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Strength, Muscle Confusion and Mass

Q: I’m an advanced bodybuilder, and I read your book, but I have a question. Should I start from the beginning with my poundages and increase the weight each month, or should I confuse the muscles one week by doing five sets of five reps and then five sets of 10 to 20 reps the following week? Is getting big all about adding weight every month on all the exercises, or is it about confusing my muscles with different routines? Also, is it good to be sore after a workout? Does it mean I will grow?

A: Those are all good questions. Many aspiring bodybuilders get confused on the correct way to train. It happens because so much conflicting information is out there—and in the 21st century you can find lots of information all over the place.

When you’re building your physique and trying to get the muscles to get both bigger and stronger, it’s very important that you increase the resistance you’re using. If you don’t make a concerted effort toward getting stronger, it won’t happen naturally. In other words, it takes a tremendous amount of work and dedication to gain strength and get bigger.

Some people are genetically gifted in bodybuilding and powerlifting, and they can develop size and strength just by going through the motions of a workout. Genetic freaks, however, are few and far between. Most of us have to work extremely hard in order to build a great physique.

I’m mentioning that because I want to stress that a big muscle is usually a strong muscle. For example, if you can bench-press 150 pounds for six repetitions, your chest, shoulders and triceps will grow in accordance with that weight. When you can bench-press 300 pounds for six repetitions, your chest, shoulders and triceps will develop in size in order to handle that heavier resistance.

You asked whether you should be training heavier or using a varied amount of repetitions in order to get your muscles to develop. In my opinion, varying your repetition scheme to shock the muscles is an advanced training tactic. Before you can use the more advanced methods, though, you have to develop a certain amount of size and strength.

To make the muscles stronger, you have to challenge them constantly by overloading them with increasing amounts of weight. That requires using a resistance heavy enough to limit the reps to six to eight—and, occasionally, three to five.

If you look at the most massive bodybuilders in the history of the sport, you’ll see that they were all very strong. Bill Pearl could do a 310-pound seated behind-the-neck press and a 500-pound front squat. Reg Park was the first bodybuilder to bench-press 500 pounds. Arnold Schwarzenegger could deadlift 710 pounds when he was in his early 20s. Franco Columbu could bench more than 500 pounds and deadlift more than 700 pounds at only 185 pounds bodyweight. Kevin Levrone could bench-press more than 500 pounds for reps. Ronnie Coleman was able to do squats and deadlifts for reps with more than 800 pounds.

Although their goal was to develop bigger muscles and compete as bodybuilders, those champions all knew that it was important to develop their strength first to build their muscles to the massive size they needed to become icons of the sport. Remember, a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle.

When you reach the advanced degrees of training, it becomes much more difficult to get stronger. At times it can be counterproductive. A bodybuilder who’s already developed a great deal of size and strength can often build even more size by using a different repetition scheme so as to shock the muscles. Attempting to use heavier weights at the advanced stage often leads to injury and may not be the answer to getting bigger the way it is for the beginning or intermediate bodybuilder.

As soon as you develop a certain amount of size and strength, you can begin using different training methods to shock the muscles and keep them growing. It’s important, however, to keep your workouts consistent so you know whether you’re progressing from week to week. In other words, if you use such drastically different rep schemes and totally different exercises and routines week after week, it’s going to be hard to judge whether your workouts are improving because they’ll be all over the board.

A good way to structure your workouts at the advanced stage is to train in cycles. For example, you could train heavy at five to seven reps for a week or two and follow that up with two weeks of training with more moderate weights for 10 to 12 reps and possibly supersets and/or drop sets. You could then go back to the heavy training for another two weeks and keep cycling the two workout methods. Experiment with different training styles to see what works best for you, but don’t get completely away from the heavy training that developed the muscle size in the first place.

As for muscle soreness, delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is usually a condition you can trace to doing something different in your workouts. Studies have shown that muscle soreness is the result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers from exercise. The eccentric, or negative, portion of each repetition is believed to be most responsible for causing muscle soreness.

You don’t need to be sore in order to grow. Muscle growth takes place because the muscles adapt to a new stress placed on them. It can be from increasing the resistance or doing more repetitions or more sets. That type of training may not result in the muscles being sore, but it possibly could cause the muscles to grow.

I’ve written before about the 10-sets-of-squats program I used several years ago in an attempt to build my legs. It called for a specific number of reps with a specific weight, but it was for 10 total sets. I wasn’t taking each set to failure but stopping when I completed my repetition goal. After the first workout I thought I’d wasted my time because I hadn’t pushed myself to failure the way I was used to.

After seven weeks of that type of training, my legs had grown more than two inches. I was never sore once from any of those workouts. The muscles had grown in response to the increased volume that I’d imposed on them, and it had happened without the workouts causing any soreness. Being sore usually feels good because we think that it means we are going to grow, but soreness isn’t necessary for gaining muscle size or strength.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to [email protected] or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at  IM

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