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#8: On Strength

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

201002_bodysculptingQ: Hi Denis,

How important is strength when it comes to bodybuilding? Will I always get stronger as I improve? Or is it possible that I can improve my muscles and not increase my strength? I am interested in your opinion on this.

Thank you,

. . . Charles Rolain

A: Hi Charles,

To me, bodybuilding is more an art than a sport. Don’t get me wrong: bodybuilding does involve physical activity like other sports, but there is no strenuous exercise during the performance. The proof is that a lot of bodybuilders aren’t really in shape at all. (I have seen many who having trouble just walking or breathing!) The usual athlete uses weight training to improve his performance, while the bodybuilder uses it to "shape" the appearance of his physique which he will have to present onstage via a performance that is closer to a demonstration than a sporting activity.

On the stage, you’ll be judged on the way you look, not on your lifts. I often compare bodybuilding to sculpture; exercise is your tool and your own body is your medium. That’s why I give exercise form and selection an important place in my training programs. A great bodybuilder really is a "living" work of art, and when I look back at the "golden age" of bodybuilding, it is how it was conceived. That’s why everyone can weight train, but not everyone can be a bodybuilder, as genetics and talent aren’t equal among people. And among those who aspire to be bodybuilders, only the ones with the talent and that sense of perfection will be successful.

As an athlete who trains with weights, I do want to get stronger. But as a bodybuilder, my primary goal is to sculpt my body through exercise and then do an exhibition in front of a crowd that has probably paid to see what I’ve accomplished. As the years go by, I do see a progression in my strength, but the biggest changes are in the way my physique looks, and that’s how I want it to be.

To the bodybuilder, improvement is the primal factor. To make improvements, you need to seek for progression. That means that you should aim for a progression in the weight you work with, using strict form, but you should never compromise good form for more weight. I recommend to all my clients to write down their weights and their reps on every set. That helps them to keep track of their progress and gives them objective data to judge if they are allowed, or not, to increase the load at the next workout. Thus, their progression is not based on intuition but, rather, on a logical approach in which they evaluate their results with reliable facts. Here’s an example of how I make sure my clients improve:

Let’s say I give you three sets of bench press of six to nine reps. On your training sheet, you won’t have one line saying: bench press, 3 x 6-9. What you will see is a full line for each set where you will have to record the reps you did on each set, which should be between six and nine. The weight you will use should challenge you to execute the predicted number of reps on all three sets. If you do nine reps on the first set, eight on the second and six on the last one, you have the correct weight because you are between six and nine on each set. However, your goal is to be able to complete all three sets of nine. If you did your nine reps on all sets, but you had to stop every time, rack the bar, catch your breath, grab it again, in order to finish those nine reps, you haven’t quite made it. The number you did the first time before you stopped is the number you write on the line and you work to get as close to nine as possible without stopping. This technique will force your body to adapt and make progress. Only the day you can perform the indicated number of reps (or are very close to it) on all your sets is when you can increase the weight. As a result, on every workout either your reps or your weights are progressing. Here’s an example of what it could look like over the weeks:

EXERCISE

SETS/REPS

WEEK 1

WEEK 2

WEEK 3

WEEK 4

Bench Press

1 x 6-9

9 x 125 lbs

9 x 125 lbs

9 x 125 lbs

9 x 130 lbs

Bench Press

1 x 6-9

8 x 125 lbs

8 x 125 lbs

9 x 125 lbs

8 x 130 lbs

Bench Press

1 x 6-9

6 x 125 lbs

7 x 125 lbs

8 x 125 lbs

7 x 130 lbs

Progress is the key and, as you can see, the weight wasn’t increased until after the third week when two sets of nine reps and one set of eight reps were done. Even though nine reps weren’t completed on that final set, that’s close enough. Furthermore, as long as you increase either your reps or your weight on any given exercise, your physique will adapt. In fact, any improvement you achieve will induce a change. Sometimes, I correct the form for one of my clients on an exercise, so that he can feel the working muscle properly, and most of the time he has to drop on the weight he was using. Even if there’s a decrease in the load, just setting that new goal (improving exercise form) will better stimulate the targeted muscle and will constitute an increase in quality of training, which will generate new growth.

It’s true that strength is in some way related to muscle mass, but, like I say repeatedly in my articles, there’s much more to hypertrophy than just pure strength itself. To understand that, you have to consider neurology. The muscle only reacts and adapts in response to neurological stimulation: the better the stimulus gets, the better the results. This can be accomplished by many means other than just increasing the weight on the bar. For example, intensity is a much underrated factor in training. Personally, I believe the reason I get better results than most of the guys in the gym is because of my level of concentration and intensity while training.

You can also use techniques to increase the intensity of your sets in order to bring further growth (giant sets, drop sets, supersets, etc.). Varying your exercises or the rep range for the same exercise constitutes other ways you can go to make improvements, especially when the weight gets too heavy to use with good form on a specific exercise.

Nevertheless, strength is still a factor you can rely on – just don’t stay focused on that issue. For example, I often use it as an indicator to see if my client is making progress or is losing muscle mass while dieting. If he loses weight but strength is still up, then I know he’s not wasting muscle mass; otherwise it would mean that he needs some adjustments in his training. With all that said, remember those two words every time you hit the gym for a workout: intensity and progression.

Remember: Train like a bodybuilder if that’s what you want to be.

Have a nice workout!

Sincerely,

. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006

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