by John Christy
Ah, the smell of a perfectly grilled steak...
Although protein will help you get stronger, this article is not about food.
It's about getting bigger to get stronger. Now before you run away thinking that I want to turn you into a puffed up beach boy - think again. I'm talking about adding 'real' muscle; increasing the thickness and amount of the actual sliding filaments that produce force (myofibular hypertrophy), versus simply increasing the "stuffing' of the muscle; more sarcoplasmic fluid, glycogen bound to water, additional organelles, increasing the capillary bed, etc. (Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy). And with a few adjustments, your hypertrophy training will also create the neuromuscular effects; increased recruitment and synchronization of the Type IIb fast twitch fibers that are similar to training with near maximum weights. This is 'athletic' hypertrophy training that adds 'muscle for go' not just 'muscle for show'.
A bigger muscle can be a stronger muscle - all other factors; mechanical leverage, neuromuscular efficiency, etc, remaining relative. And though I've put in 34+ years training, studying, observing, and 22 years 'teaching' strength, you don't have to take my word for it. Many of the worlds most respected strength authorities place making a muscle bigger at or near the top of the hierarchy of priorities to increase strength.
And although I'm going to reference various authorities throughout this piece I want to point out that I don't teach something just based solely on theory, someone else's work, or 'clinical studies'. What I teach has proven itself right in front of me, on my trainees - and me.
The very well respected Romanian strength coach, Dr. Tudor Bompa, who has trained many Olympic and world champion athletes wrote in the chapter Training Methods for Maximum Strength from his book PEROIDIZATION OF STRENGTH:
An athlete's ability to generate MxS (maximum strength) depends to a high degree on the following factors:
The diameter, or the cross-sectional area of the muscle involved, more specifically the diameter of the myosin filaments, including their cross bridges;
The capacity to recruit FT (fast twitch) muscle fibers, and;
The ability to successfully synchronize together all the muscles involved in the action.
The respected 'strength scientists' Dr. Siff and Dr. Verkhoshansky wrote in their book, SUPERTRAINING, in the section Determinants of Strength;
In general, the production of strength depends on the following major (structural) factors:
The cross-sectional area of the muscle
The density of muscle fibres per unit cross-sectional area
The efficiency of mechanical leverage across the joint
And not only does adding some beef make you stronger, but strength built on a foundation of size lasts longer. Again, Siff and Verkhoshansky in SUPERTRAINING, section 5.2.1 The Development of Maximal Strength:
...it is important to note that maximum strength produced by training is retained for longer if it is founded first upon a base of increased muscle hypertrophy. It declines more rapidly if it is enhanced primarily on the basis of improved neuromuscular efficiency. (Emphasis mine)
Sounds like a winner to me.
Now, before I get into what I feel is the best method for gaining 'functional beef', I want to give my two cents worth about some other things concerning size and strength.
A Short Digression: My Thoughts on the Current State of Affairs
In the last 15 to 20 years or so there has been a shift in how strength is developed - at least here in the Western part of the world. It was a shift away from primarily using bodybuilding/hypertrophy methods to increase strength via the addition of muscle mass to using neuromuscular methods to accomplish the same. And this was (is) good - very good. It is my opinion though that now things have swung too far the other way - where training specifically for hypertrophy to increase strength has taken more than a back seat, especially for beginner to intermediate level strength athletes. It seems as though hypertrophy is expected as more of a side effect of neuromuscular training methods. Why not put training specifically for hypertrophy up higher on the hierarchy of training priorities - even for advanced trainees?
As I state this point I want the coaches, trainees and the exercise physiology majors to know that I do understand the theory behind determining an athletes type of training based on their 'strength deficit'. Without going into a lot of detail for those readers who are not aware of this theory, the 'size' of the strength deficit determines if they should prioritize either training for size (structural training) or prioritize training to increase neuromuscular efficiency (functional training). My argument is that an athlete's strength deficit cannot be accurately determined. I make this statement not only based on my knowledge of testing methods, but Siff and Verkhoshansky in SUPERTRAINING in the section Strength Deficit also support it.
...its accurate measurement is seldom performed in practice, because determination of maximum eccentric strength by electrical stimulation is a difficult and potentially harmful task, and even if this were not the case, most sporting actions involve many muscles and joints, so that measurements of deficits for separate muscle groups would not necessarily relate to performance deficits in complex tasks.
The only way to make an even somewhat 'educated guess' of an athletes strength deficit is to have a very experienced strength coach make a subjective decision based on an athletes size and how strong the coach thinks he or she should be for their size. And this may only be applicable to very advanced, very well developed trainees. Beginner to intermediate level trainees should be putting most of their time in on proper hypertrophy training that develops the size of, as well as increasing the neuromuscular capabilities of the fast twitch muscle fibers. I love the saying of Westside Barbells Dave Tate: "You can't flex bone".
