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Size Vs. Strength: Are You Lifting Too Heavy?

Serious physique athletes know to use the right tool for the job of muscle growth. If you have to cheat just to get to the low end of 8-10 reps, stop and read this!

I grew up with a love for bodybuilding, mostly because I spent much of my childhood in a dirty, stinky, dungeon-ish hardcore gym in Virginia. My mother, Faith Bevan, trained there when she was a competitive bodybuilder in the early 1980s. I would watch as she lifted alongside Washington Redskins players, WWF wrestlers like the Ultimate Warrior, and lots of pro bodybuilders. I used to tell the other kids at my elementary school, "My mom could beat up your dad."

With that kind of history, it was natural that I made working with bodybuilders and physique athletes a point of emphasis when I later became a trainer. I also developed an eye for what made hypertrophy training unique and different from, say, powerlifting, or training football players and other athletes.

Unfortunately, I've seen countless bodybuilders in the ensuing years who don't seem to understand where their training style begins and other styles end.

I've already gone over some of the common errors I see bodybuilders making, but now I want to talk about something more specific: confusing training for size with and training for strength. Now, of course the two aren't mutually exclusive. If you train for size, you will get stronger.

That said, I'm not writing this article for athletes looking to improve their "go." The tips here are intended to help experienced lifters improve their "show," either on the stage or at the beach.

Now that we're on the same page, let's get serious about building muscle.

The Size-Strength Continuum ///

In simple terms, strength is about increasing force production. Size, on the other hand, is about getting a pump and creating microscopic damage to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger. This is hypertrophy in a nutshell.

The general rule of thumb when training for strength is that the reps should be low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuromuscular. If you think of your body as a computer, strength training is more about upgrading your software, which is your central nervous system (CNS), than it is about the hardware—your muscles. Strength training is about teaching your CNS how to bring more muscle into the game; or to increase motor unit recruitment.

Unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological. It's about upgrading your body's hardware, like bones, connective tissues, and muscles. You literally build your body, forcing the tissues to develop and grow stronger.

The Well-Rounded Rep Scheme ///

After what I just said, this may come as a surprise, but I believe that there is a place for some low-rep power work in a well-rounded bodybuilding program.

Physique athletes, like any other type of athlete, can benefit from increased motor unit recruitment, so I put some low-rep/high-load work in my physique athletes' programs, to the order of 5-6 sets of 4-6 reps. That said, we spend the predominant amount of our training time in the range of 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps, which has repeatedly been shown to be more directed at stimulating structural hypertrophy.

As I said earlier, it's not like you're totally missing out on strength development by training for hypertrophy. All types of training can have neurological benefits. But your goal with our bodybuilding program is to create maximum structural change, not neurological change. So if that's your goal, don't leave mass on the table!

Heavy Matters ///

At any given time at any big-box gym, you'll see at least one guy doing biceps curls where he has to throw his lower back into it each time he brings the weight up. Not far away, there's the dude doing back squats so heavy, he can't go near parallel. If you don't see that dude at your gym, it may be because he's you.

It's easy to make this mistake. After all, you're in the gym to lift weights, right? Well, sort of. Bodybuilding is not about becoming a "weightlifter." It's about using weights as a tool to increase your muscle size. Throwing as much weight on the bar, whether to boost your ego and impress the people around you, uses the wrong tool for the job.

When you go too heavy, here's what happens:

  • You reduce the time under tension, because you're forced to use momentum to cheat.
  • You're unable to lower the weight in a slow, controlled manner, further reducing your time under tension.
  • You're unable to focus on the muscles being worked because you have to struggle just to get the weight up.
  • You utilize more muscles, which reduces the accumulated pump in muscles you intend to target.

Allow me to burst your bubble: No one else in your gym cares how much you lift! And if they do, then they're just making the same mistakes you are, so you shouldn't care what they think. If you're unable to manage the weight you lift for sets of at least six controlled reps, you are more closely training for increased strength—and that's if you keep good form. Otherwise, it's just bad lifting, which won't make you stronger, and might end up injuring you.

Keep It Strict! ///

Like any sport, bodybuilding is most effective when guided by overriding principles. If you're looking for the three-word version, here it is: time under tension.

If you want to improve muscle size, maximize your time under tension on every rep by:

  • Using strict form.
  • Utilizing controlled eccentric (lowering) movements of at least three seconds.
  • Mentally focusing on the muscles being worked and squeezing those muscles at the peak of contraction.
  • Avoiding fully locking out, so the muscles are under tension throughout the movement.

Does this mean that all cheating is off limits? Not necessarily. There are ways to cheat effectively while still using this system. But if you don't have the fundamentals down pat first, then you only cheat yourself.


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About The Author

Nick Tumminello is a Baltimore-based personal trainer and owner of Performance University who works with physique competitors, elite athletes...

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BatteryBackup

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BatteryBackup

Great article. This made me realize just how much more important good form is, and the not locking out may be something I start doing for certain lifts. Anyway, would the 3-5 sets of 8-15 be effective for building mass for someone as scrawny as me? I've always had difficulty figuring out numbers that would work well.

