Why you shouldn't neglect strength

Posted by Shaun LaFleur on

Even if you're not a strength athlete and your only goal is building muscle, making strength training one of the foundations of your exercise plan can provide enormous benefits. If you neglect strength work, you are leaving a ton of potential progress on the table and setting yourself up for plateaus. In order to make continual progress without stalling, you need both strength and muscle hypertrophy to take place, as each assists the other and both are forms of progressive overload.

Progressive overload is key!

So why is strength important to someone who only cares about building muscle? The simple answer is because of progressive overload. Progressive overload is king when it comes to making progress. If you are adding weight to the bar, you are progressively overloading your muscles and giving your body a reason to improve and grow. If you are capable of doing 5 sets of 5 with 200 pounds on the bench press, and then take those 5 sets of 5 to 250 pounds, your body has no choice but to adapt and grow because of the new, harder stimulus placed upon it.

There are multiple ways to achieve progressive overload, such as adding sets, adding reps or adding weight to the bar. In my article Understanding Volume & Fatigue, I mention how all three of these methods are great ways to increase training volume and thus progressively overload. However, only adding weight can be used continuously (until you hit your maximum potential for strength). You can only perform so many sets per week before you run into recovery issues and can only add so many reps before you're performing too many reps to create a meaningful trainig stimulus. On the other hand, you can continue to add weight to the bar provided you are training properly and gaining strength. Gaining strength becomes vital to continue progressively overloading your body once you've hit your limits for adding sets or repetitions. Without utilizing heavy strength focused sets, you risk stunting your progress by not going heavy enough to elicit strength increases that allow you to continue adding weight to the bar when you can no longer add sets or repetitions.

An example would be if I were doing 10 sets of bench press per week and I gradually increased this to 25 sets per week. At first I’d make great progress because I increased training volume, but then what? I can’t simply continue to add sets and end up doing 30+ sets per week. Not only is that an impractical way to train, but it would be unsustainable and lead to injury or over training. There are only so many sets you can do and still be able to recover properly between sessions. This is where progressive overload in the form of adding weight comes into play. By training heavier and increasing your strength levels, you can now handle heavier loads at the same amount of total sets, thus progressively overload further. 

In order to elicit continual progress, you need to utilize all three methods of progressive overload. For example, you can begin by increasing total sets done and once you reach a point where adding more sets becomes impossible without recovery issues, begin to focus on strength gains and then add weight and/or reps to each set performed. Once strength gains are made, you could even reduce the total amount of sets you're doing while still providing your body with a stronger overall stimulus to grow due to working with heavier loads and from here you could begin to again add sets slowly until you hit your volume limits.

This process can be repeated continuously and is a great way to periodize your training and is one common way to perform what's called linear periodization, where you would start with lower intensity, but higher volume, and then slowly through the weeks more towards higher intensities and lower volumes, after which point you take a deload and repeat the process again. This is a tried and true method of training and many follow this process all the way into elite levels of fitness.


Practical Application - Cycle intensity & volume

The smart way to train is to make sure you aren't neglecting high volume training or strength training, but to train them both, at least periodically - hence why periodization exists. Training both is important because volume work assists strength work and vice versa. By training for strength, you increase the loads you can use on your volume days, and by training for volume you build more muscle which in turn will increase strength potential. By only training for strength, you'd typically be forced to train with less total sets in order to facilitate recovery due to heavier lifting being more taxing, which will be detrimental to muscle hypertrophy. By training only for volume, your strength gains will be sub par, so when hitting your volume limits in terms of total sets, progressive overload will be harder to achieve unless you increase strength and add weight to the bar. This is not to say that strength training does not build muscle and volume work does not build strength, but they do so at a vastly slower pace than if you focused on the related training style. By combining the two you have all grounds covered and are able to make consistent and optimal progress.

My favorite way to structure training is to cycle between high volume days and low volume but high intensity (strength) days within the same week. I prefer to train every muscle group at least twice a week, but how you split this up is up to you and as long as training intensity and volume are relatively equal, progress will be the same. Since I like training each muscle group twice a week, each muscle group will have one strength day and one high volume day. My schedule of choice is what is called an upper/lower split, where you have two upper body workouts and two lower body workouts per week. Here is an example schedule:

Sunday: Rest
Monday: Upper Body Strength
Tuesday: Lower Body Strength
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Upper Body Volume
Friday: Lower Body Volume
Saturday: Rest

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