Mark Rippetoe is a strength coach and former competitive powerlifter. He is the owner of the Wichita Falls Athletic Club and the author of several books, including Starting Strength. He is based in Wichita, Texas.
Editor’s note: The following is taken from a phone conversation with Mark Rippetoe in July 2014.
I’ve got a harsh training truth for you. And it’s this: If you can’t deadlift 500lbs (227kg) you’re not strong enough to worry about differentiating between hypertrophy and strength when you train.
For anyone who is starting training, the most important thing you can do, in terms of adding size, is to get strong. If someone walks into a gym and is deadlifting 185lbs for five sets of five, how big is his back going to be? Not very big. And how worried does he need to be about training for sets of 8-12 with 60 seconds rest in between? In my view, he just needs to worry about getting his deadlift up to five plates on each side.
If you want to be a successful bodybuilder, you start training specifically for hypertrophy when you’re already strong. Is that the norm? No. That’s not the norm. The norm is skinny guys entering bodybuilding contests. But the last half of that word is still ‘building’ and bodybuilders are supposed to be big and strong. They’re supposed to be big and they get big by first getting strong. And the most successful bodybuilders have all been very strong people.
Of course everyone has a normal psychological need to train at a level in excess of their own particular level of training advancement, so there’s always an urge to do the hypertrophy work before you’re ready for it. This is normal. But it must be dealt with. It must be discouraged because if you can’t deadlift 500lbs you’re not strong enough to specialise in hypertrophy. And getting to 500lbs will make you bigger than any other thing you can do.
Join the 500 club
Of course, there are several mechanism that might explain why high-rep sets, like 10-12 rep efforts, performed under incomplete recovery, would drive hypertrophy. But that’s not my business. My business is teaching people how to get strong and to do that we generally use sets of five. And by the time a guy gets his deadlift up to a set of five with 500lbs he’s pretty big.
If he wants to specialise after that event occurs, I’m not his coach. But my point here is that the overwhelming majority of guys who are interested in bodybuilding are approaching it incorrectly. They’re getting their deadlift up to 225lbs and then worrying about how to make their training look like Dorian Yates. And I would say that until your deadlift is about 500lbs then Dorian Yates’s methods don’t apply to you. This is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people out there.
Don’t be fooled by the media
Training for hypertrophy before you get strong is also the idea sold by the publishers of most media outlets in this business. They sell that because it’s a lot more difficult to sell people the idea that every week you need to make your deadlift go up 10lbs until that doesn’t work any more and then make it go up 5lbs until that doesn’t work any more and then we’ll talk about Dorian Yates. But that’s not proprietary. It’s not complicated enough for those media outlets but that’s what I sell.
In the absence of a strength base, how heavy are your sets of 10-12 reps with 60 seconds between the sets? Not very heavy. If we take a guy who can deadlift 225lbs for five versus a guy who can deadlift 600lbs for five, who is going to make the best use of the 8-12 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets? Who’s going to get the most growth stimulus out of that work? The guy doing the heavier work, right? It goes back to work capacity. Once you’ve built a strength base you increase your work capacity and the higher your work capacity the more hypertrophy the work can provide.
Start to think big
When a guy gets to late intermediate stage then you absolutely need to think about periodisation. The way an advanced lifter trains is going to be very different to the rank novice. Once you’re strong then you want to use a periodised programme where volume and intensity are cycled, for example. You might cycle your rest down from 3 minutes to 60 seconds between sets or you might cycle the weight up. And eventually you’re going to have to stop.
You stop because you can’t continue indefinitely because you’re not a novice. Your ability to adapt has adapted to the point where it requires a whole lot more stress to drive the adaptation. Even though your work capacity has been elevated to the point where you can handle a lot more stress you will reach a point where the stress accumulates to the point where it can’t be recovered from any more and at that point you peak at the end of your cycle.
Balance strength and size
A key thing to be aware of here is that the mesocycle described above has an ending and the ending will be the point where the stress can no longer be recovered from, at which point something has to be re-set. That’s the way everyone approaches their training at that stage of their career. And depending on whether you’re going to a powerlifting meet or a bodybuilding show, the manipulation of the variables is going to be different but the periodisation concept nonetheless remains solid.
So you might do a hypertrophy cycle of high reps with limited rest and then back off and come back and maybe try to set a new PR in your set of five for the deadlift, if we’re taking pulls as an example.
You might then spend six to ten weeks doing a strength cycle before using that increased work capacity to enable you to exert higher levels of stress during the hypertrophy, high volume, restricted rest work in the next cycle. In this case strength and hypertrophy work side by side and one drives the other up.
But until you get to the level where you have exhausted the potential to increase your set of five while simultaneously driving a hypertrophy adaptation then you’re just not ready to specialise.