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  • Writer's pictureMyles Jeffers

Do You Want To Be Strong or Big?

Welcome to the Iron and Alchemy Blog. I will be posting an introductory blog soon to let ya know who I am, and what my goal with this blog is. In the meantime, I wanted to get something out asap to get the ball rolling, so here we go!

As a brief intro, my name is Myles. I have owned a brick and mortar gym for just over a year, I have been a strength and conditioning coach for nearly fifteen years, and I have been going to the gym for twenty years. Before the age of 30 I had been lucky enough to have lifted in unique gyms in over twenty different countries with some highlights being the Olympic Training Centre in Calgary and “The World’s Most Hardcore Gym” Kachalka in Kyiv, Ukraine. I have also trained professional athletes in Surf, Hockey, Lacrosse, Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and even a Tv Personality. So, when it comes to ‘the gym’, I’ve been exposed to both ends of the spectrum and everything in between as both a coach and an athlete.

Now, let’s get to the meat. I was going to share 5 of the most common mistakes I see people making in the gym which will significantly hold back progress, but as is typical with me, things got lengthy on the first mistake, so I will present these 5 noticing as separate blog posts. Fair warning, I think about this stuff a lot, and I get pretty wordy.

Before we dive in, I want to preface this by stating that there are many reasons to go to the gym, and some folks don’t want to make significant changes to themselves with a visit to the gym, and that is totally fine. If you like to go to the gym to move a bit, and get some healthy brain chemicals flowing, then you do you fam, we support you in that, but this blog is probably a bit spartan for ya. However, if you want more than an acute experience from training and want to make a significant change in your body and life, then listen up.

Are You Trying To Get Big Or Are You Trying To Get Strong?

Decide Now! Your progress depends on it!

One of the most common mistakes I see burgeoning lifters make is that they confuse Strength Training (Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting, Sport Performance) and Hypertrophy Training (Bodybuilding, Physique). Or, they oscillate between the two, which will hinder results in both directions. Having said that, gains will be made in both domains, just not as much as if you specialize. This should be no surprise. If I want to speak Japanese, I may gain some benefit from trying to learn another language, but if my end goal in mind is speaking Japanese my best bet is to focus 100% on Japanese.

"Child, look for no reward from A, if you are working in the house of B." - Saadi of Shiraz

Before this gets all wordy, the following two points sum up the rest of the blog pretty well. If you just listened to whichever one applies to you, I guarantee you will get better results. If the following two points confuse you, then you are in dire need of a further read.

If you want to grow big muscles, stop caring about how strong you are.


If you want to get super strong, stop caring about how big your muscles are.

A lot of folks come into the gym with the idea that all types of lifting or exercising are more or less equal and lead to the same result of getting bigger muscles which in turn makes you stronger. That just makes sense right? Well, kind of…. but not really; that is the answer I would be comfortable giving a third grader, but not a functioning adult. If we deepen our knowledge of training a wee-bit we soon come to realize that there is a significant difference between training oneself to be strong compared to training oneself to be really muscular like a bodybuilder. Having the aforementioned assumption about strength training and hypertrophy training would be like assuming that a 100m sprinter, and an ultra-marathon runner have the same training regimen. Since both involve running, of course there will be some overlap, however sprinting and marathon running use different energy systems in the body as well as require different muscle contractions, and the preparation of elite sprinters and elite marathon runners is very dissimilar.

Let's challenge some assumptions... Who do you think can lift more between these two individuals? It's the guy on the left! By a lot. (Liu Xiaojun (left), Jay Cutler (right))

Like sprinting and marathon running, performance training and hypertrophy training (Bodybuilding) will have some overlap, but that overlap is surface level. Training to become really strong, and training to grow really big muscles each require a different stimulus to garner that result. And, this shocks a lot of people, but you do not need to get bigger to get stronger. And even more shocking for many is that just because somebody has big muscles, this does not mean they are very strong. Muscles built for the sake of muscle will not be as strong as muscles built for the sake of strength. Muscles being trained for strength will not grow the same as muscles being trained for growth. It even surprises some folks to hear that a lot of people go to the gym with zero desire to look any different, or ‘get big’, but only care about how heavy they can lift.

So, let’s break down the two, so you can decide which god to pray to. Do you want to work in House A or House B. I’ll start with some qualitative explanations of the two and finally show how different the training for strength vs. hypertrophy can be and provide a couple programming examples.

