A Well Rounded Programming Approach For Building Muscle & Strength
The days of narrow minded programming for building muscle mass and developing strength are behind us. Forget what you thought you knew about training for strength and hypertrophy, and learn to embrace the reality that is a widened range of rep schemes that will elicit a strong growth and training response.
Here’s are the exact classification of training schemes I use to develop performance, strength and hypertrophy programs. These methods are based on an eclectic approach to developing functional lean mass in any rep range while staying resilient and pain-free in the process. And any rep range even includes cardiovascular activities. Yes, I said cardio.
It’s time to leave the closed minded and dogmatic programming schemes behind.
The Traditional Power Scheme
Rep Range: 1-4 REPS
There’s a myth circulating that you can’t build muscle training the big lifts in the power rep ranges that vary between 1-4 reps. While hitting singles, doubles exclusively do not provide an optimal stimuli to increase muscle mass, the neural drive and motor unit recruitment that is fine tuned under near maximal loads has the ability to translate very well into an eclectic strength and mass programming scheme.
A powerful phenomenon happens when you step up to a maximally loaded barbell with the goal of moving it like a boss… your mental focus and physical preparation before the lift become fine tuned as literally every variable you have at your disposal must be locked in in order to perform the lift successfully. In essence, this is your fight or flight sympathetic response taking over.
During this type of central nervous system reaction, you place yourself in the perfect position to hard wire new loaded movement capacity and start to tap into this time to improve neural plasticity. Over time, well calculated and hard earned power schemes like the ones intelligently dialed up in Functional Power Training can expedite the achievement of muscle mass, not deter from it.
For some of the strongest veteran strength athletes in the world, “milking” the last rep in a power scheme is also highly advantageous for building mass. After your last programmed rep, hold the bar with a maximal full body contraction to increase time under tension and hard wire what it feels like to have a maximal load stabilized. This is a simple celebratory addition to any hard earned set.
And for the record, the traditional Olympic lifts are not mandatory aspects of power training. Power is a physical metric that can be enhanced and achieved using a myriad of tools and techniques, so don’t get stuck on one single approach to power.
Programming For Pure Strength Development
Rep Range: 4-8 REPS
No intelligently programmed hypertrophy program is complete without a heavy emphasis placed on the development and maintenance of base strength capacity through the traditional strength rep scheme. Strength transcends every type of athletic endeavor, and the goal of muscular hypertrophy is no exception to that rule.
Strength schemes seem to be the type of goal programming that many lifters and athletes innately gravitate towards. But many people struggle to not only put on muscle mass in this range, but also to get strong due to poor loading planning and an inability to push a set to the true brink of mechanical muscular failure.
Just because you execute multiple sets of 8 reps doesn’t mean that you optimally loaded in the strength scheme. Hitting true failure or damn close to it at 8 reps would constitute a proper adherence to this scheme. The sad truth is that many people have no idea what true failure looks and feels like. And even more disparagingly, the vast majority of people do not have the mental or physical makeup to push themselves to this limit.
This is the honest reason for many failed strength and mass goals. A close second is the paralysis by analysis that takes place while sorting through highly subjective and individualistic percentage based power and strength recommendations.
My recommendation? Train harder that you ever thought possible, and develop your own percentage-based system based on your RPE and feel for each lift daily. This comes with time, but so does building muscle and strength.
Hypertrophy Training For Functional Muscle Building
Rep Range: 8-15 REPS
Muscular hypertrophy has been deeply researched for decades. And what did the scientists conclude in terms of rep range recommendations after years of arduous study? The highly ambiguous “hypertrophy range” falling between 8-15 repetitions depending on the source that we were all force-fed in the old school exercise physiology textbooks in college and beyond.
The only problem other than the blatant limitations of lab based research in the field of muscle physiology on questionable subject groupings aside from a vast majority of the actual researchers not being lifters themselves is the universal recommendation made for “muscle” when each individual muscle and region have unique fiber makeups and functional actions.
Lets take the always-popular rotator cuff for instance. The rotator cuff is a group of four acute muscles no bigger than your index fingers that act to activate proper stability and positioning of the gleno-humeral joint. So based on the universal hypertrophy range recommendation, you could add mass to these tiny muscles by simply hammering loaded movements in these ranges and getting close to failure.
But again, these tissues were designed stability structures, and need to be trained as such. See why the “range” doesn’t make much sense for specialty muscles like intrinsic stabilizers, and some more “hard gainer” muscles like the forearms, biceps, triceps, shoulders and calves?
The lesson here is to match the tissues with their primary actions. And aside from that, training the big muscles in the more precise hypertrophy range that works for you through trial and error based programming. Don’t be that guy who bitches and moans when he can’t put on muscle and points to chapter 4 of the textbook entitled “muscle hypertrophy” in dismay. Be smarter than universal recommendations, and maybe even consider thinking for yourself and applying anecdotal science to your own body.
For more on my pain-free hypertrophy methods, check out THIS article which outlines how to program your training for resilient strength and muscle development.
