Train for Muscular Strength, Size and Power

We always strive to provide the clearest and most accurate information possible when it comes to fitness training. We have recently been scouring publications on health, and specifically sports science and weight training research papers, to help determine once and for all which method of weight training is best for meeting specific goals.

Many people start weight training without clear goals on what they wish to achieve or any understanding of which principles need to be applied to get maximum results. The information provided is so often contradicted that most people just give up listening and do what feels right. But this is not always the best approach to exercise. To get the most out of your weight training from the start you first need to be sure f what your goals are. There are essentially three reasons for doing weight training:

  1. To increase strength
  2. To increase size
  3. To increase power

Generally athletes and sports-persons look to increase strength and power in varying proportions depending on their sport or role within a team. Size is generally the realm of bodybuilders. However, some athletes do need bodybuilding, most notably in combat sports. Many competitors use bodybuilding to increase weight to allow them to fight in different weight classes.

Most people lifting weights at home or in the local gym are really bodybuilders. If you are honest about your goals, usually they are to build bigger muscles to look better and feel good about yourself. This is especially true for men. Although being a little stronger is useful, generally people who hit to weight machines in the gym want to have the torso of a fitness model on the front cover of Mens Health Magazine, and are generally looking to build bigger biceps, get a solid chest or 6 pack abs. To achieve these goals a combination of bodybuilding and fat loss is required.

If you do not like the term “bodybuilding” then you can refer to it hypertrophy, which is the medical term for increasing muscle size.

How to Train for Strength, Size, or Power

The Internet is full of advice on weight training, but so often people seem to have an agenda and to sell a product which means that information is not always unbiased or scientifically proven. This is why we have looked to the academic community to try to find some unbiased and scientifically proven information on the best weight training methods.

One of the most well written and clearest papers that we came across is that of Dr. Helen Binkley, who holds a B.S. in physical and health education, M.S. in athletic training, Ph.D. in exercise physiology, was a varsity athlete, a sports coach, athletic trainer, personal trainer, and a strength training and conditioning educator. She wrote an article for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), titled Strength, Size, or Power?

So, what about the methods of training, more specifically, how many sets and how many repetitions in each set should be performed for maximum strength, size or power gains? First, an explanation for each goal.

Strength Training

Regarding sport, Dr. Binkley makes it clear:

“Strength training exercises selected should follow specific movement patterns and muscle actions that are involved in your sport. Muscular balance should also be considered when strength training to avoid injuries, especially not having one muscle or group of muscles significantly stronger than another.”

Hypertrophy – for Muscle Size

Dr. Binkley says that hypertrophy is about high repetition work and muscular exhaustion:

“Hypertrophy training uses a variety of exercises including isolation exercises with concentric and eccentric movement patterns using a variety of joint angles. Muscle groups that the athlete wants to emphasize are targeted first or very early in the workout. Hypertrophy training uses moderate to high intensities of work to the point of muscle exhaustion, with high repetitions, and back-to-back sets of exercises for the same muscle group, with short rest periods. Hypertrophy can be used as part of the beginning phase of an off-season.”

Power Training

Power training involves high intensity of work with fewer reps and more rest.

“Power exercises help to enhance the nervous system and the coordination of muscle actions to become faster, smoother and more precise. Power training typically involves exercises that employ multiple joint movements (i.e. running, jumping, Olympic-type exercises such as the power clean, hang-pulls, snatches, push press, etc.). Power training uses high intensities of work, with low repetitions, moderate number of sets, with moderate to long rest periods between sets.”

Reps and Sets for Strength, Power and Size

The following table is created by Dr. Binkley and based on the work of Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. in Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. The %1RM refers to the “1 rep maximum” which is the maximum weight that a person can lift when fully rested and warmed up. Power training requires you to work closer to your maximum than hypertrophy training.

