Strength Training Results in a Disproportionate Body

Posted on 25 Nov 2014 08:14


I have observed a particular critique about people training for maximal strength. I find it to be a nonsense critique, and, one that begs a question. The criticism is that some maximum strength trainees do not have the right musculature proportions. There are a lot of big professional and admirable bodybuilders at my gym that look down on strength training for being "limited" in adding muscle mass. In addition to them I have also had training buddies who are conflicted with their goals. They like having a big deadlift or a big squat but they want to look the part as well. Heck, I'm going through a similar issue myself.

Currently, there is trend of train like a powerlifter; eat like a bodybuilder. Many think this "magic bullet" will ensure that you get big and strong and cut and ripped and everything your heart desires. But this is not really true. See, I personally believe that being honest to yourself is important because it keeps expectations in check.

While I am being frank, I will go ahead and state the obvious: I will probably not see myself pulling 600 pounds anytime in the next 10 years. Getting to 500 and maintaining 500 has been a herculean task for me, and continues to be so. But I am honest with myself about what I can and cannot be. I will not lie to myself that I am a 700 pound deadlifter in the making. I am not.

Trying to get strong, developing a program wherein you are hitting deadlifts, front squats, back squats, bench press, overhead press, rows, pull-ups, etc all for the purpose of maximum strength will not get you looking remotely close to a bodybuilder. However, as I said in the beginning, the idea that strength training does not give you a bodybuilder's proportions is begging the question: It assumes that the intention, and the purpose, of strength training is to hone your physique. It is not. Not even a little bit. Training for maximum strength is a type of performance training. While there are certain body composition changes that may help with performance, such as a competitor not carrying excess weight that places them in a higher and inappropriate weight class and screws his relative strength, a bodybuilder's proportions has nothing to do with maximum strength.

Of course, it is not just the size of the individual muscles, but the amount of body fat they complain about. I have not personally found very many dudes sporting sub 10% bodyfat levels naturally who are pulling big weights year round. I have however trained with and met more people who are in good shape with flat tummies who can lift heavy weights but they carry around a bit of fat especially around the stomach. It is anecdotal but I suspect it matches your experience somewhat.

This is probably not new information for a lot of you. For others, it will sound like BS because you know some people on Instagram who are amazing out of this world type athletes. But those guys (the athletes sporting low body fat percentages and lifting huge weights) are much fewer than you think and for each of them there are probably hundreds who have failed. Always consider your sampling. If every single lifter in the world put up selfies on Instagram you would see my point. As it is, I cannot use these outliers as representative of anything.

Here is what I am trying to say in a very practical way: you cannot have it all and if you must build your training routine you must make it goal-oriented. If you want to get big like a bodybuilder you really do not need to have a whole day dedicated to deadlifting or squatting. You don't need to train your maxes and you should definitely be taking shorter rest periods and getting in a high number of reps per set.

Is this claim that bodybuilders have about strength training resulting in disproportionate bodies justified or is it baseless? The truth is that the entire notion is a fallacy. That is, maximum strength trainees don't have the proportionate bodies of a bodybuilder. But, neither do most performance athletes! The goal of bodybuilding is proportion. The goal of any performance based pursuit is performance, the the body shape that results from that, and in some respects, determines it, is specific to that performance goal. This is not to say that certain performance related activities don't result in more proportionate body mass, but none of them have this as a goal.

Instead of continuing in general terms, it makes sense to get down to the practical nature of training. I have no problem using myself as an example. Before I put myself out there and potentially throw myself under the bus, keep in mind that I am not trying to justify my goals to you or to myself. I am comfortable with them and the only reason I am using myself as an example is so that I can give you practical examples and not just hypothetical nonsense. Your experience will undoubtedly differ, but there are some lessons to be learned here, I think.

So, as I said, maximum strength is all about performance. My goal is to perform my best. That means that training 3-4 times a week is sufficient. My main focus has been the deadlift. To do justice to that lift I dedicate a whole session just to that exercise plus whatever variation I am required to do. That leaves 3 workouts. One of them is dedicated to squatting and building my lower body, as I am currently trying to ride both horses.

That leaves two workouts. Assume I dedicate one of them to bench pressing or overhead pressing. That means I have one workout left for all my "fluff". But we are forgetting a very important muscle group that I believe is crucial to be strong on all lifts: the back. Training the back via pull-ups, rows, etc takes one whole workout. So now there is no balance of workout days remaining. How would I squeeze in my calves, traps, forearms, biceps, triceps, proper hamstring development, etc? It cannot happen. It is not practically possible to squeeze in all these muscle groups into this layout. And all of this has a direct effect on your performance. Strength training is all about performance so diet, your routine, etc all boils down to performance.

You cannot attack the deadlift, bench, squat, front squats, etc all with maximal intensity and still expect wiggle room for your muscle gain aspirations. You must choose. You don't have to choose a goal and dedicate your whole life to it if you don't want. But it would be better if you succeeded in one versus floundering in both.

I also want to bring up another point. There are "powerlifting" and "strength training" routines out there that people have tailored to fit their needs. And this is what it is about: making your routine fit your goals - not the other way around. But before anybody tells me that 5/3/1 or Westside has them doing 3 main sets on squats so they have PLENTY of time to do leg curls, calf raises, etc. let me say two things:

1. Contrary to what is publicized, most legitimately strong powerlifters did not get strong doing just a "few" sets of any big exercise. The squat, bench, and deadlift are not called the "meat and potatoes" of strength training because they are done conservatively and in a minimal manner.

2. If you going around training in the 3-5 rep range you are not REALLY doing maximal strength training. Allow me to throw myself under the bus again: I have a maximum deadlift of 525. That doesn't mean it's 525 on paper. It means I can do 525 on any given day of the week AND I deadlift 525 once every 3 weeks (right now). Do you know what an equivalent comment would be if I was doing some middle of the road wannabe strength routine? I'd say I have a max deadlift of 525 on paper and I currently lift 380 for reps. That is just not how maximal strength works. Maximal strength means you lift REALLY heavy weights. At least, heavy for you.

Please remember I am not advising you or anyone to eat poorly. While it is known in my circles that I am relatively loose with my diet, the truth is that my protein intake is thoroughly dialed in. Just as bodybuilding is not an excuse to eat copious amounts of food; maximal strength training is not an excuse to eat unlimited calories either. I think it is crucial to be honest about your training with yourself. If you are happy looking like a powerlifter then train like one. If you are unhappy about maximal strength training because you want bigger biceps then re-evaluate your plan, ditch some of the main movements and do lots of high volume curls.

This is all for now! Thanks for reading as always!

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