The Elements of Building Strength, Power, and Mass
Let’s take a look at what makes up all successful regimens designed to increase strength, power, and mass, whether you are trying to increase just one or all three of them.
Make no bones about it, everyone can increase their strength and power and their muscle size when they use these methods. These are for the average Joe who just picked up his first weight, or for the advanced lifter who has been training for fifteen years. These elements work for absolutely everyone.
Sure, some lifters will progress faster and further than others, but all will progress. Some of you reading this will one day (and maybe in the not too-distant future if you used the routines in this blog religiously) have 18 inch arms and bench press over 400 pounds and squat well over 500.
And some of you won’t.
Those are just the facts. We are all inhibited by our genetic structure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the best that you can be. And there’s no reason everyone reading this can’t increase their bench press by more than a hundred pounds and their squats and deadlifts by more than 200 pounds (along with all of their other lifts). There’s no reason that everyone can’t build a physique that the general public will admire and look up to as an example of what can be achieved with weight training.
Element #1—Hard Work (and lots of it)
It doesn’t matter what program you use—whether you find it on my blog or somewhere else—none of them will work without hard work, and lots of it. That’s just the way of things. If you want to get big and strong by being lazy and not working hard, missing workouts, etcetera, then real strength training isn’t for you.
Today, it seems more people are interested in strength training, aerobics, and in diet and health than ever before. Yet, despite this interest, we live in a society that is more obese and more out of shape than it has ever been. What’s the reason? The answer is simple. There’s more interest in strength training, fitness, and health than ever before, but the interest is in finding the easiest way to achieve these goals. Most people want to know the easy way to get stronger, more muscular, and be more fit.
They don’t want to hear the truth. The truth is this: if you want to look good, be strong, and get fit then you are going to have to work hard at it, and work hard at it consistently for a number of years.
I’m always amazed by the number of articles that appear in bodybuilding magazines each month on how to cut back on your workouts and still get good results. While it’s true that cutting back on volume helps a muscle to recover (to a certain extent), I’ve always felt that missing workouts and cutting back to training each muscle group infrequently only leads to bad habits. So why do these articles keep on getting churned out month after month? Because readers want to believe that’s the answer. Sure, it sounds nice to only have to train each muscle group once every two weeks for only one set to absolute failure. The problem is it just doesn’t work!
If you want to be successful at strength training, power building, and muscle building, then you have to work hard at it. Sure, there are times when you need to take it easy in order to recuperate from so many hard workouts, but the opposite is also true.
All of the routines and tips you’ll find throughout this blog will work, but only if you put plenty of hard work into each and every training session.
Element #2—Basic, Compound Exercises
If you’ve done any type of weight training, and have experienced any type of positive results out of it, then you know this element to be true. When I talk about basic, compound exercises I’m speaking of exercises that work the majority of your muscle groups (i.e.—multi-joint exercises). In other words, exercises such as squats, deadlifts, all manners of barbell bench presses, overhead presses, dumbbell presses for your chest or shoulders, barbell curls, chins, and dips. There are others, but you get the point.
This also goes hand in hand with the first element, for when you use compound exercises you are forced to work much harder than when you use isolation movements. The reason is because of the number of muscles used during compound lifts. Squats not only work your legs (quadriceps and hamstrings) but they also work your lower back, your abdominals, your traps, and your middle back. Deadlifts not only work the muscles of your lower back, but they also work your traps, lats, hamstrings, forearms, and, to some extent, your biceps. Flat barbell bench presses—while known as a chest exercise—work the muscles of your triceps, lats, and shoulders just as hard as your pectorals.
A common myth among bodybuilders is that to have a great physique you need to do a lot of different exercises for each muscle group. This just isn’t true. In fact, the only time you should do isolation work and multiple exercises for each bodypart is if you already have a well developed physique. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at the arms of a bodybuilder who does a lot of cable curls, dumbbell curls, concentration curls, etc., then take a look at the arms of a power trainer who does only heavy deadlifts and heavy barbell curls with an Olympic bar. The second lifter will have better developed arms because of all the compound work.
Element #3—Heavy Weights
You can do all the compound exercises in the world and combine them with a lot of hard work, and if you’re not using heavy weights you can hang it up. Light weights—even when taken to failure for high reps or when used on exercises such as bench presses—just aren’t going to do anything for your muscles. If you want to be big and strong, then you have to train heavy.
What do I mean when I talk about heavy? I’m talking about rarely going over 5 reps in your training. I’m talking about consistently training with triples, doubles, and singles.
It is true that you can gain an appreciable amount of muscle mass by training with high reps. It’s not uncommon, in fact, to see bodybuilders sticking with sets in the 10 to 12 rep range for the majority of their workout. However, you can’t build the strength to go with that muscle if you’re not using heavy weight, low repetition training.
Why is this? Because when you consistently train with higher repetitions, you “teach”(for lack of a better term) your body to save “energy” for the high reps. If you then try to put a lot of weight on the bar and attempt a heavy set of three, two, or one rep, your body doesn’t put out as much force as it should since it thinks there are more repetitions to come. This is not a good thing if ultimate strength and power is your goal.
By constantly training with low reps and heavy weights throughout the training year, you can overcome this problem. Also, while you can’t build strength with high reps, you can build muscle mass with low reps. All you have to do is take a look at the physiques of the super-heavyweight competitors in powerlifting and Olympic lifting and you will see guys that have tons of strength, and tons of muscle to go with it.
This sounds so simple, and you would think more lifters would include it in their training. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. In order to make progress with your strength or with your physique, you must constantly increase your total workload. The three most popular methods of increasing workload are by (1) increasing the weight on the exercise while keeping the reps the same, (2) increasing the repetitions while keeping the weight the same, or (3) keeping the sets and reps the same, but decreasing rest between sets. Or—4th, and not very often used—you can simply add volume from one workout to the next (this is the trickiest way to use progression, and its use needs to be tempered with wisdom).
As easy as the above sounds, there’s no telling how many times I’ve seen guys (or gals) using the same weights for the same number of sets and the same number of reps day in and day out, week after week, month after month. And they wonder why their physiques aren’t improving.
Don’t increase your workload through consistent progression and you can forget about achieving any goals (or desires) you might have. I think one of the reason a lot of recreational lifters don’t use progression in their training is because it’s easy to not use it. Not using progression makes your workouts simple and easy to perform. Once you reach a certain stage of development, it becomes very hard to progress at each workout. You have to really want it. You have to strive by working your tail off each and every time you train heavy. Ultimately, it all comes back to element number one—plenty of hard work.
Element #5—Frequent Training
A lot of lifters who have read most of the muscle magazines over the past ten to twenty years might be surprised I’ve included this as an essential element to success. Well, get over it, because it is. Recently, it has become almost a fad to train infrequently and irregularly. The rational has been that the increased rest between workouts will aid recovery, and therefore growth and strength. It sounds simple, it sounds like it will work, but, unfortunately for many that have tried it, it just doesn’t.
You need to be training each muscle group at least twice a week. Every one of the lifters I’ve worked with over the last several years who were training infrequently and switched to at least twice-a-week training for each bodypart experienced renewed growth and strength. And their gains kept on coming.
While it’s true that you can’t train heavy more than once per week (at least until you become very advanced) you can train several times a week using light and medium workouts.
Look at all of the great lifters over the past sixty years (especially the ones who weren’t on steroids) and you won’t find any of them that got great results from infrequent training. From Marvin Eder to Bill Pearle to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Pat Casey to Gary Frank, all of them trained each muscle group at least twice a week.
Also, if you look at all the good systems of training over the last twenty years, from Bill Starr’s full body workouts to Louie Simmons’s Westside Barbell system, to the powerlifting methods of coach extraordinaire Boris Sheiko, the one thing these workouts all have in common is they train the major lifts frequently.
I first discovered how great frequent training worked about ten to twelve years ago, and it subsequently changed my writing and training ever since. At the time, I had tried every different routine you could think but I was stuck. My bodyweight and my lifts just wouldn’t go up. I almost reverted back to high-rep training just to gain some extra muscle mass (since that was the type of training I did when I carried the most muscle—but I was also pound-for-pound at my weakest), but I knew my maximum strength would suffer if I did so. So I tried the one type of workout I hadn’t used in years: a full-body regimen where I squatted and bench pressed three-days-a-week. I molded it after the workout programs of Anthony Ditillo, who wrote some great articles for the old Iron Man magazine many years ago. The first couple of weeks, I didn’t think my new regimen was going to work because I was sore all the time. After two weeks, however, my strength started really going up, and, about two months later, I had gained so much muscle and strength that I had to lay off the three-days-a-week of squatting or I knew I was going to be too heavy for the weight classes I wanted to compete at in powerlifting. (I weighed around 200 pounds at this time, but usually competed in the 181-pound class.)
Since then, I have tried many different routines, but the one thing all of them have in common is frequent training. My strength constantly improved while on these programs, as well, which is something when you consider how many years I have been training and the fact that I am almost at my peak in terms of strength for my bodyweight.
A lot of the lifters I work with have made significant improvements with frequent training. Throughout this series, I will share some of their stories with you.
Element #6—Multiple Sets
One of the major mistakes a lot lifters make—whether they’re using high reps or low reps, heavy weight or light weight—is to not perform multiple sets per exercise. Once again, much of it comes down to hard work and making sure you do enough at each session, but even more of it has to do with the benefits your nervous system receives when it performs multiple sets.
For building strength, multiple sets on one exercise—especially for a low number of repetitions—works because it enhances your muscle’s abilities to recruit muscle fibers for the particular exercise. It, in essence, teaches your body to do the lift more efficiently. Enhanced strength is the result of such training.
For building muscle mass, performing numerous sets of a single exercise helps to stimulate muscle growth by exposing the muscle to enough workload in order to induce growth. Some of the very best routines for muscle growth—such as German Volume Training and Vince Gironda’s 8 Sets of 8 Reps program—incorporate the principle of multiple sets.
There’s not a single good strength program out there that’s based on very few sets per workout. Sure, there are programs based on such a concept. And there are even trainees who espouse the concepts of very few sets, but if you were to take those same lifters and put them on one of the programs on this blog or throughout this series, I guarantee you they would never again go back to a routine that doesn’t employ multiple sets.
Element #7—Power Rack Training
Some readers may also be surprised that I have included this as an essential component of successful training. This is probably because many of them have never trained in the power rack, and felt they still got good results out of their workouts. Well, you might be able to get some decent training sessions in without the power rack, but you will be missing out on two of the best techniques for building massive strength available to you.
The two components I’m talking about are top-position rack work and bottom-position rack work. The rack lets you make use of bench press lockouts, squat lockouts, deadlift lockouts, and overhead pressing lockouts—and you can do all of them from various heights, allowing you to work on weak spots. The rack also lets you incorporate bottom-position squats and bottom-position bench presses, two of the best exercises you will ever perform for bringing up your lifts.
Top-position work allows you to use more weight than you are capable of using on full-range movements, while doing them in complete safety within the rack. Using these partial lifts strengthens not only the muscles but also the tendons and the ligaments. And when you get back under a max full-range bench press or squat, the weight feels tremendously lighter than usual.
Bottom-position work has two great benefits. The first is that it helps to build a lot of power on the bottom of the movement. You can’t use as much weight on a bottom-position bench or squat that you can use on a full-range movement, so you know once you are bench pressing, say, 315 pounds on the bottom-position movement, you won’t have any trouble bench pressing 315 lbs in the normal fashion. The same goes for the squat.
About thirteen years ago, while I was training for a powerlifting competiion, I got down to a bodyweight of 163 lbs (determined to compete in the 165 lb class). My goal was to squat over 500 pounds at this bodyweight, and do it without any protective equipment other than a belt. The only type of heavy training I did for my squat was bottom-position work. A couple weeks before the meet, I worked up to a 420 lb bottom-position squat for a max single. At the meet, I managed to squat 510 pounds. My carryover from the bottom-position work to the full squat was almost 100 pounds. And I don’t think I would have squatted so much without the bottom-position work.
There are some other benefits to power rack training, as well. The first is safety. Power racks allow you to train in complete safety without a training partner. You can always work up to a maximum single in the bottom or top-position squat or bench press without any spotters around. In fact, for years I trained by myself in my garage in this manner until I decided to take on a couple of lifters I was working with as training partners.
Another benefit of the power rack is band work. While not everyone needs to use bands until they get more advanced, the power rack allows you to wrap the bands around the pins. And you can set the pins at different heights, so the tension from the bands can be as little or as strong as you want it to be.
All of the above elements won’t mean jack if you aren’t consistently putting them to use. Consistency is the key to being successful, whether your goal is a lot of muscle mass or a lot of strength and power—or both. It doesn’t matter what program you use, none of them will work if you don’t consistently perform the workouts.
Most everyone is guilty, at one time or another, of laying off from the gym (or wherever it is you train) but the ones who are the most successful in their endeavors are the ones who hardly ever miss a workout (unless it’s a planned layoff). If you are scheduled to train on a certain day, don’t skip it. If you choose to use a program that calls for training four-days-a-week, then make sure you train four-days-a-week.
Looking back over my years of training, I can say that I have been fairly consistent. There have been times, however, when I have taken extended layoffs, usually because I was trying to devote a large amount of time to some writing project I was busy with, or times when I had injuries. Every time that I came back from these layoffs, I wished that I hadn’t taken them. Why? Because within a couple of weeks of not training (or training very haphazardly, which can be almost as bad as not training at all) you start to lose a lot of your strength. Several weeks later and you have lost a whole lot. Sure, it’s fairly easy to regain your strength after a couple of weeks, but you definitely aren’t improving when you train this way.
Another key about being consistent is to not just be consistent about working out, but be consistent about the workout program you choose to utilize. One of the worst things you can do is bounce from one program to another, without giving any of them an extended try. Sure, you need variety in your training. But you need variety within a consistent program. Call it planned variety.
In powerlifting, one thing I’ve noticed about the successful powerlifters is that they consistently use the same routine. Yes, they make changes to their routines—whether it’s through changing reps or changing exercises—but they, for all extensive purposes, stick with the same program throughout most of their careers. They are consistent.
Throughout the upcoming posts in this series you will learn a lot about training, and about the most effective training routines you can utilize. However, if you only get one thing, I hope it’s the importance of being consistent in your workouts. Don’t train for a few weeks, don’t train for a few months. Don’t even train for a few years. Train hard and consistent, for the rest of your life.