Don’t Fall Into The One Or Other Trap

It’s always easy to fall in love with a particular method of training. When it comes to weightlifting, volume and intensity training are usually the two main methods employed for size and strength gains. For most of you, I am sure you love one style more than the other. I know I do! In my training, volume usually has a slightly higher priority.

For you however it might be intensity. The fact is, this is ok. You can give priority to one or the other, there is no rulebook that says you need a perfect 50-50 split in your programming. Depending on your ultimate weightlifting goals, it might be good to give one priority over the other. The important thing however is they are both included in your training.

Getting Stronger Is The Key For Size And Strength

I have heard lots of weightlifters say that if you want to make any real consistent progress in the gym, you need to get stronger. They could not be more right! If you want to make more consistent gains in size and strength over time, you need to be getting stronger. This is a fact you just can’t hind from. Getting strong over time doesn’t just mean upping your 1RM (one rep max) it also includes being able to do more work (reps x sets x weight) at a much heavier weight. It doesn’t matter whether your goal is pure strength, pure size or both, getting stronger over time will be the central catalyst in all your weightlifting progress. Often people have said to me: I am just interested in strength development or, I am just interested in gaining size. There is nothing wrong with either of those goals. But, how do you go about actually achieving them? If your goal is strength, there will come a time when you simply need more muscle mass to progress further. If your goal is size, there will eventually come a time where you need more strength. Being stronger over time means you can handle more volume (reps x sets x weight), leading to more hypertrophy gains and, you can push your maximum strength ceiling higher (an increased 1RM). The simple truth is if you want to progress, getting stronger is the ultimate key. Being stronger means being able to handle both higher intensity and higher volumes of training.

Getting Stronger: Its All One Big Cycle

Most of you will be interested in both size and strength gains. That’s great! Your task then is to get stronger. Getting stronger will allow you utilize higher training intensities (strength) and higher work volumes (hypertrophy) over time. Think of everything here as a progression cycle, a sort of close interplay between both intensity and volume work. Being stronger means in time, the ability to use higher intensities (work at a potentially higher 1RM). This means the ability to further stress and develop your central nervous system (CNS) leading to more strength gains.

“Think of everything here as a progression cycle, a sort of close interplay between both intensity and volume work”.

What happens when you have maxed the current capabilities of your CNS and stall in strength progress? Well, you need to develop more muscle mass. Being stronger will allow you to utilize a higher total volume of work (reps x sets x weight) leading to potentially more hypertrophy. But again, what happens when hypertrophy starts to slow down? You obviously can’t keep increasing reps and sets indefinitely (that would just increase the risk of all sorts of recovery and injury issues). Now, you need to start further increasing the total amount of weight you can handle in the higher rep ranges. To do this, you need to develop again your maximum strength capacity with this new muscle tissue. Switching back to intensity training will allow you to enhance the neural efficiency of this new muscle tissue allowing for further strength increases. Now when you go back to volume training, you can handle more weight for a given set of reps and sets. Voilà, more hypertrophy! As you can see, it’s all one big cycle. You get stronger by stressing and increasing the efficiency of your CNS (intensity training). This in turn will allow you to utilize more volume (reps x sets x weight) to stimulate muscular hypertrophy (volume training). This new muscle tissue can be used to help you overcome any new strength barriers in the future by further increasing your potential maximum strength ceiling (1RM). This occurs through again stressing the neural properties of this new muscle tissue during intensity training.

It Starts With The CNS: Train For Strength

Being able to handle more weight means improving the efficiency of your CNS. The more efficiently it works, the more weight your muscles can move. When it comes to improving the efficiency of muscle activity, motor units play the central role. Motor units are simply muscle drivers. When they are activated, the muscle will produce internal tension to overcome any external force. This is simply the expression of strength. In order to ensure that the correct muscle pairs are recruited, at the right time and, for the correct duration of time to produce optimal muscular tension, your motor units will need to be in tip top working form. If you are working on becoming stronger then you need to train in a manner that enhances the activity of these motor units. This activity includes: the number of motor units recruited, the rate at which they are activated and, how well they communicate with each other. If you can achieve this, then your muscles will work in much more efficient manner and you will become stronger.

