Gaining Size Vs. Gaining Strength

Brian Dobson, Jeremy Hoornstra, Josh Bryant & Branch Warren at Metroflex Gym 

Back in the day, I found myself in the gritty Italian section of Philadelphia. I stumbled upon a local gym that was more like a fancy fitness center than a hardcore iron pit. Exhausted as hell, I needed a pick-me-up, so I ordered a triple shot of espresso. Sipping it slowly, I hopped on the exercise bike, scoping out the scene.

I saw a personal trainer who could pass as Michael Clarke Duncan from “The Green Mile.” The guy’s name tag read “Van”.

Each of Van’s clients epitomized a no-nonsense physique. I mean, these dudes were built like brick sh*t houses.

First up was Renzo, tackling t-bar rows like a champ. He pushed himself to failure, but Van wasn’t having any of that. In the middle of this supposedly family-friendly fitness joint, I heard Van screaming at Renzo, “You got more, you a mutha-f*ckin’ veteran?!” Van took Renzo way past failure, with this brutal rest-pause routine that looked like cruel and unusual punishment.

And let me tell you, Renzo’s size and strength reflected his hard work through Van’s seemingly twisted methodology

Next, Van got his hands on some dude who looked like Patrick Bet-David (or maybe it was actually him before he hit it big). This guy was working on his shoulders, and when he reached failure during lateral raises, Van was right there, spotting him like a man possessed. But instead of just helping out, Van made this poor fool do the negatives himself. He made the guy hold those dumbbells, screaming “contraction” in his face like a drill sergeant on steroids.

Van and his crew were beasts, man. They defied all logic and science with their insane training methods. I tell you, it was a sight to behold!

The lesson simply was, if you wage war when you lift seemingly-backwards routines on paper, you can still have success — fury trumps theory every day of the week and thrice on Sunday. 

Leading Russian sports scientist, Vladimir Zatsiorsky, has identified three ways to develop maximal tension and therefore, size and strength in a muscle—they each require your all.

Let’s examine the three ways to maximize tension in a muscle.

The Repetition Method: Using higher reps with submaximal weights to spark muscle hypertrophy.

Ultimately, more size equates to better leverage. In other words, a guy with a chest as flat as a pancake pushes the bar much farther on the bench press than someone with a barrel chest, if the two individuals have the same arm length. While strength is primarily a function of the central nervous system, the literature unanimously agrees that a bigger muscle is a stronger one.

Training to failure in traditional bodybuilding rep ranges will get you stronger—anecdotal evidence supports this assertion as many of the top strength athletes train high reps in the off-season, both to give their central nervous systems a break and to maintain muscle size before the next competitive season.

The Dynamic Method: Maximum power is developed in core lifts using 50-80 percent of a lifter’s one repetition max. 

Force = Mass x Acceleration. The key is violently exerting as much force possible into the barbell with each repetition, not pumping out rep after rep. This is not opinion. This is physics. 

This is called Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT). Lots of bodybuilders do this unknowingly when doing a set of 12 reps – the first 3-4 reps are explosive, while the next 8-9 reps have a little less steam. Whether they know it or not, they are getting beneficial adaptations from the dynamic method for strength gains in the first few reps. Your first rep is always your strongest – from that point on you are getting weaker – so exerting maximum force from the get-go can help you dynamically increase muscle tension.

The Max Effort Method: Lifting weights over 90 percent for 1-3 reps. 

This is how most powerlifters train when prepping for a meet. It’s very intense but doesn’t involve very many repetitions, providing some of the same benefits as the Dynamic Method. Bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman have used the max effort method as little as three weeks out from the Olympia.

Strength is primarily gained by lifting heavy weight for low reps and lots of sets, mostly as a result of adaptations in the central nervous system (CNS). This maximizes neural efficiency or, in other words, gets you more coordinated at the movement. Greater coordination leads to leads to more efficiency of a lift, allowing all participating muscles to more fully contribute to each rep.

This is the primary piece of the strength pie. It will take longer but you can get stronger by training with 65-80 percent of your max to momentary muscular failure (MMF). Furthermore, you will get stronger by lifting lighter weights faster. You can produce higher amounts of force this way when compared to heavy weights.

Everyone wants to get bigger and stronger…even big, strong guys. Training with a multitude of rep ranges and tempos will get you both in the long run but you should always concentrate on increasing your weight loads through whatever path you choose. All roads lead to Rome.

Build size and strength with Josh’s newest program HERE.