Decide right now, do you want to get big or get strong?
This is not a trick question, and you can’t answer ‘both.’ If you train in a manner to produce maximum results in muscle growth, you will of course become stronger over time. Conversely, if your training is focused on becoming as strong as possible, your muscles will also grow larger. However, you won’t get anywhere near as big if you train for strength, and you won’t get remotely as strong if your training is designed for pure strength increase. If this sounds confusing or contradictory to what you’ve heard, I understand. For many decades, there has been an axiom in bodybuilding that ‘a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle.’ This is accurate – but not entirely accurate. Let’s say you walk into the gym for the very first time and the most you can bench press for 10 reps is 95 pounds. You start training regularly and increase the resistance as you are able. In a year, you can now bench press 185 pounds for 10 reps. You have nearly doubled your strength, and that will show in your development. Your chest will be thicker and denser, as will your front delts and triceps. Let’s take it a few steps further. After 5 years of training, you might be able to hit 365 pounds on the bench for 10 reps. Those aforementioned muscle groups will be so much bigger from their starting point that it would seem they were inflated like a balloon with an air hose. But here’s where things get tricky. You might continue to gradually get stronger from that point on, but there will come a day when your strength is topped out. You simply will not get any stronger. That does not mean you won’t be able to add any additional muscle mass, because there are other ways to stimulate muscle growth.
What makes the difference?
You will often hear the phrase ‘mind-muscle connection,’ but there’s a far more significant concept you must understand and apply if bigger muscles are what you desire most: TUT or Time Under Tension. Increasing strength is more of a function of explosive bursts of effort, which has more to do with your nervous system and tendons than your skeletal muscles. That’s why you can and do see Olympic weightlifters performing feats that seem impossible, such as a 134-pound man picking up 382 pounds and pressing it fully overhead. If you’ve ever watched these elite lifters, the lift happens so fast that you would miss it if you blinked. As a bodybuilder or an aspiring bodybuilder, you might scratch your head and wonder, why isn’t that guy a lot bigger and heavier? You might also become confused watching a larger bodybuilder train. Let’s say there are at least a few guys at your gym who use 315 or more pounds on barbell rows, and who can deadlift in the range of 500 pounds for a rep or two. They aren’t particularly big, maybe 180 pounds, and they don’t have much back thickness. Then you see a national-level bodybuilder, perhaps even a Pro. The guy is 250 pounds with a rugged cobra back so thick it looks like a mountain range. He’s ‘only’ using the same 315 for his barbell rows, and maybe he doesn’t even put 500 on the bar for his deads. Why is he so weak for his size? How did he manage to get so big when those other guys are so much stronger, pound for pound? Pay attention to how each trains and you will have your answer. The smaller guys don’t do many reps, maybe 3-5 per set, and their barbell rows are performed in a ballistic style. They yank the bar up like they’re trying to start a lawnmower and bounce it off their body to drop right back into the start position. At no point is there any control over the weight, nor is there any true tension placed on the target muscle group. It seems taxing, and it was, just not for their lats. Now watch the elite bodybuilder with the incredible back development do his rows. He starts from a full stretch of the lats, pulls the bar to his upper abdominal wall, driving his elbows as far back as possible and forcefully squeezing his lats before lowering the bar under full control and feeling his lats stretch. He does 10, 12, or even 15 reps, and stimulates muscle growth via the time under tension principle. If that man wanted to show off and didn’t care about actually working his lats, he could probably do at least a few horrible reps with 495. But because his goal is to build the biggest and best physique he possibly can, he follows a hypertrophy program. If you want to look like a bodybuilder, so should you. Here’s how!
