Crack open an exercise-science textbook and you'll see that the optimal rep range for building muscle is 8-12 reps. But even if you're looking to build maximal muscle size, training for periods of time like a powerlifter—that is, training for strength—rather than a bodybuilder can have greater long-term benefits on muscle size. You may not want to build a powerlifter's physique, but having the strength of the strongest man in your gym is going to have some serious hypertrophic consequences.
You don't have to take my word for it. A number of top bodybuilders from yesterday and today—guys like Tom Platz, Franco Columbu, Ronnie Coleman, Ben White, Johnnie Jackson, Stan Efferding, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger—started their careers as powerlifters. These men first trained for strength before becoming bodybuilders.
Why does powerlifting training give you a long-term muscle-building advantage? The answer is simple: The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift.
Strength Begets Size
Once you switch back to a muscle-building routine after spending time on strength, you'll be stronger across the board. This increased strength will allow you to use, say, 305 pounds on the bench press for 8 reps rather than 275 pounds. You'll be able to handle more weight on any given multijoint exercise for your muscle-building sets of 8-12 reps. Put simply, this increased load in the muscle-building rep range leads to more muscle!
As a beginning bodybuilder, those incredibly fast gains you made inevitably slowed down, and ultimately plateaued. Simply adding more volume, more exercises, and more advanced training techniques like forced reps and negatives may work in the short term, but you'll quickly plateau again—or become overtrained and see your gains reverse and predispose you to greater risk of injury. Training harder isn't always the answer.
That's where cycling your training comes in. You'll alternate periods of heavy weight, low reps, and low volume with periods of more traditional bodybuilding-style training. Exercise scientists call this "periodization," and it's a proven way to increase strength and mass.
There are a number of important principles to follow when training for strength, so let's take a look at the most important ones so you can get strong as hell—and then add some massive muscular size—for the long haul.
1. Train specifically for strength.
Sure, strength and hypertrophy training both use the same tools in the gym, and even many of the same movements, but the exercise combinations, arrangements, and variables involved are specific to their activities. To get really strong or really big, you need to respect those differences in order to maximize your gains. If you're not committed to a singular goal in the short term, you'll invariably train for both—and come up short with both.
Every workout is composed of at least five specific program variables you can alter:
- Choice of exercises
- Order of exercises
- Number of sets
- Rest between sets
All of these variables can be used to your strength-building advantage.
It's also important to note that your body's adaptations to resistance training are considerably different depending on your approach. With bodybuilding, after the break-in period (typically 4-6 weeks), adaptations take place within muscle fibers—they grow larger. But with heavy strength training, those adaptations are both neurological and intracellular.
"Training for all-out strength means you have to recruit large fast-twitch muscle fibers, which require strong, effective nerve impulses," says Stephen Adele, CEO/founder of iSatori and a lifelong lifter. "It takes less time to see neural adaptations compared to muscle hypertrophy, so within weeks of training, significant improvements will be realized and you'll be on your way to big lifts."
2. Arrange your workouts around core lifts
No surprises here: The basic powerlifting moves are the bench press, squat, and deadlift. We'll add one more multijoint upper-body exercise, the standing overhead press, to the group to ensure total-body development.
Do these highly demanding multijoint movements early in your workout, when your strength levels are high. These exercises require multiple muscle groups to work in coordination. These moves also trigger your natural release of testosterone and growth hormone, both of which help you maintain and build strength and mass.
If you've done bodybuilding-style training in the past, you're probably used to working each body part individually. You need to change that way of thinking. With a strength-focused workout, the goal is to increase the amount of weight you can lift on the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.
Assistance lifts are included to strengthen weak links among the muscles involved in the primary exercises rather than build muscle by employing movements from various angles. This leads to a somewhat subtle difference in how you arrange your workout and the exercises you include.
