Training to get strong usually looks different to training to get big, but you can achieve both through powerbuilding.
Generally speaking, training to get strong involves low sets of heavy weights, while training to pack on muscle – also known as hypertrophy training – involves higher reps of light to moderate weight (we broke down rep ranges and their purpose here).
Most training plans follow these guidelines:
- For muscle strength, lift heavy (1-5 reps with loads in excess of 85% of your 1RM)
- For muscle size, lift moderate (6-15 reps with loads between 60-85% of your 1RM,)
- For muscular endurance, lift light (15+ reps with loads less than 60% of your 1RM)
However, the reality is more nuanced than this as there is a big amount of overlap.
Sports scientist and powerlifter Greg Nuckols, who runs Stronger by Science, published an in-depth review of a wide body of scientific literature to find evidence for the hypertrophy rep range, but found that “there’s simply not a very big difference in muscle growth when comparing different rep ranges.”
Evidence suggests that there might be a rep range that achieves the most muscle growth, but the picture isn’t clear and, if there’s a benefit, it’s most likely minimal.
“Unless you’re going really, ridiculously light, heavy weights and light weights are both effective at building muscle,” he continues.
On the contrary, if you want to build strength then rep ranges do seem to matter.
A 2014 study publishing in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Reserach found that men who followed an eight-week program adjusted for total volume in 10 or 3 reps per set saw the same muscle gain, but the 3-rep group had better strength gains on the bench press
“Strength is a specific skill,” says Nippard. “This means if you want to get better at lifting heavy stuff, you’ve got to lift heavy stuff.”
Powerbuilding: How to Get Really Big and Really Strong at the Same Time
While it might be tempting to simply do low, heavy reps to reap both hypertrophy and strength benefits, in practice this isn’t the most effective approach.
It’s incredibly hard to get enough volume for strength by doing sets in the 1-5 rep range. Heavy sets come with incredibly high levels of muscle fatigue and the workload takes much longer to complete. So, to achieve both goals, you need a combination of rep ranges.
“Since different rep ranges go about triggering a growth response in slightly different ways, you’re probably better off training with a full spectrum of rep ranges instead of rigidly staying in a single rep range and intensity zone,” writes Nuckols.
You’ll need to establish what your goals are and what outcome you care most about; if it’s hypertrophy, then the majority of your training should include moderate lifting, while still having space for low and high reps.
If your priority is strength building, then include more low rep ranges in your training, but continue to do the other two. The low, heavy reps should be directed at the lifts you want to improve on the most.
While hypertrophy and strength aren’t opposing goals, you’ll need to take your recovery seriously to achieve both successfully.
Nippard recommends generally avoiding failure on the heavy lifts and always prioritising technique over weight.
- Combine rep ranges
- Refine technique on your important lifts
- Use accessory lifts to target lesser-used muscles
- Include block periodisation to get over plateaus
- Manage recovery by avoiding failure and de-loading every once in a while
- what makes muscles grow: Alora Griffiths on Unsplash