Many people believe in building muscles through strength training. Are they right? Is it possible? And if it is possible, is it the best way to build muscle mass?
When you look on typical power-lifters and see how big they are then you must think it’s true. Their muscles have to adapt to lifting constantly heavier weights and that’s why they grow. But is the muscle mass the primary target of any power lifter? No, it is not. Especially not for those who compete in lower weight classes – they don’t want to gain any weight. Muscles are more like a by-product there, where the strength is an objective.
Difference between strength and hypertrophy training
One of the strength training principles is working out in low repetition range – between 5-1. It gives us the ability to train with higher intensity (heavier weight) than with higher reps like 12 for example. Unfortunately training this way doesn’t provide sufficient stimulation for our muscles to cause satisfying growth (hypertrophy).
To build strength we usually do only:
- one exercise per muscle group,
- around 5-6 sets,
- 5-1 repetitions per set.
Very often 5 sets of three are performed (triples) or even eight sets of 2 (doubles). This volume is too low to cause significant growth (muscles aren’t stimulated enough).
In muscle mass building training we perform mostly:
- 3-4 exercises per body part,
- 9-12 sets,
- 12-6 repetition per set.
Generally the volume is much bigger here. Muscles receive more than enough stimulation to grow.
Why strength-based athletes are so muscular
Many people can ask: ‘so how is it that so many strength-based athletes (power-lifters, weigh-lifters, etc.) are so muscular?’
It’s because they also train to build muscle (in higher reps) – they do high volume workouts too.
They have periods when they train to get stronger (strength cycle) and then couple weeks to improve musculature (hypertrophy cycle). This is called periodization. Many of them have also strength-endurance cycle (stamina), where they do as many repetitions as possible with really heavy weight. Think about strong-man. Very often they compete in events where they have to beat their opponents in number of squats, deadlifts or any other exercise. In this type of events they often complete more than ten, twenty or even thirty repetitions. So they are not limiting themselves only to low reps and low volume workouts. They have periods of training in different repetition ranges throughout a year depending from their needs.
What is the best way to train then
So what’s the point of doing strength training if it isn’t the best way to build muscle? Should we just forget about it and stick to typical bodybuilding training? No, we shouldn’t.
If we train whole year for hypertrophy (12-6 reps per set) we won’t be getting much stronger. It’s very hard to gain much strength with high volume workouts without taking steroids. Our muscles won’t need to adapt and will stop to grow. To make your muscles grow you have to constantly lift heavier and heavier weights. This is called progressive overload.
Bodybuilding and strength training is like a hand and a glove. You won’t get bigger if you’ll not get stronger. Those trainings should be combined. To give you an idea I can tell you that many bodybuilders train powerlifting during off season and very often they compete. The best example would be Johnnie Jackson:
And that’s him during power-lifting competition:
Most of the best professional bodybuilders train or used to train strength-based sports like power-lifting during or before their career in bodybuilding. Good examples are:
- Jonnie Jackson,
- Sergio Oliva,
- Franco Columbu,
- Ronnie Coleman,
- And many more…
Some of them do it in off-season, when they don’t compete; others simply were power-lifters before they started bodybuilding. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger competed in powerlifting in his early years.
How to combine hypertrophy and strength training?
There is few ways of mixing strength and hypertrophy training however the simplest and the most effective one is Full Body Workout 5×5. It’s a program where the volume is low enough to gain strength but high enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Although 5×5 workouts aren’t new (old time bodybuilders used to train like that), they are very popular at the moment. They are very, very effective, especially for natural athletes (not using anabolic steroids).
Another way of combining strength and muscle building training is simply following the periodization. Few months of muscle mass building training followed by few months of strength. Here is an example how to integrate it with your routine:
|September||strength training||Strength Cycle (SC)|
|December||muscle mass building||Hypertrophy Cycle (HC)|
|April||definition (cutting)||Fat Burning Cycle (FBC)|
|July||summer, showing off your muscles on the beach||*Off Season (OS) – low frequency training (1-2 a week to avoid losing muscle mass and strength)|
|August||summer, showing off your muscles|
|September||start over – strength|
*People usually get very lazy during summer. They drink, party or go on holidays. Most of them completely forget about the gym and diet. It’s good if you are not the one of them. But if you are and don’t like ‘to waste time’ on too much training during holidays, try to do at least one full body workout per week. You will avoid losing muscle and strength gains that you worked for throughout a year.
Pure strength training (in low rep range) isn’t the best way to build muscle. The volume is simply too low. On the other hand doing full year of muscle building training (12-6 reps) is a waste of time. Without getting stronger muscles will stop to grow after a while.
Any amateur, natural bodybuilder who’s planning to train for longer than 6 months has to incorporate strength cycle into his program.
Bodybuilding generally is very similar to strength training. Or to be more precise – strength training is a part of bodybuilding and opposite. The only difference is that power-lifters focus more on pure strength where bodybuilders prioritize muscle growth. It’s like sprinters and longer distance runners. They both have to train sprinting and running in longer distances to achieve the best results and overall development.
One way or another, strength training has to be blended some way into your yearly plan. You can do strength routine on a beginning of the year, for example:
Or you can try:
- Full Body Workout 5×5 – where you build muscle and strength at the same time.
I can only assure you that you won’t regret it. Adding low repetition training to you schedule will be the best thing you’ve ever done for your muscles and the whole body development.
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