Apr 18, 2013 9:33pm | report
PDeV1

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PDeV1

forget about rep ranges. I was too focus on weight and range to see my progress. I was using a notebook and note everything. and everytime I wasn't training for my body. I was training to progress on numbers. But we don't care how much we lift. we care about what we looking. since the 9 april, I just throw my notebook and work on my muscle feeling and progress like this. That's it. I've droped my weights of 30-40% and now I contract, pump and squeeze my muscle. and it works

Apr 19, 2013 10:17am | report
Mudvayne24

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Mudvayne24

It's good to keep a variety of different workouts. I used to write down everything I did as well, and then one day I tossed that crap aside. I focused on the numbers too much, and if i was a powerlifter that would be just fine, but I'm not. Everyday I walk in and piece together a different workout off of feel. I personally like the higher rep ranges. Recently I've been in the 15, 15, 12, 10ish type sets. The biggest thing I notice (which is not the be all tell all, but matters to me) is when I do higher reps I am MUCH more sore the next few days. Obviously, like I said this is not the only thing that matters, but that does tell me is that I did some major muscle damage to myself (in the good way). If you're used to squatting or leg pressing for sets of 6-8 or 8-10 reps try doing sets of 15-20. I've never felt a burn and a swell in my legs until I did 4 sets of 20 on the leg press (when doing this my legs started burning around rep 12, so finishing to 20 hurt like hell and sometimes involved a pause or 2 at the top just to empty a little lactic acid in order to finish).

Apr 19, 2013 12:07pm | report
BatteryBackup

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BatteryBackup

Really good points, thanks guys.

Apr 19, 2013 11:51pm | report
thatdieselkid

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thatdieselkid

Writing down your numbers is something you should constantly be doing. If you're just at the gym to get a 6 pack, then don't. However, writing down your weights gives you solid evidence in your improvement. You shouldn't just try to one up yourself all the time if you're not ready, but pushing yourself to lift more than last week will help you get bigger, faster. It will also give you more motivation when you log your weights for 6 months and realize that you've increased your bench max by 50 lbs

Apr 21, 2013 4:17pm | report
charlesm3

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charlesm3

Definitely took some notes reading this article. Applying it today at the gym.

Apr 19, 2013 11:16am | report
Kaynott502

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Kaynott502

Somebody tell Ronnie Coleman and Mariusz Pudzianowski they're doing it wrong. Don't forget the guy pictured deadlifting in this article. And didn't Charles Staley just publish something completely opposite of this. I gotta go with the empirical evidence. Get strong to get big.

Apr 19, 2013 11:44am | report
PDeV1

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PDeV1

no because Ronnie Coleman know how to train. they are professional and they know how to stimulate at 100% the muscle. and the guy perform the deadlift perform the movement for Strengh. that's it

Apr 19, 2013 2:24pm | report
Mudvayne24

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Mudvayne24

Ronnie Coleman does a LOT of higher rep exercises. If you watch his workouts most of them are based around 10 rep exercises... If you watch him while he does his lunges he usually walks the full parking lot with 135 on his back. That being said, the man's a beast and can squat 800 lbs. without much of a struggle.

The main reason you don't see powerlifters doing high reps is obviously because they don't want to build a lot of extra muscle and gain weight or mass. They want to take their current muscular system and make that as strong as they possibly can.

Deadlift is most definitely not just for strength. It can build you anywhere from your traps down to your calves. Obviously if you're 1 repping 600 lbs it's probably for strength, but in general it's one of the best crossover exercises that will make you stronger and bigger at the same time.

That all being said... I don't want to jump on either side of this fence. A great bodybuilding routine is not set on either side either. You'll see the best of the best popping out 15-20 rep sets, and then the next week they may be doing 5 rep sets.

My advice.... do it all, do it well, reap the benefits.

Apr 19, 2013 3:34pm | report
Kaynott502

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Kaynott502

I got no response for the kid, he needs more than I can give him online. But Mudvayne, you're right about all of it. You're just leaving out the part about Ronnie doing 15-20 reps with more weight than the kid above can 1RM. And especially the deadlift-traps connection. I don't post much but somebody needed to point out to the newbies that bench pressing 150lbs for sets of 10 reps isn't going to get you big. You gotta put weight on the bar before you start to really develop muscle.

Apr 20, 2013 10:00am | report
Mudvayne24

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Mudvayne24

Yeah I hear ya... you definitely can use good heavy weight to stimulate muscle growth obviously. A lot of people go through the motions, which sucks unfortunately. They're used to doing bench presses with a set of 12 then 10 then 8 then 6 and they never struggle with any of it. The results don't come and they wonder why. Bench press is obviously a good exercise for chest, but it's also going to work your delts, your triceps, and even your lats/traps as stabilizers. If you want to grow to where you want... you want your chest to always take the brunt on a chest workout. Personally I like doing tons of fly exercises, cable crossovers, dumbbell pullovers (focusing on chest contraction) before I get anywhere near the big press movements. By the time I get there I'm so swollen I can barely rep out 50 lb. dumbbells.... which is great because I've already isolated and wrecked my chest muscles.... now it's time to deliver the final blow with some incline/decline/flat presses. I've never felt DOMS like I do using it and I love it. Kai Greene uses a lot of pre-exhaustion exercises to from what I've read and seen. That's the best way to grow the individual muscle groups and then string them all together in my opinion.

