By Paul Carter Flex
A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be part of a small fitness expo in Iowa. One of my powerlifting idols and now close friend, Kirk Karwoski, was going to be there, as was World’s Strongest Man, Brian Shaw. So I was pretty excited about making the trip up to finally meet Kirk and Brian, and be a part the whole shindig.
When I arrived my booth was seated next to IFBB Pro, Freddie Smalls. Freddie introduced himself and wanted to know more about what Lift-Run-Bang was all about. We spent the day talking training, kids, food, travel, and life in general. After the expo was over, we went out that evening to eat dinner at a local restaurant.
Freddie was preparing for the Mr. Olympia and was lugging around a suitcase full of food around, and said he could not partake in the eating at the restaurant. Such is the life of a professional bodybuilder.
The more we talked about training, the more interested Freddie became in implementing some of the principles I was telling him about. I told him if there was anything I could help him with, I’d be more than glad to do so.
So I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks after this when Freddie called me and told me that after the Olympia, when his offseason kicked in, that he wanted me to program his training for him.
POWERLIFTING FOR BODYBUILDING
The first fifteen years of my training was all centered on bodybuilding style training, and doing all I could to maximize hypertrophy with that type of training. The last ten years however, it’s been all about powerlifting and learning how to develop maximal strength.
It’s sometimes said that bodybuilders could learn a lot from powerlifters, and that powerlifters could learn a lot from bodybuilders. I believe this to be very true, as lots of bodybuilders could benefit from a cycle of heavy, power based training. And lots of powerlifters would benefit from incorporating more isolation movements and a variety of reps in their training outside of “a set of 3.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of powerlifters and bodybuilders who do adapt both training ideologies, and often reap the benefits of combining those two styles in the way of greater strength, muscle mass, hardness, and density.
Freddie and I talked about what he needed to bring up in order to have a more complete physique for the 2015 competition season. Freddie needed more “posterior chain”. This is basically a fancy term for saying he needed more hamstrings and back density. Freddie needed to fill out his backside from top to bottom. Traps, rhomboids, erectors, glutes, hamstrings, etc. And if there is anything that the back responds well to, it’s moving heavy weights through space with big movements. And that’s what the basis of our training was going to be centered on with some other principles thrown in to make sure no stone was left unturned.
Despite how many times you read about guys doing light, short range movements for “constant tension”, the most optimal way to recruit more muscle fibers in a given set is to take it through a full range of motion using heavy weights. Taking your muscles through a full range of motion in a heavy compound movement is the most economical way to illicit the greatest amount of overall growth in the body.
This is a major cornerstone in creating more muscle hypertrophy. In order to adapt to greater and greater mechanical tension, the body has no choice but to grow. It’s literally a survival mechanism. The body grows in order to meet the demands of the stress you are giving it from training.
Lifters figured out decades ago that lifting heavier and heavier weights created thick, dense muscle mass. If you want to build a physique that radiates the look of power, it’s really difficult to do this without adhering to the principle that at some point, more weight has to get put on the bar. More often than not, a poorly developed muscle often means a physically weak muscle as well, and vice versa.
This was very evident when Freddie embarked on day one of back training, and after two deadlift variations couldn’t do barbell rows with 185 pounds. His lower back just wasn’t strong enough to support the weight.
Six weeks later, he was doing barbell rows with 455 pounds for reps. It should be obvious that such an increase in poundage means there had to be a significant amount of muscle gained in that period of time.
VOLUME AND TUT
Just to be clear, I’m not a dogmatic meathead and think that the only way to grow larger and stronger is by piling weights on the bar and maxing out. By maxing out in this context I mean, moving a weight for a maximum single rep. This is strength demonstration, and not strength development.
Doing max singles will make you stronger, but it’s mostly through a neurological effect. This is often why guys can get stronger, without getting bigger.
You can grow larger by using reps as low as three, so long as the volume is adequate enough to force the body to adapt to the workload. Doing one set of three is probably not going to be enough work to illicit a growth response. Doing 7-10 sets of three is altogether a different animal. Especially if the intensity, i.e. the relative amount of your one rep max, is high enough.
Outside of understanding the need to move heavier and heavier weights, is the time under tension principle (TUT). Especially using the eccentric, or negative portion of the movement.
It is fairly well accepted that the eccentric portion of a rep holds the greatest degree of potential for inducing growth. Especially if you increase the amount of time you work in that eccentric portion, and obviously under an optimal load. More damage to the fibers occur in the eccentric portion of the rep, which means thicker and denser fibers in response to that.
After Freddie’s big movements, he would have to work through other compound and isolation movements often using various tempos on the eccentric portion of the reps. Usually lowering the weight in three to five seconds.
I told him to get his head around the usual way of thinking about reps.
Most people think about reps as getting the concentric portion, or lifting part, as “one rep”. I told him, “think about getting the weight back to the top, just so you can lower it slowly again.”
The mental emphasis went from the concentric part of the rep, to the eccentric part of the rep. The negative now became the focal point of the set.
The other way we increased TUT in sets was to hold the contraction portion of the rep for 3-5 seconds in various movements. Some movements lend themselves better to this than others. For example shrugs (thanks, John Meadows), hammer strength rows, one arm lat pulldowns, leg extensions, or any movement that provides resistance at end of the concentric portion of the rep.
Obviously if you are a glutton for punishment you can combine both methods of accentuating the negative portion of the rep and holding the contraction as well. That will make for some brutal, but growth productive training.
Last, but not least, was the inclusion of extreme rep sets. These were sets that were done using anywhere from 50 to 100 plus reps.
Yes, a hundred.
Anyone that thinks that reps that high won’t induce growth hasn’t done them. They absolutely will. I know this not from reading a study, but my own training.
I started including 100 rep barbell curls with an empty bar a few years ago after I read about strongman Derek Poundstone using them. It sounded fun and interesting to me (some might find that morbid) so I threw them in. You know what happened? My arms grew. And I mean grew fast.
Just like any new stress, the body had to respond to it. And how did it respond? Muscular growth. I chuckle at people who think that extreme reps won’t cause muscle growth. Have you ever looked at the legs of a cyclist? There are plenty of cyclists that have massively developed quads. Especially in the vastus medialis. And they do thousands and thousands of “reps”.
Let me say that if you haven’t done reps this high, finishing a set of 100 isn’t always a muscular problem; it’s a mental one. Most guys quite because of the pain. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve seen stop because they just couldn’t muster up the mental fortitude to finish the set. Sets this high in reps cause an enormous amount of metabolic stress, and I can promise you will create new growth. The pump is also pretty intense, to say the very least.
If you’re a beginner or novice lifter, then focusing on just getting more weight on the bar, and simple progression is probably all you really need. Laying down the base is where your head should be at for at least the first five years of your training. Squat, deadlift, press, dips, rows, and chins. That will really cover pretty much everything you need if you focus on moving bigger weights through space.
However if you’re an advanced lifter, then finding that last 3-5% that your body is capable of giving means you will need to create new stress and demands that the body has to adapt to.
Leave no stone left unturned, and new mass will be found.