Writer Greg McGlone rounded up five of the biggest, baddest, strongest, and best-informed hombres in the iron game, and invited them to share their "secrets" with those of us who also want to get bigger, badder, stronger, and better-informed.
T Nation: Most T-Nation members aren't competitive lifters or bodybuilders, but are chasing the goals of strength and hypertrophy simultaneously. What are the biggest mistakes that people make in trying to get big and strong at the same time?
Dave Tate: Before I get into this, I feel it's important to expose the fact that I'll have a biased opinion. We all have training biases based on what we have done, read, and seen. Most people know where I stand and where I come from, but for those who don't, here's a quick summary.
I've spent my life in the sport of powerlifting. I competed for over 25 years and have always trained in small private gyms that catered to those who were extremely serious about how they trained, be it powerlifting, bodybuilding, or any other sport. We all trained with total focus on whatever we were training for.
In short, I don't get the whole "workout" thing. Training I understand. "Working out" I don't. This is where I'm coming from and always have, so I'm not going to water it down for the purpose of this roundtable.
What do I mean by all this? I mean that I don't see any reason to train for strength and hypertrophy simultaneously. To be honest, I think it's stupid.
Let me explain, if you train for max strength, then size (much easier to say than "hypertrophy") will be a side effect. In turn if you train for max size, then strength will be a side effect. If you train for both at the same time then you'll have the results of two side effects instead of one full effect.
Train for strength, and size will follow. And vice versa.
In other words, if you try to do both, you'll see strength results, but they won't be as great as if you trained for strength alone. The same holds true if you trained solely for size.
I can hear it now: "But Dave, I don't want to be a competitive powerlifter or bodybuilder, didn't you hear the question?"
Yeah, I heard it, and this brings up problem #2. If you are in the vast majority of those who would ask the above question then I challenge you try and do a meet or show next year, and then get back to me on how you do. This is a lot like the girl who says, "I don't want to look like those bulky women you see in the magazines, so I don't lift weights."
Many women don't lift weight for fear of accidentally looking like this.
I hate to be the one to tell you the sad reality of these sports, but it takes years of consistent training for that one goal to be competitive. You're not going to look or perform like a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter with just a few training cycles, unless of course you're a freak.
So my advice is to pick either strength or size as a goal, stop "working out," and start training.
Eric Cressey: I touched on this quite a bit in a previous article. The problem isn't that they're trying to ride two horses with one ass; the problem is that they try to ride a powerlifter's horse with a bodybuilder's ass. Even if it does have striations in it, it won't get the job done.
Beginners and intermediates will see solid strength improvements on 4x6, 5x5, 6x4, and other classic "middle of the road" bodybuilding approaches. However, as one becomes more neurally efficient, while these loading parameters will help to maintain or increase size, they won't do much for increasing strength. In reality, the volume at this 75-85% range really takes its toll on advanced lifters. I'll use myself as an example.
At a body weight of 188, I have a 650 deadlift and 360 bench right now. The "charts" say that I should be able to do about 85% of my max (552.5 and 306, respectively) for sets of fives. While I could probably do it for one set in both instances, there would be a big fall-off on subsequent sets. And, take this a step further, and you'll recognize that my joints will probably hate me if I do this for an extended period of time (most commonly one month, from a program design standpoint).
The solution, in my eyes, is what many powerlifters are doing today. Start your training session with a limited number of heavy sets of one to three (as much as ten sets, in the case of singles). Then, get the volume necessary for hypertrophy on assistance work. So, as an example, you might squat heavy (possibly do a backoff set or two in your highest volume week), and then move on to rep work with glute-ham raises, single-leg work, and the like.
As far as de-loading and fluctuation of training stress goes, it's hard to hit things 100% every week, so you fluctuate within the month rather than just building up week after week. A classic bodybuilding set-up might be:
Week 1: Medium
Week 2: High
Week 3: Very high
Week 4: Low (de-load)
My feeling is that you flip-flop weeks 1 and 2 in order to give yourself a break on the training stress and apply the familiarity you've gained (from doing the exercises for a week) to some more significant loading.
This is the way to go when ten sets of three and such stops working for you.
Dan John: It's a mistake I see all the time. But, first, let me bore you a bit about a general observation that highlights this issue: when a group of guys get together and start training, they might use magazines and the internet to get advice. They work hard, doing lots of reps and lots of sets. And, soon enough, they look pretty ripped at 155 pounds bodyweight.