Same with legs... I like doing leg curls and leg extensions before I go near squats/leg presses/stiff deads. It makes me look a lot weaker than I am to some people (not that it matters) because I'll be squatting 135 for sets of 15 and struggling to finish, but the fatigue and destruction it causes my muscles is awesome. If somebody is looking for something new to fix a plateau I highly recommend pre-exhaustion work!

Apr 20, 2013 5:15pm | report
Kaynott502

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Kaynott502

You know pre-exhaustion is a technique I've never used. Glad to hear it's working for you. It's got no place in my program now but I'm due to switch here soon so I'll look to incorporate it.

Apr 20, 2013 8:35pm | report
w8killer

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w8killer

Just lift, progress and keep good form. That is it. Simple gets it done folks.

Apr 21, 2013 2:38pm | report
BlackLabelAxe

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BlackLabelAxe

"Everybody want to get big but nobody want to lift no heavy-*** weight" -Ronnie Coleman

Fair points about strength vs. appearance training. I still think bodybuilding is a beauty contest and not a sport compared to any contest of strength. I'd hate to look like Mr. Olympia and get out-lifted by a 50-kg athlete that can put Mr. O's bodyweight overhead in a snatch for a set of 5. Function is all that matters. You bodybuilders can go argue over who's the prettiest.

Apr 21, 2013 5:56pm | report
Dves

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Dves

You do realize that you just made that post on a website named bodybuilding...? I don't even have words.

Apr 23, 2013 3:39am | report
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cmerc1227

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cmerc1227

great article! love it! so trueeee, i use alot of what he speaks of , the good and the bad!

Apr 19, 2013 5:32pm | report
darkocean

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darkocean

One day people will work it out. It isn't how many reps you do; it is your genetics. There is no magic number of reps that make you strong and where one or two more make you big. Now how stupid does that sound. My advice to achieve your genetic potential, is to employ effort. Heavier weight means less reps, lighter weight means more reps but the point is, keep doing reps till you can't do another one. I know people say this is wrong but they are wrong. Look at it in terms of homeostasis. If you are hot, your body sweats to cool you down. If you are cool, your body shivers to warm you up. Your body wants to keep you within a comfortable band. If you want to change you current muscular and strength limit, you have to lift to a point where you are uncomfortable. This is what sends a message to your body to adapt; to allow it once more to sit in a comfort band.

Apr 19, 2013 6:03pm | report
Doughboy818

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Doughboy818

Good stuff. Thanks for the article. This should help me reach my goals.

Apr 19, 2013 7:26pm | report
KthxHibye

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KthxHibye

Good article, But I see no reason not to go for both at the same time... I'm no pro/amateur training to get on stage, nor do I really care to be. Strength training for the 3 main power lifts and some bicep curling followed by high volume hypertrophy. Then just isolate every other muscle as you normally would body building. Nice body functionality/strength is what its about for me.

Apr 19, 2013 7:40pm | report
jsausau

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jsausau

Great article, really hits it home on increasing size! Everyone on Bodybuilding.com should read this article and utilize it in their workouts, no matter what your exercise goals are!
God bless,
js

Apr 19, 2013 9:51pm | report
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srig24

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srig24

IMPRESSIVE.... SCIENCE IN EVERY WORD!!!!!

Apr 19, 2013 11:55pm | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 11'11"
  • wt: 143.52 lbs
  • bf: 5.0%
wolfed69

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wolfed69

If used correctly cheating can be very beneficial for muscle growth. Curls for example, after reaching failure cheat the weight up and control the negative to further break down the muscle. You will find that your muscles are generally always stronger during the negative portion of a rep. Its good to have a workout partner for some exercises to help you get the weight up so you can control the negative after a set.

Apr 20, 2013 12:30am | report
flightfreek

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flightfreek

Ill go with that!!

Apr 20, 2013 6:46pm | report
jjgibbs29

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jjgibbs29

I would only like to add be very careful "cheating the weight up", For example in a bicep curl the added stress by straining the weight up; on your back could definitely lead to injury. There are other ways to CHEAT the system (lol). Maybe incorporate dropsets at failure, or rest-pause reps. These allow you to further fatigue the muscle and add volume to your work! I might add that they may be much safer than forcing a heavy weight up after failure!

Apr 23, 2013 12:42am | report
cclauss777

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cclauss777

Just what I needed. Thank you for further informing me.

Apr 20, 2013 12:57am | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 78 Comments

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