Do You Need to Build Muscle to Be Stronger?

Do You Need to Build Muscle to Be Stronger?

The reason you’re probably on this site is to learn more and better ways to increase your strength. In fact, that was the top response in our recent reader survey.

Along those lines, one question I get all the time is, “how connected are adding muscle and building strength?

In other words, if you want to get stronger, should you be focused on adding muscle? Is there a difference between training optimized for power lifting vs. training optimized for body building?

Intuitively most of you know the answer. Think back to when you first started lifting, how much could you squat? Let’s say it was 100 lbs to make things easy. After a year how much could you squat? Maybe 200 lbs. Ok, so you doubled your max squat in your first year of lifting, do you think that means you doubled your muscle mass? Almost certainly not.

I mean, body builders are the most muscle bound lifters out there and yet, power lifters (on average) are much, much stronger.

There’s some research to back this up too. One scientific study looked at how efficiently body builders were able to use their muscles as compared to power athletes and found that the body builders had 62% less specific tension than power athletes. Specific tension is basically how efficiently you use your muscles, e.g. if you and I are both lean and have 30 inch legs, but you can squat 100 lbs and I can only squat 38 lbs, then I have 62% less specific tension.

So, even though body builders often have much more muscle, they usually aren’t able to recruit it half as well as power athletes!

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about adding muscle though. Hypertrophy is one of the primary factors we have control over to increase our strength. Other research has shown that increased muscle can account for about half of strength gains – though that varies dramatically from person to person.

If not from muscle gains, where does the rest of our strength come from then? Well, there are over 10 factors that effect strength, like: muscle fiber type, coordination, body proportions, etc. Some of these factors you have control over and others you’re pretty much stuck with (thanks a lot for the long legs mom and dad).

At a high level though, the rest of your strength comes from learning how to use the muscle mass you have more effectively and efficiently. Broadly speaking, these are neural adaptations where you improve things like muscle unit coordination and the intensity of signaling to fire your muscles – aka improving your specific tension.

So what’s a lifter to do? In short, unless you compete in a weight class sport, it’s probably a good idea to include a solid mix of hypertrophy and heavy work in your training.

This is one of the reasons why I think undulating periodized programs are fantastic for the average lifter. They provide day-to-day variation in your training and the format accommodates focuses for different days, e.g., heavy day, gains day, etc. For example, the Cult of Strength four day / week undulating program contains: a muscle building day, a power day, a heavy day and an accessory day. We’ve found this combo to be a great balance for building strength. So, give something similar a shot.

Alright, now get back to lifting that heavy shit.


Find Some Focus

Find Some Focus

The replies I get to the emails I send out and the posts I make on this site help me keep my finger on the pulse of what you and other lifters are struggling with each and every day. And it’s pretty damn fascinating.

I know what supplements you want to learn more about, I know what lifting programs you’re interested in, I hear about your lifting hopes / dreams / aspirations… I basically have my own little strength training equivalent of the National Security Agency… the National Strength Agency.

One theme I’ve noticed across most of the messages I get, is a lack of focus. This is when you find yourself jumping from program to program without ever finishing one. Or, maybe you’re trying to combine programs… “what if I mix the smolov squat cycle with a high volume deadlift program?” Here’s the answer… at best, improvements to your squat are attenuated, at worst you become overtrained, get hurt, bail out early and your strength actually decreases as a result.

Former NFLer and well known strength coach, John Welbourn famously referred to this as falling prey to the secret squirrel program. And all of this may seem like a minor thing, but I’m here to tell you it’s probably the number one reason why lifter’s experience strength plateaus.

When you elect to do the Smolov program, it’s because you heard some other lifter got a 40 pound PR on their squat after they did it. You want that, so you start. But, you may also want to lean out, increase your Clean & Jerk and start running. Many of these are competing goals and if you choose to pursue all at once, you’re basically resolving yourself to mediocre results at best.