Motor Unit 2.png

  • Figure shows the interaction between hypertrophy and strength gains
  • The top diagram shows a typical muscle: here with 4 fibers connected by 3 motor units. The recruitment, activation and synchronisation of these three motor units will activate the muscle fibres causing muscle activation
  • The left diagram occurs primarily during high-intensity (strength training): An increase in the recruitment of motor units (green), activity and synchronisation. Hypertrophy is minimal.
  • The right diagram occurs primarily during high-volume (hypertrophy training). An enlargement of the 4 muscle fibres, as well as surrounding proteins and sarcoplasm (around the 4 muscle fibers). The recruitment, activity and synchronisation of motor units remains largely unchanged.
  • There is a close interplay between the bottom two diagrams (hypertrophy and strength). Hypertrophy increases maximum strength potential, while strength increases maximum hypertrophy potential. You need both for long-term gains.

When it comes to improving maximum strength there are a few training methods of doing this, the most common ones are: the maximal effort method (MEM), repeated effort method (REM) and the dynamic effort method (DEM). The MEM is considered the best training method for increasing strength: mainly due to its ability to enhance the number of recruited motor units, their force output and the degree of synchronized activity exhibited between them. Simply put, your motor units work better. If they work better, you become stronger. Therefore, if you are looking for the best maximum strength increases then MEM seems like a pretty good strength training method to go for. MEM as a training method is pretty simple to follow. It just means lifting weights at or near your maximal capacity (90-100% 1RM), working in the 1-3 rep range. With MEM, you literally can’t lift more even if your life depended on it! The next method of training is REM, which is lifting a non-maximal weight (approx. 60-80% of 1RM) to failure. The idea behind this method comes from the size and recruitment principle of motor units. All motor units range in size from small to largest. The smallest motor units are recruited first, fatigue slowly and produce the smallest amount of force.

“When it comes to getting stronger, the aim is to increase recruitment efficiency of those larger force producing (fast) motor units”. These are pretty much active all the time (in and out of the gym) and play an important role in posture and everyday activities. The largest are recruited last, produce the most force in the smallest amount of time, fatigue quickly and play a pinnacle role in maximal strength production. The idea of REM is that as you perform work over and over again (say a particular exercise for a given number of reps/sets), motor units of varying size are recruited (from smallest first to largest). As the time of work performed increases, lower order (small) motor units start to become fatigued and can no longer produce the same level of muscular tension they could at the beginning of the exercise. As a result, the higher order (larger) units are now recruited and come into action. These are the motor units that produce the largest amount of force in the smallest amount of time and thus have the highest degree of influence on your maximum strength output. Like MEM, REM serves to enhance recruitment of those larger motor units responsible for your maximum strength increases. The third method DEM relies on lifting sub-maximal loads with the highest possible acceleration (do the exercise safely, but as quickly as possible). Essentially this is the motor unit size principal but in reverse. Since these movements require muscles to develop tension in the shortest possible time, it’s the largest motor units that come into action first. This is great for those looking to develop explosive strength and speed.

When it comes to getting stronger, the aim is to increase recruitment efficiency of those larger force producing (fast) motor units. By training in a manner that allows you to efficiently and maximally recruit the fast motor units that you have, you will be able to exhibit higher levels of maximum strength. Although there are three different training methods of increasing strength: MEM, REM and DEM, I personally find MEM to be the best manner of increasing maximal strength capacity. With MEM, you are optimally working on increasing those fastest (large) motor units, the frequency of their activity and, the ability to coordinate their activity with other motor units.

“By training in a manner that allows you to efficiently and maximally recruit the fast motor units that you have, you will be able to exhibit higher levels of maximum strength”. This lovely ensemble of outcomes means that MEM gives you the opportunity to develop your maximum strength capacity in the most optimal manner. Why not REM or DEM? Unlike MEM, in REM you are working on increasing maximum strength during the final reps/sets of a movement. In other words, trying to work on developing your maximum strength in the final sets of your exercise when you are pretty much fatigued! This seems counter productive and the higher volume makes it more suitable for hypertrophy purposes than for maximal strength development. DEM I have never really tried. But that is because it’s pretty technical. DEM usually includes lots of Olympic lifts, which although great, are extremely difficult to master. It could take years to master these lifts (even with a great coach) and that’s even before you can reap the benefits of them. As someone interested in general size and strength and not in competing in an Olympic weightlifting event, MEM seems like a more logical choice. Optimal gains in strength, and less time and energy spent on trying to master specific highly technical lifts.

motor-unit-size-principle

  • “A” shows the recruitment order of motor units from small (slow) to large (fast) motor units. Smaller motor units exhibit a smaller rate of force production, while the larger motor units exhibit a large rate of force production. Large motor units fatigue at a higher rate than small motor units. This is the recruitment order for MEM and REM strength training methods
  • “B” represents the recruitment order for DEM strength training. In DEM, sub-maximal weights lifted at a high acceleration mean that the fast motor units are recruited first.
  • Production of maximum strength means enhancing the recruitment, activity and synchronisation of those fast motor units through MEM, REM and DEM training methods.

