There’s a problem in gyms – weak lifters are trying to build muscle. I call it the WSSS: Weak Size-Seeker Syndrome. Is it keeping you from reaching your muscle-building potential? If so, don’t worry. There’s a cure.
THE EVIDENCE Recently, researchers compared the effects of a short, strength training block on muscle hypertrophy. They took 26 trained men and split them into two groups:
One group started training with a strength program using 4 sets of 1-3 reps. Then, after three weeks of training, they moved to a typical hypertrophy-training program using 4 sets of 8-12 reps for the next five weeks. The other group did hypertrophy training (4 x 8-12) for the entire study. At the end of 8 weeks, the group that started with a 3-week strength block had gained more strength AND size than the group that did hypertrophy-only training.
Pretty cool, right? If this doesn’t make you want to spend at least a portion of the year focusing on more traditional strength training, I don’t know what will. It doesn’t just make you stronger; it makes you look the part.
But don’t just wing it on a day-to-day or even week-to-week basis. Test it out with a more structured approach. Here’s how to apply the findings of this study to your own training.
IF YOU’RE A BEGINNER If you’re new to lifting, don’t worry about doing a low-rep strength phase just yet. Instead, start by picking one exercise variation from each of the following categories:
Squat Deadlift Chin-up Shoulder Press Row Bench Press or Dip Remember that for muscle growth, there’s not one specific exercise variation you HAVE to do. Pick the variation for each exercise that feels good on your joints and allows you to feel the target muscles working.
Once you have your lifts, learn how to do them with proper technique. Earn the big weights by first demonstrating proper form with the lighter weights. Keep a training log and add quality reps or weight each workout. Keep increasing your performance for these lifts in the 6-12 rep range.
You can do all the movements in one workout to start. After a few months, split them up into two different workouts (like upper/lower) and add a few more exercises. Yes, you can add some isolation exercises to hit smaller muscle groups, but resist the temptation to keep adding more and more exercises.
Remember, more is not always better. Getting better at the exercises you already do will make you better. If you substantially increase the amount of weight you can do on your basic exercises in the 6-12 rep range, you’ll get substantially bigger.
IF YOU’RE INTERMEDIATE OR ADVANCED If you’re experienced but have hit a hypertrophy plateau, use strength blocks. Spend 2-4 weeks of training with lower reps and aim to get stronger.
While you may not gain much size during this block, you’ll get a lot stronger. When you return to your regular hypertrophy training, it’ll be a fresh training stimulus. This, combined with your newfound strength, will allow you to lift more weight. You’ll now be primed for faster and more substantial muscle growth.
If you normally prefer high reps, don’t feel you have to go all the way down to the 1-3 rep range like they did in the study. Try the 4-6 rep range or even 5-8 range if you normally respond better to higher reps. Both can work for building strength.
HOW STRONG DO YOU NEED TO GET? Thanks to social media, you can see world-class lifters perform amazing feats of strength. While this can be inspiring for some, it can also be depressing. You don’t have to possess the strength of an elite strength athlete to build muscle. You can find some more reasonable standards here:
Don’t feel discouraged if you fall far short of these standards, and don’t get impatient and try to rush the process with ego lifting. Stay focused on your training journal. If you’re progressively getting stronger, then you’re on track.
BUT, BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT ONE GUY? Now, you might be thinking of a bodybuilder you’ve seen on YouTube or Instagram who’s massive yet seems to do only light pump-and-burn training with endless exercise variation. You might ask, “Shouldn’t I just do what he does?”
Let me answer by asking you two questions:
Is what a genetically gifted, chemically-enhanced bodybuilder does to MAINTAIN his physique the best way for you to BUILD yours? Can YOU actually reach your muscle-building potential with just light-weight pump training? Ultimately, you need to find what works for you. If you can reach your potential with only light pumping sets, all the best to you. However, based on the research, getting stronger can help you get bigger.
And based on my experience with clients and athletes, drug-free muscle is built when you’re getting stronger for reps. Muscle growth stops when progression stops.
Reference Carvalho, L., Junior, R. M., Truffi, G., Serra, A., Sander, R., De Souza, E. O., & Barroso, R. (2020). Is stronger better? Influence of a strength phase followed by a hypertrophy phase on muscular adaptations in resistance-trained men. Research in Sports Medicine, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/15438627.2020.1853546