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Athletes and the "Get Big" Lie

December 24, 2015

Male athletes that play youth/high school sports are being told a troubling lie right on the brink of puberty: they must “get big” to play at a high level.  First of all, athletes need to "get athletic" and "get strong" not "get big". Go look at your favorite athlete in high school or college and compare them to how they look when they play now... they were much smaller than other people might have thought they should have been to be at their best. Strength is an undeniable component of athletic development but proper athletic development is complex to train and stimulate. Shifting the focus of athletic development to purely “packing on muscle” is a sure fire way to ruin athletic promise. In fact, it is extremely important to long term athletic development that you do not force weight gain in a young athlete if you want to maximize their long term potential. The "get big" lie comes from the muscle and fitness magazines that sometimes trainers and coaches blindly follow. The problem is that these magazine articles and “experts” writing them are only focused on selling themselves, their products, and their body building routines. The truth is that no trainer will make your child taller any faster than they would have on their own. No trainer is going to bring on puberty any faster either. In this blog I will explain why you should focus on all elements of athletic development and never send your athlete to someone who will claim to make them "get huge". 



History of strength training:

Let me be clear to say that I feel it is important for athletes to get strong(er). My concern is that we associate strength with history by placing emphasis on the wrong things. The brunt of traditional strength training comes from body building. Most gyms and facilities are built from the body building influence that Arnold ushered in. The sport of bodybuilding does not yield ANY successful athletes outside of that sport. Isolation = incoordination. Powerlifting & olympic lifting have the same issue. Iron games are not crossing over and if they did the best lifters in the world would all be dominant professional sport athletes. This does not mean that body building, powerlifting, or olympic lifting are not tools to be considered, it simply means that we do not need to feel bound to them as the only way. Our profession is guilty of letting these sports define what we do. These sports are finite, extremely powerful, but only in one fixed direction- the sagittal plane. Strength training needs to prepare you like you perform - proprioceptively and from the demands of the sport. What makes this situation painful is watching parents send a youth to work with a body builder whom has no college degree but is “Huge”. Therefore, somehow physical appearance is the only or best requirement for someone to lead a youth in their athletic development.?!  These people do not know how to help athletes. They spend hours a day on themselves and have an unrealistic long term nutrition practices and possible drug habits. You need someone that has spent decades educating themselves on how to help others be the best, while also overseeing the long term athletic development of over thousands of athletes, not someone that is trying to make a poster of themselves. To be clear, someone that has trained Mr. Texas figure champ or is currently Mr. Universe is not a qualified performance specialist. Let us examine the truth on what is best for the development of youth athletes in the fold. We need to be open to understanding what we are actually doing with strength training.


"If we train muscles we will forget movements, but if we train movements we will never forget muscles"


The early pioneers of strength such as Mel Siff, listed several strength factors in their research:

max Strength, Speed, Power, Stamina, Suppleness(flexibility), Skill, Spirit


There is so much to consider while improving "strength". Where does traditional hypertrophy(getting big) fit? Watch any pro sport and tell me where hypertrophy is the difference maker? No NFL quartberback or MLB pitcher looks like the body builders at your gym. No lineman or basketball player does either. Hypertrophy is only useful in function if it is critical mass. Hypertrophy can be elusive. It is not just what you see in the muscle magazines. What clients that need hypertrophy must have is increased muscle cross sectional fiber which is functional for performance.


The Science of "Getting Big" (Muscle Hypertrophy)

There are two basic types of hypertrophy: Sarcoplasmic and Myofibrillar

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy- increased volume of sarcoplasm. This is NON functional hypertrophy. SH increases size by concentration of FLUID. Performing SH training has been proved to deter any neuromuscular facilitation for athletic development. SH gains tend to be seen, not felt. So, not great for performance but the primary source for body building. One of many methods for SH has been taught at 9-12 reps , 60-90 seconds per set, 70-80% 1RM.


Myofibrillar Hypertrophy- Enlarged muscle fibers due to increased myofibrillar density and therefore the addition of sarcomeres. This is functional hypertrophy that adds strength and potential for power. Think farm strong- ranchers, blacksmiths, miners. MH is a product of time and intensity. One of few methods for MH has been taught at 6-8 reps , 20-40 seconds per set, 80-85% of max.


It is important to understand the science of hypertrophy because so many youth athletes believe that this type of training is king. In addition, some trainers and adults do not understand the shortcomings / consequences of strictly SH training. It’s proven that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy decreases sprint speed and ground reaction speed, thus, decreases athleticism. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can only help an athlete in acute recovery(at isolated joint) and body composition. In a study conducted by Dr. Todd Miller at Washington University Medical Center in D.C. as little as 2% increases in non-functional mass such as fat or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can decrease anaerobic power production significantly. For example, a 170lb athlete gains 2% or 3.4lbs of non-critical mass: this could decrease vertical jump as much as 2 inches and 0.26 seconds off a 40yd dash. Those are big time numbers for an athlete just moving from 170 lbs to 173.4 lbs, in fact it’s a game changer. So, if your athlete is "getting big" on the pec deck or leg extension machine - you are building non-critical athleticism killing mass. Movements create athletes, isolation trains you to be uncoordinated. Again, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy gains tend to be seen and not felt. When possible, choose strength movements that integrate at minimum 2-3 joints and at best are a full body movement. Don’t buy into the talk about speed coming strictly from the weight room. Strength supports power, but power doesn't always translate to speed. Speed needs a master conductor to combine strength qualities and is coordination specific. Speed combines power, suppleness, and reactivity + skill.


When your athlete will benefit from gaining muscle:

For an athlete to develop athleticism and gain muscle mass at the same time several things need to happen. Youth athletes are not little men or women and cannot be trained as such. Scientific research plainly tells us that young athletes can improve and be positively effected short/long term with the appropriate training. This same research clearly shows us that the wrong type of training or focus can be an extreme detriment to long term athletic development and most importantly psychological development. 


Training the ages of 12-17 (roughly) bring unique challenges and, in my opinion, are the hardest athletes to train. Within this group you have 4 basic types: Pre-puberty, Peak Height Velocity(shooting up), Peak Weight Velocity(filling out), Post-puberty. All of these stages are very different and very complex.  Parents, coaches and athletes have to communicate / evaluate in order to identify which of these stages your athlete is in.


The pre-puberty athlete is an older version of the youth athlete. During this youth stage the only thing that can have an actual training result for performance can be contributed to nervous system development and cerebral maturation. This means that the best thing to do with this type of athlete is develop correct movement patterns, athletic motor skills, and inter/intramuscular coordination. Inter-muscluar coordination is the ability to use different muscles together harmoniously for greater coordination. Intramuscular is the coordination of the small fibers within a muscle working to full function with the proprioceptors. Within this youth stage is a window of opportunity to train the brain and nervous system for goals in which to grow the body. Simply put, you are programming a machine that will reveal itself later in life(post-puberty). After making that point, usually the first thing that comes to parents heads is strength training. A youth athlete