Muscular Endurance Schemes For Improved Tissue Capacity
Rep Range: 15-25 REPS
To say that lifters get a bit anxious at the very thought of “endurance” being programmed into their training would be an understatement. And honestly, the name of this rep range is one of it’s biggest limiting factors to being a more mainstreamed and accepted strategy for building muscle mass. Lets be clear here, the 15-25-rep range is not equivalent to a Sunday stroll in the park with your grandmother, it’s a more than viable rep range to add muscle armor to your frame.
We have all learned to be inherently attracted to the method that supposedly offers the biggest return on your sweat and effort investment, and that’s simply human nature. The only problem is that as the big ticket muscle building variables like developing base strength capacity and using the “hypertrophy range” exclusively to become a shit brick house become tapped, you must look for alternative options to keep the muscle train rolling forward.
If you think about the fast twitch type IIx fiber being the sexy big ROI type muscle, you can think of the slower twitch I fiber being the more undervalued and undertrained type muscle that is often times untapped. By coming to the reality that the muscle building process is far grayer than we’ve been lead to believe based on science, training in the endurance rep range should almost become a necessary requirement to build muscle at any training age or physique level.
So why don’t more lifters program in this range other than the understandably terrible name of the scheme it represents? Because training in this range is fucking hard. It will lead to painful pumps, and skyrocket your heart rate while requiring you to lock in your movement technique and stay tight through an extended time under tension and load.
Learn to set your ego aside and embrace the intelligently designed hurt, and maybe you’ll be able to spark growth in a range that you’ve always scoffed at. Or just stay small and weak, that’s your other option.
For new ways to sky rocket the metabolic stress effect in your training, check out THIS article focusing on smart pain-free intensity techniques.
Using Metabolic Stress To Elicit The Pump Effect
Rep Range: 25+
It’s true that lifters love to chase a nasty pump as it provides the power of instant gratification that many of are fueled on, but the question remains, does metabolic stress play a role in the hypertrophy of muscle fibers or is all that pumping leading to little to no long term gains?
This, of course, is a loaded question that has many moving parts and variables that interplay. But that being said, I believe that as a stand alone, metabolic stress can play a huge role in building muscle mass. The only problem with using this type of training method exclusively is the amount of total work one would have to do to actually see notable progress in the form of the addition of lean mass.
Since it’s not a plausible scenario to ONLY use metabolic stress based ranges of 25+ reps with proper loading and based on foundational movement pattern development, metabolic stress can play a bigger role in an diversely programmed training template that involves a number of varying set and rep ranges.
Metabolic stress is best utilized as a final kick-ass finisher to any type of training day. Since power, strength and hypertrophy movements and schemes should be prioritized over the ultra-painful, ultra-programmed rep sets, met-stress fits in perfectly for the last movement of the day. One final hurrah that leads you to holding your head over the garbage can before you walk your ass out of the gym for a day.
Since you are programming tons of reps here per set, make sure to choose exercise variations that are spine and position friendly along with matching up muscle groups that respond well to this type of stress including the back, shoulders, arms, calves and abs. Embrace the suck, and keep rest periods short. That’s how you’ll grow in any rep range.
Using Cardio To Improve Tissue Tolerance & Efficiency
Rep Range: Varied Ranges
I was never a believer that traditional cardio had the ability to enhance muscle mass. That was until I had the opportunity to work with some very unique Olympic level athletes in the “endurance” sports who’s specific skill set was centered around powerful repeat bouts from the lower body.
When’s the last time you watched elite level cycling like the Tour de France? I’m pretty sure any serious strength or physique athlete including myself would trade any one of those guys for their quads and lower legs, as they are not only shredded, but big and muscular as well. But… don’t they just ride bikes all day? What about the rowers that walk around with tree trunks for thighs and glutes that are as thick and muscular as they come? They spend a lot of time rowing their asses around the water, don’t they?
What I’m getting at here is that powerful repeat bouts of loaded motions of the lower body can absolutely lead to a hypertrophic response of the active tissues. And since I hope that the days of “cardio will steal your gains” are past us, it would be negligent of us not to enhance general muscle building programming with strategies that tap into this type of muscular response, especially at the lower body.
Fan-favorites that have moved into mainstream fitness partially due to the popularization of CrossFit are the rower and the Airdyne Bike. Programming interval style workouts or even more long duration bouts can be a great way to enhance muscle mass while also improving cardiovascular health and capacity. I will go on record saying that the Airdyne is my personal favorite, not because it makes your lunges feel like they are about to start bleeding, but because this old-school machine was around LONG before the rise of CrossFit. I guess CrossFit can’t lay claim to everything in the industry.
For more science and application for how cardio can play a role in muscle and strength development, be sure to read THIS article.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL and MLB All-Star performers, and professionals from 11 different sports. He has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional physique athletes.
His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully implemented by over 25,000 athletes worldwide including his best selling training system Functional Power Training, which has revolutionized the way coaches and athletes develop strength, muscle and performance pain-free. Dr. Rusin’s work has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus.