Building Muscle – Alternate Training for Size and Working for Strength And Never Hit a Plateau Again

There has been a trend in the recent years towards the so-called functional training. It emphasizes training the body so that it performs better in sport activities and life in general. As with many trends sometimes the pendulum swings too far in one direction. What I mean is that after fitness training for decades meant working purely for size and aesthetics with a split training routine, now the completely opposite thing is in style.

 The Olden Ways Of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding split training was popularized with clever marketing tactics in the fitness magazines. Joe Weider, the original muscle mogul and number one physical culture entrepreneur of all time, used hi publishing empire as a means to dominate this niche. More often than not, what he published in his magazines was purely image-driven. It was completely different from the actual workouts of the bodybuilders that endorsed his products. My first contact with bodybuilding was through these same magazines. The PR-manufactured content brought confusion and lack of results in my training.

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon strength training with full body workouts and the principle of progressive overload that I started making gains. Many people have a similar experience with bodybuilding programs from the magazines.

Return Of The Strength

It was a time when the pendulum was swung completely in the direction of bodybuilding split training. The last few years the internet created a backlash against it and now the pendulum seems to be on the opposite side. The same marketing exploits once used by Weider’s magazines are now used by his opponents. Strength training and full body workouts are made out to be the holy grail.

balance in training you must use, buddha says

“The greatest art is to attain a balance, a balance between all opposites, a balance between all polarities. Imbalance is the disease and balance is health. Imbalance is neurosis, and balance is well-being.”

Full Body Workouts Are The Best For Beginners

That actually was the big fallacy of the magazines – considering their readers are mainly novice adolescent boys, it was plain wrong to prescribe to them the workouts of professional bodybuilders with decades of experience.

Some Of The Strongest People On Earth Use Split Training

Walk in any gym and ask the strongest dude how he trains and no doubt his workout will have body part days. When you are trying to accomplish something and what you are doing isn’t working, the solution is not to start hammering your head against the wall HARDER. The solution is to find the thing that is going to take you to the next level. And do THAT thing.

The Body Is Like A Vessel

You can fill it up with a limited amount of strength for a given size.That’s why they have weight classes in sports. Now, the way to get past this is to train for size. Once you are bigger, you can then train for strength and fill up the new bigger vessel with more power. So, the way to go is choose the middle path between the two extremes.

Alternate Strength And Size For Continuous Progress

It’s the clever thing to do. Dogma doesn’t give you results. Smart training does. Proponents of both camps – bodybuilding and strength training, can learn a thing or two from each other. In fact, high level people of all walks of life don’t waste their time with such minutia. They don’t argue over theory. Let them PhD’s write their books trying to get a name for themselves and let us do what actually works. Here are just a few examples.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Got His Initial Size With Strength Training

reg park was arnold's mentorHis routine was inspired by his role model Reg Park. Park, pictured to the right, was an advocate for getting strong to get big. He was the father of training with 5 sets of 5 on the big basic exercises – squats, bench presses and deadlifts.

Arnold then polished his physique with high volume split training for size. Alternating training for strength and training for size clearly worked for him.

Lets swing the pendulum the other way. Here’s an extreme example – powerlifters. They are guys who care mostly for lifting as much weight as possible. The most successful ones alternate muscle building and strength training phases every 6-12 weeks.

Powerlifter Dave Tate Has Spent Years Dabbling In Both Powerlifting And Bodybuilding

“You can’t flex bone,” he likes to repeat. Strength is mostly neurological. It’s the ability to contract your muscles hard. It makes sense to be able to generate more force with a bigger muscle at your disposal. It just doesn’t work to train for strength only with a body that has hardly any muscle. If you are to contract your muscles harder and have barely any muscles, what are you going to contract?

Here Is Another Example – Bodybuilding Champion Ronnie Coleman.
He used to be a powerlifter and still trains with heavy weights for strength in addition to annihilating his muscles with size training.

OK, What If I Just Want To Look Good

Not strong as a crane and not big as a barn. Here is the deal – bulkiness comes from taking steroids and having layers of fat covering your body. An ordinary guy will find it hard to pack enough lean muscle mass to look bulky. Just stay lean and don’t worry about getting too big. But here is another example.

Actor Hugh Jackman Also Uses This Approach In His Training

hugh jackman trains for size and strength
Hugh Jackman is definitely jacked. His trainer Steve Ramsbottom has him work for size with slower lifting speed and high volume (lots of sets and reps) for 6 – 12 weeks. When his progress comes to a halt, he switches to a strength training phase where he lifts heavy with lots of rest between exercises. And because he stays lean, he definitely doesn’t look bulky.

Here is a workout that use the principle of alternating strength and size training: Visual Impact. This workout also alternates strength and size training not only to develop the muscles, but also to make them harder and denser. The great thing about this system is that one of its phases is dedicated to “shrink wrapping” the skin – making it super tight so your muscles “pop.”

So train smart. Do what works and recognize dogma and marketing exploits, no matter which camp they come from, for what they are.

Ying Yang by Kevin; Budda by chaojikazu

20 thoughts on “Building Muscle – Alternate Training for Size and Working for Strength And Never Hit a Plateau Again”

  1. Hey Yavor,

    I like where you’re going with this. Especially the idea of the pendulum swinging too far in one direction or another. The biggest problem with the “Functional Training” craze was the fact that it really wasn’t all that functional!! The mainstream of trainers picked up gimmicky exercises and called them functional, but most of them could be described more suitably as “corrective” exercises.

