1. There are six key factors that largely determine how much you can lift.
2. Of these, muscle size is the only one that’s impacted strongly by training choices in the long run.
3. Although focusing on heavy (85%1rm+) lifting CAN build muscle mass, “bodybuilding” style training is a much more efficient and effective way to maximize hypertrophy.
4. Very advanced lifters may benefit from an increased focus on training specificity, but to make the most of this style of training, it helps to have a solid muscular base first.
Say to a normal gymgoer, “Hey, you’re pretty big. You must be a bodybuilder,” and most will beam from ear to ear, thanking you for the compliment, before saying they don’t compete, but they’re glad you noticed their swole (it’s a noun. Deal with it).
Say to the average powerlifter, “Hey, you’re pretty big. You must be a bodybuilder,” and you will almost certainly be subjected to a self-righteous lecture/rant about how bodybuilders just have big non-functional muscles, how lifting to increase strength is the only worthwhile training goal, and how powerlifting and bodybuilding could not be more opposite pursuits, and (may he add), he’s quite offended that you had the gall to imply that he, with his Inzer belt, SBD knee sleeves, and 13-inch arms, could possibly be a member of the vain, self-obsessed, weak, non-functional breed of squat rack curlers known as bodybuilders.
The point of this article is to address how off-base that sentiment is. The first part of the article will cover the factors that go into picking up heavy things. The second part will cover why powerlifters should train more like bodybuilders, and what exactly that means.
Why some people lift more and others lift less
There are, by my count, six factors that largely determine how much weight you can lift right now:
- Muscle size
- Muscle fiber types
- Segment lengths (height, limb lengths, torso length, etc.)
- Motor learning factors
- Muscle origins and insertions
A bigger muscle, all other things being equal (and those “other things” are the rest of this section), is a stronger muscle. There’s no way around it – past a point, you simply have to grow. I won’t harp on this one too much more, as I’ll be talking about it in more detail later.
Muscle Fiber Types
I wanted to get this one out of the way early, because it’s often misunderstood. Most people are under the assumption that you’ll lift more if you have a greater proportion of type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers.
However, that belief is based on a misunderstanding of terms.
Type I muscle fibers and Type II muscle fibers differ in several major ways. Type I muscle fibers are less fatiguable (making them great for endurance exercise) and take longer to reach maximal force when stimulated. Type II fibers, on the other hand, are more fatiguable but can reach maximal force much faster when stimulated (making them great for power-dependent exercise).
However, the maximal force production for a given area of Type I fibers is almost exactly the same as the maximal force production for a given area of Type II fibers. Type II fibers simply reach maximal force output sooner, making them better for power-dependent activities like sprinting or jumping. Powerlifting, though (contrary to what the name may lead you to believe), is NOT a power-dependent sport. Power output actually peaks around 30-60%1rm and is quite low with maximal loads.
All of which means, fiber type distribution doesn’t influence how much you can lift very much at all.
1) Type II fibers are more responsive to strength training and grow more than Type I fibers do, so fiber type distribution may limit long-term strength potential somewhat. However, that’s purely theoretical, because research has shown that elite powerlifters (average squat/deadlift of about 285kg/630lbs, and bench 170kg/375lbs) actually have about the same Type I/Type II fiber ratio as untrained people, which leads you to believe the sport itself didn’t select for people with a fiber ratio skewed toward Type II. So it may be a concern for someone with an unusually high proportion of Type I fibers, but it won’t be for the vast majority of people.
2) Since Type II fibers reach peak force output faster than Type I fibers, there’s a small chance that they’ll allow for more speed to be developed off the chest on bench, out of the hole on squat, or off the floor on deadlift, and that speed may help you get max weights through the sticking point of the lift more effectively.
However, that’s a bit of a stretch for both squat and bench because the muscles are already contracting quite hard to control the weight while lowering it; for max loads, all your slow twitch fibers are probably recruited already (since they’re the ones recruited first – Henneman’s Size Principle) before you reverse the weight, so regardless of fiber type breakdown, the additional fibers activated as you reverse the lifts are primarily fast twitch anyways.
