The ideas put forth in this series are strictly for trainees who already believe in the merits of abbreviated training and who are experienced in applying them. Generally speaking, the great majority of bodybuilding and strength trainees need to reduce their training volume and frequency; however, those who have followed abbreviated programs for a good while’performing a maximum of three workouts per week’may benefit from prudently increasing their training frequency and volume.
Strength Without Size, Strength With Size
It’s an oversimplification to say that you must build strength to build size. Though it has great practical value for most people, it doesn’t apply in all cases. Some methods of building strength do not, at least in some cases, build much size. You may need to modify the build-strength-to-build-size rule, depending on your individual situation. If you find that gains in muscular size don’t accompany strength gains’assuming, of course, that you want to build more size’try the interpretations of abbreviated training outlined in this series.
I have long emphasized progressive strength gains as the principle means by which trainees can acquire muscular bodyweight. Although we don’t fully understand the precise mechanisms of how muscle is built, there’s some correlation between added strength and increased muscle mass. The correlation is often not linear, however, and it’s possible to become considerably stronger without developing much bigger muscles.
Some old-time strength legends, like W. A. Pullum from the early 20th century, were tremendously strong though physically small’in Pullum’s case under 130 pounds’and without having any large muscles. That was, at least in part, a result of their strength-training focus. In contemporary lifting one of the most outstanding examples of strength without size is Judd Biasiotto. In 1986 he squatted 575 pounds in competition at 131 pounds bodyweight. He’s also bench-pressed 319 and deadlifted 529. Those are staggering lifts for such a small man, and they show that there can be much more to strength than size. As Biasiotto noted, ‘I’ve been told that I have the body of an 11-year-old stamp collector.’
The relationship between strength and size varies from individual to individual and is heavily linked to training methods as well as genetic factors. Such factors as better motor skills, advantageous tendon attachments and other superior structures and leverages for specific movements and greater willpower combine to demonstrate strength without substantial muscular size.
In my own case I’ve made substantial gains in strength on specific exercises while maintaining consistent form but with no increase in muscular size. Many others have experienced the same sort of thing. On some exercises I’ve been able to outlift trainees who had a lot more muscle. While genetic factors play a role, training methods are also part of the equation. The training approach I used on those specific exercises’doing low reps or rest/pause high reps, performing hard single work sets and working each exercise a maximum of once a week’was perfect for strength gains, but it was useless for maximizing size gains, at least for me.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve used volume-training methods’for example, training four days per week on a split routine’with no resulting gains in size or strength. Many readers have also tried volume training without success. So flipping to volume training doesn’t solve the problem of producing size gains for typical trainees.
The explanation for the nonlinear relationship between strength and size, at least for many trainees, may lie in the composition of the muscles. Muscle cells are not made up of just the contractile elements that produce strength, the myofibrils. There are three major components of muscle cells’the myofibrils; the sarcoplasm, which is the plasm within the cell; and the mitochondria, the energy converters. The latter two yield muscle cell volume but are not contractile elements. Strength training acts substantially on only the strength-yielding contractile components of the muscle cells. Trainees who seem to build size pretty much linearly with strength may have a larger proportion of myofibrils in their muscle cells than other trainees. To build size at an optimal rate’for all trainees’it may be necessary to address the other components of muscle cells, but there’s a big danger here: Try to do too much at the same time and you’re likely to overtrain and kill your progress in both size and strength.
Many people find that it’s easier to achieve a substantial strength gain than it is to achieve a substantial lean muscle gain. It may be that consistent practice of certain exercises in a specific strength-focus manner produces greater skill and neurological efficiency that yields greater strength without any enlargement of any volume-related elements of muscle cells.
If your priorities are strength, health and fitness using minimal training time, then brief, infrequent weight training combined with aerobic work can help you realize those goals. If you’re more interested in size than strength, you may need to train more frequently and perhaps in a different style to get closer to your particular genetic ceiling: a bit more frequency, a bit more volume and a different sets-and-reps format.
