HomeArticlesMike Arnold

Is Pump-Training Undermining the Importance of Progressive Resistance?


by Mike Arnold

Training moves in cycles, with each generation of bodybuilders being influenced by the training styles of those pros which define it. History attests to this fact, as do those who have been around long enough to witness it, but for now I am going to bypass the pros and cons of particular training styles and instead point out a common denominator among all professional bodybuilders—the ability to lift large amounts of weight. While strength levels can and do vary widely due to differences in bone structure, muscle attachments, muscle fiber type ratios, muscle fiber recruitment, etc, one thing all of these men have in common is the ability to lift heavy weights. Regardless of their training style, every pro went through a period of time in which his training weights increased significantly and it was during this time that the majority of his mass was built.

Unfortunately, many aspiring bodybuilders lose sight of this fact and instead of concentrating on what matters most, they begin focusing on those aspects of training which, when applied by themselves, do little to stimulate muscle growth. I am talking about things like getting a muscle pump, achieving a mind-muscle connection, maintaining constant tension, getting a full stretch and contraction, making the muscle burn, etc. Although all of these things can increase the effectiveness of one’s training and should not be neglected, the truth is that they are only marginally effective at enhancing progress in the absence of progressive resistance. If you doubt this, consider the following.

How many bodybuilders do you know who can bench presses 405 X 10 that have a small chest? How many bodybuilders do you know who can full squat 600 lbs X 10 that have small legs? How many bodybuilders do you know who can strict curl 185 lbs X 10 that have small biceps? To put it another way, do you know anyone with a chest like Haney or Arnold that can only bench 200 lbs X 10? Do you know anyone who has back like Yates or Coleman that can only handle a couple hundred pounds on rows? I could go on, but I don’t think it is necessary. The point here is that you are never going to see a man of average strength displaying freaky levels of muscle mass. Conversely, you are never going to see a man who lifts crazy weights on all the basic lifts that isn’t extremely large.

So, it doesn’t really matter what style of training you employ as long as you are able to continue progressing in terms of strength development. It could be traditional high volume training, H.I.T, Fortitude Training, DC Training, Mountain Dog Training or whatever. I don’t care what it is as long as your weights keep moving upward at a satisfactory rate. After all, history has shown us that many different styles of training can potentially build impressive strength in bodybuilders and therefore muscle mass. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Typically, a bodybuilder runs into problems when his training style is no longer sufficient for supporting further gains in strength. There are many possible reasons for why this might occur, but when it happens the bodybuilder is left with only one option—change. Otherwise, he is going to remain pretty much the same size from that point onward. Sure, he might gain a little bit of size by improving other aspects of his training, such as employing the training principle listed above, but these will only take him so far. In fact, I would estimate that a bodybuilder’s size potential is 80-85%+ dependent on the ability to make strength gains in the hypertrophy rep range. This is precisely why you will never see a weak man carrying pro-level size or a very strong man looking like a toothpick. Size and strength are directly correlated, despite genetic difference in leverage, muscle fiber type, CNS refinement, etc. The bottom line is that if you increase your strength you will get bigger. Substantially increase your strength and you will get bigger still.

Let’s look at the strength trajectories of some well known bodybuilders and compare it with their rate of development. Dorian Yates is a great example. Dorian first began training in 1983 and 9 years later won his first Olympia title in 1992. By 1993 he had set a new standard for size, but after that he remained roughly that same size for the rest of his Olympia career. During training Dorian was well known for placing progressive resistance at the top of his priority list and as a result, he made progress rapidly. In fact, he made considerable gains in muscle mass every year from 1983 all the way through 1993. But what was it that occurred post-1993 that stopped him from getting any bigger? Certainly, he had approached the upper-limit of his genetic potential, but what was it about his training in particular that changed? In short, he stopped getting stronger. Sure, he made small strength gains on certain exercises as the years went by, which allowed him to make small improvements in those areas, but for the most part his strength levels remained somewhat static. It is no coincidence that as soon as Dorian stopped making gains in strength he stopped gaining size. This was not for lack of trying however, as Dorian continued employing progressive resistance all the way to the end. His body had simply reached its strength limit, which made further gains in size incredibly difficult to achieve.

What about Ronnie Coleman? Although his training style couldn’t have been more different than Dorian’s, they shared one very important characteristic in their training—an intense focus on making strength gains. Unlike many other bodybuilders who grew up in an environment void of the powerlifting mind-set, Ronnie Coleman spent the vast majority of his years as a bodybuilder training at Metroflex gym; a hardcore sweatbox known for its extreme emphasis on moving big weights on all the basic lifts. In fact, for the first several years of Ronnie’s training life he trained just as much like a powerlifter as he did a bodybuilder, working his way up to some prodigious poundages on the Big 3. Ronnie carried this mentality over into his bodybuilding career and never lost sight of its importance, making progressive resistance a staple of his training program.