CNS Fatigue: This Is Where Volume Comes In

Improving the efficiency of your CNS will always be the best way of increasing your raw strength output. But, you can’t always just keep stressing your CNS. A point does come where you have maxed out the neural efficiency of the muscle tissue you have. It’s impossible to say when this point occurs; after all, everyone is different. However, if you find your strength gains stalling, the chances are you are coming pretty close to maximal CNS efficiency. Think about it, there are only so many motor units you can recruit and so much work they can do before they run out of spare capacity. I know, it all sounds far fetched, but none of us are superman. A point is reached where something in your training has to change.

Motor unit graph.png

  • Graph shows theoretical changes in size and strength gains over time when training includes both hypertrophy and strength training components, and training with only one or the other
  • For optimal size and strength gains over time, training should include both hypertrophy and strength programming.

If you find that your strength has stalled the chances are you have maxed out the neural efficiency of the muscle mass you have. The only logical solution then is to work on building up more muscle tissue. Although strength training will increase muscular hypertrophy to an extent, it’s usually not the most optimal manner. With strength training, the gains in CNS efficiency will usually occur at a much faster rate than hypertrophy itself. In other words, you are more likely to tax your CNS well before hypertrophy has occurred at a large enough extent to stop your strength progress from stalling. If this is the case, you then need to find a more optimal way of inducing muscular hypertrophy. Obviously, training for only strength is not the answer for your long-term gains.

“If you find that your strength has stalled the chances are you have maxed out the neural efficiency of the muscle mass you have”.

It’s not a secret that if you want to increase muscle size then you need to train for muscle size. That usually means higher reps and a sub-maximal weight (approx. 70-85% of your 1RM). It is not the optimal manner to develop your maximum strength capacity but it is definitely the most optimal way of synthesizing new muscle tissue. The good thing is, once you go back to training for strength, you will probably find your strength moving to new highs. This occurs because you are now learning to increase the neural efficiency of this new muscle tissue. Simply put, you learn how to optimally recruit and utilize this extra muscle tissue to overcome further increases in external weight.

The same principal applies if you are only interested in gaining size. Eventually you reach a point in your training where you can no longer gain new muscle without further increasing the training volume. This is fine up to a point. But say you don’t focus on getting stronger through increased CNS efficiency; if that’s the case then you will never be able to lift more weight for a given volume. Since volume is reps x sets x weight, the only way to further increase training volume would be to increase sets/reps to compensate. Past a certain point, this would just become too un-manageable, time consuming and terrible for recovery. More muscle size is great, but without strength training you will never learn to utilize that muscle in the most efficient manner possible to become stronger. This will in turn affect your capacity to build muscle in the future. By becoming stronger, you can keep your volume optimally in check (not having to do insane amounts of reps/sets) that is both conducive to managing the balance between optimal gains and sufficient recovery.

Think Both Volume And Intensity For Long-Term Gains

So many people ask the question: Is there a relationship between size and strength? Most will give an answer and say: it’s not clear-cut. Honestly, I think it is. On paper it’s quite messy and complicated to understand all the theory. I agree it’s not easy to make the link if you read this on paper. But in reality, it could not be simpler. For long-term gains you need both. There is no question. Whether you want just size, just strength or both, in the long-term you need to be incorporating high intensity (strength) and high volume training (hypertrophy) into your weightlifting. The best weightlifters will always frequently program both into their training plans. While you can do one or the other up to a certain point, eventually not doing both will only serve to hold you back in almost any weightlifting goal you have. Not having the strength will limit your potential size and not having the size will limit your potential strength. Don’t limit yourself, make doing both a regular training habit.


If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Do you include both hypertrophy and strength training into your routine? Let me know!