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Free Post: Technique to Balance Muscle Gain and Raw Strength
High effect strategy to build raw max-strength while also developing muscle mass in the same session + the unique benefits of low rep training
Max Strength vs Muscle Gain
*video version above but I suggest reading the article to learn more about training itself
Strength and muscle gain, or hypertrophy, are synonymous with each other. It’s impossible to fully separate the two from each other. However, they have a distinction:
Strength is the ability to produce force, and hypertrophy is the development of muscular tissue
While these goals have a strong relationship, of course, the difference in their ultimate definitions/goals create changes in how these training goals are approached. The strength focused lifter (usually using compound barbell lifts) will be lifting in the 1-6 rep range (usually) and the muscle gain focused lifter will often lift in the 8-15 rep range. There are other common distinctions as well, such as the strength focused lifter avoiding training to absolute failure vs the hypertrophy focused one favoring failure more often. As well as strength training tending to focus on global, compound lifts more so than common hypertrophy training which will often use a greater variety of movements/exercises including many isolation movements.
Note: these generalities are not necessarily how I would always approach either of these goals but rather a common trend I am speaking on through objective observation.
There is a clear relationship and overlap between these goals, obviously. With more muscle mass one will be much stronger, however, more strength doesn’t necessarily mean more muscle mass. The idea that strength creates muscle has been marketed super heavily the past decade (Thanks to ‘Starting Strength’), but it is actually incorrect. The exact opposite is truer to logic than the idea that strength produces the muscle itself. Strength is a functional quality - muscle is the tangible form which creates the function. Therefore, it is muscle which is giving way to strength and the increase in strength is often a sign of increased muscle. (Not the cause) The understanding of this concept is important when it comes to training because it will prevent those looking for muscle gain (which is the most common goal) to train ineffectively by training with low effect training protocols. (This is extremely common - many who seek muscle + strength train with “strength” protocols like 3x5 with no other volume and thus gain neither strength nor muscle.)
Strength Work and It’s Unique Effects
You may have asked after the above paragraph - “If muscle work provides strength and strength doesn’t provide much muscle then why ever train in the 1-6 rep range?”
“Strength” work provides several unique effects, beyond hypertrophy, that improve force production that training in a higher (10+ reps) rep range tends to provide much less of:
Higher nervous system adaptations for providing maximum force production through a range of motion; When loading weights heavy, more maximum force potential is required from the body to move the weights and the drive that the nervous system provides the muscles.
Bone density; higher loading rates from heavy weights provide a special stimulus over years to load the skeleton with a stronger stimulus to increase the density of bone tissue. (While I do not believe barbell squats are mandatory, they do load almost the entire skeleton with a large amount of weight which increases bone density and other tissue resiliency in the body.)
Connective tissue resiliency; tissues beyond muscle and bone are also improved and gain the ability to sustain higher loads and impacts from the heavy weight training. (This is also improved best with specialized isolation movements, however heavy strength training provides a “max load” stimulus so the joints are prepared to handle the absolute max stressors/compressors your body can currently handle including your spinal discs - which are often considered “fragile, unhealable, and untrainable”. False.)
In order to “optimize” the muscle and other tissues you do have to sustain and produce the maximum force potential you can, heavy weight “strength” work in the 1-6 (perhaps up to 8 reps) is recommended using large compound lifts like variations of squats, deadlifts/hinges, and presses/rows of all sorts.
Training Method to Improve a Balance of Max Strength + Muscle
With all of this in mind, the point of this post today is to provide a training method & strategy to promote the development of both of these qualities in an optimized fashion. If you have read this far, I’m sure you are looking for it so now let’s deliver:
Back off sets
Back off sets are a strategy where one combines the use of a heavy set and a lighter set. The heavy set is, in the example that I am recommending emulating, a set of 3-6 where you “ramp” the weight up until you get to a “top” set which is close to (but not necessarily “AT”) the maximum weight you could use for the desired rep goal. After executing that set, you would drop the weight down to ~80-85% of the weight you just lifted and perform another 1-2 sets with higher reps and less weight (ideally in the 6-10 rep range). What this provides is a high strength and heavy weight stimulus while also giving the body a higher rep stimulus to provide more reps and more volume of work for the body to build muscle with (3-6 reps often isn’t enough “reps” done in total to build enough muscle).
Make sure you get a full and compete rest between sets. This doesn’t matter if it’s 3 minutes or 7 minutes. The key is to make sure you have enough rest so you can produce high outputs during each set. Generally recommendations would be setting a timer for 3 minutes and if you aren’t 100% ready set the timer again for 2 more minutes. Going sooner than that will just limit your force output and therefore also limit strength gain.
This strategy is high in effect but most but get it by instead not resting fully and performing more of a “drop set”, which is a different tactic and not ideal at all for this goal. It is also important to not do this with every exercise and use this tactic with large compound movements that form the base of your training. I.e. bench/overhead press, rows, squats, hinges, lunges etc.
I should also add that if you use this tactic recovery between sessions needs to be adequate – use it only once a week for muscle group / movement.
It’s very basic and simple to perform and as long as the back offsets are within four reps of failure (with good form - be sensible) and your heavy sets are *heavier* than your 8 rep max, you’ll get an extremely potent stimulus for strength gain at the neural level and muscle at the metabolic level.
Try it and ask in the Q&A or below if you have any questions. I also want to remind everyone that for main and bonus posts requests are accepted. Pretty much everything will be covered over time but if there’s anything you guys are really interested in right now I’ll prioritize it and post it ASAP.