Thursday, February 19, 2009

T-Nation - The Best Exercises for Size and Strength

We all would like to be bigger and/or stronger.

The Best Exercises for Size and Strength

Walk into any decent gym and you'll have multiple choices for whatever movement pattern or muscle group you want to train that day. Should you do pulldowns or pull-ups? Bench presses with a barbell or on the Smith machine? Squats or leg presses?

If you think the answers are obvious, I beg to differ.

Exercise selection, clearly, is not the only important variable in a training program. You have to make intelligent decisions about volume, intensity, and frequency as well — how much, how hard, and how often you train. And, just as clearly, you can't make good choices in those areas unless you define your goals.

You can find lots of articles — entire books, even — that tell you how to adjust volume, intensity, and frequency when you're training for strength vs. hypertrophy. But what you rarely find is any guide to selecting the right exercises for those two goals. That, in my view, is a pretty big gap. Not all exercises are created equal, and some are better at yielding specific results than others.

For this article, I'm going to break down exercise selection into two primary categories: the best exercises for strength, and the best for hypertrophy. If you're interested in achieving both at the same time, you can just select the exercises that appear on both lists.

Certainly, there are other categories that I'm leaving out — the best exercises for fat loss, athletic development, mobility, muscular endurance ... the list could go on a while. But the two I listed are the big ones, the ones most of you are currently pursuing.

Best Exercises for Size and Strength

The squat makes you stronger, bigger, and most important of all, veinier.

Industrial Strength

I think everyone reading this understands that the size of a muscle affects its strength, up to a point. But we all know that bodybuilders — the biggest guys in the gym in terms of pure muscular size — aren't by any stretch the strongest. They're stronger than the skinny dudes on the Bosu balls, of course, but most of them would get smoked by the top powerlifters in their weight class.

That's because maximal strength — the muscles' ability to perform a single, all-out effort — depends on neuromuscular coordination as well as the amount of contractile tissue within the muscle.

So, when selecting an exercise for the goal of developing maximal strength, you need to choose one that allows you to lift the most weight and requires the most skill.

Both halves of that statement are important.

You already know you won't get strong unless you choose exercises that allow you to lift a lot of weight. You can't get strong with light weights, even if you're lifting from an awkward or unstable position.

So when I say the exercises you choose must require skill, I'm talking about lifts that require some technique and balance, not the ones that look like circus tricks. High-skill exercises are usually compound — involving action at more than one joint — and take place in multiple planes of movement, or at least have the possibility to do so.

Neuromuscular coordination is crucial because of the concept of the transfer of skill, or how your ability in one exercise crosses over to another. The key to understanding this concept is to remember that the transfer of skill flows downhill. Your ability to perform a higher-skill exercise, like a bench press, means you'll also be pretty good at a lower-skill version of that same basic movement, like a machine chest press.

Skill rarely flows the opposite direction. If you only trained on a selectorized chest-press machine, you wouldn't be commensurately strong on the barbell bench press.

Think of arm wrestling, a sport that requires a combination of strength and skill. A guy can have fantastically strong arms, as demonstrated by his ability to lift heavy weights in lower-skill exercises, but if he's never arm-wrestled before, not only is he going to lose his match, there's a good chance he'll get hurt in the process. He has strong muscles pulling on bones, tendons, and ligaments in an unfamiliar way, and that's a perfect formula for injury. (Ironically, a weaker arm-wrestling novice has less chance of injury. He'll just lose the match, without lasting damage to anything but his ego.)

Speaking of skill, you may notice when you get to the exercise lists that I don't include the Olympic lifts in this discussion. They obviously require skill, and they obviously allow you to improve strength. But because they emphasize speed, power, and coordination over pure strength, I think they're part of a different discussion. They wouldn't be first-choice exercises for pure strength or pure hypertrophy, although they'd certainly be in the mix if we were talking about training to improve speed and power.

Read the whole article.

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