3. Increase the weight, drop the reps
Moderate-rep sets are important when training for muscle size, which directly pumps up training volume. However, to build strength, you're going to have to train with heavier weights, meaning you'll do fewer reps. Your first exercise of each training day is your main lift. Always start off with warm-ups, pyramiding up in weight but never coming close to muscle failure.
As for your working weights, choose a weight that falls within 80-90 percent of your one-rep max (1RM), which is a bit heavier than what a bodybuilder might use. That corresponds with a weight you can do for just 4-8 reps. The total number of reps you're going to do for the exercise should fall within the 10-20 range.
That means you could arrange your sets in the following ways:
- 2 sets of 8, or the lightest weight in the 4-8-rep range
- 2-3 sets of 6
- 3-4 sets of 5
- 3-5 sets of 4, or the heaviest weight in the 4-8-rep range
If you follow a specific strength program, over time you might be using a weight that's over 90 percent of your 1RM, which corresponds with a weight you can do for 4 reps or fewer. When training very heavy with sets of just 2-4 reps, reduce your total number of reps for the exercise to no more than 10.
Hence it would look like one of the following:
- 3 sets of 3
- 4 sets of 2
4. Plan your assistance exercises
If you approach assistance exercises for a strength-focused workout the way you do a bodybuilding workout, you'll overwhelm your nervous system. Because you're using a higher intensity (load relative to your maximum) with a strength workout, you can't necessarily use a high-volume approach. That means backing off on the volume for your assistance exercises—fewer exercises, fewer sets, fewer total reps.
Ideally, assistance exercises are chosen to strengthen weak points, so your main lifts also improve. For some individuals, that could be the bottom of a lift; for others, it could be the top or locking-out point. Without a strength coach, you need to be aware of your individual weaknesses over the course of your main lifts and know how to attack them.
After your primary lift, pick 2-4 assistance exercises, which is probably a slight decrease from your typical bodybuilding-style program. As for sets and reps, limit yourself to 15-25 total reps for each exercise using loads that are between 70-80 percent of your 1RM (which corresponds to a weight you can do for 8-10 reps).
In other words, create a sequence of sets for each exercise like this:
- 2 sets of 8, 9, or 10 reps
- 3 sets of 8 reps
Assistance Lifts After Your Main Lift
Bench Press Assistance Exercises
- Incline barbell press
- Dumbbell bench press
- Barbell shoulder press
- Close-grip bench press
Squat Assistance Exercises
- Leg press
- Leg extension
Overhead Press Assistance Exercises
- Bent-over barbell row
- Pull-up or lat pull-down
- Standing dumbbell or kettlebell overhead press
- Standing dumbbell or kettlebell overhead press
- Standing single-arm dumbbell or kettlebell overhead press
Deadlift Assistance Exercises
- Bent-over barbell row
- Rack pull
- Romanian deadlift
- Good morning
- Glute-ham raise
- Kettlebell swing
- Leg curl
5. Don't fret over failure
As a bodybuilder, the notion that you have to push every set to muscle failure is part of your DNA, because your goal when training for muscle growth is maximal tissue breakdown. That's not so when training for strength.
"Training to failure may look hardcore, but really it's only holding your progression back [when focusing on strength]," says YouTube trainer and iSatori-sponsored athlete Nick Wright. "Every time you fail a rep or even go into grinder territory, you're essentially redlining your central nervous system."
To emphasize his point, Wright likes to think of the body as a car. "The higher you push the RPM, the harder the engine is working," he says. "Going very heavy is like pushing your engine into high RPM. The engine will remain safe, but it's pushing every mechanical component very hard. Going to failure on top is like pushing your RPM into the redline. It's simply a danger zone. You CNS will adapt to grinding and failing, and you'll notice lighter weight will begin to feel much heavier for you."
Craig Stevenson, vice president of marketing for iSatori, tackles this point from a scientific angle. "Most of the time, a muscle fails due to an accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions," he says. "When you're building strength, you want to keep your lactic-acid level low so each and every rep is not negatively impacted, in turn allowing you to lift the most weight possible each set. Keeping your reps lower and heavier will keep your lactic-acid levels in check so you can continue your pursuit of strength."
