Powerbuilding and the Two Types of Hypertrophy

Powerbuilding is a relatively new ‘buzzword’ in fitness that is currently doing the rounds on the net. What it describes though, has been around for a while. Essentially, powerbuilding is a portmanteau of ‘power lifting’ and ‘bodybuilding’ and is a type of training that aims to combine the results of both.

What this means, is that a powerbuilder is someone who trains for both strength and size as opposed to just one of those goals. In bodybuilding, the objective is to create an aesthetic physique. That means large imposing muscle with ‘rips’ and definition. A powerlifter meanwhile trains for strength and to be able to shift large amounts of weight off the floor for a single repetition.

To some extent, these two goals are correlated. Usually, people with more muscular size will also be stronger. However, the correlation is not as strong as you might think and the optimal way to train for each objective is slightly different. Hence the need for powerbuilding that aims to straddle the line between the two for results in both areas.

Building Muscle Versus Strength

As a general rule, the best way to build pure strength is to train with very heavy lifts for a low number of repetitions. Usually this training will focus on compound movements too that involve multiple muscles working together. An example would be to perform five sets of three repetitions on the bench press or squat for instance.

Training with this kind of weight has the effect of creating microtears in the muscle fiber which in turn leads to an increase in strength as the muscle then thickens during recovery. This is sometimes called ‘myofibrillar’ hypertrophy.

Meanwhile, the best way to build size as a bodybuilder, is to train with a lighter weight for a higher number of repetitions. Often this training will focus on isolation movements – curls for instance – which pin point a single muscle group. For instance, you might perform three sets of 15 reps of curls or tricep kick-backs.

Training with this kind of strategy creates a lot of ‘pump’ during the workouts and that seems to correlate with increased muscle growth – possibly due to an increase in sarcoplasm in the muscles (basically the muscular equivalent of cytoplasm). This is sometimes called ‘sarcoplasmic’ hypertrophy.

Is Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy Real?

While you will read a lot about the differences between myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, there is actually very little by way of research to back up the distinction. This has led to some branding sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as being ‘bro science’.

So is there really any difference? While the science is somewhat vague on this subject, most strength athletes will tell you that the two types of training certainly yield different results. Training like a bodybuilder tends to result in a larger but slightly softer muscle, whereas heavy lifting results in more strength.

But there are other factors to consider here too. For starters, isolation training is always going to have a big impact on muscle development. Compound lifts meanwhile require a lot of technique that a bodybuilder is unlikely to learn unless they incorporate Olympic lifts into their training.

And there are other explanations for the different responses in the muscle too. It may be for instance that heavier weights are more effective at targeting the explosive fast twitch muscle fibers, versus the slower muscle fibers. Some theories suggest that creating pump stretches the ‘fascia’ surrounding the muscles. And then there’s the idea that straining against a heavy weight (or even an immovable force as with overcoming isometric training) can increase the neural connection with the muscle, enabling you to recruit more muscle fiber during a lift.

Either way though, the fact remains that lifting heavier makes you stronger and lifting longer makes you bigger. But don’t write off bodybuilding as not building ‘real strength’ or being entirely vain – actually it increases your endurance during lifting and this is something that is just as ‘functional’ in a real world setting as one-rep-max strength.

How to Build Muscle and Strength at the Same Time

Most people who work out want to look stronger and be stronger. So what’s the best way to train for these two separate goals?

The simple answer is to combine both types of training. There are three ways to do this.

The easiest method is to create a training split that has you training for strength on some days of the week and training for size on others. So for instance, you might train with very heavy weights performing compound movements on the Monday and Friday and isolate your individual muscle groups with lighter weights on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (leaving weekends to recover of course).

Another approach would be to combine very heavy weights with longer repetitions within a single workout. This might mean for instance that you would start the workout with two or three exercises using 5 repetitions of a very heavy weight and then end on some longer sets with lighter weights. It makes sense to put the heaviest weights first.

Finally, the third approach is to combine the different types of training into each set. How might this work? Simple: with a drop set. Here, you start a set with a very heavy weight and then lower the weight each time you reach failure. So for instance, you could perform four sets to failure on the bicep curl or bench press, then immediately drop the weight to perform five more and then keep dropping it until you’re barely lifting anything.

This is a classic bodybuilding technique and actually it’s incredibly effective for building strength without compromising on size. That’s because your muscle fibers are getting torn by lifting the heavy amounts of weight but the total time spent lifting is long enough to create some serious pump. On the next set you won’t be able to lift as heavy but that doesn’t matter too much assuming you’re still putting in 100% effort.

At the end of the day, the science doesn’t actually matter too much. What we know is that the body is highly adaptive and that ‘SAID’ always wins. SAID is ‘Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands’ and it dictates that whatever type of training you do, that’s what your body will get better at.

And somewhere along the lines we should throw in some cardio for good measure…

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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