How powerlifting training helps you build muscle
written by Philip Stefanov | MAY 9, 2023
Prevailing wisdom suggests powerlifters should stick to heavy weight training to build as much strength as possible. In contrast, those interested in hypertrophy should mostly use lighter weights (below 75 percent of 1RM) for more reps.
These ideas hold a lot of truth. However, might there be value in powerlifting training for bodybuilding? In other words, could heavy strength training help you build more muscle in the long run?
Let’s talk about it.
The Case of The Jacked Powerlifter
Even if you’re not into powerlifting, I’m sure you’ve heard of some popular guys and girls in the sport. You know, folks like John Haack, Stefi Cohen, and Yury Belkin.
Care to guess what these people have in common? Yes, all of them are ridiculously strong––like a 445-kilo (981 lbs) deadlift strong. Another common trait between these guys is that they are jacked.
But how is that possible? Aren’t higher reps far superior to heavy sets for hypertrophy? Well, that’s true, but only to a degree.
High-rep training is beneficial because it allows for quicker and easier volume accumulation, which allows trainees to create the necessary stimulus and grow. Put simply, it’s far easier to do 3 sets of 10 reps with a moderate load than it is to do 10 sets of 3 reps with 80+ percent of your 1RM.
However, the topic is far more nuanced, and we can’t simply conclude that doing more reps is always best for growth. We also can’t say that one exercise is inherently better for muscle gain than another.
A common idea is that free-weight squats aren’t that good for muscle gain. However, there is typically a clear correlation between the amount of weight someone can lift and their level of muscular development. Show me a person who squats a lot of weight, and they will have huge quads most of the time.
(Yes, I understand that most people mean that squats might not be ideal and that there might be better choices for people primarily interested in hypertrophy. My criticism here is the black-or-white thinking many people have these days.)
Yes, Low Reps Can Also Build Muscle
You should include heavy strength training in your program, even if you mostly care to get big. Here are three reasons why:
1. Strength Can be Beneficial for Hypertrophy
While strength doesn’t necessarily mean hypertrophy, having dedicated strength blocks can improve your muscle-building efforts down the road.
Being stronger would allow you to use heavier weights during your hypertrophy blocks, which could lead to greater mechanical tension and more muscle growth.
For example, if you build some strength with sets of 3 to 6 reps, you could later lift more weight on sets of 8, 10, or even 12+ reps. Look at it this way:
A 300-lb 1RM would mean repping 210 lbs (70 percent of your max) for at least 10 reps per set. In contrast, a 225-lb 1RM would mean repping 158 lbs for the same number of reps. The load difference will inevitably have an impact on muscle stimulus and growth.
2. Variability is Fun
Changing up the rep ranges can be a nice change of pace. As a result, your training can feel less stale and more engaging, keeping you motivated to push yourself hard in the long run.
Any form of training can feel dull after a while. Introducing variability is a neat way to prevent that from happening.
3. You Can Enjoy Quicker and More Noticeable Progress
Muscle growth takes time, often years. Intermediate and advanced lifters must grind for many months to see small, barely noticeable visual progress, which can be discouraging.
Occasionally doing heavy training and focusing on strength gains can help you enjoy quicker and more predictable progress, even if it doesn’t directly impact hypertrophy.
How to Incorporate Powerlifting Into Bodybuilding
Powerbuilding is a training style that includes powerlifting and bodybuilding. It aims to develop strength and muscle mass by incorporating heavy compound lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, etc.), along with accessory and isolation exercises for volume accumulation and growth.
Trainees often do powerbuilding to build balanced physiques capable of respectable strength feats.
Here is a sample powerbuilding leg workout:
- Barbell back squat: 3 sets x 6 reps (75-80% 1RM)
- Bulgarian split squat: 3 sets x 8-10 reps per leg
- Leg press: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Leg curl: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Calf raise: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
2. Strength Blocks
Adding strength blocks into a long-term hypertrophy plan can be a neat way to keep your training engaging, take your mind off muscle growth occasionally, and, of course, get stronger.
You can do a strength block that lasts 4 to 8 weeks every 4 to 6 months. Shorter blocks can also work, but it’s best to give it more time to get used to heavy lifting and see some strength gains before deloading and resuming your hypertrophy-focused training.
Here is what a year-long plan might look like:
Months 1-3: Hypertrophy Phase
- Main goal: build muscle
- Rep range: 6 to 30
- More assistance and isolation lifts
- Aim for small and steady performance improvements
Months 4-6: Strength Block
- Main goal: build strength on core barbell lifts (bench, deadlift, squat, etc.)
- Rep range: 3-6 for the most part; 6-10 on some assistance lifts
- Less assistance and fewer isolation lifts
- The main focus is to perform core lifts multiple times per week
- Steadily add weight to the bar
Months 7-9: Hypertrophy Phase
- Same as the previous hypertrophy phase
- Hopefully, lifting more weight across most exercises now
Months 10-12: Strength Block
- Same as the previous strength block
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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