Body builders catch a bad wrap, but as a group, they’re actually quite good at this focus thing. In their off season, they mass. When they focus on adding muscle mass and not losing fat, they can so optimally. Then before a competition they cut, because they know that exclusively focusing on losing fat rather than trying to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously is much more effective. As a result, they build crazy physiques – because that is their #1 goal.

So, today I challenge you to find focus in the gym. You want your squat to go up? Do smolov, but JUST smolov. You want to add muscle, then do a hypertrophy focused program and eat ALL OF THE FOOD. You want to lose fat, keep lifting, but cut your calories and don’t expect to set massive PRs in your lifts along the way.

If you do this, I promise, your results will outperform those of the other lifters around you without focus.

So, don’t fall prey to the secret squirrel program, find focus and LIFT ALL THE HEAVY SHIT.

Can You Gain Muscle AND Lose Fat?

Can You Gain Muscle AND Lose Fat?

Some of you want to get strong at any price. Excess fat? Who cares when you can deadlift a car. And while I applaud your “strength at any cost” mentality, you are definitely in the minority. If that’s you, go grab yourself some cheesecake and skip this post.

Most lifters are looking to add size and strength, but do so in a way that they can keep their body fat in check. You want to throw around some big weights in the gym, but also kinda look like you work out when you’re at the beach.

I totally get it.

One of the most common questions I get from readers is, “can I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, <someone> told me it’s not possible.”

That’s wrong. It is possible.

In 2016 a study was published where a group of young guys were put on a pretty restrictive diet. They had to cut nearly half their calories and maintain that diet over 4 weeks, but they did so in a strategic way. First, they lifted a couple times per week and did some HIIT training a couple days per week too.

Second, they ate a bunch of protein.  In fact, this was the main thing the study looked at. One group ate a lower amount of protein (0.5g of PRO / pound of bodyweight) while a second group ate more (1g of PRO / pound of bodyweight). The group that ate more, even though they were on a severe cut, ended up gaining over 2.5 lbs of lean mass over the 4 weeks. And that lean mass was gained while losing about 10 lbs of fat!

The lower protein group lost some serious fat too. They dropped over 7 lbs of fat… nothing to shake a stick at for sure. But, this lower protein group didn’t put on any muscle – though it should be noted that they managed not to lose any muscle either.

So, in the end, the 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight you always hear about as being the gold standard for protein intake seems to hold.

Before leaving you, I think one more point is important to make. This diet was extremely restrictive. Cutting your intake in half is not sustainable. Oh yeah, and another thing, just because you CAN lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, doesn’t mean it is optimal. Most lifters do best by focusing on massing phases and cutting phases.

But now you know, you can definitely lose fat and gain muscle at the same time – scientists have demonstrated it. All you need to do is lift (which I’m sure you’re already doing) and eat enough protein.

So, eat that protein and lift some heavy shit and you’ll be on your way to a leaner physique.


Back Pain After Squatting?

Back Pain After Squatting?

A question I get a lot of, in one form or another is: “My back hurts after I squat… what’s up with that?” Let’s begin with my answer… I have NO, FUCKING, IDEA. Now, I know, that’s not very helpful. But realize that there are so many reasons why your back may hurt after lifting, there’s no way for me to have the right answer for YOU. However, there are a couple very common reasons, so I figured I’d take some time to discuss them. Maybe this will help you, maybe it won’t. Ok, on to the most common source of back pain I see, tight hamstrings. Let’s be honest. Nobody wants to stretch. Nobody wants to do mobility work. We all just want to lift heavy shit in peace. That’s it. Is that too much to ask for? But, then that silly back pain creeps in and inhibits your ability to do what you love.

