An Introduction to Powerbuilding – How to Train for Size AND Strength Simultaneously

By on June 24, 2015

They say you can’t chase two rabbits. To that I say: shut up, I will do what I want!

Power building is all about chasing two rabbit. Essentially, power building is the process of building muscle size at the same time as building muscle strength and giving neither particular importance over the other.

As people become more and more interested in performance, the idea of getting stronger has become increasingly popular. Meanwhile, simply building muscle size for the sake of appearances has started to fall out of favour.

But here’s the problem: people still want to look strong! While you can pretend you don’t care what you look like at all, we all know you’re lying!

This is a problem, seeing as generally the training methods involved in building strength are considered contrary to those used to build size. Powerbuilding thus presents something of a challenge, in that your training has to be optimized for two separate (albeit related) goals.

In this post, I’ll be looking at how powerbuilding works and at what the best way to train size and strength at the same time might be. At the same time, I’ll also be looking at some of the shortcomings of traditional methods and suggesting a few new ones of my own.

Why Size and Strength Are Not the Same Thing

For many people, the news that muscle size does not precisely equate to muscle strength can come as something of a surprise. In fact though, you can be very strong and nevertheless have relatively small muscle. A great example of this is Bruce Lee; while Bruce’s feats of strength are nothing short of legendary, he actually only had 13’’ biceps – considerably smaller than mine!

And likewise, if you look at the way that a bodybuilder trains versus a powerlifter, you’ll find that they’re actually quite different.

The most common explanation for this is that bodybuilders train with a lighter load for higher repetitions – resulting in an increase in muscle size and a ‘swole’ look. On the other hand, powerlifters and strength athletes train for much lower repetitions with far heavier weight, thickening the actual muscle.

Some people even go as far as to describe this as two separate types of hypertrophy. They suggest you have ‘myofibrillar hypertrophy’ and ‘sarcoplasmic hypertrophy’. Here, myofibrillar hypertrophy is the thickening of muscle tissue (that occurs as a result of microtears forming in the muscle fiber); whereas sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells. Sarcoplasm is to a muscle cell what cytoplasm is to any other cell but contains glycosomes, myoglobin and oxygen binding protein in high amounts (as well as calcium). Basically, it appears to coincide with more muscle endurance.

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There is some disagreement here though. Some people for instance will tell you that all that is just bull and that there’s no proven distinction between myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Indeed, there is reportedly very little actual science to back this theory up.

But whatever is going on, the fact remains that lifting heavy makes you stronger and lifting a little lighter and for reps makes you bigger. There is some crossover but not as much as you might think. This is very true in my experience and I also find that when I use more sarcoplasmic training, I tend to have slightly ‘softer’ muscle as well.

And for those looking for muscle that is show and go, that is a bit of a dilemma.

Muddying the Waters

Ah but if only it were that simple!

In fact, there’s a lot more to consider here and a lot more going on. Apart from anything else, I would argue that Bruce Lee – our myofibrillar poster boy – trained nothing like a powerlifter. Likewise, the guy currently considered the world’s strongest man in some circles (Dennis Rogers) apparently achieves his strength by recruiting more muscle fiber. In other words, it’s not about the size of his muscle at all so much as his ability to use the muscle that he does have. And this is actually consistent with the way that Bruce Lee trained too. Here, we are talking about the ‘neural’ element – or the ability of the nervous system to send the signal to all your muscle fibers.

How can you train that neural signal? Through practice. One method is to use something called ‘overcoming isometrcs’ which is a type of isometric training (a static hold) where you are pulling or pushing against an immovable force. For instance, this might mean straining to curl a bar that is chained to the ground, or to bench press a barbell that you can’t budge off of the rack. In short, this ‘trying really hard’ strengthens the connection between mind and body and makes you better at trying really hard… Lifting really heavy is just one other way to achieve this.

There are other elements to consider too. For instance, there’s the matter of fast twitch muscle fiber versus slow twitch fiber. When you train explosively with very heavy weights, this will help you to build more fast twitch muscle fiber which will make you more explosive. Light weights for 15 repetitions meanwhile might have less of a focussed impact on fast twitch fiber (note that there is also super fast twitch muscle fiber and it may be that twitch fiber is better described by a continuum rather than binary states – that is to say that muscle might be ‘somewhat fast’).

Also crucial in powerlifting is the technique. A bodybuilder, even a very strong one, would struggle to perform a clean and snatch without prior experience simply because the movement is so technical. Powerlifters practice this move with heavy weight a lot and this ultimately makes them more effective at reproducing the movement under those conditions.

In terms of muscle growth there are also other factors to consider. Things like water retention play a role for instance (which is why taking creatine will give you an extra inch on your biceps) and some people argue that the stretching of the fascia (the thin film surrounding all the muscles and joints) also has a role in enabling growth.

Also, let’s not forget isolation training – which bodybuilders use to focus on getting a single muscle group to grow. Without isolation training you can achieve general growth but you might still find that some muscle groups are lacking in size comparatively.

So really, the weight and number of repetitions is just one part of the difference in appearance of a bodybuilder versus a powerlifter. And to maximize size or strength, there are a lot of different things you need to be doing.

And here’s another point I’d like to take this opportunity to point out: and that is that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is not ‘useless’. The popular narrative at the moment seems to be that bodybuilders have developed muscle that is entirely aesthetic and not at all ‘functional’.

