(Guest blog by Tom Sheppard, Strength Coach and Author)
For physique athletes, whose goals are purely based on aesthetics/hypertrophy, the role that heavier loading plays is controversial. Some will point to the famous videos of Ronnie Coleman lifting crazy pounds even during contest prep, along with training styles such as DC Training or those utilized by Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates, to illustrate the important role heavier lifting can play.
On the other hand, it’s easy to point out a long list of fantastic and successful physiques that have been built without the use of heavier loading or even much in the way of compound movements.
What is Strength Training?
Before we go any further, it’s important to distinguish exactly what we mean by “strength training” in this context. Strength training for physique athletes IS NOT the same as it is for strength-sports athletes. In the same way that a power-based athlete (i.e., a sprinter or thrower) would not train for strength in the same way as a competitive powerlifter, neither should a physique athlete.
For a powerlifter or strongman competitor they compete in the ability to express maximal strength (which is a specific facet of strength), so it is in their best interest to train in a manner that maximizes their performance in this physical ability, even if it is to the detriment of other physical qualities. Whereas for our physique athlete (or our power athlete, for that matter), we are using strength-training as a tool to enhance the results we get from the rest of our training. For the physique athlete, this would be in the form of a more impressive physique, and for our power athlete, it would be an increased rate of force development/power/speed/agility.
This may sound like nuance, but this difference in desired outcomes and context alters what effective strength training looks like for these individuals. Our physique athletes need to do JUST ENOUGH strength training to gain the desired benefits from that style of training (which we will address shortly). In essence, we are looking to utilize the minimal effective dose to get the benefits that we desire so that we can go back to a training style that is more directly applicable to our end goal… being jacked.
Strength Training in Physique Sports and the Evolution of “Bro splits”
It’s important to remember that until the 60s, pretty much everyone trained the same way. You trained three days per week utilizing primarily compound movements that would cover the whole body in each session.
Now, a big part of this was down to the fact people didn’t have much choice. Most gyms at this time had separate days for men and women to train, as training together was seen as too risqué. So men would usually be able to train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while women could train Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with most gyms then being shut on Sunday. So three days per week was the most you could train regardless.
Likewise, there simply wasn’t the variety of equipment that exists today. Squat racks weren’t invented until the 1930s, and even then, a lot of gyms didn’t make the investment straight away. Benches didn’t appear in gyms until the 1950s, and there weren’t any benches that had uprights attached to them released until the 1960s. If you wanted to bench heavy, you had to get two reliable spotters to hoist the bar up and hand it to you.
So, the reality was you simply couldn’t train using a wide variety of exercises or equipment because the means didn’t exist. Not only that but if you are limited to training 3 days per week, then in most circumstances, it’s in your best interest to stick to the biggest “bang for buck” exercises to get the biggest stimulus you can with your limited training time.
But this didn’t stop people from developing some truly impressive physiques, especially considering that steroids weren’t available at this time. Testosterone was first synthesized in 1935 but wasn’t readily available. Dianabol was marketed in the U.S. in 1958, but even when that trickled down to the bodybuilding world in the ’60s, people were arguing about whether taking 5mg or 10mg 3 days per week was excessive. Many of these impressive individuals from this era also competed in several sports at once; Doug Hepburn, although not a bodybuilder, is a good example of this.
Now, as time went on, gyms developed, they started having a wider variety of kit, and you were able to train more frequently due to the segregation being removed. Steroids also started to become more and more available to those outside of high-level/professional sports. As a result, physique athletes started to train more and more (because they could) and also get better results (not just because of steroids… but you know, that helps).
This created a natural migration towards training splits that facilitated more frequent training. Whole-body training worked fine when everyone was training 3 days/week and had limited kit. But now, not only were people training more frequently, but they could handle more volume, and they had new exciting exercise variations they wanted to experiment with.
And so the “Bro Split” was born, ladies and gentlemen. It allows trainees to lift more regularly and accumulate more volume per body part, as well as a greater variation in exercises. What’s not to like?
In my opinion, the only downside to this shift in the training landscape for physique athletes has been the gradual drop in the perceived importance of compound movements and strength-biased training for these individuals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being the guy that says, “Bro, back squat is all you need for complete leg development.” For some people, that is (almost) true, but there are so many people for whom it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Strength Training for Beginner/Novice Physique Athletes
If you are reasonably new to lifting, then compound-based movements in the low(ish) rep ranges should play a reasonably large role in your training program.
Because you need to learn how to move, as a beginner, you are mainly limited by neurological factors such as balance, coordination (intra and inter-muscular), active stability, fast-twitch fiber recruitment and so on. If you jump straight into performing primarily stable, isolation-based movements, then you are not going to improve these factors.
Not only that but at this point, your nervous system is functioning at a pretty poor level, so the loads that you will be able to use on isolation movements such as flies and lateral raises (for example) are going to be so small that they will impose almost no mechanical tension on the target muscle (which is the main stimulus for hypertrophy). So, even if you perform them correctly to a high intensity, the resulting hypertrophy stimulus will be negligible.