The key when training for strength is to keep an extra rep or two in the tank. While having a spotter is always a great idea on heavy lifts, his role should never be to encourage you to approach failure or do forced reps.
6. Lengthen your rest periods
You may have wondered why strength athletes take longer rest periods between sets than bodybuilders. It's primarily because the heavier weights are more taxing on your energy systems than lighter ones.
In his "Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength," Jim Stoppani, PhD, advises taking long rest periods between sets of the main exercise. "Lifting heavy weight for low reps requires energy derived from anaerobic metabolism, called the ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine) system," says Stoppani. "This metabolic pathway provides the immediate energy required for lifting heavy weight or performing explosive movements for a short period. This system requires more than 3 minutes of rest for the majority of recovery to occur."1
On your main lift, rest 3-5 minutes between sets. As you increase the load on your primary lift relative to your max, such as when you go from 80 percent of your 1RM to 90, a longer rest period is called for.
When using lighter weights on assistance exercises, the recommended intervals are as follows:
- 4-7RM - rest 3-5 minutes
- 8-10RM - rest 2-3 minutes
- 11-13RM - rest 1-2 minutes
- Over 13RM - rest 1 minute
7. Integrate a comprehensive two-month strength cycle
It's important to remember that strength cycles like this aren't static—you don't follow exactly the same routine with the same sets and reps every week. While you may be using a weight that's about 80 percent of your 1RM on the bench press the first few weeks, you'll want to increase that to 90 percent later when the last reps of your working sets become too easy. Just make sure to reduce your training volume when you start adding more weight. That's why it's important to follow a precise workout and make careful notations rather than follow a random or haphazard approach.
8. Warm up properly for maximum strength
A warm-up is a warm-up is a warm-up, right? Not quite. Warming up for strength is different than warming up for pure hypertrophy. The goal of warming up for strength is to ensure that your nervous system is firing on all cylinders. You want to recruit large, fast-twitch muscle fiber without accumulating metabolic byproducts like lactate and hydrogen ions.
Your warm-up scheme will decrease in reps as you increase the weight, until you finally do just one rep at your target weight. For instance, if you're planning to bench 4 working reps of 225 pounds, you would construct your warm-up like this:
9. Eat big and supplement strong
Now is not the time to be thinking about getting ripped abs. Rather, your focus should be on how to best nutritionally support your ever-increasing strength gains. A meal plan high in total calories, protein, and carbs will best support gains in strength.
Nutritional supplementation is important as well, so a protein supplement such as iSatori's Hyper-Gro is absolutely essential. Hyper-Gro is engineered with beef protein isolate as the main protein source, which supplies all of the essential amino acids, making it a highly bioavailable source of protein. This protein is also combined with clean carbohydrates to fully restore your muscles' glycogen stores to enhance workout performance.
Using a protein in conjunction with a protein-synthesis amplifier will set you up for strength-gaining success. Hyper-Gro contains creatine, betaine, and bioactive peptides to help maximize your body's ability to synthesize more protein.
Put It All Together
Now that you know the essentials of building strength, it's time to put all the components together so you can execute in the gym. Remember to build each training day around a main lift, keep the volume relatively low to counter the high intensity, and train specifically to increase your main lifts for at least two months. After that training cycle, you'll be primed to build more total-body muscle!
Using the deadlift as the main lift, here's a sample workout to get you started on your quest for super strength—and super size.
Do the single-rep deadlift set using weight slightly heavier than your 6-rep working weight. Add 20 pounds for your last 2 sets.
The final rep of each set should be difficult, but it's important to remember that, when working toward increasing your strength, sets should not be taken to failure. If the final rep is too easy, increase the weight on the subsequent set, but do not perform more reps per set than what is suggested. For your working sets of deadlifts, take 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. For all other exercises, rest 2-3 minutes.
- Stoppani, J. (2015). Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength (2nd ed., p. 14). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.