If you’re chasing big numbers in the gym this winter, using heavy-ass weight is a one-way ticket to success. Here’s everything you need to know to get it done.
Say adios to t-shirt weather. And as you layer up to combat chillier temperatures, your caloric intake tends to increase and your workouts tend to get longer and more intense. But during these early weeks of winter bulking, some of you may notice that, despite your best efforts in the gym and the kitchen, the gains in strength and size just aren’t showing up.
Instead of doubling down on a strategy that’s clearly not working, we suggest stepping away from your current routine—especially if it’s a boilerplate “four sets of 8–12 reps” scheme— and refocusing your efforts.
We consulted Paul Carter, a strength coach who specializes in hypertrophy, to supply you with a new game plan that’ll deliver serious results.
Let’s get to work.
Strength For Growth
The concept behind attaining strength and size is simple: Your body encounters stresses and demands and responds by adapting to handle more. Eventually, though, your body will get used to whatever you’re throwing at it and you’ll be forced to find a new stimulus (more weights or more reps) to provoke “Either the body is adapting to a stimulus or you’re detraining. That’s it. That’s all you have,” Carter emphasizes.
While the same analogy holds true for size and strength, the two are, mostly, exclusive modalities. Strength is a mainly neurological response, and size is primarily a muscular response. That’s why there are small guys who can outlift bigger ones. It should be noted, though, that muscle size is a factor for strength.
For serious size gains, the formula is not complex.
“It’s about training as heavy as you can for high reps,” Carter says, alluding to the type of training Tom Platz—the Golden Era bodybuilder who set a new standard for leg size and squatted 350 pounds for 52 reps—was known for. “That’s what really gets people to grow, because the amount of tension that is created during that set is enormous, and tension is where hypertrophy really stems from.”
However, to get huge you must train your body to continually handle an increased workload. This is where shifting your focus to strength can come into play.
“Think of it as a transitional period where you build this foundation of strength and then apply your newfound strength to your hypertrophy principles,” explains Carter. “This strength-training block is going to transition into the hypertrophy block by increasing your ability to do more reps with more weight...and then you’re going to grow.”
90% Max Effort
For this program, you’ll be using 90% of your true one-rep max. “When you program your training cycles, you don’t base the percentages off of a true max. You base them off of a max that you could do even on your worst of days because that’s a more accurate gauge,” says Carter.
Sets & Rep
Below you’ll find the sets and reps schemes for each of the four main lifts. You’ll perform three sets of one rep—slowly increasing the weight each week—to stimulate your body’s neurological response.
“This program is all about finding your groove with the exercises, becoming good at them, and producing as much power as you can throughout the entire lift,” explains Carter. Each powerlift is followed by additional work (with the same movement), which varies for each; max reps (AMRAP, or “as many reps as possible”) for the pressing movements, pause reps after squats, and “back off” sets following deadlifts.
“These train explosiveness and add more volume,” elaborates Carter. This strength-training block is going to transition into a hypertrophy block by increasing your ability to do more reps with more weight...and now you’re going to grow.
Three More Keys
Maximal strength refers to how much you can lift for one rep, while power is about how quickly you can lift the weight. Many lifters are guilty of what Carter refers to as “cruising”—once the bar gets past their sticking point, they finish with lackluster effort. Don’t be that guy. Complete each rep with ferocious velocity. Bye-bye sticking points, hello muscles.
Since this five-week block has less overall volume than what you’re used to, the two conditioning days will ensure that your body remains up for the challenge when you switch back to your regular hypertrophy block. Carter recommends a basic cardio plan: 15 seconds of work (at maximum effort) followed by 45 seconds of rest for 15 rounds.
High-rep training is a new—and painful—way to trigger growth. “For your single-joint movements, you would do ultra-high reps because it is going to be a new stimulus to adapt to,” says Carter. Unlike the low reps performed for most of this program, high reps hit your type-1 fibers and give you skin-tearing pumps.
The Big Picture
Using this program to gain strength will allow you to lift heavier weights and achieve greater overload when you return to your higher-volume training routine. Be sure to perform the workout below for 5 weeks, varying the percentages each new week (see chart above).