Then, one guy goes to the big city school or gym or whatever and sees these "monsters" in the gym weighing 185, and he returns to the old training room with stories of guys doing behind the neck presses with over 100 pounds. So the group starts slapping on more plates, and miracle of miracles, they all start getting bigger.
After a year of this on a trip to Disneyland, one of the gang goes to a big commercial gym in California and, well, you see where this is all heading.
Most guys don't train heavy enough. My daughter Lindsay deadlifted 255 in her freshman year, with plenty left in the tank. I've had men come to my home facility (the Murray Institute for Lifelong Fitness, the MILF) and discover simply that what they thought was heavy was actually a warm up weight for typical high school athletes.
Simply, many of our readers understand reps and sets probably better than me but never load the bar heavy enough. Sure, they do leg extensions with "G" or "H", or whatever the spa key selector tells them, but they never honestly lift enough weight.
If you want to see decent size and strength gains, you need to lift a lot heavier.
I get emails from guys who do 5x5 with the following lifts three days a week:
• Clean and Jerk
• Bench Press
Three days a week? Shucks, if you used any kind of real weight, that workout would kill you if you did it one day a year!
Zach Even-Esh: People think that to get big they only need to get strong and train in a very low rep range of 1 to 5 reps. Without a doubt, this method gets you strong and it does add size, but, upping the reps with some supplemental movements with moderate weights (60 to 80% max) and moderate rep ranges (8 to 20) works great for adding size.
What I've found to work best when it comes to adding muscle and strength simultaneously is to work in a heavy max effort or sub-max effort core lift first, followed by movements in the moderate rep range.
This is very similar to what Joe DeFranco uses with his athletes, it's also very similar to what many powerlifters do, because they understand that the higher reps increase hypertrophy, and a bigger muscle is very much like a larger car engine, it has the potential for more horse power.
When I was a bodybuilder, even though I did body part splits, we always began with a heavy core lift in the 3 to 6 range with very heavy loads and then worked the shit out of our muscles with 2 or 3 supplemental movements that were basic lifts, slightly lighter and higher reps.
Am I giving away secrets here? Absolutely not. Most people are too scared to work their ass off to get stronger and bigger. My gym is actually located dead smack next to a regular gym. I see guys trying to get big doing tons of machine movement, sitting down, lying down, not many ground-based movements, and not pushing the limits with heavy weights and intense effort.
When I wrote about the guys in the pen, all jacked up and strong, I caught a glimpse of the weight pile outside. What did I see?
• Military presses
• Pull ups
The 4 movements above should be standard in everyone's program unless some sort of injury keeps them away from these movements.
This dude probably doesn't spend much time on the Stairmaster.
The secret is that there's no secret. Lift hard, lift consistently, eat tons of clean, wholesome foods and listen to your body. Most people only train hard seasonally, they prepare for summer or for a vacation, other then that, they train recreationally.
Back in the day when there was no Internet and the local YMCA's were commonplace hardcore gyms, there were a lot of big and strong guys. There was no excess of information out there to confuse them, so they did what they knew how to do, and that was to work very hard on the basics, all the time.
It's very simple, but it's not easy. Don't get these two terms mixed up.
Clay Hyght: The main problem I've observed in the conundrum of achieving both size and strength is that trainees focus their training style too much on one goal at the expense of the other. A trainee who is influenced by bodybuilders (whether at the gym or via magazines) has the tendency to train too much like a bodybuilder by performing a higher volume, more isolation exercises, and using a lighter load. I also suspect that they tend to equate the holy pump to productivity.
On the contrary, a trainee who is influenced by power lifters or athletes who perform Olympic lifts tend to focus excessively on how much weight they can move while failing to properly utilize the target muscle. They often neglect isolation exercises or even direct arm work. Being married to either style of training is detrimental. Who says you can't do hanging cleans and presses for 5 x 5 and behind-the-back cable lateral raises for 3 x 15 in the same workout?
On an even simpler note, I believe that one of the biggest flaws being made by 99% of the training population is not recording their workouts. How can you get stronger if you don't know precisely what weight you used and how many reps you did of each and every exercise? You can't know if you have surpassed a performance if you don't have a record of it! In regards to strength, it's crucial to slowly but steadily increase the load used for a given number of reps. When aiming for hypertrophy, performance must still be improved by either increasing the weight or reps or performing the exercise in a manner that better stimulates the target muscle.
