I remember it like it was yesterday.
One afternoon in my university gym, when I probably should have been in a lecture or spreading E. Coli around a lab, I had just finished my third drop set of triceps pushdowns and I thought I was THE MAN.
But immediately after I’d finished I turned around to see one of the rugger buggers incline DB pressing the 40kg dumbbells for reps.
It seemed no matter how much I pushed trough high reps of bench press, dips, flyes and pushdowns, I couldn’t progress my strength on the big lifts.
I say big lifts, I was OBSESSED with a big bench press at the time.
This was when I decided to change my focus and begin training for strength.
Many years later, and many programmes and various training cycles later, there are still many things that I find myself, and many of my clients, struggling with when going from ‘classic’ bodybuilding style training to a more strength focused training programme.
If you’re struggling on a strength gaining training phase, or thinking about running a strength training programme, read this first and avoid many of the pitfalls that I’m sure many trainees have fallen into.
1) Pushing to the limit
This is the biggest difference between the two training styles, especially when you’ve been training to muscle failure for years like I had.
When you first start a strength training session you get hyped up for your sets, let’s say 8 sets of 3, and after the first 2 or 3 sets you are not even close to spent.
Where the f*ck is my pump?!
So you add weight, even though the programme doesn’t call for this, and now you’re grinding out 3 slow ass reps with your 3RM.
It seems counter-intuitive but constantly working right at your limit is not the main focus of strength training.
Your main focus should be to get plenty of good reps, with a good amount of weight, as often as possible with small increments over time.
Many coaches refer to this as ‘time under the bar’ and that is what you should focus on building, not doing sets of squats so heavy that you shit yourself.
One of the hardest things to do is to hold yourself back, but remember the goal is not to ‘kill your workout’ but to ‘kill the programme’, and that means holding back this week so you can add weight and crush it next week.
Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean you’re training is going to be easy, but it does mean keeping one or two reps in the tank and progressing your training volume over time.
2) Not recovering fully and not utilising deloads
This is another alien concept to most people – purposely taking it easy and reducing the weight you use and the number of reps you do.
Sounds like you’re going to lose all your gains brah!
But training in the 2-6 reps range, as you probably will be no matter what method you decide to use, takes far more recovery than you’d expect.
The classic DOMS you feel after even the craziest of leg days will probably take a maximum of 2 days to recover from if you’re a well-trained gym goer.
But high intensity (>85% of 1RM) workloads take a different toll on the body.
These reps will fatigue your Central Nervous System, or CNS, and this fatigue will take a minimum of 3 days to recover from.
But, as you can imagine, you’ll be training again within 3 days for sure.
So over a 4-week training block you’ll slowly empty your CNS’ fuel tank.
You might not get sore but you’ll start to feel tired, maybe your workouts will become slow, you won’t feel there is much ‘speed in the bar’, and you can even get sick as your immune system takes a hit, although this is very extreme.
So to counter this we deload, reducing training volume by 30-40%.
Reducing reps, sets, weight used, or a combination of these, can do this.
Most training programmes, such as Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, will have these deloads pre-programmed into them.
Even if you’re a beginner or new to strength training, I’d still recommend sticking to these deload periods, even if you might not feel like you need one, as the symptoms of CNS fatigue or over-reaching can sneak up on you.
If you’re used to strength training you can listen to your body a bit more and schedule your deloads when you feel you need them.
3) Too much variety
Another bodybuilding hangover perhaps.
After you’ve finished up your main sets maybe you don’t feel completely spent just yet?
This is perfectly fine and refers back to points 1 and 2 in some way.
When you’ve finished your programmed exercises, leave the gym, eat a huge meal, and RECOVER.
But the temptation will be to just add some lat pull downs… and maybe some rear delt flyes… and I’m meeting the lads down the pub so I’d better just do an entire ‘arm day’ to finish off.
Don’t worry about losing size, or feeling small or whatever.
It’s most likely all in your head anyway.
Remember, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, so if you’re gaining strength and eating right you’ll be just fine.
The idea is to get stronger in a few key movements.
Squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, pull-ups/pull-down, rows, dips and curls should pretty much cover you.
Get stronger and increase your volume over time in these select movements and you’ll be stronger, more athletic and, eventually, bigger FOR SURE!
4) Unnecessary specialisation
The flipside of the point above, you jump in at the deep end and now you want to be the next Dan Green.
So you’re going to add box squats for more drive out of the hole, deficit deadlifts for speed off the floor, and board presses for your lock out.
Don’t worry about all these methods, particularly if you’re new to strength training.
Linear periodisation and even undulating periodisation will take you very far and will give you at least 6 month to a year of gains, if not more.
If you do have one lift that is a bit weaker than the others, add one movement to remedy this and add a bit of extra volume but try not to focus on all three lifts at one time.
Only once you’re really putting up some massive numbers will you need to worry about specialising and being very specific with the movements you choose to do.
I’d compare it to a phrase I’ve used before referring to bodybuilding – unless you’re planning to step on stage, don’t sweat the small stuff like calf raises and overhead, behind the neck, overhand forearm blasters.
If you don’t plan on stepping on a platform in the immediate future, just get stronger and move better.
You can always move onto the fancy stuff if you happen to fall in love with strength training/powerlifting.
5) Too much push, not enough pull
This is a classic and actually goes for all the training styles out there, from Crossfit to bodybuilding.
Everyone is pushing more than they are pulling, but powerlifting and strength training in particular will have you pushing A LOT.
Benching and overhead pressing so often will eventually take it’s toll on your shoulders and elbows so be sure so balance this out with plenty of solid back work in the form of rows, pull downs and shoulder rotation exercises.
Focus on retracting the scapula and opening up your chest and shoulders.
For me and people I work with, A MUST DO EXERCISE is the Face Pull.
This is the key to long-term shoulder health in my opinion.
Pull from high, low, overhand, underhand, kneeling or standing.
Mix it up and reap the rewards.
Focus on pulling to eye level and imagine hitting a ‘back double biceps’ pose with the rope either side of your head.
So there you have it.
Hopefully these little tidbits of advice will help you get through your next training block pain-free and come out the other side a whole bunch stronger.
Have you made the transition from bodybuilding to strength training?
Have you found there are any striking differences we missed?
Or are you thinking about getting stronger and need some extra advice?
Either way let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Keep lifting some heavy weight!