We are going to start with strength-training and I will share a few shaming comments I have received more than a few times over the years as a 165lb (on a good day) strength athlete. “Haven’t you been going to the gym since high school, why aren’t you big yet?” “Or, hmphhhh, I thought you’d be bigger.” Well, the answer to that question would be that for the bulk of my training history I have focused on gaining strength and power (moving heavy things, or myself, fast). I want to be athletic as fuck, fast as fuck, strong as fuck, and putting on muscle for the sake of muscle would go against those goals. I tried that as a young hockey player, and it made me worse at hockey, even though I looked good with my shirt off. After figuring that out, now that I train for performance, any muscle I gain is a positive side-effect of the muscle breakdown which occurs during strength and power training in addition to the caloric intake necessary to maintain my performance, not the goal. In fact, my goal is to be as powerful and small as possible, because I personally want to have a crazy strength/power to weight ratio. I'd rather hide under my bunny hug and surprise someone with my strength and ability. Furthermore, if I compete in Olympic Lifting (moving heavy things fast) or Power Lifting (move really heavy things slow) both are weight-class sports where the goal is to lift as much as possible while weighing as little as possible. Strength and Power Training are all about developing your body’s ability to perform difficult tasks, and for the most part you just accept the physique that comes as a result. As a strength athlete, sure I wish I had bigger deltoids, and a pair of biceps that filled out my t-shirt, and I wish I didn't have to be topless for people to believe I workout, but…it is far more important to me to hit my strength goals in the gym while maintaining a high level of athleticism outside of the gym, like when I am on my surfboard.

One of my favourite examples of a deceptively normal looking physique hiding immense strength is Olivia Reeves who is an American Olympic Weightlifter. She makes a 440lb full-depth Back Squat look boring. Most adult men cannot pick that weight 1 cm off the floor. Here is a picture of her squatting 440lbs.

Now, let’s talk a bit about bodybuilding. When we are talking hypertrophy training or bodybuilding, whether it be male or female, we are now moving away from focusing on what the body can do, and now focusing on how the body appears. Now you may assume I am going to down-talk bodybuilding since I am a strength athlete, but my views on bodybuilding may surprise you. I have a deep respect for bodybuilders. In the gym, the bodybuilders are the true artists. If we grossly generalize art as the creation of beauty, then bodybuilding is a 'long-form-biological performance art'. Here is a picture of Steeve Reeves who was a major inspiration of Arnold Schwarzenneger.

A wood carver starts with a piece of wood, and an image in mind. The art of sculpting that wood into her image is a beautiful practise which our society holds in high regard, as it should. I challenge the reader to show how a bodybuilder is any different, or deserves less artistic respect? A bodybuilder doesn’t work with wood, but rather muscle. In the early days of bodybuilding, many focused on The Greek Ideal, and would attempt to bring their body measurements to that of the literal Greek Sculptures which were considered the ideal aesthetic male body. One ratio from The Greek Ideal is to have the ratio between your biceps and calves to be 1:1. So, a bodybuilder would measure his biceps, measure his calves, and then decide where he has to put down some clay. However, unlike the sculptor who could simply shave down the biceps or add some plaster to the calves, the bodybuilder has to continually train the muscle he wants grow to the point of breakdown, feed that muscle with a special diet, and wait for the muscle to recover and grow. Since this has been rather male, let’s use a female example as well. Whereas a painter can hold an image in their mind’s eye, or draw from a model, to create beauty; the physical artist or bodybuilder uses muscle breakdown and recovery to create beauty. There is a booty-building craze in fitness right now which I have zero issue with, in fact I am a big supporter, so we can use that as an example. If a female checks herself out in the mirror and decides she wants her back end to pop a bit more in her jeans or summer dress, then it is my belief that it is an artistic and creative act to join a gym, get squattin’, get eatin’, and let them glutes grow. Beauty, by her own definition, has been created; art has occurred.

A common criticism, especially where I live, of bodybuilders or gym folk, is that it is vane to go to the gym and spend that much time on yourself to “just to look a certain way.” Dead that. The people who make such criticisms usually spend equal amount of time and resources on their image, and they too try to create beauty, but do so in different ways. Instead of bench-pressing for some bigger pecs, they spend equal time trimming their moustaches to look like a "southern-californian-surf-chad". Instead of squatting to build that booty, they spend $400 on make-up. I mean each to their own and all that, but I have little patience for people chirping folks who spend time on themselves in the gym when it is a positive act of self-love. And, more to the point, some of us weren’t born with a tonne of confidence, and the gym can really help with that.

Now that we have a brief idea of the different tracks of strength training and bodybuilding, let’s provide some examples of how to train for each, and some of the why’s behind those choices. So, let’s imagine we have a pair of perfect identical twins, which means that for the most part they share the same bone structure, and have an equal propensity for training gains be it size or strength. Despite being twins however, these two have different goals. Twin 1 wants to be stronger than his brother and be able to Back Squat 365lbs at full depth some day (Strength Focus). Meanwhile, Twin 2, wants to be bigger than his brother, and look as much like Henry Cavill in Superman as he can.

To keep things simple, we will use Back Squat rep schemes to illustrate how different the training of these two should look in light of their divergent goals.

Twin 1 - Strength

Twin 2 - Size

Back Squat Warmup with 1 very light sets of 10-15 reps, then perform: 2 sets of 5 @ 2px1 tempo, followed by 3 sets of 3 @ 20x1 tempo. Rest 3:30 b/w sets.

Notes: 5’s - Focus on eccentric control with a brief pause in the hole, no bounce. 3’s - Focus on eccentric control, then maintain bracing and bounce out of the hole (Stretch reflex)

Back Squat 1 sets of 12 @ 3110 tempo 4 sets of 8 @ 3110 tempo 1 set of 12 @ 3110 Rest :90-2:00 b/w sets.

Notes: 3 seconds on the way down, visible pause in the hole, stand up, no rest between reps at the top. If you cannot hit the prescribed tempo, you are lifting too heavy.

Now, I’ll use some language to talk a bit about the different way in which each athlete should approach their training.

Twin 1, is training for strength. So when he is lifting, he is focusing on bracing, staying safe, but besides that the main goal is getting the damn weight up. For strength purposes he may use utilize eccentric control, isometric pauses, as well as develop the ability to use his stretch reflex, aka being able to bounce out of the bottom of a squat like an Olympic Lifter. Due to the amount of compound exercises Twin 1 is completing, he will develop some muscle, but nothing will ‘pop’, unless there was a pre-existing genetic propensity for that muscle group to grow. Additionally, due to how taxing heavy compound lifting is on ‘the core’, he will likely develop a thick set of abdominal muscles which may even hang over his hip bones. Personally, I fall into this category as my obliques stick out almost as far as my shoulders. For the strength athlete, like Twin 1, a power-belly is a good sign. However, twin 2, wants no such belly.

Twin 2 wants to look muscular and sexy and who can blame him in the instagram world we live in. He wants to have a skinny waist, broad shoulders, mountainous pecs, and vascular meaty biceps. So….even though he may use some compound lifts in his training due to the powerful hormonal hit this will provide, he will want to avoid focusing too heavily on compound movements which may thicken his core too much. He will utilize more cable exercises, dumbbells, and machines in general so that he can isolate certain muscle groups to make them grow. It is important that he does not overload movements just to try and llift heavier, as it is far more important for the quality of the contraction to remain high quality (no momentum, no stretch-reflex) and the targeted muscle group to be stimulated. A common example is lifting too heavy in shoulder flies, which will recruit the traps, and reduce the stimulus to the deltoids. Another common error in this track is to focus too much on the concentric part of the rep, while mainly skipping the eccentric and isometric parts of a given lift. An example here would be an inexperienced lifter in a quadricep extension machine gritting his teeth and grunting to get the weight up only to let it crash down. Pro-tip, the eccentric and isometric phases of the rep build the most muscle, not the concentric. Aka if you are using a machine it should be nearly silent. Most beginner bodybuilders (0-3 years) will get far better results lifting a bit lighter and slower, as opposed to heavier with worse technique and less time under tension.

Finally, exercise selection will vary greatly between the strength athlete and the bodybuilder. The external validity of the movement pattern, in other words how similar the movement you are performing in the gym is to the movements you will be performing in the real world or in sport, is important to the strength athlete, but matters little to the bodybuilder. If we take leg-training for an example, it is easy to illustrate how differently a strength athlete and a bodybuilder may train. The athlete will choose movements which lead to better performance (accuracy, strength, power, balance, speed, reaction, etc.), whereas the bodybuilder only cares about one thing which is muscle break-down and size. The bodybuilder does not need to be more athletic, so the movements they choose will prioritize targeted muscle tissue-breakdown while resting other muscle groups, and it is ok if the exercise of choice has little to do with how one needs to move in the real world.

