The Strength and Size Formula

The Strength and Size Formula

There are people who want to be strong without the size, others that just live for the pump and then there are those that get greedy and want to be the biggest guy in the gym with the lifts to match. This article is about what you need to do, to be option number 3.

Let us start by looking at what you need to do to build SIZE vs what you need to do to build STRENGTH.

BUILDING SIZE

If you have read any of our other articles about building muscle, then you will know that there are a multitude of methods that can produce high-quality results. You can lift light-ish weights (~30 reps) to failure if you like to blow your muscles up, you can stick to traditional bodybuilding ranges and use around 70% of your max weight for 8-12 reps, or you can go down the powerlifting pathway and play around with some 5×5’s if you feel like moving some heavier weight. Of course, these are not the only options you have for building muscle, there is incredible variability in the methods that different people have used to build fantastic physiques.

Whilst there is freedom in the methods that you can use to build muscle, the underlying principles remain the same. Firstly, it is quite clear that we need to provide our body with a stimulus that challenges the body. In the case of hypertrophy (fancy word for muscle growth), the challenge needs to come in the form of mechanical loading. We need to challenge the body with either total load (heavier weight) or volume of load (increased sets/reps) and usually a combination of both. Unless you are a complete couch-dweller and haven’t exercised in months, you will also need to use a weight that you cannot lift for more than 30-40 reps or else you’re probably just doing a fancy version of cardio.

BUILDING STRENGTH

Training for strength is both simple and exceptionally complicated. In terms of developing MAX strength, countless coaches and scientists have shown that training near maximum (1-5 reps) provides the greatest increase in 1-rep strength for any given exercise. This largely comes down to the SAID principle which states that there are “specific adaptations to imposed demands” and what this really implies is that the more we practice a particular movement with a particular load, the better our body is going to get at performing this specific activity. Therefore if you want to get better at heavy deadlifting, best believe that you should be performing heavy deadlifts, and/or using exercises that have a similar movement pattern and similar neuromuscular demands.

This does not mean that all you should do is lift as heavy as you can! There are many other factors that go into building maximal strength. Whilst training with heavy loads (1-5 reps) is great for improving several neuromuscular components that influence strength, this method isn’t optimal for all aspects of strength development. Muscle size is one of the key ingredients for developing maximal strength and it has been shown that using very high weights for very few reps is not ideal for stimulating hypertrophy. Therefore it is important to make sure that your training is designed to cover all bases of strength development.

"As you can probably conclude, size and strength go together like cheese and crackers. The bigger you are, the more potential you have to lift heavier weights."

THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

As you can probably conclude, size and strength go together like cheese and crackers. The bigger you are, the more potential you have to lift heavier weights. So how do we increase muscle size in a way that is MOST beneficial to max strength? 

We try to stick closer to the strength end of the hypertrophy-continuum. Using a rep range somewhere around 5-15 is going to stimulate muscle growth whilst being MORE SPECIFIC to max-strength than higher rep ranges. The neural and structural adaptations are going to be closer to those created during heavy lifting and are less likely to produce OPPOSING adaptations that can be seen with very high rep, endurance-type exercise.

To maintain maximal strength, it is important that you continue to include some specific strength work (>80% 1RM) in your program at all times. For general strength, try to cover all of the key movement patterns each week (upper body push, squat variation and a pull variation) without going too overboard on volume or frequency. 3-5 working sets using 1-5 reps should do the trick!

Due to the high neural and bioenergetic requirements of heavy lifting, it is best to begin your session with maximal strength work (after your dynamic warm-up of course!). We want to ensure that the body is fresh and ready to perform at maximal capacity for each working set. This means that there will need to be an extended break of 2-4 minutes between sets to maximise recovery. Once you have completed your strength work, you can then move onto your high-rep, high-fatigue hypertrophy sets. We always suggest reducing the complexity of the exercises as fatigue increases across the session to avoid a breakdown in technique.

Of course, there is always more to it and the information provided here is simply an overview of what you need to consider when designing your own size and strength training program. As we have mentioned in several other articles, the effort you put into your training must be matched by your recovery and your nutrition if you want to get the absolute most out of your training! 

Train hard, eat well and keep moving forward!

Should you squat?

Catchy heading right?

Everyone in health and fitness seems to get a kick out of debating over every little aspect of training and the poor old squat is no exception. Most people are either extremely pro squat or will avoid them at all costs, very rarely will people talk about the situations in which the squat is going to be an appropriate tool. Therefore this article aims to distinguish who should squat, why you should squat and some of the considerations you should make before determining whether this exercise should be a staple in your training regime.

History of the squat

The squat is one of the most basic, fundamental human movements. We can squat as soon as we can stand. As we become older, anatomical changes can hinder our ability to sit in a perfect deep squat, though the vast majority of us still have the ability to do so. Most of us, if not all will squat in some sort of manner every day.

In modern times, squatting weight as an exercise became popular in the early 19th century, yet it has more than likely been around for centuries. Over the last 50 years, the development of powerlifting and bodybuilding has led to the movement becoming almost synonymous with weight training. A quick google of the word will provide you with thousands of articles (including this one) picking apart every aspect of the squat movement.

"If squatting is a part of your sport, aka you are a powerlifter/Olympic lifter, then you definitely need to be performing squat variations regularly."

Why is the squat so popular?

I believe that the squat and its variants are popular for 3 major reasons.

