Bulletproof Your Athlete with Hypertrophy by Ricky McFarlane

Fortify You! How to decrease field injuries by adding hypertrophic and Odd training to develop you own hardcore body armor.


It may be me, but I seem to hear of a lot more impact and field based injuries in athletes nowadays than I did when I first started playing competitive sports. What I ask myself is why? Are the new bunches of young athletes soft? Are the referees getting more lenient with dangerous play?

Personally I don’t think the rise in field injuries is due to those. What I do think it’s down to is the fact that youth athletes and the general athletic population are getting bigger, faster and more powerful. With this increase in athletic output comes the ability to hit harder or the field, and put more force through the ground and joints. What I am going to try and provide in this article is an explanation on how I help fortify my athletes, why I do it and how I implement it into their weekly routine.

Hypertrophic training has got a bad rap in recent years with the rise of the “functional craze”, and sometimes it has been justifiable. However, the majority of the time I see a blatant lack of thought going into people’s arguments as to why, high repetition or hypertrophy is bad for athletic performance.

First, the argument that adding hypertrophy to your workout will slow you down, and you will become rigid and stiff, is floored. Maybe initially the feeling of fatigue will cause a reduction in power output, but in the long run a bigger muscle generally has the capacity to become a stronger muscle, and strength is a major factor in sprint speed, jumping power and agility etc.

Secondly, you will only become stiff if you allow yourself to become stiff. If you are going to undertake some hypertrophic training, make sure you tailor you recovery work to manage it! I am not saying that hypertrophy training should be the be all and end all of your training. What I am saying is that it has its place! I also understand that the majority of the exercises spoken about in this article aren’t fancy, big Instagram lifts but they will help you! And as Travis says, “to be a champion you have to become the master of the mundane”.

Upper back/shoulders/traps


You will never see a guy with huge back, traps and shoulders that’s weak! Adding mass to the muscles of the upper back and shoulder Area
To protect athletes on the field is like adding an extra Kevlar vest in a gunfight, It Just Helps!

Adding extra tissue to the anterior should girdle (serratus anterior/ pec minor) and posterior shoulder girdle (Traps, rhomboid min/maj and levator scapula) will aid in the solidarity of your shoulder joint during on the field collisions or activities that are directly effect that area. Light high repetition work on the rotator cuff muscles will also aid in Injury prevention, overall creating a stronger healthier shoulder area.

Adding musculature to the thoracic and cervical region of the upper back and neck will also aid in injury reduction, especially when taking contact in rugby or football (American) and MMA. If you had the choice wouldn’t you want some extra padding in those areas?

A couple of my go to exercises for the upper back and neck are:

Upper back/traps
– Prone lying upper back fly
– Blackburns
– Face pulls
– Dumbbell shrugs

– Resisted mini band ISO Hold

– Z Press
– Shoulder matrix (lateral raise, front raise, rear delt fly)


Lower back/abdominals

The lower back has to be strong for field sports, end of story! Your lower back is going to take a hell of a lot of stress during on the field activities. If we think about the energy transfer from a tackle during a game for example, a huge amount of force is going to go through your should down your upper back and into the lower back where It will be transferred to the lower body. If the lower back and abdominals are rigid and strong then the energy transfer will not take as bigger toll on you as it would if you had the rigidity of a wet noodle.

In terms of abdominal training, I don’t want you to read this and go do a thousand crunches ” cause Ricky said do a ton of abdominal work bro!” What I am saying is when programming you or your athletes abdominal or Trunk exercises think about how we move as humans. Do we walk around in a flexed spine position with our hip flexors shortened? I hope not!! What we do, do however is require a ton of anti rotational strength, rotational strength, and anti flexion/extension strength. In Lehman’s terms we need to be able to resist being twisted, we need to be able to twist and we have to be able to maintain a neutral spine position under load, impact and the stress’s and tasks of every day life!

