Why you should get strong before trying to get big
Here's a little article I wrote up yesterday and posted it on another forum I go on. I figured I'd post it here too.
This is no new ground-breaking information really, but it's my basic understanding of why you must get stronger to get bigger. My current beliefs on the "way to train" come from my 10 or so years of weightlifting experience (not all good training years BTW, but you learn from experience), several books, both bodybuilding and powerlifting forums, and lots of internet articles. After sifting through all the available information, and formulating many thoughts of my own, I have came up with several beliefs of my own. Here they are:
1.) You have to get stronger to get bigger.
This first point is just a generalized version of my philosophies, further points will explain why in more detail.
I know there are certain rep ranges that are specifically meant for strength gains, and others that are meant for size gains, and others that are meant for endurance. Typically 1 - 5 reps is for strength, 6 - 12 is for hypertrophy, and 12 or more is for endurance. Obviously, these rep ranges overlap. For instance, you can and will still gain size by working in the "strength" range, and you can and still will gain strength in the "hypertrophy range", and you can still gain some size and strength in the "endurance range", etc.... Basically they aren't an exact science. No rep range will do just one thing for you, but certain rep ranges will do certain things better than others.
The main point is that in order to get bigger you will have to start moving more weight. You can train in the "hypertrophy" range all you want, but your body will quickly adapt to the weight you are using for whatever rep range you are training in, and you will need to put more weight onto the bar.
2.) Increasing tonnage is the key to growth
The more work your body is capable of handling in a single training session, the stronger you are because of the adaptations you have created.
Volume = sets * reps
Tonnage = volume * weight used
One way to significantly increase the tonnage in a workout is by increasing the volume. For instance, let’s say that a lifter is capable of squatting 500 lbs. for his 1RM.
He could do either one of two workouts for example:
Workout 1: 5 sets of 5 w/ 450 lbs. (using 90% of his 1RM in training)
Volume for workout 1 = 25 total reps
Tonnage for workout 1 (total reps x weight used) = 11,250 lbs.
Workout 2: 5 sets of 10 w/ 400 lbs. (using 80% of his 1RM in training)
Volume for workout 2 = 50 total reps
Tonnage for workout 2 = 20,000 lbs.
The tonnage is increased significantly in workout #2. Both workouts use 5 working sets, and even though workout #2 uses less weight, the fact that the volume is significantly higher (due to the higher rep range used), the tonnage was increased.
It is for this reason why a workout consisting of 5 sets of 10 would be considered a "hypertrophy" workout. The weight is moderately heavy yet still challenging, but the volume is drastically increased because the number of reps used for each set was increased, therefore making the volume factor of the equation 50 as opposed to 25 as in workout 1.
After this one squat workout with a total tonnage of 20,000 your body will adapt. You will then need to increase the total tonnage at some point in order to create new adaptations. This can be done by either:
a.) increasing the number of sets
b.) increasing the number of reps
c.) increasing the weight used
a.) If the number of reps is increased and everything else remains the same, then the weight will most likely have to be lowered (which won’t help to increase the total tonnage). If both the weight and sets both remain the same, and one rep is added every workout. The tonnage will increase at a fairly fast rate. The body will get fatigued very quickly, and stalling will occur
week 1 - 400 lbs. - 5 x 10 - tonnage = 20,000
week 2 - 400 lbs. - 5 x 11 - tonnage = 22,000
week 3 - 400 lbs. - 5 x 12 - tonnage = 24,000
b.) If the number of sets is increased and everything else remains the same, then the tonnage will dramatically increase. Again, this will lead to a very fast burnout, even faster then the previous example.
week 1 - 400 lbs. - 5 x 10 - tonnage = 20,000
week 2 - 400 lbs. - 6 x 10 - tonnage = 24,000
week 3 - 400 lbs. - 7 x 10 - tonnage = 28,000
c.) If the number of sets and reps remains the same, but the weight is increased, the tonnage will increase at a slow and steady pace. The body will be able to make the necessary adaptations, and the accumulated fatigue should not be a serious problem for a while.
week 1 – 400 lbs. – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 20,000
week 2 – 405 lbs. – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 20,250
week 3 – 410 lbs. – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 20,500
Example “c” has the slowest increase in tonnage. So why would increasing weight every workout be the best choice of the three to progressively make this tonnage increase?
3.) Your body is very good at adapting, but it can only handle so much.
This is obvious, and it is why we need recovery days. The main point of weight training is to make every workout a little bit more challenging the previous workout (this is done by increasing the tonnage). Considering the fact that we are only human, we cannot continuously make each workout drastically more challenging than the previous one. A drastic increase in tonnage may be possible for one or two workouts, but a stall will occur very quickly. This is known as a “plateau”. Ideally you want to slowly increase the body’s ability to handle it’s tonnage capacity for as long as possible without stalling. As long as the tonnage is increasing every workout, you know you are making progress. While examples “a” and “b” (increase the reps or sets, respectively) are both ways to increase the tonnage every workout, stalling will occur very quickly due to the body’s limitations to only be able to adapt to so much.