Powerlifting/ a display of full-body strength

Squatting is a skill, used within a sport that requires repetitive practice to master. If you wish to be a competitive and successful powerlifter, then you must squat!
For those that don’t compete, it is still an astounding show of strength. Usually, it will be close to, if not the highest amount of weight that a person can move and many people like to use the squat as a marker for full-body strength.

Muscle and strength development

The use of the squat as an exercise to build the muscles of the lower body and back is probably the most popular reason for squatting. It has been shown in many studies to develop strength and size in the quads, glutes and pretty much your entire body.

Simplicity

As mentioned earlier, the squat is a basic human movement. Therefore it makes sense that it is used in a variety of ways for physical fitness. I am sure that many people will argue that a ‘good’ squat is not simplistic, though realistically if it is used with kids through to the elderly, from beginner stage through to elite weightlifting, it can’t really be considered a specialised skill.

Who absolutely HAS to squat?

If squatting is a part of your sport, aka you are a powerlifter/Olympic lifter, then you definitely need to be performing squat variations regularly. Just like with any sport-specific skill, repetition is a key ingredient to mastery. You aren’t going to step up to the plate in your first ever powerlifting meet and work it out as you go, now are you?

"If you are strong, healthy and coordinated, you can squat however you like!"

Who SHOULD NOT use a traditional back squat?

Those in pain

Let us start with the obvious. If squatting with a bar on your back causes significant pain, you should not be back squatting. Repeat this statement using any other exercise and you get the same answer. Whilst minor pain isn’t always an issue, pain during an exercise is rarely, if ever, necessary and it is extremely detrimental to motivation and performance. There are always ways that we can modify an exercise to reduce or eliminate pain, whilst training for the same outcomes. In most cases, minor pain will be a reflection of mobility limitation, weakness and/or overuse (usually a combination of all) and therefore a thorough examination of all relevant muscles and joints is required before deciding on the best course of action.

Those with mobility limitations

There is a certain amount of mobility that one must possess to be able to squat without disfunction. Limitations at the shoulder, hip or ankle can cause a host of up or down-stream issues in common areas such as the lower back and knee. Often times you may need to work specifically on mobility in the 3 key areas before you are able to get in a comfortable squat position. If there are long-term limitations to mobility such as shoulder surgery, you may find that using an alternative variation such as a safety squat bar can allow you to continue working on your prime movers (quads and glutes), without placing detrimental stress on the recovering area.

Those with anatomical limitations

Whilst many mobility issues can be alleviated through specific training, many people are faced with anatomical limitations that inhibit their ability to perform a picture-perfect, full-range squat. An example is a person that has extremely long femurs (upper leg) and limited ankle range of motion. Their squat is going to look more like a hip hinge, than a squat. This is where it is important to step back and have a think about WHY you are performing the squat. If you are using a squat to try and develop quadricep strength through a full range of motion, a traditional squat will not be the answer for this specific person. Again, the only reason you HAVE to use the squat is if it is used within your competition. 

Those with muscle imbalances

The squat is a bilateral exercise, it requires the use of both sides of the body. As humans we are naturally asymmetrical, meaning that for 99% of us, we are stronger and more coordinated on one side of the body. Significant strength differences between the lower limbs can cause a heavy reliance on the dominant leg during bilateral exercises. Not only will this continue to widen the strength gap, but it can also lead to dysfunction in other areas of the body. It is important to recognise any major strength differences and work on unilateral exercises such as a single leg squat before progressing into heavy bilateral squats.

Those with poor motor control

By now you have probably got the idea that position is everything. How a squat is performed will determine what is actually gained from its inclusion in an exercise program. For young children, growing teenagers and many sedentary adults, coordination isn’t always a strong suit. Before participating in any weight-loaded exercise, a person must be proficient with their own bodyweight. It is never a good idea to place weight on the back of someone who cannot perform a bodyweight squat with control through a full range of motion. Mobility and coordination should always come before load!

Those with weak supporting muscles

Most people would agree that the squat is an exercise used mainly to develop the quadriceps and the glutes. So what happens when the strength of the spinal erectors is the reason you can not lift any more weight or perform any more reps? Are your quads and glutes really getting the stimulation they need from this exercise? The answer is probably not. In this case, it could be beneficial to perform an exercise such as the leg press for quad and glute strength whilst using specific back exercises to build up the erector muscles. Alternatively, if you really want or need to work on your squat pattern, you could continue to squat (improving the skill component) whilst using accessory exercises to strengthen your weak areas.

Who CAN or SHOULD squat?

If you are strong, healthy and coordinated, you can squat however you like! There is no reason that you should not use the squat to develop or test lower-body strength and/or to build muscle mass.

For athletes, there is definitely an extreme performance upside to having a strong squat. In fact, squat strength has been shown to have very high correlation with vertical jump height, acceleration and overall lower body power amongst a host of other physical benefits. This does not mean that you must squat to become a good athlete! It simply means that the attributes that lead to someone having a strong squat (lower-body and torso strength) tend to benefit several areas of athletic performance. Can you use the squat as a TOOL to develop strength? Of course. Just don’t leave this article thinking that it is specifically the squat that causes increases in performance. Focus on building lower body and torso strength through whatever exercises suit your body and your situation.

In conclusion, there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all exercise. Play around and find out what works for you. If you really enjoy squatting, try out all of the many variations and see which one feels best for your body. If you need to, make sure to take the time to address your limitations and focus on developing the key ingredients that lead to a strong and healthy squat. At the end of the day, exercising for aesthetics, performance and wellness all have one thing in common, injury is the enemy. Stay healthy, have fun and enjoy your training!