And for deadlift, most people are weakest off the floor. You may miss the lift above the knee, but that doesn’t actually mean you’re not weakest off the floor. Yes, that’s confusing, but it’s not a thread worth pursuing in this article – I’ll cover it more in an upcoming article. So taking longer to reach maximal force output would mainly just affect how long it took for the bar to break the floor, not the speed of the lift itself.
Keep in mind, I’m only saying fiber type distribution is largely unimportant for powerlifting. For other sports, it certainly matters. More Type I fibers are beneficial for endurance events, and more Type II fibers are beneficial for power-dependent sports.
So far, we’ve been talking about how much force a muscle can contract with. Now we’re talking about the torque required to produce movement at a joint.
Torque takes into account both the force applied and the length of the lever (or moment arm) it’s applied against. Basic application: If you’re sitting on a seesaw and someone much larger is sitting across from you, if you’re both sitting at the end of your respective sides, the other person will be sitting on the ground, and you’ll be way up in the air. If they move closer to the middle (the fulcrum), it can balance out the seesaw, even though they’re larger.
So, let’s say two people are squatting, and everything is the same about them (same basic technique, same level of training, same amount of muscle mass, etc.) except that one of them has longer femurs. That means that either the moment arm the quads are working against to extend the knees (the distance between the knee and the center of mass – roughly mid-foot), the moment arm the glutes/adductors/hamstrings are working against to extend the hip, or both will be longer for the person with longer femurs. That means that his muscles will have to contract harder (produce more force) to produce the required torque to squat a given weight.
Femur and torso length affect both squats and deadlifts in this manner. Additionally, total height factors in as well – since the length of basically all segments will be longer, it requires more muscular force to produce the requisite torque to lift any given load. Finally, arm length is important for both deadlift (shortens the ROM making the lift easier) and bench press (increases the total ROM).
However, taken as a whole, segment lengths really don’t matter too much for OVERALL powerlifting performance. For starters, you’re probably not as special of a snowflake as you think you are. Although there is some variability in relative segment lengths, it’s usually less than 10% except for extreme outliers (so that guy who squats twice as much as you doesn’t do so because you have long femurs. If yours were the same length, he may squat 1.8x as much as you instead of 2x as much). As far as height goes, required torque increases with height, but so does overall muscle mass (meaning muscle mass per unit of height is similar). Shorter people still have a bit of an advantage, but it’s taken into account with the Wilks formula, which levels the playing field for shorter/lighter lifters and taller/heavier lifters. Finally, the advantage that different segment lengths provide in one lift is abolished by a disadvantage in another. Long femurs may be bad for squatting, but they’re usually good for deadlifting (since long arms and legs tend to go hand in hand). Long arms may be good for deadlifting, but they’re usually bad for benching.
On the whole, segment lengths do affect performance in each lift a bit, but not as much as people who use them as a crutch would like to believe (usually a difference of less than 10%). Furthermore, a disadvantage in one lift usually becomes an advantage in another.
Motor Learning/Neuromuscular Efficiency
This is another trendy topic, especially as it relates to training frequency.
Will training a lift more frequently lead to better/faster motor pattern acquisition and greater strength? For new lifters, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. For more advanced lifters, it may be (further reading); however, the bulk of the studies that have been done to this point didn’t use the types of protocols that proponents (Pavel, Dan John, Bulgarian system advocates, etc.) posit will elicit the beneficial effects. So at this point, it’s mostly theoretical without much scientific evidence for or against it.
However, before falling down a theoretical rabbit hole, let’s stop and take a look at what really freaking strong people are actually doing: pretty much everything.
A lot of the early strength greats trained lifts 4+ times per week. Top powerlifters from the ‘70s through the late ‘90s usually squatted and deadlifted once per week, and benched twice per week. Bulgarian-system weightlifters squat heavy every day and are seemingly all insanely strong (here’s Ivan Ivanov with a 4x bodyweight front squat, and Ivan Chakarov with a beltless 3x bodyweight squat for a triple, although his coach says he’s squatted 350kgx3 – almost 4x bodyweight). Most great Eastern-bloc lifters squat 3 times per week, bench 4-5 times per week, and deadlift twice per week. The fast-rising Norwegian team trains with similar volume and intensity as the Eastern-bloc powerlifters, but with about twice the frequency. The Chinese weighlifting team squats heavy twice per week (and has produced plenty of insane squatters). The Lillebridges squat and deadlift heavy once every two weeks (with lighter squats and deadlifts on the other week).
