Tom Wright is a personal trainer who has competed in both physique powerlifting contests and is a sponsored Reflex Nutrition athlete. He lives in London.
When it comes to weightlifting two of the main trains of thought are powerlifting and bodybuilding. For aesthetics and building muscle there is no doubt that bodybuilders have found the best ways to do it, but to achieve record breaking strength you look to the powerlifters. Both rely on lifting weights to build muscle and strength with each discipline focussing more on one than the other. So surely there must be crossover between the two sports that can be beneficial to both types of trainer? Here’s what strength training athletes can learn from physique competitors.
1 For increased strength you need larger muscle mass, and to add more muscle you need to use volume
Put simply, more muscle leads to greater strength and strength leads to more muscle. For hypertrophy, an increase in training volume over time will help to increase lean body mass (LBM). Generally physique athletes use three to four sets of eight to 12 reps as this is the range shown to stimulate the largest increase in LBM. To build strength we need to increase this cross sectional area of muscle so using a hypertrophy rep range after heavier compound movements will help to do this. If a strength athlete was to work through their heavy lifts of one to six reps followed by multiple sets of assistance work in an eight to 12 rep range they will likely see an increase in muscle mass and greater increases in strength.
2 Nutrition is key when it comes to performance
Strength athletes typically consume thousands of calories per day more than the average man. Training at that intensity requires a huge amount of fuel and a lot of powerlifters will get it in by any means necessary. This usually ends up coming low nutrient ‘junk’ foods with high calorie content which in turn reflects in a higher body fat percentage. Physique athletes deal in aesthetics and their main aim is to maintain a very low percentage of fat. To do this they cut almost all junk out of their diet and eat nutrient dense foods that give them everything they need to train hard and keep as much muscle as possible whilst getting leaner. This seems to be slightly backwards that performance athletes knowingly eat junk and the ones who compete for show eat healthily. For optimal performance and overall body composition strength athletes should make sure they consume the required calories but try to ensure it’s from healthy sources as much as possible.
3 Steady state cardio can actually help you to become stronger
In strength training cardio is considered a dirty word. Hell, in most forms of weightlifting its cast aside with a sneer and a muttering of ‘lost gains’. But how can low intensity cardio actually benefit a strength athlete? And apart from fat loss why do physique athletes use it so much? Although powerlifting uses short bursts of energy primarily from ATP, aerobic systems come into play during recovery throughout longer workouts. Increased aerobic capacity equates to faster recovery time and increased training volume, allowing the athlete to lift more during workouts. It’s important to stick to low intensity steady state (LISS) however, as sprints and other high intensity work recruits more type 2 muscle fibres which are used during powerlifting. HIIT will fatigue these muscle fibres and impact recovery between lifting sessions. By including one or two LISS sessions per week in the same way a physique athlete does, a strength athlete can improve their overall performance and hit bigger numbers in the gym.