HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE AS A POWERLIFTER WITHOUT SACRIFICING STRENGTH

October 3, 2019

 

Building muscle and enhancing aesthetics in addition to performance is a perpetual battle for many powerlifters. One consideration is how your bodyweight will impact your rankings. This article will not discuss what your optimal weight class should be, that is an individual decision. Rather, we’ll be discussing how to improve your aesthetics, build muscle and still manage to stay as close as possible to optimal performance in powerlifting during this process. 
 

 

One of the easiest ways to make additional strength gains is to increase your muscle mass. When looking at large groups CSA (cross sectional area of muscle) is not a good proxy for strength. However when measuring strength within the same individual, increasing muscle mass will translate to increased force production (1)
 

 

The obvious question is how do you keep making progress while training for two separate goals? Granted there is a stronger correlation between strength and hypertrophy training than strength and endurance training, but at the end of the day you’re still facing a decrease in specificity (2). So while you can certainly optimize your muscle growth given the circumstances you can never maximize it unless you make strength a secondary goal.
 

 

However you can bypass most of these obstacles and make very good progress during each competitive training cycle utilizing a phasic structure to your program. This approach would have you developing various qualities over several training blocks rather than attempting to train multiple qualities all at once. The block approach to periodization was initially popularized by Vladimir Issurin (3) and has been widely used ever since.

 

 

 

There are many differences between hypertrophy and strength training, but for the sake of this article I’m going to stick with the two most fundamental differences. Intensity (load) and volume (reps x sets x load). Since strength is a function of your nervous system, it does not require additional muscle to increase neural efficiency and force production (4). The research also suggests that when volume is equated high intensities produce the same hypertrophic response as moderate and low intensities (5). Knowing this we can preference training variables that have a higher transference to muscle growth.

 

 

The best way to gain strength is by lifting near maximal loads between 85-100% 1RM (6). But there are obvious limitations to only lifting within this intensity range, some of which are injury, fatigue, lack of volume to sustain muscle, staleness etc. Luckily we have various periodization models that address these issues, often by the undulation of volume and intensity (7). One effective method is utilizing top sets and then complete the remaining volume at a lower intensity. This allows you to get similar exposure and adapt to heavier loads without reducing the total volume due to accumulative fatigue. This helps preserve existing muscle and promotes new muscle growth. 

 

 

General Guidelines For Strength:


Percentage Of 1RM: 70-85%
Reps Per Set: 1-5
Sets Per Exercise: 5-8
Rest Time: 2-5min


 

So to give an example of this using the general guidelines above a workout may look something like this:


 

Squat 1x5 @ 80%
Squat 4x5 @ 75%
Pendlay Row 4x8
Reverse Hyper 3x15

 

 

This is a a very effective approach, but if you’re only ever doing 5’s and under I’d argue that not only are you missing out on hypertrophy gains, but significant strength gains as well. This is where the block structure we touched on earlier comes into play. 

 

 

Here’s how I typically design programs for my own training. It’s important to understand that even using this skeleton there is a wide range of application.

 

 

Hypertrophy Block — Strength Block — Peak/Taper Block— Compete

 

 

Now, the hypertrophy block will be very similar to the strength block. Both will look like powerlifting programs with the primary difference being a significant increase in volume in the hypertrophy phase. The objective of this block is to build muscle and increase work capacity (ie. your tolerance to more lifting more weight and volume per training session).

 

 

General Guidelines For Hypertrophy:


Percentage Of 1RM: 60-80%
Reps Per Set: 6-15
Sets Per Exercise: 5-8
Rest Time: 1-3min

 

 

So to give an example of this using the general guidelines above a workout may look something like this:

 

 

Front Squat 1x10 @ 70%
Front Squat 5x10 @ 65%
Lat Pulldown 4x12
Reverse Hyper 3x10

 

 

During the hypertrophy blocks the volume goes up significantly. When I show people my workouts they sometimes don’t believe me because not only is the volume higher than what most people are used to, but they often don’t think doing higher reps builds strength. Personally I think this is a big mistake. 

