We’ve all heard that all you need to do to grow big and strong is to focus on the compound lifts and do so in the low to mid rep ranges. This is without argument a great way to get strong and it seems that most fail to grasp the relationship between strength and muscular hypertrophy. There are numerous neural mechanisms by which a muscle can grow stronger without growing larger. To use the example of powerlifters as opposed to bodybuilders yet again, the goal of the powerlifter is to maximize his ability to gain strength through nervous system efficiency whereas a bodybuilder is only interested in maximizing muscle mass. Therefore relying on strength gains in the traditional sense will do little in the way of building muscle. This means that you want your muscle growth to match your strength improvements.
How can this be done? You need to get strong, but not just in the basic lifts or low rep ranges. You need to get strong in a very wide variety of lifts and rep ranges. This is exactly the opposite of how the powerlifter trains. Their training revolves around improving the competition lifts. Our goal as bodybuilders is to build muscle strength though as many avenues as is possible.
Getting back to the three factors necessary to illicit a hypertrophic response, those being creating muscular tension, metabolic stress and muscular damage, there are methods that are better than others to accomplish these goals. There are exercises that are best suited to create a pump, some exercises are better than others at creating tension within a muscle or specific part of a muscle, and some exercises are better at damaging muscle fibers.
Heavy, basic lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull ups and rows are a great way to maximize muscular tension. One exercise alone, however, is not enough to create muscular tension throughout the entirety of muscle fibers. Incline presses, dips, curls, shrugs, and delt laterals for instance target unique fibers that the big lifts do not. Variations of the big lifts such as front squats, sumo deadlifts, close grip bench presses and chin-ups will once again target different fibers.
Exercises that either place constant tension on a muscle or place intense tension at shorter muscle lengths are ideal for creating a pump. Believe it or not, the pec deck, leg curls, leg extensions, back extensions, and all manner of cable work for every muscle group will contribute to pump and by extension, to muscle tension. Higher reps with minimal rest periods are ideal for building an intense pump.
Exercise that place the greatest tension at the muscles longest length, as we have discussed, are the best for creating muscle damage. This means dumbbell fly’s, pullovers, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, incline dumbbell curls and skullcrushers brought behind the head are very valuable also. Including dumbbells for chest pressing and rowing will allow for a greater stretch as well. Adding eccentric based movements can help in creating more muscle damage but often times muscle damage is overdone and can actually interfere with building muscle. The goal is to stimulate new muscle growth, not literally destroy the existing muscle in the belief that it is the best way to grow. There is a fine line between training hard and training smart. From my experience, this is a journey that all of us must go through to ultimately understand what works.
When we next meet I’ll wrap this series up and see if I can put this all together. Until then my friends,