Seven Requirements for Building Functional Hypertrophy

About the Author: Eric Cressey

By Jimmy Smith, CSCS

If Looks Could Kill: All “Show” No “Go”

All too often, I’ll read about an athlete who has undergone an “intense” training program in the off-season to build muscle for the upcoming year. I’ll see that the athlete did the leg press with “X” amount of weight for 15 reps, or read about the endurance athlete who did a 45-minute circuit training workout with no rest intervals because his sport requires him to go non-stop for 30 minutes. Every athlete’s goal is to come into the season bigger, stronger and faster. However, while they look physically impressive in their first few games, they are moving and cutting slower than an old lady trying to get in front of someone at the grocery store register. So why is all this hard earned muscle mass costing them success? Simply put, it’s not “functional”.

Before you start training you need to have a clear understanding of what functional hypertrophy is; not having a clue in this regard could screw up your results more than a terrible training program, lackluster effort, and inadequate nutrition. First, it’s important to define what functional hypertrophy is NOT. Functional hypertrophy is not squatting with a barbell on your back while balancing on a Swiss ball. Functional hypertrophy is a quest to attain the most usable amount of muscle mass that your body can efficiently handle to make you effective in your given sport.

Requirement #1: Use Compound Movements.

I still see athletes and weekend warriors alike training for “sport muscle” by doing curls and leg presses; this just isn’t going to cut it. Today, athletes are expected to be bigger, stronger and faster. You need to stick with the “money exercises” that allow you to use the heaviest load possible, involve multiple joint articulations, and stimulate a large amount of muscle mass. As an added bonus, the majority of these movements are performed in the standing position, meaning that you will need to display proper control of your body. Postural control is a very under-valued aspect of sports. Do you think you could catch a football if every time you attempted to cut you tripped over yourself? Emphasizing compound movements will allow you to avoid the bottleneck training effect, which states that when one joint is significantly weaker, the performance of the entire kinetic chain is weaker. For example, being weak in knee extension limits the amount of weight you can use during the squat. Compound exercises are also more likely to increase your anabolic response to training, which is paramount when you’re attempting to increase lean muscle tissue.

Requirement #2: Train Primarily in the 6-8 Rep Range.

Since you’re attempting to build muscle that will allow you to perform at a higher level and not pose on stage, you need to focus mainly on the 6-8 rep range instead of the traditional 8-12 rep range for “size”. Don’t get me wrong, though; reps 10+ can be very beneficial for connective tissue health, so you’d be wise to include some work in those reps ranges to stay healthy. However, utilizing 6-8 reps will allow you to use the highest load possible while still ensuring that you receive the optimal volume to provide a growth stimulus. Just as importantly, training in the 6-8 rep range will provide more favorable neural adaptations to facilitate strength gains. If you feel like you need to change things up, try to rotate exercises before raising the reps. This will ensure that you’re still in the “sport muscle” range. If you do feel the need to change to higher reps, go ahead; just be sure not to overdo it for too long.

Requirement #3: Avoid Body Part Splits.

If you’re trying to get HUGE, do you really think it’s going to translate over to exploding up for a rebound? Is there a need to perform 15 sets for your biceps? No. Body part splits should be out of the question. By having a “chest day” or “shoulder day”, you force yourself to train too often with too much volume and not enough intensity. You’re producing immediate, cumulative, and delayed fatigue, which will all negatively affect your performance. Instead, focus on splits like Upper/Lower body, Push/Pull, and Quad/Hip dominant routines and, if you can, Full Body routines. These splits not only allow you to train more efficiently, but aid in correcting postural imbalances, which often exist because of the lack of antagonistic training. This correction will lead to increased muscle activation that will have a trickle down effect on your functional hypertrophy gains.

Requirement #4: Train to Increase Your Cross-Sectional Area Through Strength and Size Increases.