I know the weight on isolation movements isn’t the most important factor, BUT no one is going to get jacked doing 2.5lb lateral raises and 5lb bicep curls…
I’m not saying you need to run Starting Strength for the first 5 years of your lifting journey, but at the beginning, every lifter will be better off becoming proficient at the basic movement patterns, which are:
- Squat variation
- Hinge variation
- Press (Horizontal and Vertical variation)
- Pull (Horizontal and Vertical variation)
- Lunge/Split Squat variation*
- Loaded Carry*
*I put these two in there also because it genuinely just makes me sad when I see a muscular person who can’t perform a decent split squat or farmers walk with their body weight. But not everyone cares about these things*
Get yourself to a reasonable strength level on these, and then feel free to migrate towards a more typical “bodybuilding” approach. But I would still advise keeping these movements in there in some capacity.
When the jacked old boy in your gym tells you that you need to “build your base,” this is what they are referring to.
Strength Training for Intermediate/Advanced Physique Athletes
So, once we’re passed the beginner stage, and we can squat a reasonable load without looking like Bambi on ice, what benefits are there to be had from keeping strength work in your programming?
There are plenty:
- Improved conversion of fast-twitch (FT) fibers – FT fibers are the fibers that have the most hypertrophy potential by quite a distance. The problem is that most hypertrophy training methods encourage a conversion from a more FT fiber profile to an intermediate or mixed profile. Intermediate fibers still have decent hypertrophy potential but are not as good as FT fibers. By adding in lower-rep strength work or power work, we can maintain a higher proportion of FT fibers and theoretically achieve a higher total amount of hypertrophy.
- Improved recruitment of fast-twitch (FT) fibers – if FT fibers are those with the most hypertrophy potential, then being able to recruit them more efficiently will obviously be very useful. Once we use a load that is around 80% of our 1 rep-max, we will get full FT fiber recruitment, and the more reps we perform with full FT fiber recruitment (without reps preceding them that are primarily slow-twitch/intermediate fiber dominant), then the more readily we recruit them in future. We see this in advanced strength and power athletes who can achieve full FT fiber recruitment at a lower level of effort or % of 1 rep-max
- Neural Activation and Post-activation Potential – performing strength work creates a high level of neurological activation. This higher level of activation can then allow us to perform better when proceeding with hypertrophy work, provided we don’t cause excessive fatigue. Post-activation potential is the clearest example of this. Here, we may perform 1 rep at 90% of our 1 rep-max (which is sub-maximal) and then rest 60-90s before performing our regular set at around 80% 1 rep-max. The result is that the neurological activation from the heavier single rep facilitates better performance on the work set that follows. This setup would be referred to as a Contrast Set.
- Improved Muscle Tone – some physique athletes just seem to have naturally hard, dense muscles at rest. This is primarily down to adrenaline. If you are sensitive to adrenaline and/or have a lot of beta-adrenergic receptors in your muscle tissue, then your baseline level of activation at rest will be higher. In essence, your muscles will be partially contracted, even when at rest. Obviously, genetics plays a role here, as do certain drugs, but strength and/or power training can increase the sensitivity of these receptors in the muscle tissue, which makes them more responsive to your own adrenaline and makes them look “harder” at rest. This is why physique athletes who have a background in strength sports or have lifted heavy throughout their career tend to find it very easy to look hard/dense on stage.
- Improved strength – this one is obvious, I’d hope. But at the end of the day, if we are stronger, then we can use heavier loads on our regular hypertrophy work. Heavier loads are going to result in a higher amount of mechanical tension, which is the primary driver of hypertrophy, meaning a greater hypertrophy stimulus.
- Breaking a plateau – if you have been using the same rep ranges for an extended period of time and are struggling to progress in terms of weight used or volume, then a brief stint in the lower rep ranges can help you keep progressing. Once you get stronger in that lower rep range, you will often go back to the higher rep range and end up stronger (once you’ve adapted to the change in rep range).
- Change of pace – most physique athletes aren’t going to get psyched up about maxing out a lift. If they were wired like that, then they’d probably be a powerlifter instead. But a block or two of training that is different from what you normally do can provide some great motivation, even if it’s just down to the novelty factor. At the end of the day, a stale trainee is not going to train as hard, so re-igniting their motivation can sometimes be enough to get them progressing again.
- Re-sensitizing to training volume – if you train using a high-volume approach, you will need to perform progressively more volume over time to keep getting results. A period of lower-volume strength training can allow you to maintain your muscle mass while using a much lower-volume approach. This allows your body to re-sensitize to the stimulus of your higher volume program and stop you from falling into the cycle of needing to increase volume to progress exponentially.
As you can see, there are quite a few reasons you may benefit from including strength training. Most of these function as a form of investment by making your future training more effective. Which is the best way for physique athletes to view the role of more strength-orientated training in their programming.
In the second part of this article, I will outline what strength training can look like for physique athletes (without turning you into a powerlifter) and how to integrate it into your annual training plan.