The first thing you need to do is get really clear on your goal. Is your one and only desire to move the heaviest weights possible? Or are you concerned exclusively with aesthetics—when people ask how much you bench you respond with a blank stare? Perhaps you’re somewhere in between—you want a great looking body, but you also want to be able to pick up heavy things.
Either way, you need to be totally clear on the end goal. We need to know exactly where we want to end up in order to develop a plan to get there. In other words, make sure you’re steering the car in the the right direction before you step on the gas!
Step 2: Pick The Appropriate Plan
Once you know exactly where you want to go, then we can pick the appropriate route—your training plan. While selecting the appropriate programming seems rather straightforward—if you want to get strong, train for strength (typically on the lower end of the rep spectrum, about 1-5); if you want to build muscle, train for hypertrophy (typically moderate reps, about 6-12)—it’s not uncommon to hear differing opinions.
While I doubt anyone has ever said, “The best way to get strong is to train for size,” I hear the opposite all the time — ”If you want to get big, focus on getting strong.”
Some people will go so far as to say that, if you’re looking to build an impressive physique, you only need to train for strength. They’ll say to avoid all isolation exercises and machines completely. Train only with low reps. Stick with just the major compound lifts. Basically, don’t waste any time training with anything over 5 reps—just pick a good strength-oriented routine, lift heavy and get strong.
I don’t blame people for thinking this…
I don’t blame people for thinking this because the strongest person in the gym is also usually the person with the most muscle. In fact, training for strength is a great way to activate your fast twitch fibers, the largest muscle fibers and the ones with the greatest potential for growth. However, just because strength training can be an effective way to add muscle doesn’t mean that it will allow you to reach your full muscle-building potential.
The “Train For Strength Only” Fallacy Denies The Science
The problem with the “lift heavy or go home” mentality is that it ignores the most important muscle-building science we know—hypertrophy is a result of three distinct mechanisms: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress1. Mechanical tension is basically a fancy way of saying lifting heavy stuff, so strength training obviously hits that mechanism, but is not optimal with respect to the remaining two.
While heavy weights can produce muscle damage, optimal damage and stress require traditional hypertrophy methods, including isolating muscles, using machines, and working muscles through their full ranges of motion (maximizing tension in shortened and stretched positions)—methods that a strength training protocol simply does not include.
Although strength training does produce hypertrophy directly, it has a larger indirect impact.. In other words, strength training for hypertrophy is largely a means to an end—when you get stronger you are able to lift heavier weights in the hypertrophy rep ranges which leads to increased potential for muscle damage and metabolic stress. So, if your goal is maximum size, there is no getting around the fact that you must spend the majority of your time and effort training for size.
So why is strength training so powerful for hypertrophy?
Strength training’s direct contribution to hypertrophy is a result of fast-twitch fiber development. However, while training for strength stimulates the fast-twitch muscle fibers, it leaves your slow-twitch fibers untouched. Further, fiber growth is not the only phenomenon that results in increased muscle size. Hypertrophy training has the unique benefit of increasing the size of non-contractile components of your muscle cells, including collagen and glycogen.
Your Take Home Lesson If Your #1 Goal is SIZE
If you want to achieve maximum mass, make sure you spend the majority of your training focusing specifically on hypertrophy mechanisms, but also incorporate some phases specifically dedicated to training for strength. Even if you just want to be huge and couldn’t care less about strength, you can’t neglect heavy lifting. Unless you’re getting stronger you’ll eventually hit a bottleneck in your mass-building efforts, because strength work potentiates hypertrophy—the stronger you are, the more potential you have to build muscle.
Your Take Home Lesson If Your #1 Goal is STRENGTH
On the other side of the coin, if you just want to lift cars and couldn’t care less about how you look, you still need to dedicate some of your training to building muscle (with a particular focus on achieving hypertrophy of your fast-twitch fibers, as they have both the greatest potential for growth and force output). Given that thicker muscle fibers will generate more force2, there is a clear need for some hypertrophy in the pursuit of maximal strength.
But what if you truly want to be big and strong?
If you fall somewhere in between—you want to be big and strong—decide which of these goals is your priority and dedicate the majority of your training to that goal. For example, if you’re a bit more interested in muscle you will probably train for hypertrophy in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio to strength. If they’re equally important, split your training time equally between the two goals. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the ratio that provides the best results. This self-experimentation process is where the real magic is, and is a far cry from copying and pasting training routines from rehashed bodybuilding websites or magazines. Just because something works really well for someone else (particularly someone at an elite level that likely possesses superior genetics and possibly taking drugs), don’t assume that it will work for you.
It’s Really Quite Simple
The take home message is that these goals do overlap, but are definitely distinct. You need to get clear on exactly what you want—muscle, strength, or both—and periodize your training in appropriate blocks. You’re going to rotate between strength training and hypertrophy training, but the specific outcome you desire will dictate frequency of these rotations and the length of time you spend in each phase.
Looking at one practical example, guys that want to get as big and as strong as possible will likely experience the best results by alternating between dedicated strength and hypertrophy phases in an equal ratio.Focusing on one goal at a time gives us unparalleled clarity on exactly what we want to accomplish when we step into the gym each day, not to mention the fact that your body typically makes the best adaptations when you train for one goal at a time.
The Definition of Multitasking? Doing Two Things Poorly At The Same Time!
Multitasking, in theory, looks great—who doesn’t want to achieve multiple things simultaneously? All too often though, multitasking results in not achieving those things to a desirable degree (if at all). Get clear on your goal, develop your plan, and execute it to the best of your ability.