If you’ve been bodybuilding for a long time, listening to your buddies at the gym and reading the garbage that appears in other bodybuilding magazines, and you have not given any serious thought to powerlifting or strength-event training, the warning at right is for you. The fact is, almost all of the trainees at your local health club know virtually zero when it comes to getting truly strong. That doesn’t have to be you.
Read about the following myths, trust in the truth of what I say, and if you’re still not a believer, try the sample workout. I guarantee you’ll become one.
Bodybuilding is a good way to build strength.
Yeah, I know. I just ticked off a whole slew of readers. The truth is, though, that bodybuilding training, as it’s done by the average pro in today’s era of going for the pump with high-rep non-free-weight exercises, does not build much strength and power. Sure, you get stronger than if you’d never picked up a weight, but you won’t be anywhere near as strong as you’d be if you followed a true strength-training program.
Most of your average bodybuilders know absolutely nothing about dynamic, or explosive-rep, training, ultra-low reps or the proper exercises to use for assistance work. They also know very little about how to regulate volume properly. They just train a muscle as hard as they can, thrash it and then give it a week or so to recover.
Famed powerlifting coach Louie Simmons once wrote that bodybuilding has ruined strength training in America. He caught a lot of flak for it, but he had a point. And the point was that modern-day bodybuilding is the least effective way to train with weights and build speed, power, strength and conditioning.
Training for muscle mass is the same as training for strength.
This myth is closely tied in with the first one, and it’s the ultimate reason that bodybuilding training is not very efficient at building strength. It’s perpetuated largely because of the obvious correlation between weight training and strength. If you train for muscle mass, you’ll often gain some strength, and if you train for strength, you’ll often gain some muscle. That last part is not absolute because there are ways to avoid building muscle when you’re in a strength-training program.
The requirements for increasing the size of a muscle cell are flat-out different from those for making a muscle stronger. Bodybuilders favor’among other things’higher reps, slower speed of movement, relatively higher sets, going for the pump and a good deal of recuperative time between workouts, which they need with that kind of training. That doesn’t mean those are the best ways to train for strength, however. I think there are better ways to gain muscle mass too, but that’s an entirely different article. To get results with a strength-training program, you have to include these elements: quick movements, very-low reps, more-frequent training and fewer sets per muscle group.
The Russians did a lot of research into building muscle and strength, and they came up with three distinct ways to train: the dynamic-effort method, the repetition method and the maximum-effort method. Bodybuilding programs focus on only one of those methods, repetitions, and thus neglect the other two, which happen to be the best for building strength and power.
Nutrition is the most important aspect of building strength.
Pick your jaw off the floor. That’s no misprint. In bodybuilding circles common wisdom holds that nutrition is 75 percent of success in weight training, while the training itself is only 25 percent. The fact is, nutrition has very little to do with your success in moving a lot of heavy iron. How can that be? And if I’m right, why have you been shoveling six meals a day down your throat and counting your protein intake as if your life were at stake?
To begin with, nutrition is more important for bodybuilding purposes than it is for strength building. When it comes to intense strength training, such as that done by powerlifters and strongman competitors, however, nutrition really isn’t that big of a deal.
You don’t believe me? Just check out the top powerlifters’ programs, and you’ll find only one or two who actually count calories and protein. At the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, Simmons and his followers don’t even begin to think about following a diet. They simply eat whatever they want. Are they successful? You bet. At the recent World Bench Press Championships they swept every single weight class. All from a little gym where the lifters don’t pay attention to what they eat.
The Russian powerlifters have dominated the sport for years, and you know what? Some of them eat little more than bread and potatoes year-round, and they don’t get near the protein the Americans do. Yet they lift more than the rest of the world. Why isn’t nutrition important? The answer is fairly simple: It’s the training that’s important. Take two lifters of about the same weight, age, training experience and strength. Put one of them on a bodybuilding program and a strict nutritional regimen, and put the other on a proven strength regimen (say a Westside Barbell’ or Bill Starr’style program) and let him eat’or not eat’whatever he wants. You know who will be the strongest at the end of the program? Without a doubt the second lifter.
A lot of strength programs focus on increasing neural strength and making the motor units fire faster and more efficiently. There’s no secret diet you can follow that will make your body move heavy iron with force more efficiently.
Split routines are the most effective way to make progress.
Once again, I’ve probably upset a lot of readers, especially those who follow multiple-split routines. You know, the ones where you train one muscle group a day in order to prioritize it and give it a lot of rest?
The most effective way to train is with a whole-body workout, and that goes double for strength athletes who also compete in team sports such as football or basketball. If you’re new to strength training, just give a Bill Starr’style program a go. Stick with it for a couple of months, and I guarantee you’ll be a believer. Starr’s approach is based on training the entire body three times a week using a heavy/light/medium rotation. For advanced athletes he believes in four whole-body workouts. Yep, you heard it: four workouts.
