Get Strong to Get Big


In my opinion, the best way for most people to gain muscle size is to train mainly for strength. Note that I say most people – for people who are already fairly strong, it’s very useful to incorporate more bodybuilding-style exercises to provide extra stimulus to the right muscles. However even for them, the majority of what makes them grow bigger is lifting heavy weights for large volumes.

My argument for this is simple. If we agree that:

It should be clear that being stronger enables the training you do to stimulate more growth. Let’s take a closer look.

The basic structure we deal with here is the muscle-tendon unit: an organ which produces tension between two or more bones when a neural command is sent. These commands are sent to motor units, groups of fibres which obey the orders of a single motor neuron. The unit has a maximum possible force output under normal conditions, e.g. not when under adrenal boost. The same unit can’t output more force without growing – but can recruit more, because the nervous system can’t voluntarily order 100% of all motor units to contract. There is room to improve.

An adaptation to lifting heavy weights is that the neural connections to the muscles that have been trained become able to recruit a higher proportion of the motor units at one time. This means a muscle which is structurally the same – no thicker or denser – can produce more force.

The key thing to realize here is that this makes outputting maximum voluntary force harder for the muscle. If you can squat 100 kg because you do 75 kg for sets of 10, then start going much heavier – handling weights around 90 kg – you might well drive your max up to 120-130 kg without getting a great deal bigger. You certainly won’t have got 20-30% bigger.

But wait – your muscles aren’t physically much different to how they were when you could only move 100 kg. Now you can move 120 kg, which means you can do 100 kg for sets of five instead of only a max. This is much more stressful to the fabric of the muscle, because you’re doing loads more work. Getting stronger has increased your working weight and made your training harder, which makes the stimulus for growth – repeated heavy loading – bigger. Now when you do your fives at 100 or so, you’ll grow your leg and hip muscles more dramatically. This will set you up to make new neural adaptations to make better use of this new muscle tissue. It’s a circular process. If you are afraid of staying small because you don’t get a pump when you train, you’ll only ever cover half the cycle and will gain less than you could.

Without going too deep into real numbers, from my experience training novices in the gym I think most new people aren’t strong enough to really fatigue themselves unless they keep the reps low. Now I know my example about the squat was contrived – it doesn’t really work like this. But the way it does work is that people who do sets of few enough reps to handle a challenging weight progress far more rapidly than those who don’t. And although fives may not build as much muscle as classic sets of 8-12, lifting light weights builds less muscle than lifting heavy weights.

The reason 5×5 programmes are popular is that they are the best compromise between using more weight and doing more reps.

Practical Message

Let’s be real for a moment. If you’re an adult man weighing at least 70 kg and you bench press less than 100 kg you have no need for a chest day where you do a bunch of different dumbbell isolation exercises, even if the only thing you want is big arms/pecs/shoulders. What you need is to do 5×5 on just bench press twice a week (rowing an equal amount, of course) until you can bench 100 kg. You can do extra stuff if you like – just get that in first. Once you can handle those bigger weights, you’ll be surprised how much more effective doing incline dumbbell press, flyes, etc. becomes.

Stick to the basics first and get strong, because this lets you skip ahead. It isn’t a coincidence that all the biggest guys are strong, and all the strongest guys are big. You use strength to drive size to drive strength.