Going Out of a Weight Class: A Valid Argument Against Adding More Muscle?
One argument against adding more muscle mass is that the additional weight will take an athlete out of a specific weight class that they want to compete in. And this is true - for some 'high-level' athletes especially those who compete in the lower weight classes. But, I've seen very few athletes who are so lean that they can't afford to lose any fat weight and 'replace' it with muscle weight - allowing them to compete in their chosen weight class. And this is especially true for the heavier weight classes - even in international competition. I remember watching Stefan Botev on one of Ironminds 'training hall' tapes going at a 500+ pound clean and jerk. After many attempts, he finally cleaned it (didn't attempt the jerk), and then finished his workout off with a 700-pound 'rock bottom' squat. Unbelievable strength, but it made me ponder the question, after seeing him with his shirt off, what could this guy do if he lost just 10 pounds of fat and added 10 pounds of muscle? Is that question just too simple to ask in light of today's high-tech (at least here in the West) 'neuro-based' training protocols?
So, outside of a very few athletes, who can't afford to lose some fat weight and replace it with some horsepower generating muscle?
How to Add The Beef - The Repetition Method (with a modification or two)
The Original Repetition Method
Prescribed by some of the most respected strength coaches/authorities: Dr. Bompa, Dr's Siff and Verkhoshansky, Hartman and Tunnemann, to name a few, here is the original protocol to create hypertrophy in athletes:
Utilize only the exercises that stimulate the prime movers. Keep the total number of exercises low, 6-9.
Use weights that allow between 8 and 15 reps.
All sets must be taken to muscular failure.
Perform between 4 and 8 sets per exercise
Rest 2 to 5 minutes between sets.
Perform 5 to 7 sessions per week
Yes, you just read that 'all sets must be taken to failure'. Now before you try to run off again thinking that training to failure won't make you stronger - you're wrong. Done right you'll get total recruitment of the Type IIb fast twitch fibers as well as increasing the synchronization of your motor units. Dr. Bompa writes, in his book Periodization of Strength the section titled, The Hypertrophy (Bodybuilding) Method (in which he recommends all sets be taken to failure and beyond):
Weight which at the beginning of an exercise is felt to be relatively light, with increasing number of repetitions, becomes submaximum and is maximum with the last repetition. With increased fatigue the recruitment and synchronization of motor units is much greater and the physiological benefits are often similar to those observed during lifting heavy weights. (Emphasis mine)
The Flaws I See in the Original Method
Experience has taught me that anyone short of Superman couldn't survive performing up to 8 sets of squats to failure, let alone using this method 5 to 7 times per week! This is what I consider to be the major drawback to the original prescription; a trainee just can't recover in a reasonable time period from such a high volume/high frequency of work performed at, or beyond, the trainees limit.
The very successful Westside Barbell training protocol also includes the use of a modified version of the original repetition method for the same reason - that it is extremely difficult to recover from. Their modified version as described by one of the well-known Westside boys; Dave Tate (a very knowledgeable, great guy) in the Periodization Bible suggests stopping a rep or two short of muscular failure while adhering to keeping the volume high at 5 to 8 sets per exercise. They also cut the set short of failure because of concern that technique will break down increasing the risk of injury.
My modifications are based on accomplishing the following:
To maximize stimulation, recruitment, and synchronization of the Type IIb fast twitch fibers as much as possible
To maximize recovery
To allow the generation of maximum force
Here is how I accomplish these objectives:
I keep the rep range low - from 1 up to 8 reps. Yes; I have trainees perform 1-rep sets to failure. [I can't go into details here, but it is very similar to Westside Barbells Maximum Effort method] For 'fast twitch' dominant trainees this rep range plays right into their genetic ballpark. I'll generally have a trainee cycle their rep ranges from 1-3, 3-5, 6-8, and up to 8-10, throughout three to four concurrent micro-cycles when using my modified Repetition Method as a 'stand-alone' training protocol. By the way, performing one set of 3 to 5 reps to failure and beyond (isometric pulls) was the preferred training method of the great deadlifter (725 1/4 pounds at 189 in 1949!) Bob Peoples.
Each set must be pushed to failure to receive maximum benefits. As Bompa (and others support) it is these last critical reps, and the 'failure rep' that creates the physiological changes that create not only hypertrophy but also optimal recruitment and synchronization of the Type IIb fast twitch fibers. It is my contention that maintaining great technique under this fatigued condition while continuing to try to produce maximum force that produces the increases in synchronization that Bompa speaks of. And it sure does make it easier to maintain great technique when you're not tired.