Athletes involved in physical competition should follow a whole-body program for the very reason that it works your whole body. How many football players go out on the field on Saturday afternoon and just use their quadriceps? Or their biceps? None. If you compete in full-body sports, you need to condition yourself with full-body weight-training sessions.
What’s more, you’ll never be in good condition’and you’re not necessarily in good condition just because you can see your abs’unless you train your body as a unit. Do you think that training your chest all by itself, without working any other muscle groups, is going to get you in shape to go out on a basketball court several times a week and play effectively? Of course it won’t.
If you do follow a split program, then just split your body in half, using an upper/lower split. Train your upper body on one day and your lower body the next. Rest one day, and then repeat the split. Rest two days, and begin the cycle again. Keep it simple.
If you want to gain strength on a split routine, take a look at the routines of elite powerlifters. All of them stick with a two-day split. You may want to consider, however, that the Russian powerlifters almost always use whole-body workouts, and Olympic lifters never split their programs.
A slow rep speed is just as effective as a faster one.
I had to include this one, although it’s not as prevalent as the others. It’s mainly perpetuated by lifters and writers from the high-intensity school of thought. Those same people are quick to point out the importance of specificity in training’except where it applies to rep speed. Some of them even take it to the extreme, recommending superslow reps that exceed five seconds.
Keep this in mind: Training slowly will make you slow. If you want to be really powerful’not just strong’you need to incorporate some type of speed training into your program. For instance, if you always train with really low reps, then your rep speed will of necessity be slow. If you do that consistently over several weeks, then you’ll be teaching your muscle to move the weight slowly, and as a result you’ll get weaker. You need speed work.
As a side note, when you perform speed work, try to keep your repetitions to no more than five. More than that, and you start to slow down, as your reps just don’t have the power that the first ones had.
In order to optimize strength and mass gains, you need to train each muscle group infrequently.
Every time you train’and train properly by regulating your volume’many good things happen to your muscles thanks to the anabolic environment that occurs in your body for the next 36 hours or so. They include protein synthesis and increased testosterone, IGF-1, prostaglandins and other anticatabolic factors. After three days you’re reduced to what’s at best a semicatabolic state. So, when you allow yourself to recover for a week, you’re not taking advantage of that anabolic environment.
There are better ways to optimize your recovery and, therefore, your strength gains. The best course is to add a light workout’or a couple’in addition to your heavy session. Once again, I recommend Bill Starr’s programs.
If you’re really serious about strength training, you need to separate your speed workout from your heavy workout. In addition, when you use really low reps for both dynamic sessions and maximum-effort sessions, you place far less strain on your muscles. You don’t do any traumatic-tissue damage, as you do with repetition workouts. You simply don’t get as sore, so you’re ready to lift again after two to three days of rest.
If you have a bodypart that lags behind the others in strength gains, try adding some extra sessions. For example, say you train your upper body two days a week, using a speed workout on Monday and a heavy, maximum-effort workout on Thursday, and your lagging bodypart is chest. Try adding a light workout on Saturday, something like 30 percent of your maximum weight on the bench press for 12 sets of four reps each. After a few weeks add another light workout on Tuesday, say 10 sets of pushups for five reps each.
If you don’t get anything else out of the busting of this myth, at least understand that there are better ways to recover than just sitting around watching television and claiming that you can’t help around the house because you have to recuperate.
You cannot gain a lot of mass and a lot of strength at the same time.
Despite my previous comments regarding the difference between training for mass and training for strength, a lot of lifters and writers are wrong when they perpetuate this myth. All you have to do is look at the superheavyweight powerlifters or Olympic lifters or any of the World’s Strongest Man competitors.
At the Westside Barbell Club the main complaint from some of the lifters is that they gain too much muscle and have to move up two or three weight classes. And that’s despite their efforts to keep that from happening. The added mass is simply a by-product of their training.
Old-time lifters like Doug Hepburn and Pat Casey were very good at gaining both strength and muscle. The key was that they performed all their low-rep strength work first. Then, when their nervous systems were properly heightened, they did their repetition work.
You can do the same. Whether it’s a heavy session or a speed workout, do your repetition work after your low-rep work. Just don’t go overboard with the number of sets. Four to five sets maximum should be optimal.
Now that we’ve busted some of the most basic myths about building strength, let’s design a program that puts your new knowledge to use.
Pure Power Routine
This workout is designed with competitive powerlifters in mind, but it will be equally effective for beginning lifters who need to use a full-body workout or for bodybuilders at any level who have only trained with repetition workouts to this point. The bottom line, however, is that it’s a good all-around routine for anyone who wants to focus on strength and power alone.
You perform the workout three times a week. The most popular schedule is Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Workout 1: Dynamic and Repetition
This is the most stressful of the three sessions, as it has the highest volume, even though it uses relatively light weights. It’s best performed at the beginning of the week, after you’ve had a couple of days’ rest.
