Welcome to the final part of my strength series. After two relatively heavy articles, this time around I’m sharing a few considerations that I have found and learned over the years, training myself and others.
1. Optimal vs adequate
One of the first things I want to make clear is that most studies into increasing strength and building muscle are looking for the best way to do each thing.
This does not mean it is the only way to do either and for some individuals it may be safer to approach both training processes (at least initially) at a sub-optimal level.
For example, It has been suggested (1) the best way to increase STRENGTH is to lift weights equivalent to greater than 85% of your 1RM. However, if Joe or Janet Blogs off the street are not used to lifting any weights, loading them up to that extent would most likely just break them. You could argue they would be working to their own (lower) 1RM, therefore the load would be specific to them. However, consider whether their 1RM is actually accurate with no training experience.
One rep max (and %'s of) allow for accurate measures of progression in well trained individuals or statistical analysis in the case of studies. When training a more general population my approach is to first condition each client to one day be able to attempt a 1RM on their compound movements. This involves, developing mobility, movement patterns, motor control, core awareness, strength and endurance.
By doing all of the above you will get stronger and be in a much safer place to attempt to lift at the above intensities when you do.
All science aside, when training for strength I don’t think you can go far wrong by just:
“Lifting heavier than you are used to”
This can be squatting with 5kg dumbbells when you are only used to bodyweight exercises, or progressing your bench press 45kg because you have got used to lifting 40kg regularly.
When training for muscle HYPERTROPHY, we know that placing the muscles under maximal mechanical load and creating a metabolic stimulus will stimulate muscle growth. However this can be uncomfortable even painful, while maintaining form though fatigue under high loads can be dangerous for less trained individuals.
As article two identified, any levels of mechanical tension combined with metabolic stress will stimulate some sort of hypertrophic response, even if it is relatively small (2).
One of my favourite musings is that various forms of vinyasa yoga in theory provide great conditions for muscle hypertrophy. You spend long periods of time in uncomfortable loaded positions, and then in stretch positions. This leads to high levels of both mechanical tension within the muscles and a metabolic response, signified by that burning in your muscles.
So why don’t more Yogis get very muscular? A combination of two main factors in my opinion:
a. A lot of Yoga practitioners do not consume enough protein to facilitate optimal muscle growth (a whole other article/subject in itself).
b. While yoga does provide a lot of time under tension (therefore cumulative mechanical tension) the intensity and speed of movements are submaximal meaning the high threshold motor units and their muscle fibres are not challenged sufficiently. This means there will be a limit on how much stimulus can be created.
So in relation to clients, why would I start someone looking to build a bit of muscle on a perfect, yet difficult and uncomfortable, muscle building program, when I know mechanical tension and metabolic stress beyond what they are used to will illicit some muscle growth response.
2. Strength is a skill?
Another point that could be an article within itself. If the majority of strength gains without muscle hypertrophy are neuromuscular in nature (1), literally learning to recruit and co-ordinate motor units, co-ordinate muscles and muscle groups and learn movements then strength is predominatly as skill. This is even more relevent when you apply this reasoning to exercises in the gym.
In my experience, it takes many months, sometimes years of training, to both acquire the skills and to condition the body to handle such loads safely and effectively. This is why I would always reccomend prioritising quality of movement over lifting heavier, at least initially, as this will provide you with the biggest gains to begin with and set the foundations for years to come.
Like other skills, such as riding a bike, learning to swim or ski, it can be a long process and sometimes it can take a while. If you dont do it for a while you may get a bit rusty. Sticking with the skiing analogy, if you dont ski for a year between trips you dont jump straight into a black run the first time up the hill on your next trip. Your body will remember the skills but you need to remind it and practice a bit again. This is a good way to look at strength training as well.
3. Building muscles for show is hard and painful work!
Hypertrophy or increased muscle mass has a huge amount of health benefits (3-10) and most people who I train (and most people in general) probably would benefit from an increase in their muscle mass.
Increased muscle mass can be accidental, through general sport and exercise or through lifting weights. We all have natural fluctuations in overall body weight as well as amounts of lean mass.
On most people increased muscle mass is only noticeable on the scales and in how lean or toned they look. Some people still seem to think that picking up weights will lead to bulging biceps and huge legs. Many skinny twenty something boys (including my past self) can only dream of it being that easy.
I am in my mid thirty’s and have been heavy resistance training at least twice a week for almost 20 years, of which many of the early years were spent trying to build more muscle. I am definitely not what you would describe as a bodybuilder look (proof below)
Realistically, 99% of people who resistance train for strength and even for hypertrophy will end up looking leaner, more toned and athletic, feeling stronger and more energetic and never get to see a vein in their bicep.
As a guide…Those people who do look like bodybuilders will have to do the folllwing things as a minimum:
a. Increase how much you eat of healthy whole foods, consuming 1.4-2.2g of protein per Kg bodyweight a day and enough calories to support your increased training intensity.
b. Train with heavy weights at least 3-6 times per week (maintaining that calorie surplus) using:
i. Heavy compound movements (Squats, Deadlifts, Pushes/Pulls etc at 70%+ of Maximum)
ii. Accessory exercises to metabolic failure (to the point it really, really hurts)
c. Sleep 8+ hours a night
d. I drink at least 3 litres of water a day
e. Do all of the above consistently for years, not weeks.
