One thing many bodybuilders don’t realize is that success in the gym is all about weight training rather than weightlifting. That is, the goal is not to see how much weight you can lift, but to use resistance training to develop, shape and sculpt the various muscles of the body. When you do this kind of training you also get stronger, but that’s not the primary goal.

Weightlifting creates a different kind of physique than does bodybuilding. While weightlifters frequently do a lot of bodybuilding-type workouts, they generally concentrate on training with the heaviest weights possible for very low reps—triples (three reps), doubles (two reps) and singles (one all-out rep). This approach is designed to create maximum strength, but it doesn’t produce the same kind of shapely, defined and well-proportioned muscle that you get doing a true bodybuilding routine. That kind of development results from using moderate to heavy weight and higher repetitions (somewhere between eight and 15 reps, typically), as well as a program that focuses on all the major muscle groups and specific areas within these groups.

The Power of Heavy Poundage

To weightlifting’s credit there’s a certain kind of thickness and density that you can get only from very heavy training. I developed this solid muscle when I did a lot of powerlifting and strongman competitions at the beginning of my career. I never wanted to lose that mass and density in later years, so in addition to my regular bodybuilding workouts, I regularly scheduled “heavy days” in my training routine. Once a week or so, I would pick one bodypart and tax it with heavy sets.

When training chest, for example, I’d warm up, then do a series of bench presses with heavy sets of triples, doubles and singles (working with a spotter, of course). I would do the same thing for legs with squats or for back with deadlifts. It’s not a good idea to work too heavy with isolation exercises like leg extensions or dumbbell flyes, though—training smaller muscle groups this way ends up putting too much stress on your joints for little or no gain.

Working with heavy weights and low reps every once in a while can help you break out of your normal routine, which creates additional stimulation for growth. Of course, subjecting your body to this level of stress means you’ll require more time to fully recuperate, so don’t do this kind of training too often. After several days’ rest, I advise doing a much lighter, higher-rep workout the next time you train that bodypart.

How to Incorporate Heavy Days

  • Select a body part and a basic or multijoint exercise (like bench press or leg press) to train very heavy (4-6 sets of 1-5 reps) for one workout.
  • Make sure you have a spotter standing by.
  • Warm up beforehand, starting out light and progressing to heavy weight over the course of 3-4 sets.
  • Perform 2-3 more exercises for that bodypart, 3-4 sets each—you don’t have to go as heavy on these.
  • Give the selected bodypart a full week’s rest before training it again.
  • Keep track of your poundages in a training diary. Though the primary goal of bodybuilding is not to increase strength, your ability to lift heavier weights over time is an indication that you are making progress in your training. You’ll feel a great deal of satisfaction as you watch the numbers climb.

By including occasional heavy days in your program, you’ll see your muscles get harder, thicker and more dense over time, which will help to make your physique more impressive overall. Your ability to handle heavy weight will also increase your self-confidence and motivate you to make an even greater level of mental commitment to your training.