Assessing Your Hammies

Do me a favor. Take a quick break from this email. Lay flat on the floor. Now, keeping your right leg straight, lift it off the ground as high as you can. Go ahead. Go do that now. Alright, how high could you raise your leg? Probably not to 90 degrees (that’s perpendicular to the ground). Maybe nowhere close to that. This is just one assessment of hamstring flexibility, but it’s a damn good one. So, if you’re struggling to hit 90 degrees, you’ve got some work to do, and that tightness in your hamstring may be contributing to back pain (and may also be holding back your lifts). Now, there are a ton of hamstring stretches I can list here and you can watch a few of the videos, think to yourself, “yeah, I should probably do those,” then go back to not doing them. So, let’s hit the highlight reel. There are two things I’ve found to be super effective, that don’t take much time, for opening up those hammies.

  • Jefferson Curls – that’s right, a novel lift to add to your training that will help your hamstrings, it’s really meant to be a back strengthener, but it works… trust me
  • Supernova 2.0 – sitting your leg on this little fucker will change your life, it ain’t cheap, but if you spend just a couple minutes a day doing it, you will see huge change – and you can use it while watching tv – do it

So if you’re struggling with back pain OR you massively failed the hamstring mobility test outlined above, give the above two fixes a shot and let me know how it goes.

Flexibility Isn’t Always the Problem

The second most common issue I see is deficient lower back strength. If your legs are much stronger than your low back, it can lead to pain when (or after) squatting. In fact, a while back I sent an email to my subscribers with some tips on how to diagnose a leg-dominant squat. It went like this… “So, we know, if you’re able to get out of the hole relatively quickly, but you consistently hit a sticking point about halfway up – and especially if your knees tend to shift backwards at this sticking point, there’s a good chance you need to focus on your back…” Now, if that sounds like you and / or you have low back pain after squatting, it may be worth it to add some low back accessory work into your training. Some of my favorite movements are:

Back Extension  (I like to do this nice and slow on the way back up)

Romanian Deadlift

Barbell Good Morning

Any of these movements can be done with rep ranges around 5-10 in 3-5 sets. Don’t overload the movements. Make sure you focus on recruiting your back muscles and move well. If you try all of this mobility and back strengthening stuff and you still have pain after squatting, it’s best to go visit a chiro or PT and get checked out. You shouldn’t have pain after lifting, it’s a sign that something is wrong. And if you want to keep lifting for the foreseeable future, don’t be a dumbass, get it checked out. -Coach

Are Squats & Deadlifts Core Training?

Are Squats & Deadlifts Core Training?

The alternate title for this article is, Can You Get a Six-Pack From Just Squats and Deads?

It’s become accepted knowledge in most gyms and to most lifters that if you’re doing these compound movements, you don’t need to do core isolation movements. Science has proven they’re superior. Rejoice! No more side bends, sit ups or bicycle crunches.

The problem is that this “common knowledge” is based on a flawed, sensationalized interpretation of the research.

The studies that are often cited to back up the claim that squats and deads are superior for your core can be found here and here. Go ahead and read them. I’ll wait…. Just kidding. I’ll save you the time and outline the issues with the interpretation of those papers.

In the first study, the researchers are looking exclusively at the deep core muscles. There is nothing wrong with that. They found that squats and deads seem to be just as effective as isolated core movements for activating these deep muscles. However, they didn’t look at the surface muscles: rectus abdominis and obliques. So, if you’re interested in that six pack, this study doesn’t really provide any clues for you.

The second study actually compared squats & deads to isolation movements for the posterior core, not the anterior core. So, again… great information if you’re interested in understanding the impact of these movements on your back side, but no info for the front! It may seem crazy, but this is the way the media runs away with stories. They see a study was conducted looking at compound movements against isolation movements, barely even read the abstract and then start cranking out the hype.

So, feel free to use the hype machine to inform your training, but for me… I’m going to keep those weighted knee raises and the ab roller in my training. Don’t get my wrong, I’m still squatting and deadlifting religiously, but in addition to being able to pick up a car – it’s nice to look good at the beach too.

Now you have the information. Use it to design training around your core needs / goals. So, go forth, lift heavier shit AND look good doing it.