You Have to Train Heavy to Grow

Posted July 6, 2011 in Bodybuilding Myths 2 Comments »

Do Bodybuilders Have to “Max Out” to Gain Muscle?

Strong Bodybuilder Franco Columbu

You may have seen or heard cliche slogans like “Go heavy or go home.” You may have been asked “How much do you bench?” You may even be impressed by Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and professional strongmen, all of whom regularly use maximum effort triples and singles to prepare for competition, to try to set a personal record, or just as a component of their regular training routines.

Well guess what? None of those sports are like bodybuilding. Sure, Olympic lifters are typically pretty jacked, powerlifters and strongmen are just plain “big”, but very few of them could compete in a bodybuilding competition and hope to win, without first dieting and training like a bodybuilder for several months.

This brings us to the question – do bodybuilders ever actually have to test their 1 or 3 rep max on any exercise? Do they have to lift super-heavy?

The Myth

A common bodybuilding myth is that you have to max out on every exercise to stimulate growth. If you don’t train heavy, you won’t grow. This is not entirely true, although you can see from Franco Columbu in the picture at the top of this post, training like a powerlifter then converting to a bodybuilder will produce spectacular results.

The Truth

Bodybuilders could actually waste precious muscle-building time by focusing too much on setting 1 rep PRs in the dead, squat, and bench. If that’s true, then how should bodybuilders train?

I’ve heard many speculations that the 8-12 rep range is the prime target for bodybuilders. I know this to be true to some extent. I also know that the 5 rep range is vital for building strength and that strong muscles are dense and look hard. Strong muscles stay big even when they are not pumped up.

My theory, a theory that has worked for me and for many of my past clients, is that you should combine both strategies as a newbie, to build a muscle foundation that has speed, strength, and power. By focusing only on bodybuilding from day 1, trainees will sacrifice so much potential by failing to develop the most efficient mind-muscle connection. Their muscles will lack density and their nervous system will lack the ability to recruit muscle fibers for the purpose of generating maximal strength and power.

The Science

It is true that sets of 8-12 stimulate the most hypertrophy. Hell, even 20 rep sets of squats are used by bodybuilders to shock the legs into uncharted growth territories.

Many studies have confirmed that sets of 1-7 are best for strength gains. Training at a lower rep range stimulates the nervous system and teaches muscles to synchronize maximal contractions, which is critical to muscle growth. Bodybuilders need more though. Bodybuilders need to elicit certain metabolic changes in the muscles, which more effectively stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Studies on bodybuilding-style training show us that sets of 8-12 reps increases lactic acid, which stimulates growth hormone release. Higher rep ranges force the muscles to utilize more oxygen for energy, which increases the number of mitochondria in the muscles cells. High levels of metabolic byproducts draw fluids into the cells as well, which helps to increase the pump that stretches muscle fascia, helping to stimulate more growth.

The Conclusion

For strict bodybuilding goals, your best bet is to train in the 8-12 rep range, especially for 3 months before you know you’re going to show. It is a good practice to use at least 2-3 sets of 5 reps to focus on strength and density. During the off-season, when you’ve hit a plateau, or when you just need a change of pace, it won’t hurt bodybuilders to test their 1-3 rep max, and to regularly train using sets of 5-7.

For newbies, it is vital to include low reps using maximal weights in the range of 3-7 reps to build strength. In my experience, 5 reps is most effective at simultaneously building strength and muscle mass.

Many of you have seen my Werewolf Muscle Training routine, which includes sets of 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, and even 15. I have found this to be one of the most effective ways to train to build muscle, and anyone who has tried Werewolf Training would agree.

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2 Responses to “You Have to Train Heavy to Grow”

  1. Agree with Aaron, it’s important to have your motive clear in your mind and to pursue that with your training rather than just randomly picking a rep range and routine.

    I have found switching the rep range periodically works well to give you the best of both worlds in terms of size and strength, and also keeps you mentally stimulated.


  2. Great info!

    I trained in the 6-8 rep range for a long time before finally moving to the 8-12 rep range. At the time (when I first began), I didn’t realize how important that low rep range would be to forming a good foundation before moving on to bodybuilder style set/rep ranges.

    Nowadays, I even switch it up throughout the year, where I will go back to power/olympic lifting style, performing 3-5 reps in multiple sets. For me, this has allowed me to increase my strength so that when I go back to the bigger rep ranges, I can use more weight.

    At the same time, trading off with the higher rep ranges helps me to maintain a certain level of endurance.

    The important thing for anyone is to make a solid decision on what their purpose is, and then stick to it for a set time frame. I struggled with this for a while, where I kept switching back and forth every few days. Once I made a decision and committed to it for a set time frame, it made an unbelievably positive difference in my results.

    Keep up the great work!

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