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.
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.
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!