During a recent presentation in Salt Lake City, I was surprised to see that the attendees were largely made up of people who appeared to be young (primarily between age 25-35) and in above average physical condition. The presentation focused on the demonstration and teaching of Self-Mobilization techniques to employees and employers so they can treat their own back injuries. However, probably due to my background in bodybuilding and the fitness level of the attendees, many of the questions I received afterward in the Q and A centered around improving strength/muscle size, nutrition, protein intake, weight training frequency, how to get “cut”, the best bodybuilding routines, etc
Because so many of the questions were related to this issue, let me be very clear about one basic fact: In order for a muscle to increase in size, it must also increase in strength. Additionally, if a muscle increases in strength, it must also increase in size. There is no such thing as a differentiation in training between “training for strength” or “training for size”. One will produce the other. To a casual observer, this seems counterintuitive since anyone who has frequented a gym has seen people who do not in any way appear to be very muscular, but yet they are able to use more weight, or lift more in certain exercises than someone who appears more muscular or is larger. This can lead you to believe that there is a basic difference in training methods, with regard to number of repetitions, sets and exercises, when we are “training for strength” as opposed to “training for size”. It appears that one of the methods will produce increases in muscle size and altogether a different method will produce increases in muscle strength. However, there is a very fundamental error in this type of comparison because we are comparing one person to another person. This requires an explanation:
There are many factors that contribute to any one individual’s ability to lift a certain amount of weight for a certain number of repetitions. One of the factors in the muscle’s cross-sectional area or simply put; the size of their muscles. That’s the part we can see. Other factors, that are not as readily visible include muscle fiber type, tendon attachment points, neuromuscular efficiency/recruitment, bone/leverage length, percentage of subcutaneous fat, etc. A person with visibly larger muscles may well be beaten by someone with visibly smaller muscles, if the smaller man has enhanced fiber type or any of a host of additional advantages that are simply not visible and usually genetically determined. However, this does not negate the reality that, within a single individual, in order for that individual to increase his/her muscle size, they must increase their strength. If you succeed in lifting more weight or lifting the same weight for a greater number of repetitions (demonstrating an increase in strength), then an increase in muscle size will surely (and rapidly) follow. (I am assuming that the increase in weight lifted or the increase in number of repetitions performed, was in fact, performed in perfect strict form, relatively slowly, without cheating/hitching, and at the same speed and angle as the previous performance to which it is being compared.) In short, if your muscle has increased it’s strength, then it has also increased in size.
The question now becomes; What’s the best way to train for strength/size? I receive this question invariably, not from the novice, but usually from someone who has been weight training/bodybuilding for several months to several years. They have meticulously logged their workouts and when they look back 6 months to a year, they realize that their records show that their strength has not improved in many months (or years). They also now begin to realize they have plateaued or reached what is sometimes called a “sticking point”. When this happens, it is usually because they have not taken into account the reality that “things have changed” and the thing that has changed the most is their body. What I mean by this is that the basic routine that worked for them initially, (and virtually any routine will work for anyone, when they first start bodybuilding/weight training), will not work for them as they increase in strength and size. When the strength/size of a muscle increases, the continued training of this (now stronger) muscle demands a greater and greater portion of your recovery ability, in order to grow. As a result, the volume and frequency of your workout must decrease, in order to make further progress. Unfortunately, when most people hit a “sticking point”, they do exactly the opposite--they increase both the volume and the frequency of their workouts. The results of this is that their progress stops completely and they may even regress.
When I state that your workouts must decrease in volume and frequency, I do not mean to imply that they must become easier. Far from it! Initially, many people, for a period of anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, will make good, steady progress on a typical routine of working every bodypart, in each of 3 workouts per week, performing anywhere from 1 to 5 sets per body part. However, they will quickly reach a plateau/sticking point after the aforementioned time. As already mentioned, when muscles increase in strength and size, they demand a greater and greater portion of your recovery ability, in order to grow. However, although the muscles have increased in size, the “size” of your recovery ability does not increase to nearly the degree that the muscles have increased in strength/size. As a result, as the muscles grow, they drain a greater and greater percentage of your recovery ability. Ultimately the demand on your recovery ability exceeds your ability to recover, and a plateau results.
When you decrease the volume and frequency of workouts, a lower demand is made on your ability to recover. This again allows growth to take place. However, what must now increase, is the intensity of effort of each and every set performed. Each set must be taken to failure (in ultra-strict form, no swinging, cheating, hitching and no partial range repetitions. Only full, pain free ROM for each repetition. Not only is this done to prevent injury, but also to promote muscle growth.) Reduce sets to a bare minimum, preferably to one set per body part and reduce frequency to one or two workouts per week.
Yes, I know there are a lot of unanswered questions; What exercise are the best ?, How many exercises per body part?, How many reps per set?, How much weight to use?. But these are all relatively minor details that I will flesh out in another blog post. In the meantime, the basic premise I want to convey is this: reduce the volume of your bodybuilding workouts by approximately one half and reduce the frequency of your workouts by half and watch you progress begin, in earnest, again. That is the best way to continue to build muscle size/strength.