So, what can we take away from all of this?
- It’s undeniable that improved neural/motor learning factors will let you lift more via improved muscle activation, more efficient technique, better neuromuscular coordination (increased activation of synergist muscles and decreased activation of antagonist muscles) but…
- You can master a motor pattern over time with just about any training frequency, as has been demonstrated by elite strength athletes throughout time. Maybe increased training frequency will allow you to master a movement quicker, but if you’re planning on lifting for years and years, you’ll reach mastery regardless of training frequency (keep in mind, I’m talking about the relatively non-technical power lifts, not the more technical Olympic lifts).
These all relate to how much you can lift today. If you’re more motivated to lift, you’re less fatigued (basic application of Banister’s Impulse-Response model, otherwise known as the fitness-fatigue paradigm), and if you are at optimal arousal (with both too little and too much being detrimental – Yerkes-Dodson Law), you’ll be able to lift more.
Muscle Origins and Insertions
This is a huge factor not many people talk about. Our bodies aren’t actually built very well for lifting heavy things. When you compare humans to comparably sized animals, we tend to be far weaker.
The primary reason for that is difference in muscle attachments. A muscle that attaches further from a joint is capable of producing more torque at that joint. Our muscles, for the most part, attach very close to the joints they move. This is good for allowing large ranges of motion (because a given amount of movement at a joint requires less tissue extensibility), but means that the force (linear) our muscles produce isn’t translated very efficiently into torque (angular) at our joints.
Here’s a simple illustration.
We would rather drop a deadlift on our feet than spam you.
If you grip this wrench at point A, you’ll have to pull a lot harder to turn the bolt than if you were gripping it at point B. For the most part, humans’ muscles attach in a manner more similar to point A, and other animals’ attach in a manner more similar to point B.
So you’ll see what I’m talking about, let’s compare the hamstrings of a human and a cat. Look how far down the tibia and fibula the hamstring muscles (marked 17 and 18) of a cat insert, compared to how close to the knee human hamstrings insert. That means that if a human and a cat contract their hamstrings with the same amount of force, the cat will produce WAY more knee flexion torque.
Humans have some variability in muscle attachment points, and this variability matters far more than variability in segment lengths, because a small change can make a big difference.
Just to illustrate: Let’s say you’re comparing hip extension torque for two people doing good mornings with their torsos parallel to the ground. One person’s torso is 10% longer than the other person’s. That means the moment arm (basically the front-to-back distance from the barbell to their hip joint) is 10% longer for the person with a longer torso, so they need to produce 10% more hip extension torque to lift a given load.
Now let’s say you’re comparing two people with the same torso length, but one person’s ischial tuberosity (the origin point for the hamstrings) protrudes an extra inch, or their hamstrings originate a bit further down on the ischial tuberosity – which is entirely within the realm of possibility. Pelvises come in all shapes and sizes.
Let’s say the distance between the hip joint and the origin of the hamstrings is about 3 inches on average. That extra inch means they produce ~33% more hip extension torque if their hamstrings contract with the same force.
Because muscles attach so close to joints (usually not more than 2-4 inches away), small variations can make a big difference.
As an aside, something I’ve noticed is that a lot of huge deadlifters tend to be more “hip-dominant” squatters (Steve Goggins and Mike Tuchscherer are great examples) and are more apt to be able to grind a lift out if the bar pitches them forward a bit, whereas people who squat about the same or more than they deadlift (Chad Wesley Smith and Eric Lillebridge come to mind) tend to squat a bit more upright, and tend to fail lifts if they get pitched forward a bit. It wouldn’t surprise me if anomalous hip extensor attachment points largely explain this trend.
So far I’ve mainly been talking about the hip extensors, but the same goes for prime movers at every joint. If your pecs insert farther down your humerus, you’re more apt to be a big bencher. If your lats insert farther down your humerus, you’re more apt to be able to do some really heavy weighted pullups. If your patellar tendon inserts a bit farther down your tibia, you’ll probably be able to squat more. You know that guy who can curl a ton without impressive biceps? I’d bet he has biceps that insert farther down his radius.
