I Want It All

Want to build muscle and strength while also increasing athleticism? Well, some coaches say you just need to train like an athlete and your physique will follow. Others say to just get strong and everything else will take care of itself. And a few will tell you to train like a bodybuilder because a bigger muscle is stronger and therefore capable of generating more power.

So who's right? The truth is, it's complicated. A comprehensive program to build strength, size, and athleticism needs careful thought.

If you want all three attributes, you need to program training variables of each goal... carefully. If not, you'll end up like most lifters: beat up, confused, and frustrated by the mish-mashing of training variables. Instead of program hopping, you need a plan with proven strategies programmed in the correct dosages to get what you want.

Strategy One: Build and Maintain a Base of Strength

Strength builds a foundation of speed and athleticism. Without it, training with advanced methods like Dynamic Effort lifting and medicine ball throws is pointless.

There are two major types of strength:

  1. Absolute Strength: Being able to lift big weights or move against a heavy resistance. Think 1-rep max squats or pushing a car.
  2. Relative Strength: Being strong for your size; moving your body through space. Think sprints, chin-ups, and jumps.

Both absolute and relative strength are essential, but to generate athletic power you need to create usable strength fast – both against big loads and with your body.

Thankfully, most lifters are sufficiently strong. Still, too many are also beaten up from obsessing over the barbell, yet incapable of jumping, sprinting, or doing 12 chin-ups.

For pain-free power, emphasize strength in major movement patterns like squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and chins. There's no need to limit yourself to the big three powerlifting movements or to one variation of a lift. Strong is strong.

Also, the more advanced your training the less often you need to lift heavy to maintain it. Aim to lift heavy (3-8 RM) every 10-14 days in major movement patterns to maintain strength without crushing your body. The challenge? You must lift heavy enough and often enough to improve strength, yet keep volume in check to fit in the explosive and size-focused work.

Gym

Strategy Two: Train for Performance

When it comes to improving power and athleticism, there are two major methods:

  1. Lift heavier weights, as covered above.
  2. Lift lighter weights (or move your body) faster through space.

The missing factor for the average muscle-motivated meathead is lifting lighter weights faster. Like lifting heavy, lifting lighter weights with maximum explosive intent places a similar "demand" on the nervous system to recruit muscle fibers with less stress.

This will help you in a few ways:

1 – Greater Muscle Fiber Recruitment

Here's a test. Assuming you're currently sitting, stand up as you normally would. Now, sit back down, and stand up at top speed. You'll feel more tension in your legs, trunk, and even upper body.

When you train with explosive intent, you'll recruit more muscle fibers to both stabilize your body and generate force. Explosive training improves muscle fiber recruitment. By extension, the more muscle fibers you stimulate, the more power, speed, and force you'll generate. This potentiates your body for more growth and athletic power.

2 – Reducing Central Nervous System Stress

Heavy strength training is important, but once you reach a baseline level of strength, endlessly blitzing your body with heavy and high volume strength work is futile (unless you want to specialize in maximizing strength).

Since you're looking for a blend of physical qualities (strength, size, and athleticism) swapping out some heavy strength training volume for explosive, lighter work provides both your joints and CNS a much needed break.

Bonus: Given most lifters are chronically stressed, sleep like shit, and are cortisol-laden messes, substituting heavy strength work with explosive, lighter lifting can provide a healthy change.

3 – Less Joint Stress

Sore, damaged joints can crush training consistency and long-term progress. With properly planned explosive work we'll reduce the cumulative stress of heavy, high-volume strength work while getting more explosive.

4 – Increased Training Frequency

You can train heavy, train frequently, or train with high volume, but you should rarely do all three together. By adding lighter, more explosive work, you'll still build strength with low volume heavy lifting, yet boost performance and leave enough in the recovery tank for hypertrophy- focused work.

Curl

Strategy Three: Add in Specific Hypertrophy Work

To build muscle you need to get enough mechanical tension (that's taken care of with heavy strength work) and enough volume with an emphasis on metabolic stress – getting a pump.

There are varying research findings on how many reps/total volume is needed for muscle growth. For example, one study (Wernbom et al.) found 60-180 reps to be ideal. That's per muscle group, per workout. Fewer reps are needed with heavier training and more reps are needed with lighter training. Given you're trying to build strength, athleticism, and size, shoot for the lower end (60-80 reps per muscle group) to build muscle.

  • Younger and weaker lifters: Spend more time building volume with 5-10 rep sets. In other words, the younger and weaker you are, the more muscle you'll build with traditional strength work. Focus on using rep schemes like 5x5, 4x6, and 4x8.
  • Stronger and more advanced lifters: Since stronger lifters have a bigger strength base and create more mechanical tension due to heavier loads, they grow best by adding in higher rep sets and classic bodybuilding methods to create metabolic stress (the pump) to further drive muscle growth.

Rep schemes like 4x10,8,6,20; 4x15; 5x10-12, and classic bodybuilding methods like tempo training, rest pauses, drop sets, and training to failure may be needed to trigger muscle growth.

