by: Kyle Hunt
When I first got into training it was bodybuilding that had my attention. I used to read all of the popular bodybuilding magazines – Flex, Muscle and Fitness, Muscular Development, MuscleMag, etc. I even read Arnold’s massive Encyclopedia to Modern Bodybuilding cover to cover multiple times, it still sits on my bookshelf to this day.
No matter how far down the strength path I get, building muscle will always be important to me. The fact is, building muscle should be important to any powerlifter or strength athlete. A bigger muscle has a greater potential to be a stronger muscle.
On the flip side, just as building muscle is beneficial to gaining strength, gaining strength can be beneficial in building muscle as well.
It’s time we stop thinking the two qualities are mutually exclusive and take a look at the bigger picture moving forward.
Training for Muscle vs. Training for Strength
When you ask someone the difference between training for muscle and training for strength, the answer you usually get has something to do with rep ranges.
The general recommendation is, train with heavy weight and low reps for strength and moderate weight with moderate reps for size (hypertrophy).
These adaptations overlap to some degree (you’re never truly stimulating only one or even two adaptations), but this is how it’s generally broken down:
- 1-5 reps = Strength/Power (depending on load used)
- 5-8 reps = Strength/Hypertrophy
- 8-12 reps = Hypertrophy
- 12-15 reps = Hypertrophy/Muscular Endurance
- 15+ reps = Muscular Endurance
This has shown to be relatively effective in practice and it makes sense. However, there is more to the story than just rep ranges.
Last year I wrote an article talking about how powerlifting and bodybuilding training may not be as different as some might think. See “In Defense of Powerlifting: Why It’s Not Hurting Bodybuilding“.
The general premise was, powerlifting training can be a great tool for an offseason bodybuilder. To make this point I referenced research done by Brad Schoenfeld who found that as long as volume was equated (Volume = sets x reps x weight), there was little difference between a powerlifting (10 sets of 3) and a bodybuilding (3 sets of 10) routine in terms of muscle growth.
What’s more? As expected, the 10 sets of 3 group made superior strength gains.
Based off this, here is what we know:
1- Weight on the bar (intensity) plays a big role in gaining strength. If you want to get stronger you need to lift heavy…duh. This is nothing revolutionary, we have recognized low reps do a great job of building maximal strength for a long time.
2- What we didn’t know, at least from a scientific standpoint, is that low reps and heavy weight can be equally effective at building muscle. Overall volume is the key player here.
As long as volume is equated, there might be more to hypertrophy training than just a rep range. If nothing else, this tells us we don’t have to keep all reps in the moderate range in order to build muscle. Low reps can build muscle too, as long as the volume is there.
Plus, lifting heavy has an underlying benefit in the quest for muscle growth. Remember the equation for Volume (V= sets x reps x weight). Weight is the missing link in most yearly bodybuilding programs. Lifting more weight is another way to increase overall training volume. When you improve your strength by training in low rep ranges, that strength carries over when you switch back to more of a bodybuilding/higher rep routine.
Now before we go any further, there was one other point I feel must be brought up. In the study, the powerlifting routine took significantly longer to complete than the bodybuilding one.
This makes sense because heavy sets take longer to recover from. In order to go as heavy as possible you need at least a 2-3 minute rest period between sets. If you have never focused on strength before, trust me, powerlifting style workouts take a long time!
Since going heavy takes longer, it’s generally going to be easier to get in more volume using a moderate rep range. This is why the middle rep range (6-12 reps) has been coined the “hypertrophy zone” and is considered better for bodybuilding purposes.
If you learn nothing else from this article, pay attention to this – there is nothing inherently special about a specific rep range in terms of building muscle, it really comes down to what facilitates optimal training volume. There can be a benefit to every rep range.
Does Bigger = Stronger?
We just talked about how focusing on strength can carry over to building muscle. Now the question becomes, how can building muscle benefit someone focused on strength?
Like I mentioned previously, “a bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle”.
The fact is, when it comes to strength, muscle size is the single most important factor. But it’s not the only factor.
Aside from muscle size, there are a few additional factors why some people are stronger than others. These include – muscle fiber types, limb lengths, muscle insertions and motor learning/neural drive. With all of these “other” things being equal, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle.
Gaining muscle is basically like gaining potential strength. You might not immediately get stronger but by adding muscle you have raised your strength ceiling so to speak.
Think about it, if muscle development were irrelevant there would be no need to have weight classes in powerlifting. At the very least you wouldn’t see as much variation from lightweights to heavyweights. However, when you look at the results from any powerlifting meet, the winning totals get much higher as the weight classes go up.
We all know, at least intuitively, that a bigger person is generally stronger than a smaller person. From a broscience perspective this boils down to one thing, if you want to get stronger, you need to get bigger.
With that being said, those “other” factors mentioned above deserve some attention. Size isn’t everything. Those other factors are still very important and help to explain why it’s not uncommon for a huge bodybuilder to get “out lifted” by a smaller powerlifter.
In the quest to improve strength there are only two things we can control through training.
1- Muscular Development
2- Neural Drive
We can’t do anything about the other factors such as muscle fiber types, limb lengths or muscle insertions. They are what they are.
