Q: What’s the best way to train for mass and strength at the same time?
A: There are several good ways to train for mass and strength. Generally, basic movements done for moderate sets and reps is the rule. That’s not to say you can’t build mass and strength by doing isolation movements such as flyes, laterals, kickbacks and concentration curls. It’s just easier to use heavier weights when you perform basic movements such as bench presses, behind-the-neck presses, squats, leg presses, bent-over rows, deadlifts, close-grip bench presses and barbell curls. Most bodybuilders believe there’s a definite correlation between how big and muscular they get and how much weight they lift, so if you can get stronger on basic movements, you should get bigger and more muscular too.
My philosophy about training has changed a little over the years as I’ve learned about the training methods of some champion bodybuilders. I think you can gain mass and strength by training in almost any manner, from power training to high reps, supersets and triple drops and everything in between. It’s just that no method seems to work forever. Sticking points arise, and then it may take a different kind of training to stimulate new gains. For instance, if you were doing straight sets for low reps, it might be necessary to change the rep scheme to bring on new gains.
Although everything ‘works’ (I like what former Mr. Universe Roy Callender said when asked about Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training methods: ‘I think all barbell training is heavy duty if you do it right’), certain methods might not be optimal for building maximum strength or are better suited to bringing out cuts and increasing muscularity than building pure size.
Here’s a fail-safe way to build mass and strength at the same time. It might be a little different from advice I’ve given in the past, but I think the principles behind the method are sound. I actually surprised myself when I trained this way for a while in 1999. It’s very similar to the method used by six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, and we all know what kind of mass he had.
You need a little different mind-set to train this way. Most of us were taught to pyramid weight up over several sets while decreasing the repetitions. For instance, a bodybuilder might do 1×15-20 on the bench press as a warmup, then add weight to the bar and do another warmup set of 1×10-12. Depending on the state of his shoulders, pecs and triceps, it might be necessary to perform a third warmup set. Then the work sets begin. He adds more weight to the bar and shoots for a fairly hard eight to 10 reps. He increases the weight again and shoots for a hard six to eight reps. He increases the weight again and goes for an all-out five to six reps. If he’s trying to develop a big bench press, he might do a couple more sets, dropping to singles and triples.
After the bench presses he does other chest exercises, usually inclines, flyes and pullovers. That’s typical of the way many bodybuilders train, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Lots of champions over the past half century have trained in that fashion and developed great mass and strength. Still, it’s not the only way to do that. One of the problems with the traditional pyramid scheme is that the warmup sets can be too strenuous, which takes away from the amount of weight used on the work sets. I know that whenever I trained with leg presses, I shot myself in the foot, so to speak, by putting too much effort into the warmup sets and not enough into the sets that really count’the final two or three work sets.
Typically, I’d begin with two plates on each side of a machine and do 50 reps. Then I’d go to three plates and try for 30 or 40. After those two so-called warmup sets my thighs would be burning. I’d jump to five plates a side and do 15 reps. By the time I began the fourth set, I’d only be able to get about 12 reps with six plates on each side. With seven plates I’d have a hard time getting eight reps. Then I’d take a few plates off and go for high reps again. Sometimes I’d triple drop.
That strategy gave my thighs an unbelievable burn and pump’which was great because for years I couldn’t get a thigh pump with low-rep sets’but my thigh mass and strength seemed to have hit a sticking point. It was time to rethink things. I decided to train more along the lines of Dorian Yates, keeping the reps low, even on the warmup sets, and deliberately trying to avoid too much exertion on the warmup sets so I could put more energy into the work sets.
For example, on the leg press machine I’d use two plates and do just 15 reps. Then I’d put on four plates and do 10 repetitions. For my final warmup set I’d use six plates a side and do six repetitions. I was deliberately pyramiding up in weight but performing sets of low intensity. For my first work set I jumped to eight plates a side and did 12 reps. Then I did nine plates a side for eight repetitions and followed that with 10 plates a side for another six to eight reps. That was it for leg presses. Also, I started every workout’no matter what bodypart I planned to train’with a body warmup of one set of leg presses for 50 reps, rather than riding the bike for five minutes. Since I was on a one-bodypart-per-day routine, I was working my legs five times a week, with only one true leg session.
I noticed that when I switched to the new method of training, my thighs rapidly increased in size and strength. It really helps to hold back on early warmup sets and then jump right to a heavy weight. I know some champion bodybuilders who pyramid up in weight like that, saving their energy by performing low-intensity warmup sets. They make the first work set their heaviest and then drop the weight a little on the final two to keep their reps up. Lee Labrada used to train that way.
It’s just a different mind-set. Take as many sets as necessary to warm up a muscle but keep the reps and the exertion levels down. If you watch Dorian Yates’ workout video, you’ll see that when he does bench presses, he starts with two plates, 225 pounds, but does only six repetitions on his first warmup set. Then he jumps to 315 pounds and does another easy six repetitions. Only when he gets to 405 does he go all out for six to eight reps. Then he jumps to 450 pounds and goes all out for six reps again.
I recommend that you give this method a try for all your bodyparts. Just make sure the muscle is warm and ready for the heavy stuff, or you risk an injury. Warm up but don’t kill yourself doing it. IM