There are two ways in which a muscle can increase its cross-sectional area (CSA): neural improvements and hypertrophy. The larger the CSA, the more force you can produce. All too often, athletes will focus on either neural or hypertrophy gains. Why not both at the same time? If you increase your muscle mass – but not your maximal strength – do you really think you’re going to be able to hit a ball 405 feet? Explode off of a drop-step and throw it down? How about improving your long jump? It doesn’t matter how functional the hypertrophy is; if it doesn’t have corresponding neural improvements, then it’s not going to be advantageous. If you flip the coin and only train to get stronger, you will never reach your peak of strength gains. How many rail thin Olympic lifters have you seen? How many power lifters have small triceps and upper backs? Just take a look at top strongman Marisz Pudzianowski – he “gets it!”

They all know that the bigger a muscle is the more force they will be able to display. So while you’re getting stronger, get bigger.

Here is a table of guidelines for your maximal strength and functional hypertrophy work:

Strength Quality Maximal Strength                              Functional Hypertrophy

Sets Work up to a Max of 1-3 reps                                  3-4

Reps 1-3                                                       6-8

Time Under Tension 0-20s                                                  20-40s

Rest 3-5 minutes                                           2-3 minutes

Requirement #5: Limit the Amount of Aerobic Work That You Do.

“If you want to get big, don’t do cardio.” This is something any bodybuilder can tell you. It doesn’t directly apply to you in the athletic population, but it does have merit. First off, you are attempting to build muscle in the off-season, so you do not want to do anything to compromise your rate of growth. You’re working hard to add muscle mass, yet you feel the need to do aerobic work as well. How much can you really do before one or both objectives are comprised? This is known as the interference effect. When the body is exposed to two different types of training, it will choose one over the other. In most cases the body will choose the less demanding activity, which in this case is the aerobic work. So relax on the aerobic activity, you’ll thank yourself later. Plus, who really likes to do it anyway?

Requirement #6: Use Compensatory Acceleration Training.

Athletic movements are explosive, so why train differently? Each concentric contraction should be done in a dynamic effort fashion to ensure that you are maximizing motor unit recruitment and teaching your body to react as quickly as possible. An increase in acceleration increases muscular tension that enhances the training effect of the exercise. It is important to note that it is the brain’s intent – not the actual velocity of the bar – that dictates the training outcome. Even if it does not seem like you’re moving the load explosively, as long as you aim to do so, you will. I think I can, I think I can!

Requirement #7: Don’t Overload the Central Nervous System with Excessive Isometrics and Eccentric Contractions.

When an athlete (or anyone for that matter) first attempts to increase muscle mass, they immediately look at “going slow on the way down” or eccentric loading. While this is great for inducing muscle mass gains, it does come at an expense to the central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS is responsible for recruiting motor units in addition to establishing the motor patterns that are going to be used. CNS fatigue will result in less than optimal muscular output, which is detrimental to your training results. Eccentrics may also lead to excessive delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which can impair subsequent performance. Instead, I choose to have my athletes just control the weight on the way down.

Isometric contractions, although not as taxing on our CNS as eccentric contractions, can still have the same negative effect. However, isometric work can have a pronounced effect on motor unit recruit, as it leads to an increased capacity of your CNS to access them. It has also been proven that a single isometric action that is immediately followed by a dynamic action can make that dynamic action more effective. Basically, your fast movement gets faster.

Integrating eccentric and isometric muscle actions can be tricky, so here are a few tips to keep you on track:

1. When using eccentric work, keep your time under tension around 20-40 seconds.

2. Do not eccentrically load for more than one exercise per session.

3. If you incorporate isometric muscle actions, keep the static contraction around 3-5 seconds.

4. Focus on using them at the weakest point of your lift. You’ll notice that the sticking point is no longer present and you’ll have thrown more weight up.

Wrap Up

These are my seven most important suggestions for any athlete who desires to develop functional muscle mass. Following these steps and training hard, you’ll notice that your new muscle mass is a lot more “go” than “show.” Enjoy the benefits; I know your competition won’t!

About the Author

Jimmy Smith is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and performance enhancement coach in Southwestern Connecticut. Jimmy has helped athletes of all levels and people alike achieve their training goals. He specializes in body composition, performance enhancement, and corrective training. You can contact Jimmy at