 

 

Hypertrophy blocks improve your work capacity and energy reconstitution rate (8). This allows for more frequent, higher quality training sessions over the same timeline. So you not only get stronger but also gain a solid amount of muscle each competition cycle because of this. 

 

 

A side not to this is that I typically would not go any more than 12 reps on any primary exercise. If you’ve never done 6x10 squats before you will not want to just jump right into it, because it’s absolutely brutal. And in my opinion you’ll likely see a fairly steep drop off in transference to strength if you go much higher than 12 reps per set. 

 

 

The length of a cycle is also something you want to consider. For most people each block will last between 4-6 weeks because on average that’s how long it takes for the athlete to reach peak performance. This is an observation based on my experience coaching athletes, but block length may vary from one individual to the next. By peak performance I mean the top level of performance they can achieve within that block of training. If they exceed this point and continue training their performance will either stagnate or decline. But generally speaking if it takes you 4 weeks to reach your peak performance in one block it’s going to remain fairly consistent for the other blocks of training. 

 

 

So, now it’s time to put some numbers to this approach. Below is the progression that I use in my own program. I want to be clear that this is my program so by definition it’s designed for me. You may use it or adapt it based on what you think will work best for you. 

 

 

Hypertrophy Block:

 

 

 

Strength Block:

 

 

 

If however you still aren’t confident in building your own program using the above progression, I’ve included a 13 Week Intermediate Powerlifting Program. You can download it for free by clicking the link below. 

 

 

15 Week Powerlifting For Muscle Program

 

 

So lets review the main points of the article:

 

  1. Utilizing a phasic structure to implement hypertrophy blocks will allow you to increase muscle and strength over several training blocks. The order of each block is as follows: 1. Hypertrophy 2. Strength 3. Peak/Taper 4. Compete
     

  2. Incorporating hypertrophy blocks that preference higher volumes will increase work capacity and energy reconstitution rate. This allows you to recover faster and handle more challenging training sessions. Generally speaking use the 8-12 rep range for your main competitive lifts and 4-6 sets per lift.
     

  3. The use of top sets allows for increased exposures to high intensities to develops strength, while maintaining higher volumes during the drop sets stimulates muscle growth. A simple way to prescribe intensities is to do your drop sets at 5% less than your top set.
     

  4. By tracking your progress you can determine the optimal length of each training block by how long it takes to reach peak performance. Since the time to peak stays relatively constant, each subsequent training block can remain the same length.

 

Since peaking is not the topic of this article we will not discuss it here. Our goal was to develop a practical approach to building muscle as a powerlifter without negatively impacting your strength, and I hope the above approach will be helpful in achieving this outcome. Good luck and lift big!

 

 

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Tonson, Anne, et al. “Effect of Maturation on the Relationship between Muscle Size and Force Production.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 40, no. 5, 2008, pp. 918–925., doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181641bed.
     

  2. Wilson, Jacob M., et al. “Concurrent Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 26, no. 8, 2012, pp. 2293–2307., doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31823a3e2d.
     

  3. Issurin, Vladimir B. “Benefits and Limitations of Block Periodized Training Approaches to Athletes’ Preparation: A Review.” Sports Medicine, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 329–338., doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0425-5.
     

  4. Hopkins, Philip M. “Skeletal Muscle Physiology.” Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain, vol. 6, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1–6., doi:10.1093/bjaceaccp/mki062.
     

  5. Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 29, no. 10, 2015, pp. 2954–2963., doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000000958.
     

  6. https://thehubedu-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2522/e4348dcd-32e6-40aa-bf56-c6d8d4a31f63/Science_and_Practice_of_Strenght_Training_Vladimir_M._Zatsiorsky_.pdf
     

  7. Cunanan, Aaron J., et al. “The General Adaptation Syndrome: A Foundation for the Concept of Periodization.” Sports Medicine, vol. 48, no. 4, June 2018, pp. 787–797., doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0855-3.
     

  8. Moritani, Toshio, et al. “Critical Power as a Measure of Physical Work Capacity and Anaerobic Threshold.” Ergonomics, vol. 24, no. 5, 1981, pp. 339–350., doi:10.1080/00140138108924856.
     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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