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Strength vs Size and Optimal Frequency Training

by Kelly Baggett

It could be said that gaining strength is relatively unimportant for a bodybuilder due to the fact that the muscles don’t know how much weight you’re lifting, they only know tension. This is true – particularly in the acute sense. Over the next month you probably could gain 7 pounds of muscular bodyweight and an inch on your arms without gaining an ounce of strength. However, the ability to gain size without strength is a very short-term thing that tends to only take place over very short periods of time. For continuous long-term gains in hypertrophy you need to be directing greater and greater amounts of tension to your musculature. In this sense, strength gains are ultra important for the bodybuilder simply due to the fact that more strength equates to more tension you can direct to your muscles. If you fail to make strength gains over time you’ll spin your wheels and go nowhere.

Recovering For Strength vs Recovering For Size

However, the problem with training on a training split dedicated towards moving the heaviest weights possible is that the amount of workout volume and recovery between workouts that is optimal to demonstrate maximum strength tends to be not enough volume and too much rest for what is optimal for maximum hypertrophy. Strength is largely about the ability of the nervous system to fire and coordinate your muscles. Whenever you induce muscular trauma, you also induce neural fatigue. Strength is best demonstrated with a fully fresh nervous system and muscles. This is why powerlifters tend to train with lower workout volumes than bodybuilders and also why they will often reduce the volume of training in the month prior to a meet and then take a full week off just before a meet.

So if one really wants to be strong they should train with fairly low volume and recover well. The problem with waiting for full strength to return between workouts before hitting the muscle again is that your muscles only grow for a few days after a workout before they start to shrink back to normal. So, you might do that gut busting squat workout today and find that you have to rest a week before you can improve upon that workout. By the time you hit the workout again you might be a bit stronger but the same size as you were the last time. This is why may people who used old low volume/ low frequency hardgainer routines found that they got stronger but gains in muscle size came quite slow.

Optimizing Frequency For Size

Optimum muscular hypertrophy stimulation entails hitting a muscle group fairly frequently and with a fair amount of volume. The problem with hitting a muscle with enough frequency and volume to truly optimize growth, is that strength gains can be hard to come by due to the excessive fatigue generated with that type of training. But if you really wanna gain 10 quick pounds, high volume and high frequency training will certainly do it. You probably won’t make any strength gains but for short term optimization in hypertrophy you might try something like the old 3 on 1 off routine that every bodybuilder and their brother did in the 80’s: Chest, shoulders and tris one day, back, traps and bis the next, and legs the next. Take a day off and repeat. Do about 12 sets of 8-12 reps per muscle group and eat at least 20 calories per pound of bodyweight. That will put some quick muscle size on you but long term it’s an exercise in futility for the average person and here’s why:

The adaptations to increased volume that contribute to growth take place relatively quickly. Your body will initially adapt to this volume with a fast increase in muscle size over the course of about 6 weeks. However, once you’ve hit the point where your muscles have adapted, you will hit a wall. In order to continue to improve you need to either train with even more volume or increase the tension (load) from your existing volume. You’re already performing 20-24 sets per muscle group per week – what are you supposed to do, increase this to 40 sets? Then 60? Then 100? Additionally, even with 24 sets per week your system will be too worn down to ever really put any weight on the bar. These factors make the chronically high volume option a poor choice for ongoing gains.

Yet another problem with frequency is that individual muscles vary in how many days it takes them to recover. Lower back takes 7-10 days. Legs might take 4-6 days. Chest might take 3-5 days. Arms might take 2-3 days. Calves and forearms might take 1 day. Thus, training on a strict body-part split really doesn’t optimize the frequency necessary to optimize growth.

So what to do? Well there are a few options: You could hit a muscle group once per week. A routine based on that philosophy might look like this:


Bench Press 3 x 6-8

Incline Press, or incline Fly 2 x 10-12

Military Press 2 x 6-8

Tricep (skull crushers) Extensions 2 x 10-12


Pull-Up 3 sets to failure

Barbell Row 2 x 8

Dumbell Curl 2 x 10

Heavy Abs 3 x 10


Squats 3 x 10

Deadlifts, or Stiff-Legged Deadlift 2 x 10

Leg Curls or Glute/Ham Raises 2 x 8

Most people will find strength gains are consistent and good on this style of routine, yet your muscle gains would come at a snails pace. You could also train twice a week per muscle group with higher volume. You’d probably make good muscular gains for about 2 weeks but then you’d spend the next year spinning your wheels due to lack of strength.

The Heavy/Light Split For Bodybuilders

What I personally recommend is some version of a heavy/light split. You hit a muscle group at least twice during the week. One workout is designed to stimulate strength gains with balls to the wall all out training where the focus is on setting strength PRs. Then a few days later you hit the muscle again but with a lighter workout designed to stimulate some hypertrophy without draining all your strength. Then you wait a few more days and hit the heavy workout once again for more strength PRs. The lighter workout can come about either through hitting the muscle indirectly (such as a military press for shoulders on the heavy day and incline press indirectly a few days later) or by hitting it directly but with less intensity than used in the “heavy” workout. (Such as flat bench DB press for chest on the heavy day and a flye variation on the light day). The end result is you optimize recovery for heavy intense workouts so you can make progressively dramatic increases in strength and you also use enough frequency and volume per body-part to optimize growth.

Setting Up A Routine

There are at least as many ways of setting up a heavy/light routine as there are letters in the alphabet, but here are a couple of options:

Option 1

** denotes immediately following the last heavy set with optional drop set, rest-pause, static-hold, superset with an isolation exercise, or other high intensity technique.

Monday: heavy chest and back, light shoulders and arms

Pressing variation – work up to heavy set of 8-10 **

Pulling or rowing variation – work up to max set of 8-10 **

Side lateral variation – 2 x 12-15

Incline curl – 2 x 12-15

Pushdown – 2 x 12-15

Tuesday: off

Wednesday: Heavy quads, light hams and glutes

Squat- work up to max set of 8-10

Leg press or hack squat- 1 x 15-20

Leg curl – 2 x 8-12

Calf raise – 3 x 10-10-10 triple drop (with 2 second pause at the bottom of each rep)

Thursday: off

Friday: Heavy shoulders and arms, light chest and back

Military press- up to max set of 8 **

Preacher curl – work up to max set of 10 **

C.G. bench or dip – work up to max set of 12 **

Cable x-over – 2 x 12-15

Pullover – 2 x 12-15

Saturday: Heavy hams and glutes, light quads, calves

Deadlift or rack pull – up to max set of 8

Hack squats, Front squats, or lunges – 2 x 12-15 (light)

Leg Curls or glute ham- 2 x 6-8 **

Toe press on leg press machine- 4 x 20

Sunday: off

When I say, “work up to 1 max set of rep number” that doesn’t mean you’d only perform one set per movement. It means that you’d work up to at least one all out set over a predetermined rep range. In reality. you might perform 3-5 sets per movement gradually increasing weight. For example, if I were going for one all out set of 100 pound dumbells for 10 reps my prior sets might look like this:

Pushups x 10
feet elevated pushups x 10
50 pound dumbells x 5
80 pound dumbells x 5
100 pound dumbells x 10 (good hard effort)
100 pound dumbells x 9 (trying to beat 10 reps and came up a little short)

So my best effort was 100 pound dumbells for 10 reps. The next time I did this workout I’d try to beat the 10 rep set. As soon as I could get 12 reps with 100 pounds I’d increase the weight.

The volume and frequency of the above routine is such that some people with poor recovery may have a hard time making strength gains on this routine. If that’s the case I recommend you set-up 2 different workouts and rotate through them on an every other day basis with the weekends off. Each time you repeat a workout you’d change what order the muscles get worked. The workouts would look like this:

Workout #1: Horizontal pushing (chest), Vertical pushing (shoulders), Vertical Pulling (lats), elbow extension (triceps)

Workout #2: Elbow flexion (biceps), forearms, Quadricep dominant (squats), hip/hamstring dominant (deadlifts), calves

Workout #3: Vertical pushing (Shoulders), Horizontal pulling (rows), Horizontal pushing (chest)

Workout #4: Forearms, elbow flexion (biceps), calves, hip/ham dominant (deadlifts), quad dominant (hack squat or leg press)

So, the first upper body workout you’d do Chest, Shoulders, Lats and triceps in that order. The next time you hit that workout you’d do shoulders, rows, triceps and chest and that order. The first leg workout you’d do squats followed by leg curls. The next leg workout you’d do deadlifts or stiff-legged deadlifts followed by hack squats or leg presses.

In my opinion, if, over the course of a workout a body-part is already getting hit pretty hard indirectly, prior to you hitting it directly, it’s best to use isolation movements for that body-part.

Thus, when working shoulders after chest you’d be best served by using an isolation lateral variation instead of a compound military press. Your triceps and front delts would be too fatigued from the chest movement to give it your true all in a set of military presses, yet your side delts would still be fresh. When working chest after shoulders you’d be best served by using an isolation exercise like flyes or crossovers instead of a compound pressing movement or dip, due to the fact that your shoulders and triceps would be too fatigued to give it your all in a chest pressing movement.

When working quads before hips and hamstrings you’d use free weight squats. But if you had already hit hips and hams with deadlifts prior to working your quads you’d be better off using hack squats or leg presses to spare your lower back.

Hopefully that gives you some ideas on optimizing a training split.

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