So what do we do with all this?
Now let’s take a look back at each of these factors to see where we should direct our efforts in training.
Origins and insertions: This may impact what technique will allow you to lift the most weight (another reason why the notion of universal “perfect form” is laughable), but you can’t really change them, barring surgery.
Motivation/arousal/fatigue: These are all acute factors. Learning how to mitigate fatigue and manage arousal are good skills to acquire, but they have more to do with how much you can lift today rather than long-term strength potential.
Motor learning/neuromuscular efficiency: It’s possible that training more frequently could lead to quicker mastery, but if you’re going to be training the power lifts (relatively simple movements) for years and years, mastery is going to come with practice as long as you’re lifting heavy things at least somewhat frequently (at least once per week for most people).
Segment lengths: Similar to muscle origins and insertions, these may affect technique to a certain degree, but you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt.
Muscle fiber types: Ditto. Plus, they don’t really matter too much for powerlifting anyways.
Muscle size: Ding ding ding. We have our winner.
Of the factors we’ve discussed, muscle size is the only one you’re able to change in a major way in the long run, except for motor learning/neuromuscular efficiency. However, the latter pretty much takes care of itself via practice lifting heavy weights. Muscle size increases with pretty much any type of strength training as well, but it’s clear that there are techniques that are more or less effective for building size. Hint: It’s not max sets of 1-5.
Before going any further, I’d just like to point out that training with a focus on gaining mass to dominate at powerlifting is directly supported in the literature. One study found that in elite level powerlifters, performance in all three lifts was strongly correlated (r=0.8-0.9 for some) to muscle thickness in the prime movers (although bizarrely, it was most strongly correlated to subscapularis thickness in all three lifts, just as an aside). Another, hot off the presses, found again that one of the strongest predictors of performance in national-level lifters was muscle mass per unit height. Big is strong.
Think of muscle mass as potential strength. If you gain mass, you may not necessarily be stronger right away (i.e. if you trained with lower weights and lost a bit of technical efficiency with max weights), but you have the potential to be stronger. If you stay the same size, you have a cap on how strong you can possibly get. When comparing two individuals, the one with more muscle may not necessarily be the stronger one (for all the factors listed above – muscle attachments, segment lengths, technique, etc.), though he probably will be. However, when comparing small you to jacked you, all other things being equal, jacked you will be stronger.
All of those other factors (apart from muscle size), particularly segment lengths and muscle attachment points, largely explain why some relatively light people who aren’t overly jacked-looking can still lift huge weights. It’s not that their smaller muscles contract any harder than yours do – it’s that either they have body segment lengths that are advantageous for a certain lift, requiring less torque to lift a given weight, or they have muscle attachment points that allow them to produce more torque at a joint with the same force of muscle contraction. There wasn’t any special training that allowed them to lift heavy weights with relatively little mass; most of it simply has to do with how they’re built.
So, obviously the question becomes, how do you get more jacked?
For muscle growth, volume is priority No. 1. There are two basic ways to go about accruing this volume:
- Train “like a powerlifter” (heavy sets of 1-5, but more of them).
- Train “like a bodybuilder” (mainly sets of 8-12)
If you go the first route, you’ll need to set up your training similar to Eastern bloc (i.e. Sheiko-style) or Norwegian lifters: Drop your average intensity. To tolerate the necessary training volume, you’ll need to do your sets of 1-5 with lighter loads, usually in the 70-80% range, with very few lifts at 85% or above. Furthermore, the sets will need to be fairly easy, leaving at least 2-3 reps in the tank each set. If you try to handle the volume necessary to maximize hypertrophy while still focusing on lifting 85-90%+, or within a rep of failure, you increase your risk of injury and burnout.
I’d recommend the second route for most people. Why? It’s simply a much more efficient way of reaching the same end point.
A recent study by Brad Schoenfeld illustrated this point beautifully. Two groups of lifters either did 3×10 or 7×3 with the heaviest loads they could lift. At the end of 8 weeks, the group doing sets of 3 gained more strength, but both groups gained the same amount of muscle. Ironically, a lot of strength athletes jumped all over this study, saying, “See, I can get swole doing my heavy triples!” without noticing two major caveats: The 3×10 workout only took 17 minutes, whereas the 7×3 workout took 70, and the subjects in the 3×10 group all wanted to train more, whereas the subjects in the 7×3 group were wrecked by the end of the study.
