult bodyweight exercise variations for a large volume CrossFit has once again stacked the deck to promote hypertrophy.


5) Competitive Atmosphere: Watch Joey Jack-off do a set of curls at the local Gold's gym...now watch the same ass-clown do a set of curls when there are two really big dudes near him and a smoking hot gym bunny...chances are good that he pushed a little harder than normal.  While a comical example, this is valid and viable reason why CrossFit athletes are so big and lean. You have contending Alpha Males looking to beat you and win the heart of the lovely lady in the cheek-squeezers and knee-highs, so you empty the tank in an effort to stop that from happening. A simple evolutionary instinct at work. This comes back to what I mentioned earlier about the one of the keys to a hypertrophy program being hard work. If you are, quite literally, giving everything you have in every workout, your results will show it.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and is really just the result of a little reflection on my part. I know I didn't give any citations or get too in-depth, but my goal wasn't to write a scientific article, so calm down. Although, that may come later. 

So whats the bottom line here? CrossFit Games athletes work their balls off: they lift heavy, they lift for high reps, they sprint, and they do challenging bodyweight exercises for high reps. Then they do it all over again trying to get a better time.  Basic movements done for a high volume, with proper eating and recovery, will result in growth and these athletes are living proof. They may not obey the "rules" of hypertrophy training as we know them, but they certainly respect it's LAWS, and you can't argue with results.

Dan is a graduate of Springfield State College where he received his BS in Applied Exercise Science. He is certified as an NSCA CSCS, ACSM CPT, CrossFit Level 1, PICP and Level 1 BioSignature. An athlete his whole life, Dan has competed in both power lifting and strongman competitions. 

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