Enriching Your Training
Over the decades bodybuilders have built very large muscles but without the strength that you’d normally expect from those muscles. The training methods they used typically come under the heading of pumping. The most striking examples of the success of such training are either genetic phenomena or drug assisted’or both. Obviously, I’m not advocating a movement toward pure pumping.
One thing is for sure: If you’re gaining strength but not getting much bigger and your recovery machinery is in good order, you need to make some changes in order to build size. At the rate that some folks build size while getting stronger, they’ll need to squat colossal world-record numbers to build even 25-inch quads. So for them strength isn’t going to deliver the required size, as they’re never going to squat such numbers.
Assuming you’re already gaining strength well but are not developing the size you think should accompany it, here are some suggestions for supplementing the training-frequency adjustments discussed in Part 1 of this series.
In general’and of course there are exceptions’here are the main variations between training for strength and training for size.
1) Low reps
2) Long rests between sets
3) Pauses between reps (at least on some movements by some trainees)
4) Infrequent training
5) Low volume of work sets
1) Higher reps
2) Briefer rests between sets
3) Very short or no pauses between reps
4) Greater frequency of training
5) Higher volume of work sets
Some training approaches mix the two focuses. For example, classic 20-rep rest/pause squats combine high reps and long pauses between reps, and they’ve produced many examples of substantial strength and size gains, while some strength afficionados perform many low-rep sets. Compare your training methods with the summaries listed above. For example, if you rest five minutes between sets of squats, always take a few seconds’ pause between reps, do just a single work set of each exercise and squat once every 10 days, your training may have produced substantial strength but not necessarily substantial size.
I’m not working my way around to stating that Arnold Schwarzenegger had it right. While he had it right for his genetics, drug support and goals, his approach is hopeless for typical trainees. I am saying that some trainees have taken the less-is-more maxim to a point where it produces strength gains but little or no size.
If your recovery elements are in good order, you should first experiment with training frequency, as discussed in Part 1 of this series. Then, if you still feel you’re not getting the size gains your strength progress should produce, move on to some adjustments in your sets-and-reps format and rep performance while keeping within the confines of abbreviated training. That may make a substantial difference in your size gains. Whether strength gains continue or are moderated is another matter and will be determined by individual considerations and the training adjustments you make. Remember, however, that if you tinker too much, you’ll kill your gains in both size and strength. Make changes on a systematic trial-and-error basis. Keep what helps; drop what hinders.
Sets-and-reps change 1. A possible approach for increasing hypertrophy while keeping strength gains moving is to add a couple of back-off sets to each exercise. I’ll use two examples of this balanced, strength-and-size approach: barbell squats done for two sets of five with 380 pounds and parallel-bar dips done for two sets of five with bodyweight plus 100 pounds, with a five-minute rest between all work sets and several seconds’ pause between reps.
To make the change, reduce your work sets to just one for each exercise, keep all the other variables constant and add two back-off sets to each exercise. Just 90 seconds after performing the 380×5 on the squat, do maximum reps with 250 pounds, then 90 seconds later do maximum reps with 250 once again. Your reps will be lower on the second of the back-off sets.
After performing a single set of five reps with bodyweight plus 100 pounds on dips, rest 90 seconds and then perform maximum reps with only 50 pounds plus bodyweight. Rest another 90 seconds and then perform maximum reps with just your bodyweight.
That approach has the advantage of maintaining the bedrock of strength-focus work’so you keep plugging along, getting stronger and stronger, which is satisfying in its own right and of great functional value’while mixing it with volume-focus supplementary work that you can vary over time. In other words, you can change the rep count and rest periods.
If your strength work is going to remain very similar to a strength-focus program, you shouldn’t change your training frequency. Adding the size-focus back-off sets offers the opportunity to build size along with strength without training more frequently.
While doing a strength-focus program with greater frequency, as described in Part 1 of this series, may yield greater size gains, your usual training frequency plus back-off sets may achieve a similar result. The latter may be the more practical approach, as it doesn’t reduce the number of rest days between hits on the same exercise.
Sets-and-reps change 2.
