When you are in the gym should you focus on size or strength, or maybe both?
The gym is a place where ego collects so thickly, you can almost smell it as you walk in off the street.
If you live in a culturally diverse area then the atmosphere is even denser.
Men of all shapes and sizes (and more and more women) are strutting around the place, literally as if they own it.
The lawyers, bankers, chief executives and doctors share a space with toilet cleaners, janitors, waiters and porters.
None of that matters in the gym; millionaire or pauper, the only thing that really counts in there is what you can bring.
OK, so that sounds like the gym in a movie set, but it isn’t far from the truth. The arrogance and bravado does gush forth from even some of the more unfit fellas. What’s up with that?
It’s the ultimate male environment, that’s what. And the alpha dogs are everywhere.
The big guys intimidate some people, and they like it too. The thing is, size and strength don’t necessarily run together in linear correlation.
We’ve all been shocked when we see the small dude benching what looks like 3 times his own bodyweight.
Equally, the massive guy that seems to struggle with the smallest weight.
Fair enough, he might on the deep-end of a huge drop set and firing on fumes, but still. All is not as it seems, and that’s important. Why?
Because you can get really big, and walk around like you’re holding a banana between your southern cheeks, but when it comes down to it, you might not be in the best condition.
For some guys, hugeness is important, actually it’s the most important. They can train specifically to get big, and to hell with everything else.
These people might look like monsters but they are doing their sets and reps with one thing in mind – they might not know it’s called this, but still – and that’s Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy.
You mean there’s more than just plain old hypertrophy? That’s right. Two types actually, so don’t worry, it’s easy to wrap the noodle around this.
Hypertrophy of the Sarcoplasmic variety is muscle growth – like all hypertrophy – but the size increase comes from an increase in sarcoplasmic fluid. That’s the liquid between the muscle fibres themselves; not to be confused with the actual tissue proper.
The muscle will appear to swell over time the more and more you train with the principal goal of increasing that sarcoplasmic fluid.
The important thing to note here is that the muscle fibre itself is not targeted. It’s not a zero growth situation either, by any means, but you get the point.
Training for Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: If your goal is the monster look, you can do the majority of your weight lifting to that effect.
3 to 4 sets with 10 to 15 reps is a good platform for this type of muscle growth. The last 2 or 3 reps should be a struggle. Drop, compound and super sets are good bulk builders as well.
Why do these terms have to be so difficult to say, right? Are all scientists linguistic experts as well?
So this is muscle growth as well of course, only this time the little fibres that make up the rope-like muscle tissue – known as myofibrils – are synthesized in greater numbers. As such, the muscle can contract with greater force, translating directly to real-world strength.
The growth from this type of hypertrophy is more subtle than sarcoplasmic ‘swelling’. As the myofibrils increase in number and strength, the size of the muscle as a whole is not greatly increased. Again, there is some, but it’s not the way to get huge fast. It’s the way to get strong fast.
Training for Myofibrillar Hypertrophy: Want to be the stealthy strong mother that everyone looks at and goes ‘whoa!’?
Look at doing 5 or 6 sets of 3 to 5 reps. The weight you choose can be heavier because you are not pushing to failure really. Each set should be more difficult than the last, but you want to complete them all with a bit of gas to spare.
Lift slow on both the positive and negative side of the rep. Controlled movements. You can throw in the odd explosive power set but please watch your back for injury.
Core lifts like squats, dead-lifts and military press are essential for ultimate strength.
Don’t wash out early in the session by beasting yourself. This isn’t a super high intensity workout.
Combining Both Hypertrophic Disciplines
Yes, of course, the bit-of-both approach. Big and strong, why not?
It takes a long time but it’s do-able. What’s you goal though? It’s fairly easy to separate the people that want to look big from the people who want raw strength. Are you doing this for aesthetic showy reasons, or for real-world applicability?
Only you can know that. Strictly speaking, you don’t have to make a clear choice, the variables are so plenty anyway.
Also, as stated before, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic aren’t mutually exclusive. You’ll get bigger and stronger with both, it’s just a question of HOW big, or HOW strong you are hoping to be.
What About Cardio?
Always cardio, always. Aside from the obvious benefit to your defined physique that cardio brings, you need it to stay healthy. It’s all good lifting weights but you should aim for at least four half-hour sessions a week of cardio.
This is especially important if you are an all-out strength fanatic. Odd as it sounds, the slower, less intense movements involved in the strength training will lessen your exercised induced thermogenesis (fat-burning) and increase the likelihood of the flab getting our of control.
Don’t be, this article is just to get you thinking about the ways you build muscle differently. And when you see the really big bruisers at the gym next time you go, you know they might not have all the ammo to back up their swagger.
For us, strength is key, and much more satisfying in every day life than size. Also, you might find your strength gains will accelerate quicker than you expected once you begin focusing on them.
Last Thoughts on Size, Strength or Both
The desire to get big and muscle-bound is understandable. Each to their own, in fact. You might need size over strength for very good reasons, whether it be for sport or profession.
Just remember that appearances are not always what they seem. Everyone is different and no individual is the same as another. Genetics, age, motivations, diet, stress levels, gender, general health and professional responsibility all play major roles in how we carve our physical condition.
Do your best, and stay healthy.