Modified and adapted by Dr. Binkley from Baechle and Earle

Modified and adapted by Dr. Binkley from Baechle and Earle

How to Test One Repetition Maximum (1RM)

Few people know what their 1 rep max really is. It is very easy to try to determine it and then fail because your muscles are exhausted before your lift your maximum possible. Adding too much weight too soon may cause you to exhaust your muscles before even lifting the weight. Fortunately Dr. Binkley provides this method for determining your 1RM:

  1. Warm up with a light resistance that allows 5 – 10 repetitions easily.
  2. Rest for 1 minute.
  3. Estimate a warm up load that will allow 3 – 5 repetitions:
    • 10 – 20 lbs (5 – 10%) for upper body
    • 30 – 40 lbs (10 – 20%) for lower body
  4. Rest for 2 minutes.
  5. Estimate a conservative near maximum load that will allow 2 – 3 repetitions:
    • 10 – 20 lbs (5 – 10) for upper body
    • 30 – 40 lbs (10 – 20%) for lower body
  6. Rest 2 – 4 minutes.
  7. Add load:
    • 10 – 20 lbs (5 – 10) for upper body
    • 30 – 40 lbs (10 – 20%) for lower body
  8. Attempt 1RM.
  9. If successful, rest 2 – 4 minutes then repeat step 7 and 8. If unsuccessful, rest 2 – 4 minutes then subtract:
    • 5 – 10 lbs (2.5 – 5%) for upper body
    • 15 – 20 lbs (5 – 10%) for lower body
    • and then go back to step 8.
  10. Continue increasing or decreasing the load until 1RM can be completed with proper exercise technique. Typically this should be accomplished in 5 testing sets.

The idea is to start light and build up slowly with plenty of rest between each attempt to ensure that your muscles remain fresh. Once you have determined your 1RM for each exercise you can then start to build a weight training program based on your current strength and your weight training goals. If you 1RM for bench press is 70 kg, then to build a bigger chest you need to be lifting 75% of this weight, i.e 52.5 kg for 12 reps.

References

  • Dr. Helen M. Binkley. Strength, Size, or Power? NSCA’s Performance Training Journal. Volume 1 Number 4 | www.nsca-lift.org/perform. Accessed December 2009.
  • Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (Eds). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2000. (ISBN-13: 9780736058032)
  • “High Reps vs. Heavy Weights: Which is Better for Muscle Growth?” by Robbie Durand. Musculardevelopment.com. Accessed October 2011. (no longer available at that address)

More like this in the Strength Training section

  6 comments for “Train for Muscular Strength, Size and Power

  1. HIT Guy
    December 4, 2009 at 11:55 am

    This article and training program just repeats the same old traditional opinions with absolutely no evidence to back it. It offers nothing new. What we want is the results of trials with a statistically significant pair of groups, one doing HIT and the other doing traditional high volume training. Where is Dr. Binkley’s evidence that more reps builds bigger muscles?

  2. MotleyHealth
    August 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    We did contact Dr. Binkley but unfortunately never received a response. As this was a university publication I hope that it is based on research carried out within their Sports Science department. Although admittedly there is no mention of this in the paper, just a reference list. She works at Elon College, NC where she teaches advanced strength training and conditioning classes.

  3. Nick
    March 4, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Hello, I am trying to build strength and size and hoping you can help. I’ve been reading about my calorie intake if i want to build muscle and gain weight, it says I should eat 3500 calories a day. My question is if eat 3500 calories a day and continue to jog 2-3 miles 3 times a week. Will that still allow me to burn fat and keep a slim waist and put on muscle simultaneously?

  4. MotleyHealth
    March 4, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Hi Nick. Well, those 3500 calories need to consist of a lot of extra protein for a start, and they need to be very healthy calories too, not loading up on junk food.

    If you diet is very strict, i.e. no sugar, no junk, no processed, lots of low GI vegetables and lean proteins, with protein shakes etc. then you can certainly build muscle while losing fat. However, if you really want size, then you have to eat lots, and it does become hard to keep fat down which is why bodybuilders cycle bulking and cutting.

  5. Priyana Kalita
    February 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Hi
    I am a tennis player from India. I am 15 years old. My question is that should I start going to gym? If yes, then can you recomend me some exercises for me to do in the gym?

    Will be looking forward to your suggestion.

  6. MotleyHealth
    February 16, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Hi Priyana, take a look at our tennis article. The section on circuit training should be relevant to you.

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