You might be one of these people who want to just look good and be muscular and strong so you experiment with a little of everything; high volume traditional bodybuilding programs, low rep strength training programs, a power based Olympic lifting program, or one of the many cool hybrid programs available. It's generally accepted that higher volume and high rep protocols can give you lots of size but not much strength. Low reps give you strength but not much size, and hybrids give you a bit of each. So the result is, you might do a little bit of everything moving from phase to phase without a specific "why" in your training. The result is you probably have a lot of fun and make some progress but if you're like a lot of people you're never really sure exactly where to focus your immediate efforts for the best results and long-term progress and may often wonder why such and such program works for so and so but not you.
Getting The Most From Your Workout Program
I'm sure everyone wants to get the most bang for their buck in their training and not waste too much time along the way. Chances are, if you read this site with any regularity, you're one of those guys who desire to be big, strong, somewhat functional, and would at least like to be able to hold your own in the strength department as well. If you would like to know exactly where you're at in your potential strength/size continuum and where your efforts should best be focused and economized for long-term progress read on.
An old mechanic once told me that vehicles will talk to you and tell you what is wrong with them but the key is to know how to listen to them. Our bodies are the same way. When it comes to training, if you really know what to look for and how to listen to your body, it'll tell you what it needs. Knowing how to listen to your body is the hard part, but the good thing is training science has already done most of the work for you and all you have to do is find the information and apply it. Becoming familiar with your body's capabilities and limits will take a lot of the guesswork out of the question "How should I train?".
Lucky for you, when determining whether you should focus your training efforts more on hypertrophy work or strength training a highly effective diagnostic method has been around for ages. It was used by Eastern sports scientists and coaches in various sports to effectively determine how to best structure one's training for continued long term development and sporting excellence and it is known as the strength deficit testing method. Before explaining the method and test there are a few key terms you need to understand.
Absolute strength is the maximum amount of force your muscles are capable of producing in a single contraction under involuntary conditions. Absolute strength can be estimated in a laboratory by hooking your muscles up to an electrical stimulation unit and subjecting them to the highest tolerable levels of stimulation. It is rare that someone is ever able to use their absolute strength potential as the body normally inhibits all the muscle motor units from firing as a protective mechanism except in special life or death situations. Another way of looking at it would be to say that absolute strength is your absolute greatest strength potential.
By best estimates, in voluntary conditions, elite lifters with years of training experience might be able to voluntarily approach 90% of their absolute strength. You may have heard of people mustering superhuman levels of strength during crisis life or death situations. The small woman who is able to pick up a car to rescue her children during an accident is a perfect example of absolute strength being manifested. In this case, the protective mechanisms that prevent all the muscle motor units from firing are over-ridden and the result is greatly magnified levels of force.
The Different Forms Of Strength
Maximum strength is the amount of force you can exert under voluntary effort and can easily be measured by your 1-rep maximums in exercises such as the squat, bench press etc.
Concentric strength also known as the positive portion of a rep is the tension you are capable of when a muscle shortens such as from the chest to lockout during a bench press.
Eccentric strength also known as the "negative" portion of a rep is your strength when a muscle lengthens such as bringing a bench press from full lockout down to your chest under control.
The strength deficit is simply the amount of strength that you are unable to use in a given movement and is the difference between absolute and maximum strength. Simple enough! So now you might be thinking "well gee that sounds great but I don't have a high powered E.M.S. device and I sure as hell wouldn't want to shock myself to find out my absolute strength anyway." Well that's ok because the good news is your absolute strength and your maximum eccentric strength are roughly the same and by determining your maximum eccentric strength levels we can make a good estimate as to your absolute strength levels. After figuring this out we can then easily compare this to your maximum concentric strength to come up with your strength deficit.
To determine your eccentric strength what you will need to do is pick any exercise, load up a bar and, using spotters, determine the max amount of weight you can lower under control on a 6 second negative. So, for example, if you chose a bench press you would preferably have a spotter on each side while you lower the weight down to your chest under control on a 6 second count and then have your spotters lift the weight back up for you. Make sure you show consistency in the speed of the movement from top to bottom and are able to lower the bar with as much control on the bottom portion as you are on the top. In other words don't take 5 seconds to go from full lockout to the midpoint and then 1 second for the bar to come crashing to your chest!
