When you lift weights and eat food you’ll put on muscle – generally speaking, of course. There is however a right way, a wrong way and a somewhere-in-between way of getting to the goal you want to achieve. Very often, people can be found in the somewhere-in-between category, slogging their guts out, getting somewhere, but not getting the results they want.
Weight lifting mistakes are plain to see in the gym. Bad technique is the most obvious of them, the severity of which can range from simply not hitting the target muscle correctly, to causing injury. The more subtle mistakes are those which relate to weight selection and rep/set count.
Lifting with the intention of improving strength, size or stamina as the primary goal is definitely possible, and by definition must be approached in different ways. Old habits die hard, though, and many people revert to the same old routine even if they are struggling to break through a rut or just failing to get what they want out of it.
Basically, if you want to look big, you need to train accordingly, the same goes for strength and stamina.
Important Points on Size, Strength and Stamina
Training specifically for one of these growth areas is not going to negate the other two. Regardless of which way you train, some improvement will be made in all areas. Most people seem to know what they want out of their training, but many don’t get there as quickly as they would like because of their methodology.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that a lot of average gym goers are training to look good. That said, concentrating on size might not be the only way forward for those people. Strength-specific work can add definition to the muscle which sheer size training can not.
You might put everything in to your workouts, but if that energy is misdirected, by something as simple as using the wrong rep ranges, then it is almost wasteful. The purpose of this article is to highlight the basics of each goal to provide a platform for those looking to improve.
Targeting Muscle Size
Often called Hypertrophy Training, this is the type of training that stimulates the growth of big muscles. The more accurate term is Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy as this concerns the growth of muscle volume in between muscle fibres. Another type of hypertrophy – Myofibrillar – will be discussed in the strength section.
The golden rule of training for muscle size is to have your rep count between 8 and 12 per set. The most important part is to work to failure, i.e. you couldn’t do more than 12 reps if you tried. If you fail before 8 reps then the weight is too high and you must adjust it accordingly. If you can go beyond 12 but you just stop there then you aren’t doing a true set. Neither are you doing a true set if your form is not correct for each and every rep.
If you are using the wrong muscles to help the target muscle then that’s not a true rep. An example of this is when you see guys using their lower body to do a bicep curl.
The best way to stimulate big gains is to train in the big multi-joint movements, e.g bench press, squat, deadlift, military press and bent-over row. By using more total muscle mass, you are able to lift heavier weights and therefore elicit bigger results.
Rest for about 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
All sorts of tricks can be used to further activate the growth stimulus: supersets, dropsets and compound sets can all be employed. Hitting the same muscle group with different movements as in a compound set, or hitting opposing muscles with supersets are great ways to activate optimal muscle growth.
Targeting Muscle Strength
Getting stronger still involves muscle growth of course, but true strength training does not yield the same muscle volume increases as size training. That’s because the growth manifests more in density than visual size.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the growth of muscle fibre. This is the rope-like hardware of our muscles, and the more strands we add to the ropes, the stronger they will be. This comes via low-rep, high weight sets. The 8 – 12 you would do for size training will of course build strength, but to optimize strength, you need to go heavy.
The rep range here should be between 1 and 6 reps, but that’s not the most important difference between size and strength training. That is: you should not go to muscle failure.
Muscle Failure can negatively affect the nervous system, and strength training is largely about training the nervous system to cope with the heavy load you are lifting, causing it to be able to lift more when the need arises again. For similar reasons, the rest period between sets should be more like 3 to 5 minutes, again in order to recover fully for the next one.
For some people, that resting downtime is boring, and that’s why a lot of strength cycles get abandoned for other more ‘interesting’ methods. It’s a shame, because true strength is very rewarding.
To avoid injury and allow bones and muscles to recover properly, many strength athletes train up to the 1 rep sets over time. They might start with 5 reps earlier in the season and then gradually drop the rep-count and raise the weight until they are doing 95% of 1RM (One Rep Max) each time they step up to the bar.
Multi-joint movements are again good here (squat, deadlift, bench etc.). Powerlifting is another area that focuses more on your explosive strength. This type of training engages the same fast twitch fibres but more dynamically. Powercleans and squat cleans are a great place to start.
Targeting Muscle Endurance
Endurance athletes don’t need as much power and strength as others, and muscle size is certainly not an advantage, so they train differently again. Not that they do much in a gym, as most of their training and conditioning happens by practising their chosen sport, but when they do, it’s in sets of 15 reps and higher.
Multi-joint movements, more of the lower-body persuasion are the most common types of endurance weight lifting movements. A lighter weight must be chosen as well. The long sets train your muscles to utilize oxygen more efficiently – the ideal conditioning for someone who must run or cycle long distances.
Rest periods can be much shorter here – about 30 seconds is fine – because you are staying within your aerobic threshold during the whole set anyway, and you shouldn’t be hugely tired or out of breath by the end of it.
Knowing Where You Left Off
This goal specific training is further enhanced by understanding where to go from on your next workout. If you record early on which weights you are using for particular exercise, then you can pick them up for the same exercises next time you do them. That will save you a lot of time and will help you track progress much more easily than just throwing it together every time you go to the gym.
Other Types of Training
The three categories above are not the entire scope of weight training by any means. Ask guys doing plyometrics or isometrics or even CrossFit and they will all tell you that what they do adds value to their physique and fitness for different reasons, and sometimes ‘better’ reasons, if there can be such a thing. You don’t have to be limited to the gym either, as many people will testify to as they go sandbag, kettle bell or slam ball training wherever they feel most motivated.
In other articles, we’re going to introduce some of these alternative training methods and explore their usefulness in everyday life and in achieving certain objectives. Many things can come together to form a successful weight lifting program, even if it means you aren’t at the gym quite as often as you thought necessary.
Don’t be confined by walls and weight racks.
Click here to read about Sandbag training