It is not done easily!
4. Muscles or movements?
One of the terms that floats around the fitness industry is that for strength you should train movements and for hypertrophy you should train muscles. I agree with this in part in relation to exercise selection.
However this is one the analogies that applies to well trained, experienced individuals who are specifically training for bodybuilding goals or strength and performance outcomes.
For example: When training a Sprinter, I will choose exercises that replicate the demands of their activity, always with an awareness of the muscles needed to work or be improved to help with those movement patterns.
If training a figure competitor, exercise selection may focus in on working particular muscles or muscle groups. This assumes the competitor has a good grasp of most movements required to train anyway.
For the rest of us I would always recommend to focus initially on movements. Mastering the compound lifts/movements: Squats, Lunges, Hinging, Pushes, Pulls, Bracing and Rotation.
Your sessions should be based around variations of these compound exercises with smaller more isolated exercises added afterwards focusing on muscle or areas that need improving to help your compound lifts.
This will develop a really good strength foundation and a balanced physique whatever your goals.
From there you can choose to progress down a more aesthetic training route, concentrating on building or shaping specific muscles, or a more strength/performance based program of compound or complex lifts.
5. Big and Strong
There is a reason this saying works or these two words work together, as mentioned in both previous articles, to a point size and strength do go hand in hand. The more muscles you have the stronger you can be and the stronger you are (heavier you lift) the more potential you have to build muscle.
Picture the worlds strongest men competitions, you dont see too many small guys on display!
While the research has suggested that all weights upwards of 30% of 1 RM (2) can cause muscle hypertrophy providing there is metabolic stress. Only more maximal weights can lead to higher threshold motor units to fire.
These motor units are only stimulated under extreme force or speed of contraction. Therefore if you only ever train in a "Hypertrophy zone" of 8-12 repetitions with minimal rest you will never hit the intensity required to recruit these high threshold motor units. This means you will find yourself limited in the hypertrophic results you can gain from your training.
The takeaway from this is to periodise your training so that you regularly stimulate these higher threshold motor units. This can be by undulate training to be heavier in nature some weeks or to include some higher intensity exercise in each session.
Depending on your training age and experience you may find better results from different amounts of higher or lower intensity training.
Personally, when trying to build muscle my body responds far better to lifting heavier weights for less repetitions, almost a pure strength training protocol than it does to lots of lower weight volume.
For Hypertrophy regularly work your muscles across all ranges of resistance from 30% all the way up to 100%
6. REST REST REST.
Rest within a session is one of the controllable factors that gets overlooked far too much in any training (resistance or otherwise).
I used to get annoyed watching people sitting on their phones for 5 minutes between sets (I still do if they’re not working hard enough) however If you’re training for strength and lifting at 85% or above each set then you will need 3-5 minutes to fully recover before your next efforts.
If your main goal is to get stronger, you are resting 1-2 mins between sets and find each set you can complete few and fewer reps then chances are you’re not resting long enough. The closer to 100% you lift (or work) the longer you will need to rest.
Stepping away from weights training for a moment I love to compare this to runners and their training. I know a few keen and a few elite distance runners who will run 800m-1km (2-5 minutes work) intervals with 1-2 minutes rest between reps. Compare this to sprinters who run 40-80m (4-10 seconds work) with 5-10 minutes rest between reps.
The reason being is that as a % of maximum sprinters are running at as close to 100% as possible meaning they need more rest to maintain this, whereas distance runners run at a lower % of maximum speed or force output, meaning their muscles and nervous systems need less recovery to be able to reproduce a submaximal effort.
For Hypertrophy, we want to keep rest lower, never allowing full recovery of muscles therefore stimulating a metabolic response.
Here’s a test for you: the next few times you are in the gym keep the weights the same but play with the rest periods.
For example for 4 sets of 8-10 reps on a compound movement pick a weight you would struggle to do 12 reps.
Day 1 - Keep the rest at 3 minutes between sets,
Day 2 - Drop the rest to 2 minutes
Day 3 - Decrease the rest to one minute maintaining the weights.
Pay attention to how this feels, cardiovascularly, within your muscles and in your energy levels at the end of your session.
If you are training for muscle gain, sitting on your phone for 3 minutes between sets will decrease the effect of your workout.
Note: If training for strength, there are far more productive ways to spend your rest time than on your phone 😊
7. And Recover
One of the biggest bits of advice I can give anyone doing any resistance training is to allow for recovery! To this day I have clients who are desperate for results saying they want to do 6 weights workouts a week.
My answer to most people is to learn to train with intensity first. Learn to recover, adapt and be able to push again the next session.
For those not used to weights training, I would normally recommend 2-3 sessions a week with days in between to fully recover.
Sure they could train 6 days a week but they would gradually fatigue and would not be able to maintain a high intensity each and every training session.
I have no qualms with clients doing a different form of exercise on their off days, in fact I would actively promote this. Just a lower intensity exercise designed to challenge their aerobic ability while allowing joints, muscles and the central nervous system to recuperate.
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Baechle, T., 2016. Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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