The superior gains in strength in the 7×3 group don’t particularly phase me either. Of course they’d test better at the end of the study: They were lifting loads closer to max, so they’d be more prepared for hitting a max single. I would almost guarantee if both groups were put on the same 4-6 week peaking protocol after the 8 weeks of different training, those strength differences would largely vanish as the 3×10 group had a chance to improve confidence and efficiency with heavier loads.
So if you can gain the same amount of muscle with ¼ the time in the gym, that probably means that, in the real world, the 3×10 group would have ended up gaining even more mass than the 7×3 group, because they had the desire and the ability to handle more volume than the study protocol allowed for.
For starters, don’t get married to your current weight class. The weight class where you’ll be most competitive will be the one in which you’re carrying as much muscle (remember, muscle mass per unit height is the key factor) and as little fat as possible. If you’ve only been training for a year or two, the weight class you’re in now is probably NOT the weight class you should wind up in. You may be more competitive in a lighter class now, but if you stay there when you still have the potential to grow, you’re limiting yourself in the long run.
As far as general training setups go, I recommend one of two options:
- Block periodization set-up with the bulk of your year spent effectively doing “bodybuilding” training – hitting each muscle or movement 2-3 times per week, focusing on sets of 5-10 for your main lifts, sets of 8-15 for accessory lifts, and doing 6-10 (depending on how long you’ve been training) sets per muscle each time you train it. Don’t be attached to the barbell for your bodybuilding-style training. Obviously you should keep practicing the competition-variety lifts, but there’s nothing wrong with using dumbbells or machines for hypertrophy work (and they may even be better, allowing for a longer range of motion and more constant tension on the muscles). Take 6-8 weeks before a meet handling heavier loads to develop confidence with the weight and the skill of lifting near-max and max loads.
- Train your main lifts like a powerlifter, and your accessories like a bodybuilder. Farther out from a meet, just do 1-3 sets of 2-5 reps of your main lifts per workout, so you have more time and energy to devote to accessory lifts that you train bodybuilding-style (6-10 sets of 8-15 reps per muscle/movement). Then, over 6-8 weeks when you’re 9-12 weeks out from a meet, gradually shift the emphasis toward your main lifts, eventually doing 4-8 sets of 2-5 reps (still leaving at least a rep or two in the tank on each set), while cutting your accessory work in half. Then take 2-4 weeks to peak (heavier loading but less volume on your main lifts, with little to no accessory work to minimize fatigue) leading up to the meet.
Once you train like this for a few years (at least 3-5) to build a solid muscular base, then it may be wise to transition into more of a Sheiko/Norwegian setup to increase specificity and ensure that the bulk of your training volume is devoted to adding mass in the most specific manner possible (not most efficient – though that wouldn’t be as much of a concern since you should be nearing your muscular potential by that point).
If you focus on growth, the strength will take care of itself, provided you train with heavy loads occasionally, especially leading up to meets. If you focus purely on heavy strength work while neglecting the volume necessary to maximize hypertrophy, you’re limiting yourself in the long run. The bulk of your time in the gym should be focused on growth, at least until you’re nearing your muscular potential. The line between bodybuilder and powerlifter should be drawn at the point of competition, with the distinction being much hazier as far as training methods go, except for the very elite.
About Greg Nuckols
Greg Nuckols has over a decade of experience under the bar, and a BS in Exercise and Sports Science. He’s held 3 all-time world records in powerlifting in the 220 and 242 classes.
He’s trained hundreds of athletes and regular folks, both online and in-person. He’s written for many of the major magazines and websites in the fitness industry, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, Bodybuilding.com, T-Nation, and Schwarzenegger.com. Furthermore, he’s had the opportunity to work with and learn from numerous record holders, champion athletes, and collegiate and professional strength and conditioning coaches through his job as Chief Content Director for Juggernaut Training Systems.
His passions are making complex information easily understandable for athletes, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts, helping people reach their strength and fitness goals, and drinking great beer.