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Training For Strength Versus Training For Size


What every lifter ought to know about training for strength versus training for size.

Over the past few months we’ve examined how strength is often the limiting factor in the pursuit of greater explosive-ness and how increasing strength can improve one’s capacity to sustain force output over time by way of reducing the relative demand of a given activity. In this installment, my mission is to highlight the importance that strength plays in muscular development.

Don’t Believe The Bodybuilder
I have written about the “Load x Time Under Tension” equation and how most people fail to fully understand the importance of both parts of that equation. Where a lot of people go wrong in their pursuit to build muscle is they are listening to the wrong people. In this case, bodybuilders. Logically, it makes sense to ask those who have built the greatest amounts of muscle mass about their training, but in actuality, it can be very deceiving.

The problem with asking bodybuilders about building muscle is that their answers are almost always misinter-preted. They generally preach light weight, time under tension, and chasing the “pump” while shying away from lifting heavy because of the wear and tear on the joints. So what ends up happening is people start lifting light weights, pumping away endlessly for hours on end, with loads that are far too light to stimulate any sort of real size. What people fail to understand is that when body-builders say “light,” they mean light for them because they can handle seriously heavy loads. “Light,” after all, is a relative term.

Light for someone with a 500-pound bench is anywhere from 300 to 400 pounds, or between 60 percent and 80 percent of their max. The real problem here is that guys with a 135-pound bench press end up repping away with two quarters on the bar, chasing the pump in an at-tempt to stimulate growth. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if 95 pounds built a thick barrel chest, we’d all have accom-plished that years ago.

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Let’s go one further and talk about “’dem guns.” That same guy pumping away with 95 pounds on the bench because Mr. Olympia “lifts light” is almost certainly banging out curls with an even lower absolute load, probably somewhere around 15 to 20 pounds. Once again, if 20-pound curls were going to build a set of sleeve-popping arms, everyone would have them. This isn’t to say that these loads don’t have a purpose somewhere in a strength-training routine, but they should not be cornerstones on which a routine is built.

The Great Deception
Does this mean that bodybuilders are lying to us? Not at all. They are correct in how they preach the gospel of the pump, and that light weights and constant tension is an effective way to build muscle. What they fail to mention is that strength is the foundation upon which all that size was built on in the first place.

Pick a bodybuilder: Kai Greene, Jay Cutler, Dexter Jackson, or anyone else currently competing on the pro circuit. Thanks to YouTube, you can search almost any bodybuilder and find countless videos of their training. What you’ll likely notice is that even the guys who aren’t known for their strength are still lifting really heavy weights, even if they say they are light. (And we aren’t even talking about legendarily strong bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman or Tom Platz.)

Take Phil Heath, for example. A few years ago before he ever won the Mr. Olympia, he posted a video of himself performing incline dumbbell presses for 22 reps. Now, you’d think a weight that can be lifted for 22 reps would be light, right? Well, it was, for Phil. Those dumbbells were 150 pounds each. So while bodybuilders do lift “light,” they lift light in relation to what they are capable of lifting.

This is just one example. Pick a bodybuilder, or choose an exercise that you want to see them performing, and you’d be hard-pressed to find videos in which there aren’t several plates loaded onto the bar or machine. If it’s a cable exercise like pulldowns, rows, or pressdowns, you’ll likely see almost the entire stack being used. The common denominator here is that a lot of weight is being lifted, even when it is not a 1RM, 3RM, or even a 5RM set.

bodybuilder flexing

So where does this leave you? Well, if you’re like me, it leaves you under the impression that if you want to gain some serious size, you better start lifting heavier weights. Before focusing on popular bodybuilding techniques, devote time and effort to getting your numbers up. When you can deadlift more than 400 pounds is when banging out high-rep sets with a “light” weight will put size on your frame. When you’re consis-tently benching over 300 pounds, you can get away with doing more “pump” work.

Time Under Tension Means Nothing If...
This isn’t to suggest that there is a direct relation-ship between strength and size, but rather that the stronger you are, the greater your capacity to build muscle becomes. Strength raises your size ceiling because it allows you to use greater loads when performing your time-under-tension work. I’ll make the point again: Time under tension alone is just one half of the equation, and without a heavy load, the end result is limited.

Once an appreciable amount of strength has been developed, there’s no need to keep going (unless, of course, you like the results and want to keep getting stronger). But you’ve got to get there first. Body-builders all realized this early on, and many have even transitioned from powerlifting backgrounds, most notably Ronnie Coleman, Johnnie Jackson, and John Meadows. They built their physique upon a foundation of serious strength, and it laid the groundwork for them to put on a ton of muscle because the amount of weight they were lifting left their body with no choice but to grow.

I’ll Leave You With This
If it were all about time under tension, the guy who is benching 135 pounds for 10 reps would yield the same benefit as the guy benching 225 pounds for 10 reps, who would see identical gains as the guy benching 315 pounds for 10. But this simply is not the case. I’d be willing to bet that the guy benching 315 pounds for 10, and squatting 365 pounds for 10, and deadlifting 405 pounds for 10 will have a significantly greater amount of muscle mass than the guy lifting half as much.

Vince DelMonte is a WBFF pro, fitness model, certified personal trainer and nutritionist, and author of No Nonsense Muscle Building.

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