This means in order to get as strong as possible we need to incorporate training that improves both muscle size and neural drive.
In an effort to keep this article shorter than the Fast and the Furious series, I don’t want to dig too far down the rabbit hole of neuromuscular adaptation. For the purpose of this article, just know when we talk about neural drive we are talking about getting better at the skill of lifting heavy weights.
Absolute Strength is a skill and like any skill it get’s better with practice. As you lift heavy, you get better at lifting heavy. It’s the law of specificity.
Prescription to Build Muscle
Prescription to Gain Strength
|Short Rest Periods (30-90 sec)||Longer Rest Periods / Full Recovery|
|Prioritize Moderate Rep Ranges||Prioritize Low Rep Ranges|
|Volume > Intensity||Intensity > Volume|
|Increase Time Under Tension||Use a Tempo That Maximizes Weight|
|Train Bodyparts||Train Exercises / Movement Patterns|
|Include Lots of Exercise Variation||Exercise Specificity is Very Important|
To understand how you can put this all together, we need to dig into periodization.
Periodization: Linear vs. Nonlinear
In layman terms, periodization is just a way of organizing your training. Periodization is having a training plan that goes beyond one week.
The best way I have found to incorporate size and strength into one training program is by using Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP).
To really understand DUP and why it’s so effective, we need to go over the difference between linear and nonlinear periodization.
Linear Periodization is the most basic form of periodization. When you think of the classic example of progressive overload, what you are thinking of is linear periodization.
Every good training program will include some form of linear progression. It just comes down to how much.
The typical linear setup starts out with high volume/low intensity and as you progress through training phases the volume decreases while the intensity increases. Basically what this means is the rep ranges will decrease as the weeks progress.
Linear Periodization Example:
Weeks 1-4 (Hypertrophy Phase)
4 sets of 10 @ 60%
Weeks 4-8 (Strength Phase)
4 sets of 5 @ 75%
With this style of training everything is broken down into phases that focus specifically on one adaptation – hypertrophy, strength, power, etc.
In a basic linear periodization model, hypertrophy and strength work are not ran at the same time. You would have a hypertrophy block (higher reps) followed by a strength block (lower reps). But the problem is, during your muscle building block you lose strength gains and during your strength block you lose muscular gains.
To combat this problem, I like to use DUP which is a form of Nonlinear Periodization.
Nonlinear Periodization hits multiple training adaptations throughout a training cycle or training week as it is with Daily Undulating Periodization.
With DUP you change the volume and intensity day to day, in an undulating pattern. This allows you to hit multiple training adaptations in each training cycle – hypertrophy, strength, muscular endurance, etc.
Low reps/heavy weight for strength specific neural work and moderate reps/moderate weight to build in more overall volume to get jacked.
The benefit to doing this is preventing the detraining effect of linear periodization. With DUP there is a lot of variability. Whatever you want to get better at, you are able to work towards every week.
An example of a training week designed for a strength athlete:
Day 1: Moderate Volume / Moderate Intensity – 3 sets of 5 @ 75% 1RM
Day 2: Low Volume / High Intensity – 3 sets of 3 @ 85% 1RM
Day 3: High Volume / Low Intensity – 3 sets of 10 @ 60% 1RM
*Notice there are 2 days devoted to strength based work with only one day focusing on hypertrophy.
This is just a basic example but honestly the options are endless.
The Key is to Prioritize
A lot of people equate DUP exclusively with powerlifting. While DUP does work great for increasing maximal strength it can just as easily be setup to build muscle if that is your goal.
The key is to prioritize what you want to improve.
It is important to understand, DUP is NOT a program. It is a concept that can be used in multiple ways.
If strength is the goal, the priority will be setting the program up specifically for strength gains. This will include most of the work in the 1-6 rep range with the occasional 6-15 rep days thrown in for extra volume and to take advantage of the muscle building adaptations.
However, it’s just as easy to set up a DUP program specifically for building muscle as it is for gaining strength.
To put more emphasis on muscle building you would just focus on adding more overall volume to the training block.
A DUP plan set up more towards muscle building could look like this:
Day 1: Moderate Volume / Moderate Intensity – 3 sets of 5 @ 75% 1RM
Day 2: High Volume / Low Intensity – 3 sets of 8 @ 65% 1RM
Day 3: Higher Volume / Lower Intensity – 3 sets of 12 @ 55% 1RM
*Notice there are 2 days devoted to hypertrophy based work with only one day focusing on strength.
The vast majority of people who lift weights want to be strong and look good too. It’s the ultimate best of both worlds scenario.
Although it’s generally thought to be a pipe dream, you can actually get really strong while getting jacked too. All it takes is smart training and you can have your cake and eat it too! On top of that, you can actually use a combination of muscle building and strength training to crossover and help improve the other training variable.
I know this article was long but I hope you were able to take away a few nuggets of information.
Also, I want to point out, if you like the idea of Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) check out my BEST selling ebook/training program Absolute Strength.
Other Articles You Might Like:
- How to Bench Press
- How to Squat
- How to Deadlift
- How to Use Percentages and the RPE Scale
- The Ultimate Guide to Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP)