THE SIZE-STRENGTH CONTINUUM
In simple terms, strength is about increasing force production. Size, on the other hand, is about getting a pump and creating microscopic damage to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger. This is hypertrophy in a nutshell.
The general rule of thumb when training for strength is that the reps should be low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuromuscular. If you think of your body as a computer, strength training is more about upgrading your software, which is your central nervous system (CNS), than it is about the hardware—your muscles. Strength training is about teaching your CNS how to bring more muscle into the game; or to increase motor unit recruitment.
THE WELL-ROUNDED REP SCHEME
After what I just said, this may come as a surprise, but I believe that there is a place for some low-rep power work in a well-rounded bodybuilding program.
Physique athletes, like any other type of athlete, can benefit from increased motor unit recruitment, so I put some low-rep/high-load work in my physique athletes’ programs, to the order of 5-6 sets of 4-6 reps. That said, we spend the predominant amount of our training time in the range of 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps, which has repeatedly been shown to be more directed at stimulating structural hypertrophy.
As I said earlier, it’s not like you’re totally missing out on strength development by training for hypertrophy. All types of training can have neurological benefits. But your goal with our bodybuilding program is to create maximum structural change, not neurological change. So if that’s your goal, don’t leave mass on the table!
At any given time at any big-box gym, you’ll see at least one guy doing biceps curls where he has to throw his lower back into it each time he brings the weight up. Not far away, there’s the dude doing back squats so heavy, he can’t go near parallel. If you don’t see that dude at your gym, it may be because he’s you.
It’s easy to make this mistake. After all, you’re in the gym to lift weights, right? Well, sort of. Bodybuilding is not about becoming a “weightlifter.” It’s about using weights as a tool to increase your muscle size. Throwing as much weight on the bar, whether to boost your ego and impress the people around you, uses the wrong tool for the job.