Guest article written by Chris Branam
Many workout programs include repetitions done to failure. This could be with very light weight where an individual is doing repetitions numbering well over 20, or it could be done with heavy weight where failure is reached after doing as low as 1 repetition (i.e. 1 rep max). Why is it that most strength athlete programs include the latter, but not the former?
The first distinction that needs to be made for the purpose of being on common ground is the difference between muscle size and muscle strength. Hypertrophy is the process by which muscles increase in size. An increase in size usually coincides with an increase in strength, but there is not always going to be a direct ratio between the two. Surely you’ve seen a big dude at the gym struggling to hit a 400 pound back squat. His legs are huge and yet he can’t hit those numbers. But here comes a guy who is relatively small who hits it for a double. I point most people to Taner Sagir, the man in the photo above, for a good example of when strength does not always equal size. That’s nearly 380 pounds he’s holding over his head there, and he looks like he couldn’t bench 225.
So there is a difference between training for hypertrophy and training for overall strength. Though hypertrophy might occur while training for overall strength, the inverse is not necessarily true.
Let’s say you are interested in achieving bigger muscles, though. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that goal. What causes hypertrophy to occur? Two things must happen. We must have high motor unit recruitment of the muscle and the mechanical loading must be high. For example, a back squat of 85% or more will have high motor unit recruitment because the body will require all the muscle fibers to be actively working in order to move the heavy weight. Additionally, the heavy weight will c