Workout Tips

Getting Big Vs. Getting Strong

Are these two mutually exclusive goals or can we train for a bit of both?

josh bryant thumbnail by CSCS, MFS, PES

Even your trainer down at the local franchise gym knows that hypertrophy is best had in the 6-12 rep range while strength gains are found in heavier sets of six reps or less. But the guy who trains with those growth-targeting ranges still ends up gaining strength, adding weight to the bar and failing at a higher rep number each week. The strength guy, meanwhile, may not be as big but can generally toss around much more weight. So what gives? Where is the overlap? Where is the divide? The answer may lie in a training variable that transcends total weight: intensity.

Simply, you’ve got to be willing to wage war when you lift. That’s why seemingly backwards routines on paper can bring success — fury trumps theory every day of the week and thrice on Sunday. Leading Russian sports scientist, Vladimir Zatsiorsky, has identified three ways to develop maximal tension (and therefore, size and strength) in a muscle—they each require your all.

The Repetition Method: Using higher reps with submaximal weights to spark muscle hypertrophy.

Ultimately, more size equates to better leverage. In other words, a guy with a chest as flat as a pancake pushes the bar much farther on the bench press than someone with a barrel chest, if the two individuals have the same arm length. While strength is primarily a function of the central nervous system, the literature unanimously agrees that a bigger muscle is a stronger one.

Training to failure in traditional bodybuilding rep ranges will get you stronger—anecdotal evidence supports this assertion as many of the top strength athletes train high reps in the off-season, both to give their central nervous systems a break and to maintain muscle size before the next competitive season.

The Dynamic Method: Maximum power is developed in core lifts using 50-80 percent of a lifter’s one repetition max. 

Force = Mass x Acceleration. The key is violently exerting as much force possible into the barbell with each repetition, not pumping out rep after rep. This is not opinion. This is physics. 

This is called Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT). Lots of bodybuilders do this unknowingly when doing a set of 12 reps – the first 3-4 reps are explosive, while the next 8-9 reps have a little less steam. Whether they know it or not, they are getting beneficial adaptations from the dynamic method for strength gains in the first few reps. Your first rep is always your strongest – from that point on you are getting weaker – so exerting maximum force from the get-go can help you dynamically increase muscle tension.

The Max Effort Method: Lifting weights over 90 percent for 1-3 reps. 

This is how most powerlifters train when prepping for a meet. It’s very intense but doesn’t involve very many repetitions, providing some of the same benefits as the Dynamic Method. Bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman have used the max effort method as little as three weeks out from the Olympia.

For access to exclusive fitness advice, interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!