When performing dumbbell curls, I may note in my journal "strong supination with slight pause at the top, good squeeze". If in the next workout I did the same weight and reps as the previous time I did dumbbell curls but paused longer in the contracted position, I've improved my "performance" and therefore elicited an adaptation response. In aiming to achieve both strength and hypertrophy, keeping detailed performance records and steadily improving various facets of that performance is of utmost importance!
T Nation: So is one of the downfalls of the average trainee in this situation that he's focusing too much time on things like isolation exercises and not putting enough time in on the compound movements? Or should they be putting an equal amount of time into both?
DJ: We have to be careful here. One of the downfalls of the "average trainee" is that they're average. Now, I'm not referring to Constitutional rights or salvation or anything. I'm talking about genetics. I don't necessarily believe in bell curves for everything, but the "average trainee" is going to be stuck right around average.
There are genetic superstars in everything we do. I'm always amazed that most people don't realize how hard it is to be tall enough to play in the NBA. So, I'm devising a protocol to add six inches to one's height in four weeks or less, utilizing triple hypertrophy mesocycles.
I hope the readers know I'm kidding, but the average trainee has to realize from high school PE class or an honest assessment from the beach that many of us have the curse of average-ness. Oh, and some of us lucky people would be, by definition, less than average. So, when I give a workshop and meet a person who has lifted for more than five years, yet looks like they've never even smelled a weightroom, I think about genetics first.
So, the issue can't be solved by waving my hand like Obi-Wan Kenobi and prescribing more isolation or more compound moves. Those just aren't the droids we're looking for.
"You want to go home and rethink your genetic potential."
Having said all of this, the answer is obvious to me: beyond the basic barbell curl, most people don't need isolation work ever. Ever.
ZE: It's always been the case where hard work on the basics works when approached with consistency and very simple methods of training hard for two or three weeks and then reducing intensity for 1 week.
I use isolation movements on weak areas for the most part. Movements such as face pulls, band pull-aparts, and bent over laterals are great for developing the weak upper back area and helping build muscle as well.
Back extensions might be the way to go before deadlifting and squatting if we have someone who is superweak and needs to add muscle and strength to the lower back.
The majority of time though, should absolutely be spent on the basics. If you went to a gym and spoke to the biggest, strongest guys, they would all tell you they perform the bench, squat, deadlift, military press, weighted pull ups, heavy barbell/dumbbell rows, heavy triceps extensions, and cheat curls.
This may not seem like the common thing happening in gym because many people at these gyms don't realize that there are thousands of hard core lifters in garages and basements hitting heavy iron. This cult has been growing and it will continue to grow.
Hard core groups get together for training more often than we know, they pool their money together and pick up the heavy duty equipment needed to get the job done: power rack, power bar, heavy dumbbells, some chains, and plenty of free weights.
Speak to these underground lifters and they will all tell you about benching, squatting, deadlifting, military presses, farmer walks, sled drags, etc. Speak to the dudes at the typical health club and you'll hear about Smith machines, lat pulldowns, cable cross overs, and getting the pump.
Compare the two physiques from a performance stand point and a muscular strength/size standpoint, you can tell who spends time under heavy iron on a regular basis!
You can always tell who spends time under heavy iron on a regular basis.
EC: I'm not totally against isolation movements, but they shouldn't comprise more than 10% of the total training. I'm a corrective exercise guy, so I think the most valuable ways to include these isolation movements are initiatives that address scapular stability (e.g., prone trap raises), elbow health (e.g., hammer curls), and the like. Many of these issues can be addressed in the warm-up, and don't really take too much out of you.
If it helps to have a timeframe for a typical session at Cressey Performance, when my athletes roll in, they know they've got five minutes of self-myofascial release, another 5-10 minutes of mobility work, and then 50 minutes of reactive work and compound movements. The last 5-10 minutes is wiggle room for us to put in some of these isolation movements, and we're always incorporating "fillers" between sets to get in some extra corrective exercise work. An example might be scap pushups between sets of squats, or ankle mobilizations between sets of chin-ups.
So, I guess my overall mindset is to appreciate the value of isolation work when it's implemented appropriately, but don't kid yourself: you aren't so special that you need three sets of four different exercises for your biceps.
CH: At the risk of being difficult, there's no such thing as the "average" trainee. Take a group of 100 trainees and although their average maximum deadlift might be 248 pounds, not one of them would likely have an actual max of 248. I just say that to point out how hard it is to give accurate advice for the "average" person.