Rest interval must be at least 3 minutes, up to 5 minutes so that as much weight as possible can be handled for all sets. This will allow for the creation of maximum tension on each set, again, building great strength.
I have the trainee perform a lower number of sets; 1 to 3 sets. This is how I prevent overtraining while using this method, versus what Westside recommends (not a criticism, just my humble opinion) which are getting close too, but not going to failure and performing many more sets. I would rather make sure to perform those last critical reps, for the reasons prescribed by Bompa and the others; for max recruitment and synchronization of the fast twitch fibers, and keep the number of sets low to allow recovery to take place in 72 hours. I usually only prescribe one set if the trainee is performing a relatively higher rep set - 8 reps and above - on a 'big' movement like various forms of squats and deadlifts.
All reps are performed with the intent to explode through the concentric part of the lift, and to lower at a relatively slower (3 seconds or so, but no counting) rate. While utilizing weights that allow only 5 reps or less the weight won't move fast, but the 'intent' to move fast helps recruit more of the Type IIb fast twitch fibers. On the higher rep sets where the trainee can actually move the weight relatively fast (till fatigue sets in and slows him down) he is actually generating a higher degree of force, positively shifting what is known as the force-time curve to the left.
Use only one or two times per week/microcycle for each exercise performed. This will allow for complete recovery and maximum adaptation to take place. This frequency also allows for other neuromuscular training methods, as well as various forms of skill work (tossing cabers, sprinting, lifting atlas stones, flipping tires, etc) to be completed.
Support from Across the Strength Training Spectrum: Looking for Similarities not Differences.
The Repetition Method, High Intensity Training, Limit Training, The Submaximal Repetitive Effort Method; they are all variations of the same thing. I'm not biased to one method or another - I don't have that luxury, because I have to use whatever training methods produce the fastest results since my livelihood depends on it. And of the methods mentioned above I feel High Intensity Training (HIT) has gotten the biggest shaft and is the most misunderstood. Perform only one set, use only machines, use only 8-12 or 15-20 rep ranges, no rest between sets; all are a limited view of it's applications, and proven so by some of the biggest HIT proponents:
Our own Ken Leistner: (as stated in Hardgainer Magazine) used three sets to produce his incredible pressing strength (250 pounds+ for 3 strict military presses at about 160 bodyweight and 50+ years old); 2 sets of 3 rep push presses emphasizing the eccentric, followed by one set of 5 reps to failure.
Dan Riley, 30+ year professional strength coach - West Point, Penn State, Washington Redskins - currently running the Houston Texans program (from the Texans Training Manual): recommends using 3 sets of 6 reps as one of his standard protocols.
Arthur Jones (from the article Time as a Factor in Exercise, Athletic Journal) recommends that trainees interested in the sole purpose of training for strength shouldn't rush between sets. Also (from My First Half Century in the Iron Game, Ironman Magazine) he stated that a fast-twitch dominant trainee "could not tolerate high-repetition exercise, will rapidly lose strength instead of becoming stronger if trained in that manner."
The reason I'm pointing this out is because many trainees won't even consider training to failure because of its association with HIT. And this is wrong in my opinion. Whatever name you want to give it, it will make you bigger and much stronger. I couldn't agree more with what Ken Leistner pointed out in the March 2008 issue of Milo:
"Those serving as strength coaches rarely look at the differences in successful programs; instead, they seek out the similarities."
When you find a 'similarity' a 'common thread' from programs/philosophies that seem worlds apart - you've really got a gem on your hands. I think if many trainees took off the blinders and looked a little harder, a little deeper, they would possess a handful of jewels. Although Moscow (Dr. Verkhoshansky) and Lake Helen Florida (Arthur Jones) are a world apart, some of the philosophies (there are others that I haven't presented) that came out of these places - and many others - are on the same page. One of these is to include in your training program taking each set to its limit - to train to muscular failure - so that you can pack on some serious mass.
I'm a 'basics' kind of strength coach. Not that I don't believe in incorporating some new training concepts into the programs that I prescribe. I've written before that I feel some of the best most result producing methods get lost in the shuffle of all the new stuff that is promoted. I believe in keeping the focus of training on improving the foundation and using the newer methods to augment and build upon the foundation. One of the best ways to continue to build upon the foundation is to simply add more 'functional' muscle mass.
If you want to get better performance, more horsepower, out of your body maybe you should re-center your training on building a bigger engine instead of only trying to add more wires to more spark plugs.
Please visit Johns website Real Strength Real Muscle - Remembering John