Athlete - I want to perform better athletically.

Bodybuilder/Physique - I want to look a certain way.

A- Plyometrics B- Back Squat C- Front Heel Elevated Split Squats D- Nordic Hamstring Curls

A- Leg Press B- Quad Extension Machine C- Hamstring Curl Machine D- Seated Calf Raises

One of my favourite tongue in cheek jokes from the gym world goes like this. It is similar to the ghetto check of asking someone if they know your cousin Stacey. Stacey doesn't exist, so you know if they say yes, they are weak and you can take advantage of them. Here it is, and I am sorry if this hurts a little.

"Do you want to know if someone is weak as shit? Simply ask them how much they leg press. If they tell you any number at all, you know they are weak as shit."

If you don't get it, then I can explain. It is because real strength athletes (Olympic Lifters, Strongmen, Powerlifters) wouldn't be caught dead evaluating someone's strength on a leg-press or using that to develop their physical ability unless they are returning from injury. That would be like holding a serious dunking competition but then placing a trampoline under the net.

So, if you are hitting the gym to get better at surfing, mountain-biking, or even playing with your kids, I'd rather see you Goblet Squatting 25lbs than leg-pressing 500lbs. This is because the goblet squat has far more external validity to athletics, and daily life, than sitting your ass on a leg-press machine. People confusing bodybuilding with performance training is what leads to the myth that working out will make you big, blocky, and less athletic. That myth only becomes a reality if you decide to train with machines like the leg-press. But, asking the leg-press to make you more athletic is like asking a donkey to be a stallion. Sorry to pick on this guy and the leg-press in general, but remember this is somewhat intended to mimic a squat. Now picture the leg-pressin' fella below here, and picture him squatting in that position with his feet on the ground. If that was his chest angle in a squat I don't even know what to say other than it won't end well, and he needs to learn how to Goblet Squat.

What about Ronnie Coleman? He was a bodybuilder and strong as shit and lifted heavy? Yes, of course there will be examples of people who can do both, but sorry you aren’t Ronnie Coleman, just like I am no Liu Xiaojun. Also, Ronnie Coleman can't walk anymore. On the extreme ends of the bell-curve you will find people who can gain a great physique through strength training, and bodybuilders who are seriously strong from bodybuilding, but in my experience, people at that level are generally flexing gifts from god, and are not examples of something the average person can experience from their choice of training. I can reference the insane strength, power, and physique of Bo Jackson, who allegedly did not train or lift weights at all despite being arguably one of the strongest athletes in history. These folks who fill our insta-feeds are best admired, rather than emulated. If you really want to see what a certain training style will do for you personally, don’t even bother looking at your social feed, because you will only see the bell-ends of the curve, and will find people you have very little in common with in terms of lifestyle, genetics, training history, and likely choice of ‘vitamin regimine’ as well. If you want to see what dedicating yourself to Powerlifting, for example, will lead to, don’t watch videos of Larry Wheels (extreme outlier), rather observe the powerlifters at your own gym in your own town or neighbourhood. These are folks just like you, with normal genetics, normal life responsibilities, and are a far better representation of what you can expect out of yourself if you dedicate a few years to the journey.

What about PowerBuilding or a Hybrid Method? Sure, those work if your goal is somewhere in between getting big and getting strong. And honestly, most people I know in this world want a bit of both. But, just like I said at the top, if you want to win a powerlifting meet, you should Powerlift, not Powerbuild. If you want to be a physique competitor and pose on stage someday, no points are won or lost based on how much you can deadlift. So, if you are happy somwhere in the middle, then train somewhere in the middle. But if you are going to lose sleep over how much you can or cannot deadlift, then stop wasting calories performing pec-fly’s on the cable machine.

I hope you enjoyed my first blog after a couple year hiatus. I hope this made you evaluate your training template including exercise selection and rep-schemes, in light of your goals. If you have a question or comment on anything I said here, feel free to reach out.

Thank-you for your time,

Myles Jeffers

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1 Comment

Jan 29

Well done.

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