Pursuing strength across the main lifts

Pursuing strength across the main lifts

Although I have talked about ideal rep ranges for various physical goals before, it is worth repeating that I believe everyone – unless you have a physical limitation that prevents you from doing so – should be training the squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press in a rep range that is best targeted towards strength increases.

The following rep ranges are generally associated with certain goals:

  • 1-5 reps: strength
  • 6-12 reps: hypertrophy
  • 13-20 reps: muscular endurance

My personal approach
When I first started lifting, I shied away from doing any exercise for less than eight repetitions. My goal was to be as swole as possible, so I rarely strayed from the eight to 12 rep range – if so, it was only to venture into the realm of endurance.

I never dared to drop below eight repetitions. I did not care about getting stronger in the slightest.

Even when I had strength coaches commenting on this very blog to say that I should be training the major lifts in a lower rep range, I poo-pooed their advice and told them I wasn’t interested in anything other than looking good.

Somehow, at the time, I thought that the only way to grow my muscles was to perform sets of eight to 12 repetitions. I considered sets of five repetitions or less to be pointless, dangerous, and something that only strength competitors did.

3 years ago... I thought I was huge!

3 years ago… I thought I was huge!

I did not think my muscles would grow from lifting heavier weights for less repetitions, as the time under tension would not be high enough. 

While I was still indeed getting stronger by training in a higher rep range, it was at a much slower rate than if I had trained with lower reps.

My first foray into lower rep training was when I did my first wave of 5/3/1 almost three years ago. I was instantly hooked and I loved challenging my body in a different way. After only a few cycles, I was amazed to see how much stronger I had become.

What was most shocking of all was that I saw more muscle growth after four months of 5/3/1 than I had seen in the entire year previous of hypertrophy-focused training.

Another one from the archives... baby biceps!

Another one from the archives… baby biceps!

Powerlifter/bodybuilder hybrids
Powerlifters and strong(wo)men have a terrible reputation of being fat and out of shape. In reality, they are some of the most jacked people I have ever met in my life.

Most bodybuilders can post up pretty big numbers across the main lifts, and you would rarely see them taken down by a skinny powerlifter – not that there are many of those around.

All of that is to say that strength and size go hand in hand.

There are a bunch of figure/bikini competitors who also compete in powerlifting, such as Katie Anne RutherfordMinna Pajulahti (I watched her compete recently, so she is my current number one crush!), Hattie Boydle, Sohee Lee and Julia Ledewski. I also love following Janis, Lindsay and Chelsey, who are super strong but also look amazing (I’m sure I’m missing some, but those are the first who popped into my head).

I watched Minna casually bench 118kg/260lbs

I watched Minna casually bench 118kg/260lbs

While I would personally never have the discipline to compete in a physique-focused sport, I really admire those that do both. I love that these women are breaking the stereotypes and making the pursuit of strength more attractive for average women.

I know there are some people out there who enjoy lifting weights, but worry about lifting super heavy and hurting themselves, so they avoid lower rep ranges. I do not expect everyone’s main focus to be hitting PRs left and right, but I promise chasing strength is infinitely more rewarding for the vast majority of people. 

Combining the two
Instead of pursuing either strength or hypertrophy through a certain rep range, there is no reason why you cannot combine them both – and you should, if you want to achieve maximum gains! It is also a lot more fun to vary your rep ranges, rather than doing the same thing all the time.

I am of the belief that everyone should train the main compound lifts in a lower rep range, which will allow them to gain the physical and mental benefits of getting stronger. Squats and deadlifts, in particular, become less effective the more reps you do. I cringe when I think that I used to do 20 rep sets of deadlifts – not only is that pointless, but it is dangerous to perform such a technical lift to the point of fatigue. 

Training in a lower rep range requires greater mental focus. Most of the positive benefits I have previously discussed regarding weight lifting I personally experienced when I shifted to a lower rep range.

Sorry for the selfie overload - this is me as of last week

Sorry for the selfie overload – this is me as of last week

Becoming stronger in the main lifts in a lower rep range will, of course, transfer to your accessory lifts. And higher rep accessory exercises have their place too, by building muscle, strengthening connective tissue and generally giving your body a break from the intensity of low rep training.

You can pursue strength with your main lifts and chase your physique-related goals via your accessory exercises, and get the best of both worlds (there are hundreds of accessory exercises so I’m not going to list them all – although I have a list of a few here).

Right now, I am doing just that. I am training my main lifts powerlifting-style, and following that up with higher rep, accessory work. In this way, I am maintaining or increasing my strength but also improving my body composition.

For example, this is the deadlift workout I did yesterday:
Deadlifts: 60kg x 8, 80kg x 5, 100kg x 5, 110kg x 3, 118kg x 1 x 8 (one rep every minute on the minute)
Front squats: 40kg x 8, 60kg x 6 x 3
Bent over rows: 50kg x 12 x 4
Barbell shrugs: 60kg x 12 x 3
Lat pulldowns: 45kg x 12 x 3
Incline DB curls: 8kg x 15 x 3
Cable bar curls: 25kg x 12 x 3, last set as a triple drop set

And the bench workout I did the day before:
Bench press: 20kg x 10, 40kg x 5, 47.5kg x 5, 52.5kg x 4 x 5
DB Arnold press: 10kg x 12 x 3
DB chest flyes: 8kg x 12 x 3
Six way lateral raises: 3kg x 10 x 3
Front raises with 5kg plate: 100 x 1
DB overhead extension: 16kg x 15 x 3
Rope pushdowns: 40 x 2

52.5kg (115lbs) bench

Six way lateral raises are something I learnt in Australia. In a seated position, raise the dumbbells out to the side (like a lat raise), then bring them straight in front of you (like a front raise), and then straight overhead, and then reverse the movement. That’s one rep. Don’t use a heavy weight, because they burn like a mofo.

And yes, that is one set of 100 reps for shoulders, and two sets of 40 reps for triceps. Do I even powerlift?

Both workouts are much more bodybuilding-centric than what I was doing in London, but they are exactly what I would recommend for anyone looking to improve their physique while also getting stronger.

One exception to this is complete beginners, who will get stronger doing almost anything. It is best for them to nail down proper technique by performing a higher number of repetitions per set, before they worry about testing their one rep max.

Regardless of what rep range you are following, you should always be adding weight to your lifts. This is because your muscles will adapt to repeated stress, and will need heavier weights in order to remain challenged.

If you are unsure about when to increase your weights, read this post.

What rep range do you follow for the main lifts?

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