Do enough reps to stimulate growth
The first idea you need to get out of your head are low reps. Forget about maxing out for a single, or sets of 3-5 reps. You do those for ego gratification, but it’s keeping you from growing. For the upper body, it’s time to work in the range of 10-12 reps most of the time, and as high as 15 sometimes. Legs should never get less than 10 reps, with many of your sets in the 15-20 rep range. The quads and calves will also respond well to sets with reps as high as 30-50 on occasion. These higher reps are really only to ensure that the target muscles you’re attempting to stimulate to grow are under tension long enough to cause that adaptation.
Control the weight and feel the muscle work
Long before most if not all of you were born, there was a man named Arthur Jones. Though he was best known for inventing and marketing Nautilus machines, Jones also revolutionized the way many bodybuilders trained. His ideas about training with brief, high-intensity workouts and emphasizing recovery paved the way for men like Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates. Jones was also adamant about proper form and time under tension, to the point where he prescribed a specific rep tempo to ensure it. This entailed a 2-second positive to lift the weight, and 4 seconds to lower it back to the start position. This would make a 10-rep set an even 60 seconds long. Studies have shown that the total time under tension for a set to induce hypertrophy is between 40-70 seconds. However, it has also been demonstrated in studies that explosive concentric reps, meaning the lifting portion is being done as fast as possible, recruit more motor units and generate the most force. That’s why even though you should always control and emphasize the negative or lowering portion of the rep, you should divide your concentric reps into slower (2 seconds to do the lift) and explosive (as fast as possible). You can split that up any number of ways, but one simple method is to save the explosive reps for your heaviest sets. Slower reps where you can pause and squeeze the working muscle are excellent, but they will by definition limit the amount of resistance you are able to use. With a weight that is closer to your limits of absolute strength, you will need to lift faster and limit your peak contraction in the middle of the rep to a split-second. That squeeze is always a must unless we are talking squats or deadlifts. In every other exercise, strive to emphasize the contraction point to contribute further tension to the set and coax out even more growth.
Extra techniques to tax the muscles
There are several highly effective techniques you can employ to keep the muscle under tension longer.
Drop sets allow you to extend a set past the point of failure. If you fail on a seated cable row with 200 pounds at 8 reps, you can immediately change the weight on the stack to 150 and grind out another 6-8 reps.
A superset is performing two exercises, usually for the same muscle group, back to back with zero rest between. You might do barbell curls and then move directly to dumbbell curls, or go right from squats to the leg press (a real killer!). Another effective option is the pre-exhaust superset, wherein you perform an isolation movement for a muscle group and then proceed right to a compound lift. A few examples are lateral raises and overhead presses for the shoulders, pec dec and bench press for the chest, and leg extension and leg press for the quads.
When you fail with a weight, it means you can no longer complete a full rep. You will usually still be able to continue with partial reps to keep the set going and keep that tension on the muscle. If you fail on lat pulldowns, do a few more reps from the start stretch position just to the top of your head. If you can’t do any more reps of presses for the chest or shoulders, just keep pressing in the final few inches to lockout until you can’t budge the weight. Lying leg curls can be extended by doing only the last portion of the rep from the full stretch start position to less than halfway up. You get the idea.
This is a favorite of mine, and it also allows for those two different concentric rep tempos we were talking about earlier. Divide the total number of reps in a set in two, and perform the first half in a slow, controlled manner. The two seconds up, one second to squeeze the muscle, and four seconds to lower it would accomplish this. For the second half of the set, lift the weight as fast as you can, and lower it as quickly as possible without dropping the weight and rebounding back out of the start position. Some control over the negative is always necessary to prevent injuries.
Your complete Hypertophy Program
Here are workouts for each bodypart that will help you pack on as much muscle mass as possible in the shortest time frame. Warm-ups are not shown. Always warm up as much as you need to before starting your heavier work sets.
So that’s it. If you want to get the biggest muscles you can, you need to embark on a hypertrophy program and train in such a way as to stimulate a growth response. Make the muscles work hard, feel them contract and stretch, and keep them under tension long enough to get a supreme pump and burn. Do this and they will have no choice, they will be forced to grow!