“Newbie gains” are due to the fact that the trainee is not physically capable of working with high tonnages, and therefore it can be increased at a very quick rate. Once a lifter has developed several new adaptations over a period time from consistent training, and they are working with significantly higher tonnages, “periodization” is then necessary in order to continue to make progress.
Periodization is just simply controlling the overall volume and necessary recovery in order to continuously make tonnage increases. As the tonnages that the trainee is working with continue to increase over time, the more recovery that is necessary. This is why progress in a trainee’s lifting career is non-linear. In other words, progress slows down as the tonnage increases. The heavier the tonnages, the slower the increases occur.
4.) You should focus on getting strong before focusing on getting big
The whole point of writing this was to explain my main point – you should focus on getting strong before you focus on getting big.
If you look at #2 which explains how tonnage is affected by the number of sets, reps, and weights used in a workout, you will see that the example was done with a lifter that has a 1RM of 500 lbs.
Let’s say that a particular lifter just wants to get big, but he never decided to build up a solid strength base first. We’ll say that this particular lifter has a 1RM squat of 150 lbs. (probably an overexageratted number if he is full squatting, but for the purpose of this example I’ll use 150 lbs.). Since he wants to get bigger, but not stronger he decides that he wants to work in the “hypertrophy range”.
He decides that he will follow a routine where his goal is to increase the tonnage using a set/rep scheme of 5 x 10 (he may not know that it is “tonnage” that he is trying to increase, but he does know that he wants every workout to be slightly more challenging than the previous workout).
Obviously, he will not be able to do 5 sets of 10 with his 1RM, so maybe he will start with 80% of his 1RM. Using the same approach from #2 – make slight increases in weight every single workout rather than increasing reps or sets in order to allow progress to continue for a very long time:
Workout 1: 120 lbs. (this is 80% of his 1RM) – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 6000 lbs.
Workout 2: 125 lbs. – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 6250 lbs.
Workout 3: 130 lbs. – 5 x 10 – tonnage = 6500 lbs.
This lifter started his progression with a tonnage of 6000 lbs. The lifter with the 500 lb. max squat started his progression with a tonnage of 20,000 lbs.
Now, assuming both lifters are the same height and weight, who do you think is going to be the bigger and more muscular lifter? Obviously the guy with the 500 lb. squat will be.
If the lifter with the 150 lb. max squat spent just 1 year working his butt off to get his max squat up to even 350 lbs. before he decided to start training for “hypertrophy”, then his progression would start with a tonnage of 14,000 lbs. (this is taking 80% of 350 = 280 lbs. for a 5x10 rep range) as opposed to starting with the mere 6000 lbs.
Of course, these examples were all done using the squat, but the same ideas can be applied to any of the lifts.
5.) But what about changing up the workouts all the time, and constantly changing the sets and rep ranges?
This is a very common thing for people to do, but you still want to make each workout more challenging than the previous workout.
So say that workout 1 you’re doing a 5x5 workout. Workout 2, you do a 3 x 10 workout. Workout 3, you do a 4 x 8 workout, and then you start the cycle over. You would obviously want the next 5x5 workout (which would be workout 4) to be more challenging then the first 5x5 workout. Since it is a “5x5” workout, the way to make it more challenging (aka. increase the tonnage) would be to increase the weight.
No matter how you decide to cycle the rep ranges, or change the exercises or whatever, eventually there will be a repeat where you are doing the same exercise for the same set/rep range. You want to make sure that you are using more weight than you used the previous time to ensure that you are still progressing.
Building up a good strength base FIRST before doing anything simply allows you to be working with higher numbers.
Why not START your “bodybuilding training” with a 400 lb. squat, a 500 lb. deadlift, a 315 lb. bench, a 225 lb. OH press, etc…? You will be working with much higher tonnages then the guy that decides he just wants to get big right away and is starting with a 150 lb. squat, a 185 lb. deadlift, a 150 lb. bench, a 95 lb. OH press, etc….
6.) While doing all this training for strength FIRST, you will make some amazing size gains as well
This is pretty self exclamatory, but if you decide to get strong before doing some serious “bodybuilding hypertrophy” training, you will surprisingly make some tremendous muscular size gains. You will find that even though you were training for hypertrophy all along, you ended up getting stronger too. I don’t think that anyone will mind if they ‘accidentally’ get stronger when they were really just trying to get bigger.
7.) It will be much easier for a very strong person to get very big than it would be for a very big person to get very strong
Build the strength first, and the added size will come easy. The opposite is not the case. Basically, my analogy on very strong muscles is that they are just little bubbles of solid potential energy that are waiting to just “explode” with size as soon as the training calls for it (the high volume, hypertrophy training).
Of course you have to eat enough to support recovery and growth. Healthy eating is always a better idea then unhealthy eating. You will simply look better overall when you eat properly.
Aside from eating healthy, it is always important to remember that fat gains are inevitable when it comes to gaining size. The good thing is that it is a S***load easier to lose the fat after all the muscle is gained, then it is to gain the muscle in the first place. So if you happen to get fat while you’re working to get that 400 lb. squat, 500 lb. deadlift, 315 lb. bench, 225 lb., and OH press, don’t worry. The fat will practically melt off if you go on a caloric deficit.
It will be much harder to achieve those numbers if temporarily gaining fat scares you though.
So go get strong!!!