Strength, heavy lifting, power building, whatever you want to call it – everyone’s got an opinion on it when it comes to utilising it for muscular growth and no one seems to agree.
The information out there is all very conflicting in what kind of training you should be doing to improve your body. Some people say you should lift as heavy as possible all the time, others come back and say that lifting heavy weights does nothing for your physique. Who’s right?
In this article, I’m going to try and objectively look at the role strength plays in improving the look of your body and give you a clear and simple understanding of how you can leverage this important tool without getting injured or going backwards.
But first, we need to make an important distinction and get absolutely crystal clear on our goals.
The Distinction Between Goals (Powerlifting Vs Muscle Building)
Now, as we’re going to discuss further into this article, being strong is absolutely a good thing in terms of developing a good physique. Success leaves clues, and you’d be hard pressed to find a top level competitive bodybuilder or physique athlete that isn’t pretty damn strong compared to the average gym-goer. But we mustn’t get caught up in getting strong to the point that we forget our goals.
Let’s take the powerlifter as an example. The powerlifter knows his goal, and it’s got nothing to do with building a physique. Sure, he may (as a by-product) get in better shape than he was before he started training, but his goal is to able to lift as much weight as possible from point A to point B. Everything he does in the gym revolves around getting more weight on the bar so that when he goes to his competition he has the best chance of being the strongest there.
The powerlifter is actually interested in minimising the damage done to his muscles in the gym. What good is he going to be if he fries his chest with hundreds of reps in a workout and he’s weak as a kitten for 5 days afterwards? He needs to stay strong, so he avoids excessive amounts of damage in his workouts and doesn’t direct tension into specific muscles.
We, on the other hand, have different goals. Our goals, and our motivation for getting in the gym in the first place, are all down to the way we look. We want to become more muscular and leaner versions of ourselves. Sure, it’s nice to be strong but we’re not going into the gym so we can brag about our bench press (if that’s you motivation then cool, but this article isn’t for you bro).
We must be interested in directing tension into the target muscle when we’re doing an exercise. Whether that exercise is extremely heavy sets of 3-5 or lighter sets of 25 reps, we’re always trying to contract muscle against load, not just move load. Inflicting damage on our muscle tissue is quite literally the only reason we’re in the gym if we’re training for a physique related goal.
So whenever we’re talking about getting strong from here on in, we must remember the context. Sure, you might be able to bicep curl 20kg but did you actually recruit the fibres of your biceps during the exercise or did you just lift the weight a bunch of times? There’s a difference, and it’s important.
Fast Twitch Muscle Fibres
Without getting into too much of the science behind it (because I don’t want to bore you to sleep), the biggest benefit of ‘heavy lifting’ for physique development is the stimulation of fast twitch muscle fibres.
Now, there are 2 different types of fast twitch fibres but for simplicity we’re going to think of them as a whole for now. These muscle fibres are the first to be activated when performing an action that challenges the muscle, such as lifting a weight.
Fast twitch muscles fibres are considerably bigger than their slow twitch counterparts, so we should be concerned with maximising the growth of these fibres if we’re interested in increasing the size of our muscles.
While these muscle fibre types are extremely explosive and help us to get insanely strong, they fatigue pretty quickly which then brings us to our secondary muscle fibre type, slow twitch (I’ll cover that later).
An important point to remember is everyone’s genetic makeup is different and there is no blanket training prescription for everyone. Some people were born with a high ratio of fast twitch fibres and are destined to be Olympic sprinters, bodybuilders or powerlifters. Other people are born with a high number of slow twitch fibres and make for better distance runners. That doesn’t mean that the distance runner can’t build muscle, but he’d have to go about it slightly differently than the sprinter.
As noted earlier, strength, and the development of strength, is a key tool in our muscle building toolbox when used and applied properly. But there must be a method behind our madness, and a way of continually getting stronger over time. That’s where progressive overload comes in.
Progressive overload essentially is the process of getting stronger over time. My greatest understanding of the method is, that if we can get in the gym and perform the same movement we have at a previous date but better – we are utilising progressive overload.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the process of adding more weight to the bar every single week. If we’re looking to add mass, we need to put a little more thought into it than that.
There are a number of factors we can improve in any given exercise over time that will signify an increase in strength. Increasing the weight is one viable way of doing it, but if we fixate on that we’re missing other areas of progression. Sticking on the same weight as last time but increasing the number of reps, decreasing the speed (increasing time under tension), or improving the execution of the exercise are all valid ways of utilising progressive overload. Don’t neglect these factors by simply chasing weight all the time. Yes, over time we should be seeing your strength go up and the weight on the bar should increase. But it doesn’t have to be a plate a week.
So how do we know or remember our weights week to week? Log it!
Buy a log book (this can simply be a small notepad from ASDA for £1.50) and write out your workout programme before you train. Then simply write in your weights, reps, and any other notes you think you’ll need to refer back to next time you perform that workout. Using a log book will transform the way you train and hopefully transform your physique at the same time. It’s the best £1.50 investment I ever made.
Stimulating The Nervous System
The nervous system is what governs our entire body. It can limit our potential or it can push us on to new heights, depending on how we treat it. If you read my article on stress you’ll get a better feel for the autonomic nervous system, but today we’re discussing the central nervous system.
Comprised of your brain and spinal cord, the central nervous system (CNS) is sort of like the ‘control room’ for every action that happens in your body.
When we load extremely heavy weights onto our body in the gym in an attempt to get stronger, the central nervous system lights up like a f*cking Christmas tree in an attempt to recruit as many neurons and muscle fibres as possible in order to cope with the enormous task we’re putting on it.
That’s not the cool bit though. The cool bit is when you lower the weights slightly after a mega heavy set, it feels way lighter than it would have if you started on that. Because the CNS is already stimulated, your body is primed and ready to move heavy shit around by recruiting more muscle fibres.
For that reason, the heavy part of my training block largely follows a method popularised by Jordan Peters (www.trainedbyjp.com).
After your warm ups, you’ll initially do a ‘top set’ of lower reps (maybe 5-8), followed by a ‘back off set’ of slightly higher reps (8-12) with a slightly lighter weight. What you should notice, is that the back off set doesn’t feel outrageously heavy, because your CNS is already stimulated from the top set.
Of course, stimulating the nervous system to this extreme is very taxing on the body and requires intelligent programming and a careful approach to recovery – both of which I have articles on in the blog section of my site.
Other Pieces Of The Puzzle
So we’ve got a feel for why strength is important and where it fits in to the muscle building picture. But we must remember that strength is only one piece of the puzzle.
Another huge part of training for people trying to develop their physique (which I’ll cover in full on another article) is metabolic stress and blood volumisation.
This is to training everything that strength training is not. We’re talking short rest times, supersets, drop sets, rest pause sets and all kinds of intensifiers to make it horrific.
We’re looking at cell swelling (essentially swelling the cells in your muscles until they tear) and pushing as much blood in there as physically possible. While this is very different from the training discussed so far, it’s no less important. If you’re not prepared to go to some very dark places in the gym and put yourself through some pain – don’t come bragging about how much you can bench press for 3 reps.
To be quite honest, nowadays I’m much more impressed by a guy that can fight through the pain of a brutal 25 rep leg press dropset into some walking lunges than someone who can squat a shit ton of weight for 1 or 2 reps. But that’s just because I’ve tried both and know which one makes you want to curl up in a ball and die and it ain’t the heavy shit.
Hopefully this article has provided you with some useful insights into why strength training is helpful in building a physique and how to apply it properly for maximum gains.
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Cheers and happy lifting
PS – Why not check out the article I wrote on stress and it’s impact on your physique by clicking here?