Do this until you find the max weight that you can do while still sticking to the 6 second rule. Once you have come up with your eccentric maximum compare this number to the amount of weight you can lift concentrically on the same movement using a controlled 3-1-x tempo (3 second eccentric/1 second pause/explosive concentric). The % difference between those 2 movements is your strength deficit. What you will find is the difference will likely be somewhere between 15% and 100%. From here we can then make the appropriate training prescription.
Calculate Your Strength Deficit
The significance of all of this is that absolute strength and eccentric strength are dependent upon muscular size while maximal strength is dependant upon the ability to use that size. Programs that focus on creating muscular hypertrophy increase absolute, or potential strength much more then max strength, or voluntary strength. If you think about it, it is not at all uncommon for a bodybuilder to be able to add a good 5 to 10 lbs of muscle without any increase in maximal strength. In this situation his potential absolute strength has increased considerably but without an increase in max strength or ability to use that size, his strength deficit is higher. In the reverse, programs focusing on low reps and maximal strength without much increase in size increase maximal strength but not absolute strength (hypertrophy).
Lifters who do a lot of pure strength training may not be the biggest but they can use their size very effectively. Coaches have used this method in the training of Olympic lifters competing in weight classes to determine when it is time for them to focus on muscular hypertrophy and move up in a weight class. At any given bodyweight, a lifter can become only so strong. Applying the strength deficit test alerted coaches as to when their athlete was maxed out at a given weight and at this point really the only way to get stronger is to build more muscle. Chances are you don't compete in weightlifting or powerlifting but by using this test you can effectively determine where to focus your training. Since absolute strength and maximum eccentric strength are closely correlated if you are very strong eccentrically in relationship to your concentric strength your training economy would be optimized by focusing on building more maximal strength.
If you suck eccentrically vs concentrically, or you can't lower under control much more weight then you can lift, this is actually good! It just means you are strong for your size and need to focus on hypertrophy. In testing the strength deficit having fairly close levels of concentric vs eccentric strength means you are in an ideal state to put on some size. Have you ever noticed how fast Olympic lifters or powerlifters blow up when switching to a high volume program? The reason is they are able to recruit and use more muscle than average, so they do more damage, and thus spark more growth per rep, set or workout.
What Is Good, Average or Poor?
So how do you know what is good, average, or poor? To make it easy for you and give you some numbers to use, if your strength deficit is between 15-20% this tells you that you are basically coming fairly close to your maximal absolute or potential strength. Ideal for a lifter would be 10-15% but since most of you are likely bodybuilders and not competitive lifters 20% will suffice. In this case, your strength deficit is low and the best way to progress is to increase absolute strength potential by increasing muscular size, thereby giving yourself a bigger motor to work with.
Since you already have high levels of maximal strength in relationship to your muscular size and are able to generate a lot of tension in a movement, all you need to do is prolong the duration and volume of that tension in your training. This can be accomplished by following a bodybuilding type of higher volume program, for instance, incorporating sets of 12,10,8,6,10,20 with lower rest intervals, or sticking to lower reps with more sets and lower rest intervals which, when coupled with a good mass building diet will easily add more size to your frame.
If the deficit is greater than 25%, this tells you that you are not yet approaching anywhere near the limits of your absolute strength potential so you need to focus on building strength, or in other words, get more horsepower out of the engine you already have. You "could" focus on higher reps and a bodybuilding type program but since you are not yet able to develop a high amount of working force in the movements your progress would probably be less than optimal.
A program incorporating heavy weight with longer rest intervals such as sets of 5,3,5,3,8 or, at the very least, including more pure strength training in your program, will allow you to increase your relative strength, motor unit recruitment capabilities, and use your muscle size more effectively so that when you do return to higher reps you will be able to generate more tension, recruit more muscle, and thus promote growth much easier.
Apply this test to various movements across the board and find out how you fare. Use the strength deficit test periodically to assess your progress. You will find it helpful to use it occasionally to determine how to structure your training and maximize your time.