The mind-muscle connection also becomes more important. A 2016 study found when lifters thought about their specific muscles during a workout, they activated them better. Crazy, right? Spend more time feeling your muscles contracting rather than throwing weights around if you want to maximize muscle growth.

Strategy Four: Adopt the Perfect Training Split

The best training split is one that stimulates the physiological processes needed to achieve your goals—strength, athleticism, and size—while optimizing recovery of your CNS and joints. This allows you to train consistently. For most, this is a heavy-light upper-lower, or an intensive/extensive upper-lower training split. (Don't get freaked out by all that jargon; there's a sample program below.)

With this plan, you'll train four times per week, twice for your upper body and twice for your lower body. The heavy/light component bases training on the neural demands of the workout. One workout focuses on heavy and explosive work (strength and athleticism) while the other focuses on higher volume, hypertrophy-based work:

  • Monday: Heavy/Intensive Lower Body
  • Tuesday: Off
  • Wednesday: Heavy/Intensive Upper Body
  • Thursday: Lighter/Extensive Lower Body
  • Friday or Saturday: Lighter/Extensive Upper Body
  • Sunday: Off

The Program

Here's a sample program to go by. We'll combine low volume, heavy work to build strength and explosive, performance-based work to boost your power, athleticism, and muscle fiber recruitment. To cap off your workouts, you'll hit higher rep, hypertrophy-focused exercises to maximize muscle growth.

Remember, this is a program designed to help you become a better generalist: building strength, athleticism, and size concurrently. Specializing in any one area requires an approach specific to your goal.

Monday: Heavy/Intensive Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Single-Leg Hip Thrust 3 6/leg  
A2 Dumbbell Squat Jump 3 6 1 min.
B Barbell Hang Power Clean 4 3 90 sec.
Perform 2-3 warm-up sets, increase the load on each set.
C Squat 5 5 2 min.
Front squat or back squat: pick one and stick with it. Ramp up to a heavy set of five on your third set, then taper off on the last two.
D Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (3-4 sec. eccentric) 4 10 1 min.
E Goblet Bulgarian Split Squat 2 15 30 sec.
F Leg Press, 2 60 sec. 90 sec.
Perform leg presses for 60 seconds. Keep the weight light and stay shy of locking out at the top.

Tuesday: OFF

Do some mobility or soft tissue work and take a 60-minute walk.

Wednesday: Heavy/Intensive Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Subscapular Push-Up (2 sec. pause at the top) 3 6  
A2 Bench Plyo Push-Up 3 6 45 sec.
B Barbell Push Press 4 3 90 sec.
Perform 2-3 warm-up sets, increase the load on each set.
C Barbell Bench Press 4 5 2 min.
Ramp up to a heavy set of five on your third set, then taper off on the last two.
D Dumbbell Incline Bench Press (3-4 sec. eccentric) 2 10 45 sec.
E Dumbbell Chest-Supported Row 3 10 45 sec.
3-4 second eccentric, 1-second pause at the top.
F1 Dip 2 15 30 sec.
F2 Inverted Row 2 15 30 sec.
G1 Alternating Dumbbell Biceps Curl 3 12  
G2 Dumbbell Skull Crusher 3 12 30 sec.

Thursday: Lighter/Extensive Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Supine Bodyweight Hip Thrust 3 12  
2 sec. pause and glute squeeze at the top.
A2 Box Jump 3 5 1 min.
B Dumbbell Split Squat 4 8 90 sec.
C Snatch-Grip Barbell Deadlift (3-4 sec. eccentric) 3 6 90 sec.
D Dumbbell Goblet Squat 4 12 1 min.
3-4 sec. eccentric, 2 sec. pause at the bottom.
E1 Single-Leg Dumbbell Calf Raise 3 10  
E2 Seated Calf Raise 3 20 30 sec.
3-4 sec. eccentric, 1 sec. pause at the top.
F Bodyweight Walking Lunge 2 2 min. 45 sec.

Friday or Saturday: Lighter/Extensive Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Scapular Wall Slide (2 sec. pause at the top) 3 6  
A2 Overhead Medicine Ball Slam 3 6 45 sec.
B1 Chin-Up 4 6-8 1 min.
B2 Dumbbell Biceps Curl 4 10 1 min.
C1 Dumbbell One-Arm Bench Press 3 6 1 min.
C2 Dumbbell Chest Flye 3 12 1 min.
D Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 12/10/8/8 1 min.
E1 Wide-Grip Seated Cable Row 3 15 45 sec.
3-4 sec. eccentric, 1 sec. pause at the top.
E2 Seated Cable Face Pull with external rotation 3 15 45 sec.
C Cable Biceps Curl 3 45 sec. 45 sec.

Sunday: OFF

Mobility/soft tissue work and a 60-minute walk.

Related:  Natural Gains – The Proven Training Strategies

Related:  The Built for Battle Training Program