Okay, I'll stop being a pain in the culo and answer the question. Based upon what I see going on in most gyms around the US , most trainees do put too much time on isolation exercises and not enough time on the compound exercises, except for the flat barbell bench press. Go into any gym on Monday afternoon at 5:30 P.M. and you'll see that there's certainly no shortage of people doing that compound exercise! However, as another sociological observational study, keep an eye on the squat rack for a couple of hours.
You'll probably see more people doing curls during that time period that you'll see doing squats! So as a general rule, yes, trainees don't do enough compound movements like squats, deadlifts, dips, clean and presses, chin-ups, and so on. You know why? Cause they're hard ass work, that why! It's a lot easier to do concentration curls than deadlifts, that's for sure. But virtually all would benefit more from the deadlifts.
So should they do an equal amount of each? Even though I'm the token bodybuilder at this here round table, I'd say that not even half of the exercises one does should be isolation exercises – more like 25%. Again, that's very individual and depends upon a number of factors, one of which is the type of training program or split the trainee does. If you're training three days per week then why in the world would you waste time doing triceps kickbacks? That's not an efficient use of your (approximately) three hours of weekly training time!
Before Eric falls asleep, let me conclude by saying that ones' development also comes into play. If you weigh 158 pounds then your little ass had better be doing some squats and deadlifts! On the other hand, if you weigh a solid 210 and genetically have a great back, then I think it's fine to chill a bit on the heavy deads and opt for something like low cable rows instead.
DT: The first issue to address is assuming there's a downfall for the average trainee. If they are making the gains they want, then I would not be too quick to say there's a downfall at all.
This is a hard question to answer because it really depends on what the prime goal of the trainee is. The best way I know to address this is by using the way a movement is trained and what population is doing it. I'll use the two extremes in this situation; bodybuilding and powerlifting. The main goal of the off-season bodybuilder is building muscle mass while the powerlifter's main goal is strength. As stated before, when the powerlifter trains for strength, size will be a side effect.
I've seen many lifters come to Westside and gain 30-40 pounds in the first year, and not one of them was focusing on getting bigger. The focus was always on getting stronger. If you also watch top bodybuilders train, you'll also see that they're not as weak as many people claim they are. They're far from it, but strength isn't their primary goal.
When these goals are different, the way a exercise is trained changes. The powerlifter is doing what I would call movementtraining, while the bodybuilder is muscletraining. The powerlifter's main goal is strength, so his goal is to move as much weight as he can for the desired number of reps. The bodybuilder's goal is maximum stimulation of the muscle, and making sure that the muscle he's training is doing the work.
A bodybuilder focuses on stimulation, while a powerlifter just wants to get it up.
On one side you have a lifter who is trying to use his whole body to do the lift, and on the other side you have the lifter trying to use the muscle to do the lift. The bench press is a great example of this. A trained powerlifter will know how to use everything to bench more weight, from his feet to his head. The bodybuilder's focus is on the pecs, and he'll be trying to place as much focus as he can in that region. There's a big difference between the two. This is not to say a powerlifter should never focus on muscles and bodybuilders should never focus on movements, but this is getting off topic.
I bring this up because most "average" trainees I know have horrible control of their muscles. They just "lift" stuff and have no idea what is going on. If you watch their form, no two reps look the same and in many cases the muscle they are working is barely contracting. If I asked the average trainee to flex their pecs (that stupid thing you do to make your pecs bounce), they can. They can also do this fairly well with their biceps. Now if I asked them to do this with their triceps, traps, calves and so on they could not do it. They have no idea how to flex these muscles.
One thing isolation work will do is teach them how to flex and control these muscle groups. This is important for both groups. For the bodybuilder it will bring greater focus to the area they are training because they will be able to flex what they are trying to stimulate. For the powerlifter this comes into play for weak point training. Let's say a lifter is weak off the chest in the bench press and the elbows always kick out first. One solution would be to teach them to flex with there triceps first off the chest and not the pecs. This will technically fix the problem but can't be done if the lifter has no idea how to flex his triceps.
So my answer is yes isolation work is important during the early phases of training and how much depends on the skill of the trainee.
The main work still should be done with basic compound movements such as the squat, bench, and deadlifts.
Tomorrow, the coaches will discuss whether you have to look strong to be strong, training splits, and a whole lot more!