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Maximal Strength Training for Bodybuilders – Q&A

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Question: It’s hard for one to get bigger when their strength is the limiting factor. Eric Cressey once used an analogy of a cup with water in it. The water inside is your size, speed, endurance etc. but eventually the cup gets full and the only thing you can do to really progress is to increase the size of the glass – maximal strength.

However, I don’t think it would be a good idea (would it?) for a bodybuilder to start doing a powerlifter’s routine which focuses on just moving a weight from point A to point B.

So, my question is, how do you recommend a bodybuilder get stronger?


Answer: Yes and no.  How’s that for a useless answer?  Ok, let me make it less useless.

First off, I want to make the point that the primary stimulus for muscle growth is progressive tension overload; that is, you must subject a muscle to progressive overload (primarily in the form) of lifting more weight over time.   This is discussed in more detail in Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth.

Other factors such as volume/fatigue/work (and frequency) are clearly important but, simply, if you’re not getting stronger (and here I’m assuming that you’re not changing your form to handle more weight) over time, along with providing sufficient calories and building blocks, you’re not growing.

Quick note: this doesn’t mean you have to add weight at every workout which is the HIT fallacy.  Depending on your level of development, you might add weight every workout, you might stay at a given weight for 2-3 workouts or it might be 2-3 weeks before you can add weight in good form.  But, if over some reasonable time frame, your training weights aren’t increasing, you won’t be growing.  We’ve all seen guys handling the same weight for 6-12 months in the gym; that doesn’t get it done.

In this vein, it’s sort of interesting that you mention powerlifters.  I have often found it somewhat ironic (and amusing to boot) that the bodybuilders are the ones who are focusing all of their efforts on muscle growth; yet it’s the powerlifters who are the ones who are getting muscularly bigger (and yes, a little fatter).

A lot of this has to do with where a lot of bodybuilders put their focus which is too frequently on the wrong stuff.  Bodybuilders often get fixated on irrelevant stuff, the pump, how exhausted they are after their 20 sets for biceps, feel, etc.  They focus on everything but what matters: getting stronger and subjecting a muscle to progressive tension overload.

In contrast, the basis of powerlifting is adding more weight to the bar over time, it’s built in to the sport and is the explicit goal of the training.  So whereas you might see a bodybuilder handling the same weights (but focusing on that feel, getting that pump and walking out of the gym destroyed) for a year, any powerlifter doing that will change his training program so that he’s getting stronger and adding weight to the bar.

Quick tangential note: a lot of the reason that natural bodybuilders are so misled is that massive drug use among pro bodybuilders makes the training less important.  All of the feel, pump, squeeze bs came out of drug fueled bodybuilding.  I’ve seen enormous male bodybuilders handling weights that were lower than my female trainees were using, the drugs make up for it.  A specific case that jumps to mind was a 150 lb. female trainee of mine who was handling 120X8-10 for strict reps on the rear lateral machine.  The 280 lb. behemoth bodybuilder in the gym only used 70 lbs on it.  As you might imagine, his shoulders were a bit bigger.

Now, another aspect of the bodybuilding vs. powerlifting issue is food intake; bodybuilders are often so obsessed with staying super lean year round that they simply won’t eat enough.  And they don’t grow.  As I described in General Philosophies of Muscle Gain, I think natural bodybuilders will generally grow best by allowing a slight fat gain and interspersing that with short dieting cycles to strip the fat off while keeping the muscle.

So that’s the basis for my comments: to grow, bodybuilders have to get stronger (and 99% of big natural bodybuilders will be damn strong).  Does that mean that they should train like a power lifter?  Not necessarily although there are some stories of powerlifters who dieted down to contest levels of leanness and could have blown bodybuilders out of the water.

Of course, some of this depends on how you define ‘training like a powerlifter’.   There are a couple of concerns here that I want to examine which are rep range and style of lifting.

Depending on philosophy, powerlifters often work in pretty low rep ranges and I’m not saying bodybuilders should shift their training to nothing but singles, doubles and triples.  But there is enormous variety here.

I’d probably argue that many (if not most) powerlifters don’t just use lots of low reps; the competition lifts (squats, bench, deadlift) may be worked in this fashion but usually higher rep (8-15 reps per set) supplemental work (for lagging muscle groups) is done afterwards.  While we might quibble over whether a bunch of singles and doubles in the bench builds much pec mass (they can if you do a ton of them), the supplemental work done afterwards certainly does.

Bodybuilders, in general will be better suited by working a more medium rep range.  5-12 reps is a common repetition range and there can be reasons to go even higher from time to time.  I discuss this in more detail in Periodization for Bodybuilders Part 1, Periodization for Bodybuilders Part 2 and Periodization for Bodybuilders Part 3.

I’d note in this context that there is an old school idea of ‘Power Bodybuilding’ that combines some of the best of both worlds.  Typically the primary lift (squat, bench deadlift, etc.) is worked for heavy sets of 5 and that is followed by pump work for sets of 10-15 reps or what have you.  I think this is an excellent way to train.

Even there, I firmly believe that the average intermediate or advanced bodybuilder could benefit from the occasional foray into more power style training.  Again, this doesn’t have to be singles and doubles (although I have done that with people) but even working heavy triples nearer the 85-90% of max range can help to improve some of the oft-ignored neural aspects of strength.

By bumping up maximal strength through neural means, the bodybuilder will generally be able to handle heavier weights when they return to a more medium repetition range.  More weight equals more tension on the muscle.  Add that to a higher repetition range and a little more volume, add food and you get growth.

How often? That’s always the debate.  A bodybuilder might do a short (3 weeks) maximal strength phase to round out a longer hypertrophy cycle.  So every 3-4 full hypertrophy cycles (which might be 6-8 weeks apiece), hit a 3 week strength phase. Then take an easy week and start over. I can’t see making it much longer than that or doing it more often.

I’d also have the bodybuilder follow the heavy work with at least some higher rep work.  Some early research on this suggested some muscle loss if volume dropped too much.  So after you hit your 3X3 back squat go get some high rep leg (1-2 X6-10 reps) press or leg extension/leg curl to make sure you maintain your size.

But used every once in a while, I think it’s a great way to enhance bodybuilding results.

As far as exercise performance,one of your concerns above seems to be related to the idea that powerlifters simply focus on ‘moving the weight’ whereas bodybuilders are often obsessed with squeezing, feeling and working the muscle.  And, as long as they do that within the context of getting stronger, that’s fine.

Powerlifters often use techniques in the competition lifts that are focused at taking the stress off of the muscles so that more weight can be moved which is I think where part of your question is going.   For bodybuilders, I wouldn’t generally recommend this, if you’re a high bar squatter, stick with that instead of a powerlifting style.  Keep your deadlifts clean style, and your benches more towards the generic power style described in Bench Pressing Variations.

Basically, bodybuilders still need to ensure that the target muscles (e.g. pecs in bench) are being hit when they lift.  That doesn’t prevent them from doing short maximal strength cycles or using some powerlifting type ideas to improve their training.

And I hope that answers the question.

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