It’s a common belief that one must either pick between a training program that builds size (bigger muscles) or a training program that builds strength within the three powerlifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift), and that it has to be one or the other. While it is true that training for size is different than training for strength, it’s possible to do both at the same time. The concept is called “Powerbuilding” where the training split focuses on hypertrophy (muscle building) while also progressively overloading the three powerlifts to become stronger.
The main inspiration for this article is an instance I ran into with one of my friends who I was helping. I prescribed him a program that had the three powerlifts incorporated into his hypertrophy/bodybuilding program, and he was perplexed because he had thought that strength training wasn’t necessary for hypertrophy. I gave him this rule of thumb that “you can have strength without size, but you can’t have size without strength.” In essence, it’s important to still be training the three main powerlifts – lifting heavy weight for low reps – to further induce and facilitate hypertrophy. A competitive powerlifter might not be concerned with his physique, and a bodybuilder may not be as concerned with how much he can bench press. However, for the average gym goer who is exercising as a hobby, training for both size and strength is most ideal.
Timely to this article, Jeff Nippard recently posted a video about Powerbuilding. He made the video to promote his Powerbuilding Program for Intermediate/Advanced Lifters, but he also incorporated scientific information to justify the concept. I highly recommend checking out the video if you’re someone who is intrigued by this training method and are looking to “have your cake and eat it too” when training. Essentially, how the Powerbuilding system works is training with various weights, reps and sets. In the video, Jeff says that, “using a mixture of different rep ranges can likely trigger muscle growth through different mechanisms.” Lower rep sets within the 1-5 rep range promote muscle growth through mechanical tension. High rep sets at the 15+ rep range induce growth through metabolic stress. Mid-range rep sets around the 6-12 rep range trigger muscle hypertrophy through a combination of both these processes. To maximize growth in both hypertrophy and strength, it’s best to use a combination of these three.
The overall focus of any Powerbuilding program depends upon your personal goals. It’s important to ask yourself whether getting bigger is slightly more important to you or is getting stronger slightly more important. If your goal is to primarily build muscle, while also getting stronger, a little more than half of the program should be working within the 6-12 rep range. About a third of the program should be training for strength using the 1-5 rep range, and the rest of the program should incorporate 15+ rep sets. On the other hand, if your primary goal is to increase max-lift numbers, the majority of the volume within the program should allocate towards the 1-5 rep range. While doing these sets, the focus should be perfecting technique of the three powerlifts. By doing these exercises very frequently, it primes the central nervous system to fire off rapidly. Even though you may not be getting any bigger by mainly focusing on strength, you are actually training your brain and your nerves to become a lot faster. This is why it is said that powerlifting is a skill that is developed overtime.
With all this being said, if one of the two goals is not a concern, then it wouldn’t be necessary to incorporate the other training technique. If you don’t care about lifting heavy, then powerlifting isn’t valuable, and vise versa for hypertrophy goals. While I am an advocate for hypertrophy training, I feel it can sometimes become tedious overtime as the scale isn’t always the best indicator of progress. It’s also difficult to indicate physique progress by solely looking in the mirror every day without taking weekly progress photos. In contrast, building strength can be a great way to track progress because it’s a tangible mark of success where the max lift attempt increases after a certain amount of time. Since it’s a physical goal, it will likely motivate the trainee and will keep him or her wanting to keep going to the gym and improve. Training for muscle growth is also crucial as training for this goal during the colder months always pays off when it’s time to hit the beach in the summer. In order to gain the best of both worlds – looking good with your shirt off while also getting stronger and becoming more motivated – a Powerbuilding program is a wonderful approach to training that I think many exercise enthusiasts should consider.