How should you really lift for strength and size?

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. 

If you go into any local gym, the range of volume and intensity between lifters is likely to leave you with questions. Depending on your goals, the answer to your optimal volume and intensity varies widely. For the scope of this article, we are narrowing our research down to the proven success for athletes that want both strength and size. Using words you might hear frequently, we are interested in hypertrophy (increase in muscle mass), but we are also interested in force production. 

There are generally two schools of thought behind the best path to hypertrophy. First, the ‘bodybuilder’ path typically involves lower intensity (lower weight) and higher volume sets (more reps per set), often in the range of 10-12 reps per set. The second path is often touted by powerlifters, and the general focus involves higher intensity (higher weight) and lower volume per set (fewer reps per set), often in the range of 3-5 reps per set. 

In individual studies, each of these methods have shown to increase muscle mass, but what cell types were forced to grow and how does that impact performance? 

In these studies, researchers evaluated the difference in hypertrophy between type-I muscle fibers (slow-twitch endurance muscle) and type-II muscle fibers (fast-twitch, explosive muscle). Importantly, the hypertrophy seen in lower intensity, high volume sets was predominately in type-I muscle fibers. Further, the hypertrophic stimulus only occurred in lower-load training when individuals took the lift to failure. In powerlifting-style high-load resistance training, the opposite occurred. Individuals saw hypertrophy in type-II muscle fibers predominately, but their growth was not limited to either domain. All muscle types grew. What does that mean, exactly? 

Each of these methods resulted in increased muscle mass, but the individuals who performed the ‘powerlifting’ style workouts got bigger and stronger, instead of just bigger. In head-to-head studies these findings were repeated. Does this mean that you should exclusively train high-intensity, low volume sets? No, there is certainly an argument for incorporating elements of bodybuilding-style training as well. Higher volume sets are a proven way to increase work capacity and break out of a lifting plateau. For more on the importance of work capacity, check out our more extensive breakdown here

It’s critical to understand your goals as a lifter and athlete. If you are competing, the stress of a high-intensity workout can impact your body for days, and a lower-intensity training session might be a better choice for you. 

So you understand the difference between the two, but what are some effective rep and set schemes for a powerlifting-style workout? Generally, a good place to start is 5 sets of 5 reps (after warm-up sets) for one or two core lifts. Choose your weight conservatively, and if you get all your reps through the 5 sets, add 10 pounds and repeat the process. If you jump weight and can’t get all 5 reps for the final sets, don’t feel discouraged. This ‘progressive overload’ will help you produce major strength gains over time. Typical core lifts in this type of training schedule include squats, bench press, and deadlifts (the ‘Big Three’), but you can include a similar protocol for other lifts like rows, split squats, and more. Do you have to stick to this scheme and only do these core lifts? Again, it depends on your priorities. If you want to get bigger and stronger, your body requires a distinct stimulus to produce those results. Adding 5 other exercises with higher rep sets will fatigue your muscles, but will it produce the same results over time? Unlikely. With that said, there’s plenty of room to think creatively about your workouts to make sure you target all of the areas you want to improve. For us, we often expand on elements of our Big Three lifts with accessory movements that will train isolated muscle groups. 


References

  • Grgic J, Schoenfeld BJ. Are the Hypertrophic Adaptations to High and Low-Load Resistance Training Muscle Fiber Type Specific?. Front Physiol. 2018;9:402. Published 2018 Apr 18. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00402
  • American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):687-708. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670. PMID: 19204579.
  • Jenkins NDM, Miramonti AA, Hill EC, et al. Greater Neural Adaptations following High- vs. Low-Load Resistance Training. Front Physiol. 2017;8:331. Published 2017 May 29. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00331
  • Giessing J, Eichmann B, Steele J, Fisher J. A comparison of low volume 'high-intensity-training' and high volume traditional resistance training methods on muscular performance, body composition, and subjective assessments of training. Biol Sport. 2016;33(3):241-249. doi:10.5604/20831862.1201813