This seems like an oversimplification to me again. Sure, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (if it exists) leads to better endurance rather than raw power… But is that a bad thing? Are you telling me there is no value in being able to lift something multiple times as opposed to just once? In a real world setting, what’s more likely to come in useful? Climbing a tree is essentially reps of pull ups and chin ups. Sawing a tree is reps. So is hammering a nail. Or fighting.

Conversely, how often do you find yourself having to move something that is incredibly heavy for just one rep?

This is my problem with everyone getting boners over the deadlift all the time.  Sure, it’s a useful movement in that it trains lots of muscles. And yes, it’s useful for training a good range of movement and mobility (though there are other ways to do that). But really… how often do you find yourself having to lift something that heavy off the floor in real life with deadlift technique? In the wild (which is where everyone seems to get their idea of what’s functional from) would you ever have lifted something heavy off the ground with deadlift form?

The point is, maybe don’t worry quite so much about what’s functional. All strength and all growth is good. But yes, trying to be as well-balanced as possible is probably a good idea. And anyway, being strong is fun, and so is being big.

How to Build Size and Strength at the Same Time

So with all that in mind, what is the best approach to powerbuilding? How do you go about building strength and size roughly concurrently?

The simple answer is to mix both heavy weights and light weights into your routine and both low repetitions and high repetitions.

Approach 1: Train Heavy at the Start of Workouts

One way to do this is to do strength training at the start of the workout and then to move straight on to lighter weights. So if you were training your pecs, you might start with a few repetitions of 150kg (or whatever your three rep max is), then you might head over to the chest press or the dumbbell press and do several sets of heavy reps there too.

After that, you could start lifting lighter and head back to the bench press to do 3 x 15 reps. Then maybe you could do some press ups and end on some pec flyes (20 reps each). This way, your workout has incorporated both types of training and you’ll find that the confusion and variation is great for stimulating the muscles too. Of course it makes sense to train the heavy weights first – as that way you’ll avoid making yourself too tired early on.

Approach Two: Create Insane Drop Sets/Giant Sets and Vary Tempo and Weight

That’s one approach. Another is to combine your two types of training into each exercise – which coincidentally is what bodybuilders have been doing for years. The perfect example of this is running the rack. Here, you start out by lifting as heavy as you can for a few reps (normally about 8, but you can always go heavier and perform 5 or even 3). Then, as soon as you can perform no more reps, you move to a slightly lighter weight and carry on for another 3, 5 or 8. Then you move down again and you keep going until you’re on the lightest weight possible.

This technique is the bread and butter of a lot of bodybuilding workouts and it will build strength as well as size – especially if you’re starting out with a heavy enough weight. This way, you are not only training heavy and using all of your force, but you’re also

This does mean that your strength will be significantly depleted by your second exercise or by your second set even. That doesn’t matter too much though, as long as you are still using 100% of your effort. Your body doesn’t care how heavy the weight is, it only cares how much effort you’re putting in to move it. It’s like your Mum used to say (probably): as long as you try your hardest, that’s all that matters…

I love training like this and as I have said in videos, I rarely ever just perform a straight set – it’s almost always some kind of dropset, mechanical dropset (where you change the movement to push past failure) or other masochistic combination of strategies.

I find that the cable machines are fantastic for doing this kind of training as you can immediately change the weight. For instance, if I were doing curls I might start with an overcoming isometric for 5 seconds x 5 (pulling hard without moving the weight), then I might drop down 20kg and perform 4 reps to failure, then I might drop down again 20kg and perform 12 reps to failure. Then I’d do an isometric hold (yielding isometric – holding the weight halfway through the repetition) and finally finish with a flush set of 25 reps on something light. That’s one giant set – and it will absolutely nuke the biceps if you can perform it three times. Not only have you maximized muscle fiber recruitment in various ways and created tons of microtears but you’ve also got a lot of volume and intensity there to flush the biceps and create tons of pump.

You can also vary the tempo in a single set or you can perform partial rep ranges (doing just the ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ of the movement). Slow negatives are fantastic for building strength as the negative portion of the movement is where we are strongest. Varying tempo will also work every type of twitch muscle fibre.

Approach Three: Work Heavy and Light Weights Into Your Training Split

And finally, approach three is to train heavy say on a Monday and Tuesday and to train lighter on the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. You can do the ‘big lifts’ on the Monday and Tuesday for instance and then isolate your individual muscle groups on the other days (weekends are off). This type of training makes a lot of sense and is a less complicated way to mix up your training. For isolation you only really need two days for upper body – pull day and push day.

And while you’re at it, you may as well try and get some cardio in there as well and some concurrent training!

But that’s a whole other article…

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Jacob Emerson says:

    Hey thanks for the post Adam! Let me add if you want to build muscle then you have to start by watching your diet, you can’t just expect to lift a bunch of weights and build muscle if your diet sucks. Lifting weights is easy, but cutting out junk food can be tough. When you get your diet in check, then focus on lifting heavy and hard. The most important thing is being consistent and keeping a log and a good routine going. You won’t get very far if you’re inconsistent in this game. Start off by doing big compound movements, such as squats, pull ups, dead lifts and such. I know it’s tough for a lot of folks to find a good routine to keep them going but it’s vital that you do this, I’ve made some amazing gains in just a few months thanks to the advice I got over at aestheticreview.com this guy really helped me get a great program going that allows me to keep track of my weight and gains using a really neat tool, as well as an awesome routine. Anyways good luck and never give up on your journey to reaching your goals!

  2. Nathan Taylor-Saint says:

    could i do something similar when i want to work for strength and muscular endurance at the same time.

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