People love rules.
Lift weights 4 times a week for 60 minutes and you’ll gain 2 pounds of muscle in 8 weeks. Now get to work.
Sorry, but that’s not how any of this works.
A huge frustration, especially among more experienced dudes, is the size versus strength conundrum.
When you’re first starting out, there’s considerable overlap.
Your first year you can add weight to the bar almost every workout and what you see in the mirror changes dramatically. Some very dramatically.
Then it slows down. Or stops altogether. After those newbie salad days are firmly in your rearview, the whole process can be a lot less fun and a lot more frustrating.
I recently did a Skype consult with a smart young guy named Adam.
Adam felt he was plenty strong but wanted to put on some mirror mass. Every guy who lifts wants to look like they workout, even in normal person clothes, and Adam is no different.
Since he owns a gym, I suggested training heavier (for strength) in the morning, and lighter (for hypertrophy) in the afternoon. I gave him some tips and offered to look over his revamped program.
The morning strength work was what you’d expect from an educated, experienced lifter. It wasn’t fancy — until you reach a very high level of strength, you don’t need fancy — it was just really good.
However, the afternoon work, the size training, while the exercises and sets and reps looked “fine”, something was missing.
Once you’re past the rookie stage, training a muscle to get stronger will also make it bigger — though usually not to the same degree had you trained for hypertrophy (size) directly.
And training exclusively for size will also get you stronger, just not nearly as strong as following a strength-training program.
Most people are more gifted at one pursuit than the other. A handful excels at everything, while some hapless bastards respond to nothing and resign themselves to upping their Facebook game. #genetics
For many it helps to pick a focus – size or strength.
Now that doesn’t mean a guy who wants to get bigger is forbidden from ever going below 8 reps. Nor does it mean a strength guy can never read the paper while banging out reps on the leg extension again.
Both types of lifters will benefit considerably by including specific phases of the other type of programming, which is periodization. You can also perform “mixed” programming, such as following a higher volume “bodybuilding” program while still including some higher intensity “strength work.”
Both can work. The problem is, you have to make friends with both Strength and his more erratic brother, Size.
And for two kids from the same iron family they couldn’t have more different personalities.
Strength is like an engineer; he’s predictable and steady, if a little boring. Because he’s methodical and numbers oriented, Strength prefers a carefully measured plan. He will dissect that plan til he understands every set, rep, and exercise choice.
Size, on the other hand, is more whimsical. He has a philosophy degree that he somehow completed between contest preps. His approach to training and diet is instinctive to the point of being flaky, but at the same time he has the balls to eat the same thing 8 times a day if his prep requires it.
In my experience, guys today can wrap their head around Strength easier. They just need to go to learn the craft and work with strong, smart people. Then get under the bar and practice.
But Size is more puzzling, even frustrating, in part because it’s more loosey-goosey. While there are definitely best practices, it’s almost like … an art.
My colleague Dr. Brad Schoenfeld has made it his mission to demystify the nebulous forces that make muscles grow. To paraphrase, Schoenfeld says there are three hypertrophy mechanisms — mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
Mechanical tension is heavy lifting. Big exercises, big weights, through the fullest range of motion. Most guys get this part.
Muscle damage, as the name would suggest, is related to soreness. It’s caused by focusing on the execution of the rep — slow negatives, extending the range of motion – not just moving more weight. As such it requires much more mindfulness, something a lot of iPhone lifters lack.
Metabolic stress involves even more concentration and is the real missing link in my opinion. This is basically the “art” of training for the pump, something that’s lost today.
This isn’t just doing a shit load of random volume.
It’s using your mind to take your muscles to a different place. John Meadows talks a lot about “pain tolerance” – that’s an accurate description.
Constant tension reps, supersets, drop sets, mid-rep pauses — anything to pump and trap as much blood into the muscles as possible can work, provided you have the focus to keep the tension on the target muscles.
However, sometimes an exercise or technique just won’t “feel” right. That’s when you have to indulge the “artist” in you and change things up.
But this can’t happen unless you understand the goal – not to push weight or bang out reps, but to create maximum metabolic disturbance in the targeted tissues.
While it’s a similar level of effort as intense strength training, it’s focused in an entirely different direction. In a way, it’s a meditative process, like a martial artist performing patterns.
The nuts & bolts – the programming and sets and reps and quality of the equipment are (almost) irrelevant.
Ever wonder how Arnold and his crew built such incredible physiques with such rudimentary diet and nutrition (and anabolic) practices and antiquated equipment?
What they lacked in knowledge, they more than made up for in work ethic. And focus.
So my advice to Adam was to take a step back and think big picture. You got the skills and the knowledge and the drive to succeed. Now let’s focus on what’s remaining.
Once the weight is in your hand, can you push past discomfort and enter the zone where training accomplishes much more than just hitting the rep-targets on your spreadsheet?
Cause if there’s one rule that I love and believe in, it’s that a muscle building workout is far greater than the sum of its programming parts.
Some guys just want to look good. Others are willing to learn what it takes. Which guy are you? Click here to learn more about building the body you want.
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