    Real “functional” training is more about the applicability of new found strength and conditioning to whatever your life or sport has in store for you. Throughout history, most strong men were training for something. I think that is an interesting thing to keep in mind. I wrote a post about that not so long ago:

    The Beauty of a Functional Physique

    If you combine the ideas in this post with the pursuit of the Functional Physique, I think you have a real winning formula.

    Thanks for more food for thought Yavor.


  2. can you train some parts of your body for size while training others for strngth? i seem to have hit a plateau with my upper back and biceps, while still making good progress with my chest, shoulders and triceps using bodybuilding style workouts

  3. chica yes you can. But in the end strength correlates with size. So for size you ultimately need more strength (i.e weight on the bar)



  4. Alex,

    Osho is a source of amazing wisdom. Glad you like him too.


    p.s. here is another easter quote that I really like, this time coming from Japan:

    Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. ~Matsuo Basho

  5. hey yavor
    i’m slightly frustrated when training for strength – how should doing an exercise feel? i’ve read that it shouldnt burn and you shouldn’t fatigue but then how do we know when we’ve done enough??
    i find doing 5 or so sets of 4-6 reps of decline push-ups but they don’t make me feel worked – but i’m around 85% of my 1RM…

  6. When training for strength, you should be doing heavy low reps. So with your example on the fourth and fifth sets you should be having a hard time on the last 1-2 reps (a sixth rep should be impossible).

    Push-ups are not a good exercise for strength, because you can’t easily overload them, unless you find a difficult pushup variation (decline pushups are still easy).

  7. Ok thanks that’s really helpful.

    But all of the other articles I’ve read have said avoid failure when you’re doing strength training – am i missing something here? could you explain it for me??

    Like your low-rep training, the key to learning how to apply maximum intensity is to use as heavy weights as possible in each and every overload set you do, yet avoid failure like the plague! If your mind says “no,” you’ve succumbed. You’ve failed, go home! Come back to the gym tomorrow with a renewed determination not to fail. Make your mind say, “Yes,” and then obey the command!


  8. ps

    he seems to be saying “train to failure and you won’t get stronger” but “stop before failure and your body will learn not to fail”(by getting stronger presumably)….

    is myofibrillar hypertrophy attained by training at intensity to failure or stopping just short of it?

  9. Tom, training to failure is beneficial because it engages all the muscle fibers. However, the more complex the exercsie, the more training to failure exhausts the central nervous system and hinders strength gains.

    so a single joint exercise is to be done to failure. A complex, multi joint, heavy weight exercise like the squat or deadlift, is to be done 1-2 reps away from failure, so you can do more total work and also do it more often.

    Strength training is all about more work, more often with more intensity With time you adapt to the volume, frequency and intensity and get stronger.

    Muscle building is about maximum exhaustion and then full recovery. Each time you recover fully, you are able to exhaust the muscles a little more. They’ve grown.

    These two overlap but are 2 completely different styles of training.

  10. “You can’t flex bone,” he likes to repeat. Strength is mostly neurological. It’s the ability to contract your muscles hard. It makes sense to be able to generate more force with a bigger muscle at your disposal. It just doesn’t work to train for strength only with a body that has hardly any muscle. If you are to contract your muscles harder and have barely any muscles, what are you going to contract?

    Hey Yavor so according to that quote, even if you’re just training for muscle tone(strength training), you will eventually come to a plateau and have to start training for size in the 6-15 reps to continue with your original goal of getting stronger and developing more tone?

    I’m a beginner, and i’m really not interested in bulking up just muscle tone, but it sounds like according to what you said even if you go the 5X 5 route for strength training, eventually you’re going to have to start training on the other side of the pendulum( size training) to make any more progress in getting stronger. Is that basically what you’re saying?

    The reason i bring this up is because even though i probably could use some size, i really dont think “bulking up” would look good on my frame, and it’s even harder for me to find the right balance then the average guy because of my height ( 5’5). What’s your advice for me? I’m training right not in a caloric deficit because i’m trying to get leaner, BUT once i’m eating normal again, what would you suggest? I want the lean and toned look, not stocky and bulky.


  11. “…eventually you’re going to have to start training on the other side of the pendulum( size training) to make any more progress in getting stronger. Is that basically what you’re saying?”

    Yes, that’s correct. My advice – continue what you are doing. If at one point you decide you are getting stocky, decrease training. It’s simple.

  12. Yavor, you recommend Visual Impact,I am going to give it a shot.But I am a little confused.I thought the first base is to make stronger body and afterwards shape it up.Visual Imact advocates right the opposite,first sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and the last fase is for myofibrillar hypertrophy.What do you think about it?

  13. Yavor, I’m 14, 5’11, and 175 pounds i was wondering the best diet and exercise for me, i wants abs and cuts example: channing tatum i have been doing sit ups push ups weights running dieting amd it seems to not do the trick please help!


  14. Dan, you are still growing. I recommend picking up a sport that you can do at least a few times per week. As far as diet – just start eating a bit less on your last meal. Losing fat is about eating less. Abs will come both from you growing (you will probably get taller than that) and starting eating a bit less on your last meal of the day.

  15. Yavor, Im 15 and i have no access to any gym equipments. All i have is a bar. So i was wondering, could i still have a training program that builds both muscle strength and size?

  16. Yavor, what do you think in.combining both styles in one workout. For example: deadlift w-3 sets 3-5 reps with 3 min rest. Then chin ups, same scheme as deads. Then biceps curls, 4 sets 12 reps with 1 min rest. Keep calories around maintenance. As long as there is progression on the big moves, there must be muscle growing, wright?

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