Strength vs Physique – Training and Programming Strategies
It is well understood that when training for any goal, an intelligently structured training program is of vital importance for success. Implementing strategies that are specific to the goal of the individual will allow for the best possible results. When it comes to training for strength vs physique improvements, I frequently see training methods and principles being misapplied and not properly understood, resulting in individuals leaving massive gains on the table. I think this is mostly due to dogmatism and misinformation that exists within a lot of the fitness industry, leaving people with training styles that are sub-optimal and often inappropriate for their goals. The aim of this article is to dispel some of the myths surrounding the best way to train for strength vs physique improvements, some of the distinct differences between the two, and some of the similarities, leaving the reader with a guide to help maximise their individual goals.
Program Design – Do rep ranges matter?
You’ve all heard the classic ‘8-12 reps for muscle growth’ ‘3-5 reps for strength’ advice espoused by fitness professionals and trainers throughout the years. Indeed, it is certainly true that you will be able to build muscle using 8-12 reps, and gain strength using 3-5 reps, but is this the only way to reach the desired outcomes? From analysing modern research on this topic, it appears not…
When training volume is equated (reps x sets x weight) between groups that train in higher rep ranges vs groups that train in lower rep ranges, the group that train with lower rep ranges have been found to gain more strength. However, muscle growth between high reps vs low reps has been shown to be very similar.
Why is this?
It’s not too surprising that more strength is gained in lower rep ranges, as this typically results in heavier weights being lifted. But the same amount of muscle growth? Doesn’t this violate the ‘8-12 for muscle gain’ rule? To understand these findings, we must understand the underlying mechanisms of muscle growth:
Mechanical tension refers to the progressive increase in absolute resistance a muscle is exposed to over time. With increased resistance comes a requirement of a muscles force generating capacity. Research has extensively supported the efficacy of progressively increasing tension over time on muscle growth. Put simply, lifting heavier weight over time is essential to gaining more muscle. If an individual is not consistently attempting to add more load to their resistance training exercises of choice, they are not maximising their results.
Therefore, it appears that someone who is looking to maximise their lean muscle mass gain should perform at least some strength training in their routine for the best results. Heavy squats, bench press, deadlift and overhead presses are all fantastic movements to create the most mechanical tension as they can be loaded the heaviest, and target multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
Psychological benefits to this type of training?
Something to consider is that strength training is an objective measure of progress, as oppose to physique and body composition training which can often be much more subjective in nature. Sure, body comp changes can be made more objective by the use of bodyweight tracking, body fat % measurements etc, but ultimately the individual is chasing an ideal image of themselves in the mirror. Performing strength training in a body composition training plan can act as a more objective measure of progress amongst the ups and downs of a strict nutrition plan and a focus on aesthetic changes. I believe this can really help peoples mental health and reduce the likelihood of body perception issues that could arise from vigorous scrutiny of ones reflection in the mirror. Additionally, because of the association between strength and muscle mass, the amount of strength an individual retains/builds throughout a strict nutrition plan is a very good indicator of the amount of lean tissue they have developed/maintained.
So why do high repetitions develop lean muscle mass? If gaining strength is the only thing we need to consider when building lean muscle, why perform high repetitions at all?
To answer this, we need to look at the other mechanisms of muscle growth…
The accumulation of metabolites has been suggested to be just as important, if not more important that high force development in optimising lean muscle growth. Metabolic stress manifests as a result of exercise that relies heavily on anaerobic glycolysis for ATP production, resulting in a build up of waste products within a muscle (lactic acid being one of them). This kind of response is best achieved with moderate to high repetitions (8+), giving justification for why higher repetitions are successful for building lean muscle.
As you can see, it is clear that for physique goals, training across a broad range of repetition ranges is advantageous to promote the most amount of lean muscle gain. Mechanical tension will not be maximised in higher repetition ranges, and metabolic stress will not be optimised in lower repetition ranges, so training across a spectrum of rep ranges is the best idea to promote the most amount of growth. To illustrate what this might look like in an individual training session, here is a sample lower body session I recently performed with a client with body composition goals:
Back Squat: 4 x 3-5 reps
Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 6-8
Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 x 8-10
Hamstring Curls: 4 x 10-12
Leg Extensions: 4 x 10-12
Bodyweight Glute Bridges (Band around knees): 3 x 15-20
As you can see, this training session takes advantage of a spectrum of rep ranges, resulting in both mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Placing the heavier, low rep training at the beginning of the workout maximises the amount of overload, and putting the highest reps at the end of the training session allows the muscles to be completely fatigued after the heavier loads have been lifted. As you can see, the rep ranges go as high as 15-20 in this session. Another commonly held thought is that repetitions this high only train muscle endurance, and cannot build lean muscle mass. Is this true?
