Question: What do you recommend if I want to do high intensity training for bodybuilding and not just strength or general fitness? Is a higher repetition range better for hypertrophy? Do I need more variety of exercises to make sure I’m working all my muscles from different angles or in different parts of the range of motion?
Answer: Contrary to popular but uninformed opinion there is no difference in how you should perform your exercises for muscular size versus muscular strength, and you do not need a large variety of exercises for any muscle group. However, there are some differences in how you should design your workouts for bodybuilding versus general strength and conditioning.
Many people confuse strength, which is your muscles’ ability to produce force, with how much weight you are able to lift in a specific exercise, which is a combination of your strength, how skilled you are in performing that exercise, and specific neural adaptations. Strength is general, meaning it transfers to every physical activity you perform. Skill and specific neural adaptations do not transfer to other physical activities, only the activity or exercise practiced. This is one of the problems with using 1RM testing to compare the effect on strength of different training methods, especially when the same exercises are used for workouts and testing.
The old belief that different repetition ranges were for different types of adaptations (e.g. lower reps for strength, medium for hypertrophy, high for endurance) also turned out to be wrong, and a broad range of reps (time, really) can be similarly effective for increasing muscular strength (general) and size when exercises are performed to momentary muscle failure.
If your goal is to improve your 1RM in a specific exercise you would benefit from practicing that exercise with a very heavy weight and very low reps with unrestricted speed of movement. For general increases in muscular strength and size, though, a broad range of loads and repetitions will work, and longer sets with more moderate loads will be safer and better for metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning.
As for variety of exercises, although our bodies are capable of an infinite variety of movements all of these are just combinations of a relatively small number of basic joint movements, and only a few basic exercises are required to effectively work all the major muscle groups which produce these movements.
For general strength and conditioning, to improve your overall functional ability, your workouts should be designed to strengthen every major muscle group as much as possible, which will eventually result in the maximum size of every muscle group your genetics will allow. However, most people do not have the genetics for perfectly proportional and symmetrical growth throughout the body, and will tend to have some muscle groups with greater or lesser potential for strength and size than the others. This doesn’t matter if your only concern is performance and not having a perfectly proportional physique, but if aesthetics are a higher priority for you, you need to be careful to avoid over-development of disproportionately fast-growing muscle groups, while incorporating specialization workouts to bring up disproportionately slow-growing muscle groups.
It is not as much about how you perform your exercises as it is about which exercises you include in your workouts and how you organize them.
It is rare to not want a muscle to get bigger, but bodybuilding isn’t just about size, it is also about proportion, shape, and symmetry. If you have a particular muscle group that grows too large relative to the others, it can throw your proportions off and negatively affect your overall shape. Reducing the size of a disproportionately developed muscle group or not making it bigger are easy: stop training it for a while, or stop training it intensely and progressively, do only enough to maintain it’s current size.
Increasing the size of lagging muscle groups obviously requires a different approach, but not the one most assume. The key to body part specialization is not performing a larger volume of work for the target muscle groups with pre-exhaust or more varied exercises, or working them “harder” or past failure with force-reps, drop-sets, rest-pause, finishing negatives or other set extension techniques.
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