When a bodybuilder steps out under the lights of the competition stage, they aren’t judged on how much they can squat or deadlift. In fact, what they can do with their physique isn’t relevant in any capacity (barring some exceptional posing routines, of course).
However, that doesn’t mean that physique athletes put their performance to the side in the gym — quite the contrary. Most modern bodybuilders, whether recreational or professional, recognize the importance of building a physique that can walk the walk.
To that end, you should know that there are more than a few muscle-oriented benefits that come with prioritizing your strength. Even if you don’t have competitive aspirations and simply go to the gym to look a bit beefier in a t-shirt, it still pays to prioritize strength from time to time.
Here are 10 compelling benefits of strength training for bodybuilding.
Benefits of Strength Training for Bodybuilders
- Lifting Heavy Builds Muscle
- Strength Training Reinforces Technique
- Carryover to Other Lifts
- More Power Output
- Added Variety to Your Workouts
- Provides Qualitative Benchmarks
- Preserves Muscle While Cutting
- (Possibly) Adds Muscle While Cutting
- Teaches Stability and Bracing
- Strength Training Is Fun
Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting
In order to understand (and reap) the benefits of heavy lifting as a bodybuilder, you should first recognize that training for strength versus size are not diametric opposites.
While it is true that specialization is a must at the top levels of either sport (bodybuilders in contest prep probably aren’t signing up for any powerlifting meets while they diet down), choosing to train for strength instead of size — or the other way around — is less of a switch you flip and more of a spectrum.
Putting muscle growth first doesn’t mean you can’t get stronger overall. Wanting a heavier bench press doesn’t preclude you from pursuing bigger pecs, either.
However, the further you go toward one end of the strength-size continuum, the less value you’ll gain by training for the other.
It may be obvious to mention, but it bears repeating — lifting heavy is good for muscle growth. The “optimal” rep ranges for strength and/or size aren’t as rigid as you might think. Research has shown time and time again that lifting heavier weights for low repetitions and lighter weights for moderate reps can both stimulate muscle growth. (1)
Your strength potential is only as high as how diligent you are about your form. Since many barbell exercises come with steep learning curves, you might notice that paying more attention to your technique in the pursuit of strength also leads to better form on your other, “smaller” movements.
You can think of strength training as a reminder to be diligent about every lift you perform. To treat your triceps pushdowns and lateral raises with the same care and attentiveness you give to the sumo deadlift.
Strength is specific, but it isn’t isolated. Gains you make while following a squat-focused program aren’t bound solely to the squat.
That same principle holds true across different rep ranges, too. Research indicates that strength improvements in low-repetition sets will positively impact your performance in higher rep ranges as well. (2)
Put simply, this means that adding weight to your sets of five on the barbell bench press might make you better at benching with dumbbells for eight, 10, or 12 reps later on in your session. Better performance across the entire array of your workout will undoubtedly lead to more gains over time.
Training for strength, particularly with big barbell movements, entails taking it slow on the eccentric portion of each rep. After all, you need to be in control of the equipment while you lift it.
While adding dynamic or ballistic movements into your routine is the best way to become ludicrously powerful, even standard strength training can help make you more explosive in the gym. Lifting the same weight a bit faster directly translates to more mechanical tension on a tissue, which incurs more muscle damage and thus growth later on.
The beauty of bodybuilding is in its variety. When it comes to the strength sports, you’re stuck with a couple of specific movements whether you like it or not. Training for muscle growth, on the other hand, lets you work with just about anything you can find in your gym.
However, any type of exercise can get monotonous after a while, and bodybuilding is no different. Injecting some strength-focused training into your regime can spice up a dull workout and give you something to look forward to other than yet another set of cable curls.
Building your physique can, at times, be frustratingly ambiguous. You have the scale, the mirror, and a measuring tape, but many of the changes that come with hypertrophic training aren’t easily-defined and it can be hard to notice small advancements.
Conversely, strength training is quantitative. You can watch your numbers go up and know that you’re making progress as a result. If you’ve found your gym routine a bit stagnant and aren’t sure that you’re being productive, adding strength work can be invaluable as a mental break.
Cutting weight is all about removing excess fat to display your hard-earned muscle. As such, losing muscle during a caloric deficit is something to avoid at all costs, but it does come with the territory.
Further, lifting heavy while on a diet will also help you hold onto your strength as you get leaner. There’s no reason to limit yourself to sets of 15 or 20 just because you’re trying to burn a few more calories in the gym.
You’ll notice that plenty of bodybuilders aren’t afraid to lift ultra-heavy (in moderation) while they diet down — everyone from Ronnie Coleman to Kyle Kirvay have loaded up obscene amounts of weight while also having striated glutes.
(Very) broadly speaking, it is impossible to add significant amounts of muscle while in a caloric deficit. There are exceptions — if you’re brand new to the gym, have been away from the iron for many months or years, or are significantly overweight — but you shouldn’t expect to add inches to your biceps while you’re cutting.
However, there’s a small but compelling amount of science indicating that training heavy during a cut may lead to some muscle growth, even in the absence of a caloric surplus. (5)
This idea is far from conclusively proven in a clinical setting, so take it with a grain of salt. Still, it does serve as another benefit of working with the barbell while you’re cutting.
Powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and strongmen know the importance of maintaining rock-solid stability while working with heavy weights. After all, you can’t deadlift 1,000 pounds or catch a World Record snatch if you buckle under the load.
By adding some strength work into your bodybuilding workouts, you can build up your joint integrity and structural soundness. In practical terms, this looks like more core strength, a stronger posterior chain, and better muscular coordination — all of which are relevant no matter what exercise you’re doing, or what you’re training for.
You shouldn’t need a research paper or meta analysis to convince you to try something new in the gym (though having an endorsement from the scientific community certainly helps). Strength training is popular because people like feeling strong and capable, sure, but lifting heavy is also heaps of fun as well.
It’s hard not to feel elated when you crush a new personal record in the squat, deadlift, row, or pull-up. If you aren’t enjoying your training sessions, you’re also likely to put in less effort. Having goals is important, but going to the gym should be rewarding for its own sake too.
How to Add Strength Training to Bodybuilding Workouts
If you’ve been sold on the “why,” your next question is probably “how?”
Your bodybuilding workouts are a well-oiled and tightly-calibrated machine. It may seem a daunting prospect to try and fit some strength-oriented work in as well. After all, it’s hard to fill a cup that is already full.
Fortunately, mixing strength and size training isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Do the Heavy Stuff First
If you’re going to lift heavy, do it at the front of your workout. Not only is it potentially dangerous to try and lift maximal weights if your supporting musculature is fatigued — think how hard it would be to do a set of barbell rows if your hamstrings are fried — you’ll want to have as much energy as possible if you’re working near your max.
Fortunately, lifting the heaviest weights at the start of your training session will also benefit the work that follows, due to an effect known as strength potentiation. By starting with the heaviest lifts, your subsequent movements (like doing the incline dumbbell press after you bench with a barbell), will feel a little lighter and move a little faster. (6)
Mix and Match
When training for hypertrophy, the best practice is to cluster all your exercises that work a specific muscle group together. This principle extends to your strength work as well, but it isn’t mandatory.
For instance, if you’re particularly focused on adding weight to your bench press, you can bench at the start of a leg workout to ensure you’re fresh and focused. However, this might prove difficult if you trained your chest the day prior.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to put your strength work on the same day as you train the relevant musculature. This means starting your back workouts with deadlifts, your shoulder days with the overhead press, and so on.
Temper Your Effort
Getting your training volume just right is a delicate balancing act. Too little and you risk leaving gains on the table. Too much and you might burn yourself out or, worse yet, suffer an injury.
Therefore, if you’re looking to add strength work to a hypertrophy routine, you’ll probably have to make concessions elsewhere. You can only do so much each time you’re in the gym.
When adding a new training vector to your plan, err on the side of caution and temporarily cut back on some of your existing work. This can mean removing an isolation exercise, cutting out a set or two, or increasing your rest times as you adjust to having strength exercises in the mix.
Sample Strength-Focused Bodybuilding Workout
It may sound well and good on paper, but putting these principles into practice is another beast entirely.
Here is an example of how to mix bodybuilding with strength training and still get good returns on your investment in both areas. Note that this is far from the only way of mixing the two, but it should serve as a good indicator of how to marry disparate training styles.
This chest workout focuses on dedicated bench press training to kick things off before proceeding to more traditional bodybuilding work to shred your pecs.
To accommodate the heavy bench work, you’ll notice a slight reduction in the number of subsequent isolation exercises that typically comprise a good chest session.
- Warm-Up: two or three sets of tempo push-ups with a resistance band.
- Barbell Bench Press: 5 x 5
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 8
- Weighted Dip: 2 x 10-12
- Cable Flye: 2 x 12-15
The workout begins by putting the heaviest exercise at the front of the line to capitalize on your energy and focus. You’ll follow it up with an auxiliary pressing movement that works a different part of your chest, and then cap things off with two additional movements at a higher rep range to fully fatigue every last muscle fiber.
Live Up to the Hype
A good physique is a statement. If you enter a room with well-developed and proportional muscles, people take notice. That said, you should be able to perform as good as you look, even if you’re a professional bodybuilder.
Modern bodybuilders recognize the importance of training for function and form. Strength doesn’t belong to powerlifters exclusively — nor is muscle the sole province of those who don posing trunks.
1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(10), 2909–2918.
2. Pelet, D., & Orsatti, F. L. (2021). Effects of resistance training at different intensities of load on cross-education of muscle strength. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 46(10), 1279–1289.
3. Douglas, J., Pearson, S., Ross, A., & McGuigan, M. (2017). Chronic Adaptations to Eccentric Training: A Systematic Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(5), 917–941.
4. Murphy, C., & Koehler, K. (2022). Energy deficiency impairs resistance training gains in lean mass but not strength: A meta-analysis and meta-regression. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 32(1), 125–137.
5. Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11, 20.
6. Garbisu-Hualde A, Santos-Concejero J. Post-Activation Potentiation in Strength Training: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature. J Hum Kinet. 2021 Mar 31;78:141-150.
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