A couple of my go to exercises for the upper back and neck are:

Lower back
– Good mornings
– Back extensions

– Unilaterally loaded farmers walks
– Overhead walks/lunges
– Seated banded anti rotation holds
– The rigid squat



A well-developed balanced set of legs will dramatically decrease chance of injury. Increasing muscle mass could not only increase power output but will help increase stability and durability on the field. When adding the hypertrophic work to the lower body routine in my athletes I usually like to mainly use unilateral exercises. Unilateral exercises will aid with muscular balance, stability, proprioception and symmetry. When I say symmetry I mean having both legs on a similar standard without major Imbalances. Decreasing the difference is strength, stability, mobility etc. in both will aid in sprint performance, jumping performance and movement. If one leg is trailing behind the over then your are going to lose force every time that given leg is asked to work and this is counter productive to sports performance.

A couple of my go to exercises for the legs are:

-3D lunges (forwards, lateral, reverse)
– Unilateral hip thrusts
– Bulgarian split squats
– Unilateral RDLs



Arms get a bad wrap from many strength and conditioning coaches, with most leaving exercises to improve them out all together. However the arms are involved a lot in field based sports such as rugby, American football, and other sports such as MMA, BJJ and high school and collegiate wrestling. We see a lot of bicep injuries during grappling either the sport or as part of another sport, and it seems that the only direct bicep work is done once the injury has occurred and the athlete is in the rehab phase.

I’ve learned this from my own experience of a hyperextended gym elbow, detaching the bicep at insertion point and tearing the bicep tendon. I now look back and when I look at my given conditioning program the lack of direct arm work may have caused the injury through weakness and lack of muscular endurance in my arm.

What I’m NOT saying is program a day specifically for arms. What I am saying is one or two days a week think only five minutes to ad some specific arm exercises. Increasing the strength and muscular endurance of the arms will help to anchor that muscle to the bone and prevent injury.

We like to use a variety of arm exercises that also involved the forearms. Some of the exercises I like to use are rope curls, dumbbell Tricep extensions, zottman curls, barbell curls, dips, and JM presses. These exercises are usually done for high repetitions, 15-25 for multiple sets. Not only will this help fortify your athlete, they will leave you feeling jacked! And that’s never a bad thing ha..

A couple of my go to exercises for the legs are:

-Zottman Curls
– Fat grip hammer curls
– Dumbbell Tricep extensions

Odd training


Odd training provides a unique stimulus that you won’t get from anything else in the gym environment. Like on the field, odd training forces you to stabilize and produce force in unusual positions. Being able to do this will provide you with extra protection on the field, as you are not always going to be tackled or tackle or make a block in a perfect position on the field.

If we think of grappling or MMA, the same applies. You are going to get in a compromised position, and would you rather be strong or weak in that compromised position? I know what I would rather because one option is probably going to end up with you being knocked out or choked out.

A couple of my go to exercises for the Odd training are:

-Sandbag carries
-Tire flips
-Sled drags
-Upper body sled pulls
-Prowler pushes


Implementing this high repetition work can be very simple. 1O-2O minutes after your main lifts is all that is needed. If you have your athletes for 3 sessions per week, it is quite easy to split the above groups over 3 sessions either in a lower -upper split, push -pull or mixed. Due to the lower CNS damage from light isolation work and hypertrophy compared to heavy compound lifts these small add-ons can be used year round.

In summary, it is my belief that if your athlete stays healthier for longer, then they will reach their maximum athletic potential. Staying healthy isn’t something we can assure, but what we can do is give them the greatest possible chance to stay healthy and stay on the field or court. What I’m not saying is hypertrophy and high rep training is the only thing to do that. What I am saying is, that it can be a valuable tool in your box to developing well-rounded, fortified athletes.

Ricky McFarlane
Mash Elite Performance
Spartan Strength and Conditioning
Twitter: @Ricky_mc90
Instagram: @RICKYMC1900

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