Should a Strength Training Beginner who Wants to Get Big Concentrate on Size or Strength?

Posted on 08 Jul 2014 18:45


Many people who do big strength training lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and others actually want to gain muscle mass as a primary goal. In other words, they want to bodybuild. Will those big lifts help them gain muscle? Yes.

The question becomes, then, how do they train them? What parameters do they use? What volume? What intensity?

For beginners, this comes with messages that concern strength training versus mass building: You should concentrate on building a strength base at the beginning and you'll be more successful gaining mass later on.

Is this true? Should a beginner to resistance training who really just wants to get big focus on pure strength?

This LiftBIG talk tackles this issue and just such a question posed to me by an actual trainee. Watch the video below or view it on YouTube, and read the written version below!

This question came from Markus. Markus is a beginner in the sense that he knows all the movements. He knows how to squat; how to deadlift. He's trained before but then he's taken a two-year hiatus. He hasn't worked out in that time. And, now he's come back to training. So he considers himself a beginner, and his goal is to become bigger. He's not a strength athlete, per se. He just wants to get bigger.

For some reason I'm coming across all this advice by people saying that you have to train to get strong and unless you have a strong foundation of strength you can't get bigger. And I understand all these general statements. Because, obviously if he's just going to be deadlifting the bar he's not going to become big. So, these types of simplistic statements do make some sense. But, people are telling him that he needs to take three to five years to get strong and then, after three to five years he should start dedicating his training towards getting big. That's like telling someone that, oh, you can't start working towards your goals right now. Instead, you're going to have to start five years from now! Until then, you're building a foundation.

No, if he wants to get big that's fine, he can get big. You can start training to get big right from the beginning. However, I do believe that there is some amount of strength that is required. Because, as said, you can't just be lifting the bar. Therefore, I think Markus should, uh, should start with Eric Troy's Honeymoon Period for strength beginners. That article will give you directions on how to go about coming up with a rough template.

I am trying to give you detailed advice, but I can't plan your whole year for you. I can't plan every single step of the way. A lot of this is going to be about feedback. So, before I even begin, here's what I want to say: For guys who want to get strong, the feedback is very immediate, it's about performance. So you know when you lift the bar, how much weight you're using, how much weight you're able to move on the bar — you're aware of your progress. Your feedback, or, your data that you're collecting to analyze and gauge whether or not things are going according to plan, that's based on the weight you're moving. But in the case of someone who wants to get big: If you want to get big you can't focus on the weight. So, it doesn't matter whether you're deadlifting 405 or deadlifting 300. That's not pertinent for your goals. Your goal is to get big. You need to use the mirror as your scale. Your feedback is what you see in front of you when you look in the mirror. If you like what you see, then you keep doing what you're doing. If you don't like it then you make changes; you make adjustments.

Everyone talks about how you have to experiment. You have to figure out what works for you, and that's fine. You should do that. But, here's what people don't emphasize: When you take a risk, when you experiment it means you have to be willing to be OK with a negative result. You could change things. You could add in things and you could remove things and that may not get you to where you want to be but that's the only way. The only way you're going to learn. This is crucial. And, this is something that should be taken seriously.

Having said that, I propose that Markus start with Eric Troy's Honeymoon Period. It's a very simple approach to getting strong, initially. Let's say for four weeks, all you focus on is four exercises. You take the deadlift, you take squats, you take bench press, and you take the overhead press. You just do these four exercises for four weeks. I think you should throw in pullups on one of these days as well. So, you have four exercises…five, actually. Five exercises for four weeks. I know it's going to sound very boring, and you'll be like oh, my God, how can I dedicate a whole training session just on deadlifts? Well, in that case, it depends on your intention. If you want to get good at it, you're going put in the effort. Your going to work hard and remember, you have to work hard one way or another.

So, for instance, to go from 135 to say, 225 pounds on the deadlift, you're going to take five pound increments or ten pound increments: That's a lot of sets and it's a lot of quality volume you can put in and you can focus on various aspects of the pull or of prepping yourself. All this is just to get you started. You could take five, or you can take three and a half weeks, as well. It's up to you. You have to use your judgement on this. But, after approximately four weeks your take your four to five exercises, and you add in a bunch of other exercises. And then you build on it.

You could have a day for deadlifts, a day for bench press, a day for squats, and then a day for overhead press. On deadlift day, you could throw in a unilateral leg exercise such as lunges. On bench press day you add in another set of incline bench presses, or something "bodybuilderish" because you want to get bigger. And on squat day you throw in another "posterior chain" exercise, like cable pullthroughs (those are good). And, on overhead press day you focus a lot on pullups. You do five sets to failure. Every week you try to add one or more reps to your sets. So you add in a bunch of small exercises.

You've added in one more layer. Now you have two exercises per day that you're focusing on. You're not losing track of your regular deadlift or the main compound exercises. You do this for say six weeks to two months and then your training will evolve again. You should be comfortable deciding that, for example, now that you have a 315 pound deadlift, you don't want to train for a better or bigger deadlift, you want to focus even more on becoming more massive. Perhaps, at that point, you add a bunch of back exercises. You could add in some rows, or shrugs, or more muscle specific exercises. You know that shrugs will increase the size of your traps. If I do incline bench press will increase the size of your chest. You want to do some parallel bar dips for your triceps and chest. Just examples.

When you do this you're shifting your focus from these big lifts, and that's fine, that's exactly what you have to do. But, you're the best judge of when that should happen. Don't listen to people giving you formulas as to just how strong your should be before you shift your focus to muscle building. The numbers they give may sound legitimate, but that's just because numbers always have that effect, no matter how arbitrary they are! You have to make your decision.

Once you throw in all these exercises, you choose a certain rep range and a certain set range. You get in enough volume. And as I said, everything that you do has feedback. You collect that feedback. Your feedback is your scale, and your scale is the mirror. Depending on how you see yourself, if you like what you see, you proceed accordingly. This way, in approximately six months from now you're well on your way to getting to your goal. You are not just "building a foundation." I don't think at any point you should stop doing the big compound lifts. I think they help. They bring a certain amount of confidence in your ability to own a certain weight. This is important. It helps shape your training. It makes a difference. It's not the most important thing for you because your goals are not to become a better squatter or a better bench presser, but it helps. It evens out all the edges, so to say.

You want to bring in all these muscle oriented but you have to be willing to take risks; to experiment. For example, some people do things in a reverse order. Personally, I've found this to be good as well. They might start off with traps, then move to heavy row exercises, and then end the workout with heavy deadlif set. That is fine. That works some people. But, you have to experiment. As a bodybuilder you have to do all those things that bodybuilders do. You have to focus on the muscle pump, and on feeling the muscle when you're lifting, and on all these things that are just not important for a strength athlete. But they're important for you.

So, again, you should start off with the Honeymoon Period, work your way up and then like six months from now, you should have some idea of what will work for you or will not work for you. But regardless of how you train, food is very important. At the end of the day, like I said, the mirror is your scale. If you are eating strong then you'll see it. And if you're eating right, then also you'll see it. You need to be able to be receptive to the feedback that you get. Be open to that, interpret it correctly, and you'll be fine. Experiment. And you'll grow.

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