Why Athletes Should Get Jacked

KEY POINTS:

  1. Muscle mass is correlated to both strength and sprinting performance
  2. Strength is limited by muscle size
  3. Training for muscle size can enhance gains in power (phase potentiation)

Disclaimer: This article is for power (explosive) athletes – not endurance athletes.  With these power-athletes, they should only train muscles to get jacked if they later need them to be strong and explosive (e.g. glutes in sprinting, and quadriceps in jumping).


The Misconception of Bodybuilding

Jacked. adjective: (of a person) having very well-developed muscles.

People hate bodybuilding.  They hate it because they know nothing about it.

Train for a couple years, put on 20 pounds of muscle, and everyone loses their minds.

You eat too much protein, you’re trashing your muscles, you’re hurting your kidneys and liver.

Let’s say you take those same couple of years, let yourself go, and gain 20 pounds of fat.  No one would bat an eye!

You could go run half marathons and everyone would be at peace.

But decide to get jacked and everyone gets offended.

This is how the general public is towards gaining muscle – confused.  And because they’re confused, they’re scared.

I have the same experience with athletes who seek gains in explosiveness (e.g. jumping, sprinting, throwing, hitting, and changing direction). They don’t understand size, so they fear it.

When training these athletes, a primary goal is to increase power output. If I can get them displaying more force in a shorter time (more power) – all things being equal – they will be a better athlete.

We work the strength side of power by training heavy – they understand the need for this.

We work the speed side of power by training fast – they understand the need for this as well.

But if we work to increase muscle size, everyone freaks out!

I don’t want to get too big, more size will slow me down, training to get big is useless.

So what’s the deal?  Are athletes actually right to avoid size gains?  Or can it actually benefit them?

First of all, there is some correlation evidence that size helps both strength and power:

Strength: More muscular Powerlifters are more successful than less muscular counterparts [2, 14, 32].

Takeaway: Power = Strength x Speed.  More muscle may help with the Strength component of Power.

Power: Shorter distance sprinters generally have significantly more muscle mass than longer distance runners [30].  Leg muscle volume is significantly correlated with maximal running velocity [4].  The main factor for differences in gender in peak and mean power output during a Wingate cycling test (which is correlated with short-distance sprinting [18, 21]) is the muscle mass of the lower extremities [22].

Takeaway: Muscle mass correlates to the high power activity of sprinting, perhaps because sprinting requires high amounts of force [31].  And since sprinting is related to change of direction ability [3, 6, 23, 28], muscle may also help to increase performance in that regard.

So again, what’s the deal?  Why does more muscle mass correlate to strength and power?


Why Size Benefits Strength

There are factors of strength:
Individual differences
Central nervous system factors and
Muscular factors [1, 8, 12, 20, 34]

The muscular factor of focus here is hypertrophy.  Hypertrophy is defined as an increase in the size of muscle fibers.  On the whole, this causes an increase in cross-sectional area (CSA) of the muscle.  Generate a lot of hypertrophy (increase CSA) and this gives the look of being jacked.

Muscle strength and cross-sectional area are significantly positively correlated [17].  CSA strongly predicts strength in the forearm [29], upper arm [9, 24], knee extensors [16, 24, 29], and distinguishes strength differences among trained and untrained individuals [15].

So here’s the deal: Size limits strength. There are many ways to get stronger, but to see long-term gains, you simply must grow. Getting your muscles bigger serves to increase you potential for strength. And in the quest for maximal power – jumping high, sprinting fast, and being explosive – strength is imperative to develop.


Get Jacked First

People much smarter than me have established a system that optimizes power development.

Gregory Haff et al. recommends the concept of phase potentiation.  This is where the adaptations from one phase of training serve as the foundation for the next phase.  They are:

1) Increase muscle cross-sectional area 2) Increase muscular strength and 3) Maximize power development [10].

Evidence to support this come from DeWeese et al. who reviewed the literature and mathematical modeling of Minetti et al. [19] and Zamparo et al. [33].  They propose the same type of training plan:

1) Increase cross-sectional area (CSA) – or hypertrophy 2) Increase in central effects of force production and 3) Develop additional nervous system effects through power training [7].

Both of these recommendations tell us this:  First, get jacked.  Then get strong.  Then get powerful.

With the concept of phase potentiation, we can say this: Size is potential Strength and Strength is potential Power.

Increase size and you have more raw material (muscle) to turn into strength.

Increase strength and you are able to use heavier loads with power training (which is typically done at 30-60% load [5, 11].

Phase potentiation – This is why I train athletes to increase muscle mass.  So that they can be more powerful than ever possible had they not added size.


How to Get Jacked

Muscle hypertrophy results from the interplay between mechanical tension and metabolic stress [25].  Lifting extremely heavy (1-5 rep max) causes high mechanical tension, but low metabolic stress.  Lifting very light (20+ rep max) causes high metabolic stress but little mechanical tension.  Although you can get jacked using only heavy weight [27], you’ll get more high quality work done in less time training in the 6-12 rep range (where mechanical tension and metabolic stress are balanced).  Also, the high volume required to induce significant hypertrophy [13] will be too taxing to get from only heavy work.  To get the most gains, you must keep quality of effort high, which may mean longer rest periods [26].

My general recommendation is this: Give yourself enough time.  It can take months to get significant size gains.  Therefore, get jacked in the early off-season (gaining 1-2 lbs. per week) so it can be transferred to strength and power later.  And if you want to train muscle size more often, do it when it won’t interfere with more demanding strength or power work (at the end of the week or workout).

Size is not the enemy for power-athletes.  Done properly and in a timely fashion, getting jacked can take your strength and explosiveness to new levels.  Not to mention it makes you look like a beast.

Caveat: This article addressed size in relation to power.  Size in relation to endurance deserves its own article.  There are detriments to adding size without maintaining your conditioning.  Play and practice your sport throughout a mass phase and you will negate many of the negative effects.


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