False. Research has shown that substantial gains in lean muscle can be found in these rep ranges. This brings us to our final mechanism of muscle growth that must be discussed:
Muscle damage is the micro trauma caused to muscle fibres during exercise, and has been shown to have a positive impact on muscle growth. Performing higher repetition sets (12+) can aid fatigue through a full spectrum of muscle fibres, fatiguing predominantly slow twitch fibres that may not be completely exhausted during heavier lower repetition training. This is particularly important given that the majority of muscles do exhibit significant slow twitch profiles, and therefore these muscle fibres must be fatigued with higher repetition sets. Performing some higher repetition training towards the end of a training session can ensure that muscle growth is maximised via the fatiguing of all fibres within a muscle. Achieving muscle damage via manipulating the speed of which you lift is another consideration, which will be discussed later in this blog.
Just strength goals? You should still do high rep training…
Yes, you heard that correctly. Research clearly shows that the more highly trained an individual is, the more reliant they become on gaining more muscle mass to drive strength progress. Early on, an individual can gain strength without gaining excessive muscle due to predominantly nervous system adaptations. After this point, however, gains in strength come mostly from gains in lean muscle mass. As such, those with strength goals would be missing out if they did not include some higher rep work in their training.
Exercise Execution – Does how you lift matter?
Now we’ve taken a look at the program design strategies, we’ll look at some of the exercise execution strategies that help to maximise each goal.
When training for strength, we want to put our body in the strongest positions possible, and limit the distance we have to move the bar as much as possible. In other words, we want to be in a mechanical advantage. This allows for the least amount of force to be required from our muscles in a given position, allowing the capacity to move greater total resistance.
For maximising strength, this means manipulating movements slightly to maximise position and leverage. Lets use the squat as an example…
The image on the left shows a high bar back squat, where the bar rests on the trapezius muscle, the torso remains as upright as possible, the knees travel forward and the stance is reasonably narrow. The image on the right shows a low bar back squat, where the bar rests lower on the back (rear deltoids), the torso is more horizontal, the knees don’t travel forward as much and the stance is slightly wider. This position gives more mechanical advantage, for a number of reasons:
- The bar is closer to the hips – this results in less force production required to move the same absolute weight.
- The wider stance reduces some range of motion, meaning the bar does not have to move as far from the start to the end of the movement.
- The increased torso lean allows the hips and lower back to assist in the movement to a greater degree.
For the purposes of developing maximal strength, the low bar squat is the best choice as it allows individuals to lift the maximum amount of weight.
When training to maximise muscle growth, however, we actually ideally want the opposite. We want to put our bodies in the weakest position possible and try to achieve the longest range of motion possible. In other words, we want to be in a mechanical disadvantage. This requires our muscles to produce the maximum amount of force to move a weight, heavily fatiguing them and causing a lot of metabolic stress and damage.
A good example here would be the bench press.
The bottom image shows a bench press performed with an arch (spine extended) vs a traditional bench press. As you can see, the contact point on the chest is higher in the arched bench press, resulting in a shorter distance for the bar to travel. Additionally, the feet have been moved back towards the hip, allowing for tension to maintain in the lower body throughout and to maximise the arched position. This will certainly be a better option for maximising how much an individual bench presses, but in terms of gaining muscle in the chest, the traditional bench press would perhaps be a better option due to the increased range of motion.
Time Under Tension (TUT) & Tempo Training
TUT training involves an individual performing a movement without full extending the joints. An example of this would be not fully extending the knees on a leg extension or not fully extending the triceps on a skull-crusher. This keeps tension on the muscle at all times, and allows for high levels of stress to the muscle fibres as a result. This method has been successfully used by bodybuilders for decades, and numerous studies have now shown its benefits. However, this training style is dangerous if performed high very heavy weight, and can greatly increase the risk of a joint of muscular injury. As such, it is advised to be exclusively used during high rep, isolation movements like tricep pushdowns, leg extensions or bicep curls, and not on strength movements like squats and deadlifts.
An additional method is tempo training, that involves lifting with a deliberate and controlled cadence (particularly on the eccentric phase of a movement). This creates a lot of muscle damage, and is therefore a valuable method for muscle growth. However, it lacks mechanical efficiency, and therefore is not suitable for maximising strength, which should always be achieved by performing movements with maximum explosive intent.
To wrap this post up, here are some takeaways:
- When attempting to gain strength, perform the majority of your training in the lower rep ranges, but don’t neglect the benefits of high rep training
- When attempting to build lean muscle, use a blend of rep ranges – low rep heavy lifting (3-5) at the start of your workout, gradually moving towards higher rep isolation work (8-12/15-20) as you become more fatigued.
- Prioritise compound exercises in a manner that provides a mechanical advantage if strength is your goal.
- Ensure you incorporate large range of motion movements and utilise some TUT & tempo training if you aim to build muscle.
I hope its become clear from this blog post that there is a very strong relationship between strength and muscle, and whether your goal is to lift more weight or improve your physique, you should experiment with a variety of different program and exercise execution methods for the best results.
Good luck with your training!