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.