This example isn’t likely to build the strength you’ll get with the first one. Let’s say you’ve been progressing very nicely in strength and have reached 380 for two sets of five on the barbell squat and bodyweight plus 100 pounds for two sets of five on the parallel bar dip, taking five minutes’ rest between all work sets and several seconds’ pause between reps. Those are decent achievements for typical trainees, but the sets-and-reps scheme and rep style are more geared to strength than size. To focus on size, you could move to 275 pounds for three sets of 12 on squats and bodyweight plus 50 pounds for three sets of 12 on dips, performing all sets with no more than one second’s pause between reps and rest periods of only 90 seconds between sets. Only the final set of each of those sequences would be very hard. After that you would apply the usual dictum of progressive poundages in good form but while maintaining this very different abbreviated approach to training.
Being conditioned to lower reps, pauses between reps and long rests between sets, you may need to cut back your poundage, as your body will need time to adapt to the different form of stress. With time the poundages will come back and may be accompanied by size gains.
When you shift from a strength focus to a size focus (or from a strength focus to an equal focus on strength and size), you may notice a dramatic change in the way your muscles feel as you train. If you haven’t been experiencing much soreness in your muscles, you may be in for substantial soreness in the days following your revised workouts.
The Bottom Line on Experimentation
What’s excessive abbreviation of training for some may be just the ticket for others. Different trainees need different interpretations of the same basic principles and may need different variations at different stages of their training. Even so, just because a bit more training volume and frequency can be good’if you cut back excessively previously’that doesn’t mean that a lot more will be better. Training is more an art than a science, and you need sensible experimentation if you’re to find what works best for you. You must, however, keep your training abbreviated, as typical trainees don’t have the ability to deal with the type of routines that the gifted and drug-enhanced folk use and prosper on.
If you’re not already getting stronger on your current program’or know from experience precisely what builds strength for you’don’t even think of trying the suggestions in this article. If you can’t gain strength well, albeit slowly and steadily, then your training is really out of order and you need to take steps to fix matters that are not covered in this article.
As I’ve said repeatedly, full satisfaction of the components of recovery is essential for all interpretations of weight training’whether you focus on strength or size or equally on both.
Recovery comes first. Full recovery is easy to talk about but not so easily achieved. It means, primarily, that you must eat a quality diet every day that provides a caloric and nutritional surplus, that you must spread the food over five or preferably six meals each day and that you must get a full night of sleep every night’sleeping till you wake naturally each morning. While trying to force yourself to go to sleep early may not be helpful, you should go to bed as soon as you feel sleepy, which should be early enough that you get your full quota before an alarm clock would otherwise wake you.
I’m concerned that some trainees may misinterpret my advice and jack up their training to such an extent that they kill progress in all areas. As I said, I think it’s a mistake to boost training frequency along the lines I suggested last month and simultaneously increase training volume. Experiment with training frequency first while keeping other training variables constant and see what that does for you. Then try changes in your training routine as suggested, but only if you’re still not satisfied that you’re making good size gains.
It’s risky to make sweeping changes on all the exercises in your routine, as that’s likely to trigger overtraining. I suggest you pick two exercises or two bodyparts and only make changes there. See how you progress for a couple of months, and if you get positive feedback, progressively work the same sort of changes into your other exercises or rotate the variations over different areas every couple of months or so.
Performing light-weight pumping exercises on a daily basis won’t build a great physique. You still need to use some impressive poundages and have more rest days than training days. Nevertheless, how you use those weights can greatly affect how much size those weights deliver. If you’re satisfied with the results you’re getting from your training, don’t change a thing, but if you’re not satisfied with your size gains, you may need to switch your focus. A moderate increase in training frequency and/or a change in sets-and-reps format and style may be all you need to turn weight on the bar into weight on your body.
Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s latest book, Further Brawn, is available from Home Gym Warehouse, 1-800-447-0008, or visit www.home-gym.com. His other books, Brawn and Beyond Brawn, are available as well. McRobert also publishes Hardgainer magazine. For information write to CS Publishing Ltd., P.O. Box 20390, CY-2151 Nicosia, Cyprus, or visit www.hardgainer.com. IM
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