Two proven ways to build muscle mass and strength

Depending on the requirements of a particular sport, people tend to aim toward achieving ideal weight, to improve sports performance. The nature of the sport shapes the body, in a way to be able to respond to the requirement posed by a specific activity. 

Every sport uses different training modalities that ultimately are responsible for your body image. Those involved in endurance sports tend to be skinny and light, whereas athletes competing in strength sports tend to be muscular, lean and bulky. Some athletes have developed upper body and other lower body.

In the karate sport, looking from the perspective of an athlete competing in kumite, maintaining a good (healthy) weight is crucial. A kilo can make a difference and put you into an undesired, awkward position, wrapped up in plastic bags while trying to get sweat and get the water out of your body.

For kata athletes, it could be the other way around. As getting closer to a senior level, optimal muscle mass is needed in order to have a better visual effect (more powerful punches and blocks). Therefore, a training plan for muscle hypertrophy could be included as part of the training routine.

However, a standard plan might have a negative effect on speed, power, and agility, and with that on the performance later on. So, a more suitable way to gain weight without losing power and strength is by focusing on power/strength and hypertrophy simultaneously.

Types of muscle hypertrophy 

Your muscle, depending on the load, the number of sets and reps, and speed of execution, experience specific structural changes, and fatigue. This results in increased muscle size, with changes happening in two ways.

One way for getting more muscle is through myofibrillar hypertrophy (increasing the contractile part of the muscle). The other one happens through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy ( the increase of the non-contractile part of the muscle).

What’s the difference? 

As mentioned, the myofibrillar hypertrophy affects the volume and size of the contractile proteins (actin and myosin) in the muscle, affecting the level of strength it can produce. So you get bigger and stronger and at the same time. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy on the other side increases the volume of the sarcoplasm (fluid surrounding the myofibrils). The sarcoplasm is an energy tank responsible for storing ATP, creatine phosphate, glycogen. Therefore it should not be totally avoided. 

Whether we can focus solely on myofibril or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy through different training modalities is unclear. And most likely while focusing on one (myofibril) the other one (sarcoplasmic) will occur to a certain extent as well.  

Now, instead of going down the rabbit hole, trying to explain facts and hypotheses, let’s see the practical application of training modalities that will help you to get the most of your hypertrophy training and pack some muscle and get stronger. 


Workout Plan for getting bigger and stronger 

First of all this is not the one and only muscle building plan that you can find. And certainly it does not mean that other do not work. This are simply my thought (science based) on what could be the most appropriate way to introduce muscle building program as part in your karate practice.

Both approaches have been proven to give results in terms of increased power/strength and muscle size. Which one you choose will depend on personal preferences, time, and experience.


Strength and Muscle building approach #1

This workout plan has been adopted from the Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training (PHAT) approach and modified for sport-specific purposes. The training plan is comprised of two parts that cover two training modalities: 

  1. Strength/Power Training – This part is done at the start of a microcycle (week). The exercises are grouped into two groups, for the upper and lower body, and put in two separate workouts. 
  2. Hypertrophy Training – same as in the strength part, the exercises are arranged in two workouts. The first workout focuses on the upper body and the second one on the lower body. 

Both pieces of training complement each other. Strength training will teach you and make you stronger and more comfortable with handling big weights. As Pavel Tsatsouline (the person who introduced the Russian kettlebell to the West in 1998) says, Strength First.

Furthermore, it will improve the efficiency of your CNS and its ability to recruit more motor units, and with that, produce more force. This is increasing your strength will support into the hypertrophy training where you need to push the limits and go through discomfort.  

It is essential to understand that besides the importance of muscle damage (microscopic damage), followed by regeneration through the protein synthesis process (making new proteins), mechanical tension plays a vital role in building bigger muscles as well.

Research shows that mechanical tension could be even more important that muscle damage. And this can be done with lifting heavy loads.

On the other side, we can’t say that the traditional bodybuilding approach for hypertrophy does not work, because it does. The difference is that you will work with lighter weight (approximately 70% of max), and do more repetition (8-12). Also, in hypertrophy training, you need to emphasize time under tension (30-45 sec), which means you have to work until muscle failure or can’t move the load anymore to get results in muscle gain.

Both higher and lower training loads training have a positive impact on muscle size. However, high load training causes more significant increases is strength. This was shown in the meta-analysis done by scientists from Lehman College and Victoria University. More information about this you can find in this interview with James Krieger.

This how strength and hypertrophy workouts routine would look like.

Monday – Upper Body Strenght 

Tuesday – Lower Body Strenght 

  • Squat (3-4 sets x 4-6 reps) 75 – 85 % max
  • Deadlift (3-4 sets x 4-6 reps) 75 – 85 % max, pay attention to developing good technique before increasing the intensity (weight)
  • Standing Calf Raises (3-4 sets x 4-6 reps) 75 – 85 % max
  • Core 

Wednesday – Rest 

Thursday – Upper Body Hypertrophy 

Friday – Lower Body Hypertrophy 

Saturday – Rest Day 

Sunday – Rest Day 


Strength and muscle building approach #2

If the previous approach on is too demanding and does not allow proper recovery or does not leave enough energy for other activities related to karate, the following type of a straight training might be the answer.

In a nutshell, this training approach has been developed by Michael Matthews, the author of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger. And this is what he proposes as an guideline for building strength and muscle:

  • Focus on two to three major muscle gourds per training. This means you would have one Push Day (chest, shoulders, and triceps), Pull Day (back and biceps) and Less Day.
  • Perform 4-6 repetitions per set. Do 3-4 HARD sets per exercise (this means you should work with heavy loads).
  • Do 9-15 hard sets per workout. This means that the total number of sets, from all the exercises, should be between 9 and 15 sets.
  • Rest 2-4 minutes between sets. Give your self enough time to recover. The biggest mistake you can do is to cut the rest time.

Here is three and four days training routines.

Wrapping up

Which training routine you choose is up to you. It will depend on your daily schedule, time, resources. If you are new to the weight training, you will see and notice results fast even we smaller loads. For those with previous experience in weight lifting, focus on lifting heavy loads during strength days and time under tension in hypertrophy workouts.

Start slow and try to find the ideal number of sets per exercise/workout that allows you to recover and avoid overtraining. I great way to prevent overtraining is by including a de-loading week where you cut the volume by 50%.

Pump it up … and feel free to share your thoughts and experience.

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