Like Dorian, Ronnie continued gaining strength into his Olympia years…all the through his 6th or 7th Olympia win in 2003-2004. Anyone who was following bodybuilding at that time will remember when Ronnie walked out onto the 2003 Olympia stage, as that was the year he blew everyone away (both competitors and observers) by carrying 287 lbs of shredded muscle mass. Ronnie set a new standard for size that day, but it was during his previous off-season that he became known as the strongest bodybuilder of his era (and maybe all-time). The cause and effect relationship here is obvious, guys. If you want to maximize your potential as a bodybuilder, you must come damn close to maximizing your potential in the strength department.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what pro we use as an example, as all of them gained the majority of their mass while increasing their training weights. As soon as a bodybuilder stops getting stronger, pro or not, size gains either slow way down or stop altogether. Now, some of you reading this may be thinking “if making strength gains is so important, why do so many pros talk about the importance of focusing on the pump, proper rep performance, maintaining constant tension, and so on?” The reason is simple. They have reached a point in their bodybuilding journey where making additional, significant strength gains just isn’t possible, regardless of what they do. Therefore, they are left with no choice but to try and make improvements through other methods, despite their limited potential to build size.

Furthermore, even if these bodybuilders did have the genetic potential to make additional, somewhat significant strength gains, pursuing this goal long-term is likely to result in injury. By the time a bodybuilder has been training for 1-2 decades with very heavy weights, continually trying to exceed one’s limits is a risky proposition. In almost cases, once a bodybuilder has come this close to maximizing his strength potential, he is better off re-prioritizing his training to include other forms of growth stimulation with greater frequency. Those who refuse to do so often end up cutting their careers short via injury. Dorian is a good example of someone who continued pushing the envelope long after progressive resistance was no longer doing him any favors. In cost him several torn muscles and ultimately put him out of the game prematurely.

There will always be risks associated with progressive resistance, but taking this risk is a necessity for all bodybuilders, particularly when trying to grow. Only after one has built all the mass they need (usually doesn’t happen) or has approached the upper-limit of their strength potential should they begin to back away from progressive resistance. As stated above, making progressive resistance the core of one’s training does not and should not mean that other methods/principles are neglected. Things like developing a mind-muscle connection, employing proper rep performance, getting a pump, etc, are all part of an effective, comprehensive training program and should be combined with progressive resistance for best results. However, prioritizing those things over strength gains is only going to hold you back—potentially quite severely.

So, while there are many things that an aspiring bodybuilder can learn from a pro, he must be careful to remember that a pro’s current focus is different than what is was when he was building his initial foundation of muscle mass. Certainly, there are pros out there who currently focus on progressive resistance, but this is usually the younger guys who are still trying to fill-out their physiques and have plenty of room left to make further strength gains. Dallas McCarver is a great example and consequently, he has been making tremendous improvements from year to year. Regardless, the point is that unless you are in the same place as a professional bodybuilder, there is a very good possibility that you shouldn’t be training like him.

As stated in the article title, a renewed emphasis on pump-training seems to be influencing an ever-growing number of younger bodybuilders to put down the heavy weights and take up volume training. While volume training can certainly be effective and I do believe there is a place for it in the training programs of bodybuilders, the truth is that a relatively large percentage of bodybuilders simply aren’t able to maximize their strength development with this form of training. Impressive strength gains may take place initially—when the bodybuilder is just starting out, but after a while these gains tend to slow down and eventually stop. Rather than re-evaluating their situation, many just keep plugging away…doing the same thing year after year and as a result, they usually don’t achieve much more than an intermediate level of development.

There is one main reason for this—overtraining of the muscular and/or nervous system. This is most often caused by excessive volume and/or training too frequently. You see, the body has a limited capacity to recover from and adapt to stress. It is from this limited pool of resources that the body must both recover and grow if we hope to make progress. However, if we use up too much of the body’s resources on recovery (via excessive volume and/or training frequency), there won’t be enough left to maximize the compensation process (i.e. growth). The body prioritizes recovery over growth, so when it is forced to choose between the two, it is going to pick recovery every time. Furthermore, volume training tends to include a lot of (as Dante Trudel would say) “fluff” training, which is really just another way is saying a bunch of unnecessary bullshit. This is not to say that some exercises don’t have value…because under the right circumstances all exercises potentially have value, but when trying to maximize muscle growth it is important to stick with the most effective exercises (those which draw on the largest amount of muscle fiber) when structuring your routine. By performing a bunch of exercises that stimulate the muscle with less than optimal efficacy, we make unnecessary inroads into our recovery ability, which prevents us from taking full advantage of the most effective mass-builders.

While I am not suggesting that you avoid all isolation exercises (some isolation exercises are vital for making maximum mass gains in certain bodyparts, such as side and rear laterals for delts, or curls for biceps, for example), I am suggesting that you minimize unnecessary overlap. What I mean by that is that once you have worked a certain area of a muscle with a primary mass-builder (an exercise which draws on a maximum amount of muscle fibers), there is no reason to continue hammering that same area with multiple less effective exercises…or even with additional primary mass-builders. You want to stimulate growth and then move on. Doing anything beyond what is necessary to deliver a maximal growth stimulus is counterproductive, as it will encroach upon the body’s recovery ability and in turn, reduce the amount of resources allocated towards growth.

I am not going to sit here and tell you what training program is best, as there is no single best program. However, the lesson I want you to take away from all this is that if your current program is no longer allowing you to make strength gains, or they have slowed down to a crawl, you need to make changes. If you are in this situation and have been using a high volume routine, you will probably best be served by gravitating towards a lower volume approach. I am not necessary advocating super-low set training (although a H.I.T program, such as DC, is often extremely effective in these situations), but to cut back on the total number of sets and exercises you do for each bodypart, while also structuring your routine around compound exercises with a solid track record of effectiveness. This can be a hard change for many bodybuilders to make, as one must develop a new mind-set before being able to fully invest in the program on an emotional level.

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