Speed squats 10 x 2
Some lifters like to do squats after upper-body work, but I’ve always preferred to do them at the start of the session. Once you get the hardest part of the workout out of the way, the rest seems like a breeze. Use 70 percent of your one-rep max on the exercise for all 10 sets. Move the weight as fast as possible’with good form’on both the negative and positive portions of the rep.
Speed benches 8 x 3
Use the same method as described for speed squats above, but do three reps instead of two. Once again, it’s 70 percent for all eight sets.
Power cleans 6 x 3
Since you’ve already worked your back muscles fairly hard with the squats, you do only six sets of this movement. You can substitute deadlifts if you wish; just make sure you maintain the 70 percent rule.
Chinups 4 x 6-8
Now it’s time for your first repetition work of the day. Warm up with a couple of sets with just your bodyweight, and then strap on whatever weight you need in order to keep your reps in the prescribed range for all four sets.
Parallel-bar dips 3 x 8-10
If I had to pick my favorite triceps exercise, this would probably be it, with skull crushers and close-grip bench presses vying for second place. Use dip bars that are just wider than your chest. Keep your elbows back at all times, and maintain an upright position throughout the exercise. Since your goal is to work your triceps instead of your chest, you can also use a partial range of motion.
Hanging leg raises 3 x 20
This is a good way to finish off your workout, unless, that is, your abs are particularly weak. If that’s the case, you want to train them at the beginning of the session. Three sets should get the job done.
Workout 2: Light, Recovery Day
The goal here is twofold: You recover better than you would if you did nothing at all, and you increase your total workload for the week without cutting into your recuperative abilities. That’s a must for all serious athletes.
Front squats 8 x 3
Don’t make these strenuous. Use about 60 percent of the weight you used for speed squats in the first workout. Use the same weight for all eight sets, doing three reps with each set. If you’re a rank beginner and haven’t done any squatting prior to this workout, you might want to substitute regular squats instead. Otherwise, stick with this exercise.
Explosive-rep pushups 8 x 3
Explode off the ground at the end of each rep on these. Eight sets will be plenty. Just make sure the weight is about half of what you used on your first workout.
Pullovers 3 x 10
George Turner has called this exercise the upper-body squat. It’s a good one for your light day because you can’t use a whole lot of weight on it, even when you work it fairly intensely. Warm up with a couple of light sets before jumping to the three work sets.
Cable curls 3 x 10
I chose this exercise just because cable exercises’and most machine movements, for that matter’are less strenuous to your nervous system. Also, some of you will probably be dying to do a little cable work by this time.
Steep-incline situps 3 x 20
Make sure that you do a full situp, not a crunch, on these. Full situps promote better lower-back strength.
Workout 3: Heavy, Maximum-effort
Even though you train with heavy weights, this workout won’t be quite as strenuous as the first one. The reason: Your total workload simply won’t be as high.
Bottom-position squats or sumo deadlifts 5-8 x 3, 2 or 1
Alternate exercises every two to three weeks, and change your rep range on a regular basis. For instance, do triples the first week, singles the next and doubles the week after that. The number of sets you perform will depend on how many sets it takes you to work up to your maximum poundage for the designated rep range. In other words, do five to eight progressively heavier sets.
Bottom-position bench presses, rack lockouts or incline presses 5-8 x 3, 2 or 1
Use the same system as described for bottom-position squats, above.
Bent-over rows 4 x 6-8
Warm up with two to three light sets, and then do four all-out sets of six to eight reps.
Skull crushers 3 x 10
This exercise has great carryover to your bench press. If your wrists can handle it, use a straight bar rather than a cambered one. It promotes more activation in your triceps, where you need it.
Barbell curls 3 x 10
Unfortunately, as productive as this exercise is, you don’t see it often enough in the average gym. Trainees seem to prefer machines or dumbbells, but the basic barbell curl can’t be beat for effectiveness. If possible, use an Olympic bar.
Hanging leg raises 3 x 20
Do these as described for workout 1.
Use this program as listed for at least eight weeks. At that point you have a few options. You can either start to divide your program into a two-way split, adding a little more work for each bodypart, or add some extra sessions. I prefer the second option. Start off with another light workout on Tuesday, and after a few weeks you can add another on Saturday.
What’s more, if you want to gain muscle mass along with your strength, start adding some rep work with your squats and bench presses on your speed day. Something like four sets of eight reps will work nicely. Another option is to perform your maximum-effort workout with more reps. Instead of using triples, doubles and singles, start doing some sets of fives and sevens every couple of weeks.
And what should you do about nutrition while you’re on this program? Why, eat anything you want.
Summing It Up
I hope you come away from this discussion with a better understanding of strength training. Despite the apparent similarities, there are some striking differences between strength training and bodybuilding. The better you understand that, the better you’ll be at either one. IM