Load and Hypertrophy, or, basketball doesn’t make you tall, gymnastics don’t make you small, genetics may make you put your head through a wall. A tale of correlation and causation.

Nearly one in five men 7 feet tall or over play in the NBA. In the 2012 Olympic Games, the average height of male gymnasts was just under 5’6.

Clearly, gymnastics correlates with shortness, and basketball correlates with tallness. But it’s another thing entirely to draw the conclusion that either sport is causative of height.


up and atom

Sorry, Bart.


Despite what concerned family members may have told us in our youths, gymnastic or weight training from a young age does not stunt growth. Just as elite basketball selects for height, elite gymnastics selects for a lack of it. The shorter someone is, the higher their strength to bodyweight ratio will be. Halil Mutlu, at 56kg, put 138kg over his head in a competition snatch; nearly 2.4x his bodyweight. The current world record holder at 105kg, Andrei Aramnau, would have to put 52kg on his current best competition snatch to equal that. Tall gymnasts are at a further disadvantage to their shorter competitors simply due to their length. The force necessary to resist the moment created by hanging in an iron cross, or to get a person spinning rapidly through the air, increases dramatically as someone gets longer. Short gymnasts are pound for pound stronger, and have an easier job to do. Tall gymnasts wash out.


His preworkout? People.

The body of a young man, forever ravaged by stunted growth.


Clearly, correlation does not equal causation.


Which brings us to broscience…

Novice lifters these days are spoiled for choice. Parsing the good programs from the bad can be next to impossible without some guidance. It makes sense that one might look to what the elites are doing and mimic them. If one’s goal is to be strong as all get out and have trouble fitting in to the jeans of a normal human (if the CEO of Levi’s is somehow reading this, please add a thigh measurement as a standard on all your jeans, and maybe mail me some jeans) then doing what weightlifters, powerlifters, and strongmen do makes sense. If your goal is to look like Arnold, then doing what bodybuilders do make sense.


If your goal is to look like this, I don't know what to tell you.

If your goal is to look like this, I don’t know what to tell you.


Because without any judgement at all, it is clear that the phenotypes of succesful elite athletes in any of these fields are drastically different.

And thus we get the great schism:


I know it says powerlifters, but the same logic applies.

I know it says powerlifters, but the same logic applies.


The conventional logic has always gone something like this:

  • bodybuilders train for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, increasing the size of their muscles while not really doing much for strength
  • weightlifters train for myofibrillar hypertropy and neuromuscular efficiency, focusing on strength over size
  • by mimicking them, we can selectively train for one or the other of these goals

And like all conventional logic, it’s starting to look like this may be a load of malarkey.


The new logic.

We all know someone who squats ridiculously heavy and seems to have little to show for it. We all know someone who seems to put on lean mass just from carrying their groceries. In an excellent article, Drew Baye proposes a reason why this may be the case, and it begins to look a lot like basketball and gymnastics.

“Contrary to the claims of many bodybuilders, trainers, and coaches, you can not selectively train for sarcoplasmic versus myofibrillar hypertrophy by working in different repetition ranges. While training with lower or higher repetition ranges can result in differences in improvements in strength relative to local muscular endurance, you can’t separate strength from hypertrophy. After the first couple months of training when neural adaptations contribute more to strength increases than hypertrophy, if you get stronger your muscles will be bigger, and if your muscles get bigger you will be stronger.The relationship between muscular strength and size varies between individuals due to numerous genetic factors, however, so regardless of how you train some people will gain a lot of strength without much size, some will gain a lot of size without getting very strong, and most of us will be somewhere in between… I suspect the belief you can selectively train for either sarcoplasmic or myofibrillar hypertrophy is based on observation of the difference in training between bodybuilders and strength athletes like powerlifters, and failure to consider selection bias as a significant factor in the differences in the relative muscular strength and size between the two”.

Bodybuilding selects for people with a high mass to strength ratio. Weightlifting selects for people with a low mass to strength ratio. The differences seen in the phenotypes of the elite may thus have more to do with their genotype than their training.

I really do suggest reading the full article, and following up on the citations he uses, as I don’t want this blog to become one of those alarmingly common fitness blogs that basically just rips off other writer’s content, but the TL;DR is:

  • when tonnage is matched, low reps and high reps produce similar levels of hypertrophy
  • sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is a biological impossibility, since “if this happened the energetics of the fibre would be a complete mess due to great, on a relative scale, increases in intracellular distances for chemical reactions”
  • “If your goal is to improve your performance in a specific range of repetitions you should train in that range, but if your goal is general improvements in strength and hypertrophy the optimal repetition range is whatever you respond best to based on your genetics”


Conclusions useful to us…

Weightlifting programming is as varied as any other fields, from the high volume Bulgarian splits to the more conservative American programming.

It goes without saying that we should train heavy singles and drill our technique. Technical proficiency in the lifts is half the battle.

The other half is being frighteningly strong and fast.

Depending on your personal genetics, that strength and speed is going to come with a certain amount of size, and with a certain kind of training.

Knowing your body and how it responds to tonnage, intensity, and volume, can help you to make informed training choices. Don’t shy away from sets of ten or twenty just because that’s what your favorite weightlifter does. Conversely, a set of fifteen heavy singles might get the job done better.

The only way to know is to find out.

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