Bigger, Stronger, and Go For Longer!
In our article – Big or Strong: Do I Have to Choose? we discussed your motivations, and the reason why muscle mass building doesn’t follow the same training path as strength improvements. We even touched on Sarcoplasmic and Myofibrillar hypertrophy; those being the biological mechanism of tissue growth in and around the muscles.
Now, if we were to throw a third hat into the ring and talk about muscle endurance, we’d better start explaining in more detail about how you put some specificity in to your weight training sessions to optimize your body for size, strength or endurance.
First off, when you think endurance, it probably conjures images of skinny marathon runners. It’s true that endurance weight training will not appreciably build mass or strength, however, there is a place for it in anyone’s schedule, especially those concerned with general heath and fitness. It helps the body utilize oxygen more efficiently during the stress of exercise – i.e. aerobic conditioning. Endurance in weight lifting is essentially the act of completing sets with higher rep-counts – more than 15 reps as far as the general consensus goes.
In fact, that’s the crux of training specifically for any goal. Rep-count and the amount of weight your lifting are the two main factors involved in turning out Lean, Mean or Machine.
Size and Mass Training
There’s a lot of garbage on the internet about getting bigger, and there’s even more garbage coming out the mouths of gym rats who swear by this or that way to get big. When a guy with huge pics, hunched shoulders, and tiny legs gives you advice – walk away. Similarly, if a guy spends everyday on the squat rack because it’s ‘all about the legs’ then leave him be. Never skip leg day, but who wants to look like two different halves!?
Getting Big is either about aesthetics or it’s early season groundwork before a strength cycle (for athletes), or cut cycle (for bodybuilders). If you train predominantly for size, and you don’t compete, then you are generally doing it to look big and muscly. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s something you have to remember: training for big pecs, because you like pecs, doesn’t cut it. If ‘BIG’ is truly your objective, then you have to strive for whole body balance. The same advice holds for anyone doing a bulk cycle for any reason, it’s just more poignant for the vanity lifters!
That means lifting with good form (or technique) and it means hitting all the muscle groups evenly. In fact, if you have an area that seems not to pile on mass like the rest, like shoulders for example, you should put more effort into that area.
So, how much weight should you lift? – That question is answered better by the recommended rep-count. 8-12 reps in a set seems to be the key for mass building. However, that doesn’t mean you can smoke off 12 reps with a 5 pound dumbbell and expect to look like the Hulk. No, the rep-count is there for a reason. You must choose your weight so that you can just about complete the set before the muscle fails. And the way to choose: trial and error.
We should go back to form quickly. There’s a thing called cheat reps, and there’s a place for them, but it ain’t in this article. The particular movement you are doing should isolate the muscle or muscle group you are trying to hit. Arching your back, or doing little knee boosts to perform a military press (straight overhead for shoulders), then something is wrong and you won’t get the maximum benefit from you training.
Therefore, size training should respect the following:
- 8 to12 reps per set, for 3 to 4 sets.
- 60 seconds (smaller muscle groups) to 90 seconds rest between sets
- Perform a true set so that you are on the brink of failure at the designated rep-count
- Use correct form so that you aren’t hurting yourself or your progress
Strength and Power Training
This is where things get interesting because training specifically for strength is quite different to training for size. The main reason is that strength training should involve more multi-joint movements, for example the big core lifts: deadlift, squat and bench press. Mass builders will do these exercises as well, but for strength the amount of weight goes up.
Higher weight means lower rep-count, that’s just the nature of things. That’s because with more fast-twitch muscle fibres being recruited to complete the set, they will run out of gas quicker too. Working to near failure or failure (like mass building) is not an option for strength training; there needs to be adequate power left to complete another 4 or 5 sets with the same heavy weight. In addition, rest time between sets can stretch to a few minutes for the bigger movements.
Getting the muscle groups warmed up is mandatory when lifting big. There won’t be any training with a duffed-up back!
Strength training should involve the following:
- Small rep-count, ranging from 1-rep-max to about 5 reps, for 4 or 5 sets (no failure)
- 2 or 3 or even 4 minutes rest between sets. The bigger the target muscle group, the higher the weight, the longer the rest
- High weight: enough that it’s a real effort to pull off the rep-count but not enough to feel near failure
- Big movements are at the core of the training; deadlift, squat, bench
- Warm up sets essential to build up to the heavier weights
Endurance and Stamina Training
Why on earth would anyone train in a way that doesn’t bring about much in the way of strength or size gains? – Well, muscle stamina has its advantages for anybody who lifts, so incorporating some endurance in your training will go a long way – excuse the pun!
The tactic here is to lift lighter weight for 15, 20, or more reps. The stimulus is not extreme enough to elicit big strength or size increases but it will help your muscles use oxygen more efficiently and train your aerobic engine to go for longer. It comes in handy as secondary cardio if you aren’t a treadmill/eliptical fanatic, and it will also help your other sessions because you’ll be able to call on your enlarged aerobic reserve to keep you going for longer and recover faster and deeper between sets.
You won’t be maxing out on any lifts, but technique is still important. 25 bodyweight squats can still injure you if done improperly.
Endurance training will check the following boxes:
- High rep-count of 15-20 or even more, for 2 to 3 sets
- Lower weight, not enough to fail but muscles can be getting sore toward the end.
- Good breathing during sets. This isn’t a 1-rep-max deal where you suck down air, hold it in and brace for the lift.
I Want It All, but How?
A lot of fellas will soldier on all year long, beating out massive hypertrophy sets every day, but there’s a reason that can stagnate progress and plateaus are hit, followed quickly by the big wall of zero motivation. Breaking up your year round activity and integrating the Size – Strength – Endurance methods might improve your results and overall flow.
Everyday cannot be a building day. Your body won’t like it one bit, and besides, you won’t improve. We train to recover, it’s that simple. Each recovery period brings growth, and thus we get stronger, bigger and fitter.
It’s a good idea to use seasons to break up your year. Using the winter to bulk and put the raw material on just makes sense. It’s like slapping the clay on the wheel, to be shaped later on for Summer when aesthetics and practicality necessitates a more defined overall muscle tone.
Two or three big hypertrophy (mass/size) days can be followed by a rest and then a couple of endurance days. Here you will build both mass and some aerobic stamina. This should make for a good base bulk cycle with adequate recovery. Endurance sets can almost be thought of as active recovery. Or do three weeks of size and one of endurance. Whatever works and gives you good growth. obviously diet is critical for a quality bulk phase, without making it a fat phase!
During Spring months you can gear it more towards a Strength/Cutting phase, where you increase the weight, decrease the rep-count and throw in a few more cardio sessions. Time it all well and you’ll be looking ship-shape for Summer.