If you’re just starting out with serious training, you probably want to get pretty darn big and pretty darn strong. But when you’re scrolling through your Instagram Explore page, maybe you notice that, hey, there aren’t a whole lot of guys who are big and strong. The really freaky bodybuilders look like they’re spending a lot of their time on machines. And the strongest powerlifters don’t always look all that impressive – they’re a little on the blocky side.
But most programs out there say that if you want to get big, you have to get strong; and that if you want to get strong, you have to get big. What gives?
For starters, it’s an age of specialization. In fact, there’s a lot of academic theory that says as sports mature, they develop more specialized rules, records, and methods of training. Remember, powerlifting and bodybuilding have been around for about half a century now, so it’s not surprising that you’ll see guys focusing only on size or strength, not both. Back in the ‘70s, it was much more common to see a bodybuilder cranking out heavy squats and deadlifts.
So yes, if you want to compete at the highest levels of either sport, you’ll have to make some tradeoffs. But most people aren’t that interested in winning the Olympia or the US Open – they just want to be big enough and strong enough to turn heads. And that’s a lot easier, as long as you’re pretty careful with your programming and exercise selection.
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In the first installment of my powerbuilding series, I mention how factors outside your control affect how you look: things like bone structure, muscle insertions, and proportions. And to a large extent, that’s true. However, it is possible to “hide” flaws, in part by choosing the right exercises to target the right body parts.
Let’s look at an example to see how that works. Take shoulders: not many people are blessed with the very wide clavicle and tiny waist necessary to accentuate an X-shaped torso. If you missed out on the genetic lottery, there’s still hope. The secret involves building up your rear and middle delts to create the illusion of width.
A lot of lifters know that they need big shoulders to look wide, but to get those big shoulders, they rely only on heavy overhead pressing. Don’t get me wrong: heavy overhead pressing is fantastic, and you should absolutely include it in your routine. But there’s two problems with overhead work: first, it’s pretty damned hard, so it’s going to eat into your recovery, and you need to account for that in your programming. Second, it doesn’t really get at the middle and rear delts enough to really build them up to the point where they can cover for a narrow bone structure.
This is where supplemental exercise selection comes in. By including lateral raises and rear-delt rows in your program, you can develop those muscles without detracting from your bench press or deadlift. (If you don’t believe sore shoulders can mess with your pull, then you’re not pushing hard enough!)
Let’s take another example: Larry “Wheels” Williams looks freaking fantastic at a lean 260+ pounds, and the guy benches over 600 pounds. You’d expect him to have absolutely massive arms, and they are huge – but until he really started focusing on them, they weren’t as huge as some other bodybuilders his size. Why not?
Well, bench presses tend to develop the lateral head of the triceps, but most of the illusion of arm size comes from the long head of the triceps – a muscle that’s pretty hard to train with any type of pressing movement. If arm size is your goal, you’d be well advised to include supplemental exercises that involve overhead extension.
One huge caveat here: I’m not saying that you should avoid heavy squats, presses, and pulls! In fact, the opposite is true: those are your main mass builders. But to develop a well-rounded, aesthetic physique, you’ll need to include other exercises; and, to avoid interfering with your strength work, it’s probably a good idea to favor isolation work when you do. I think Liam Kelly is one of the best examples of this:
Proportion is only one factor to consider when you’re choosing supplemental exercises, and actually, it’s probably not the most important. To really build muscle with movements that don’t allow you to use much weight, you need to form a good mind-muscle connection.
There’s a lot of debate over mind-muscle connection, because studies haven’t really supported its efficacy. And honestly, it probably doesn’t matter how hard you think about your pecs pumping when you’re banging out a set on the flye machine. But here’s the thing: the better you’re able to feel a particular muscle working, the better you’re able to activate and recruit that muscle in every movement you do.
More importantly, you’re able to avoid using certain muscles when you’re trying to focus on other ones. Ever gotten sore hip flexors from a set of crunches, or sore shoulders from a set of curls? That’s a pretty good sign that you’re lacking some mind-muscle connection. And while it’s true that you’re pretty much guaranteed to work your biceps doing a set of curls regardless of whether your shoulders get sore, it’s also true that you’ll be able to work your biceps harder if you can avoid that.
So how do you choose exercises to help form a mind-muscle connection? There’s no easy formula to know whether you’ll feel your lats working better on pulldowns or seated rows, but there is a shortcut to eliminate exercises that don’t work: use super high-rep sets. When you’re cranking out a set of 20 or 30 reps, you can be sure that whatever muscle you’re working will start burning pretty bad. So if you’re doing your pulldowns, but notice that your lower back is on fire, then maybe pulldowns aren’t the place to start.
Again, a caveat: once you do form a pretty solid mind-muscle connection, you’ll probably be able to go back to some of the exercises you avoided before and find that you can use them more effectively. Don’t write off a movement just because it doesn’t work right for you right now.
Hopefully by now you’re convinced that exercise selection takes a little more care than a quick Google search or coin flip. That said, you need to remember that how you do the movements still matters more than what movements you do. Some people get so engrossed in supplemental exercises that they end up doing endless set after endless set of lat pulldowns, bicep curls, and crunches, and that’s often a waste of time. If your primary goal is strength, then about 80% of your effort should focus on competition lifts or close variants. The other 20% should be supplemental exercises. You don’t need to be exact, but if you’re way off that, something’s wrong.
If your primary goal involves your physique, that balance will obviously change – and we’ll get more into that in the next article.
Feature image from @liamkelly1987 Instagram page.