Jurg Widmer Probst, Jurg Widmer. Juerg Widmer, Juerg Widmer Probst

Bigger isn’t always better…

It’s a sight that will be familiar to many of you who have spent a lot of time in gyms.

Bodybuilders – looking to quickly increase the amount of muscle they have – will simply increase the amount of weight they’re lifting. They will load the new weights on, and start lifting. By adding weight, goes the logic, they’re adding intensity, and so encouraging hypertrophy (or building bigger muscles) in the areas where they want to work on.

This seems to make sense. It seems intuitive that by increasing the resistance your muscle are working against that they will grow as a result. And to a certain extent, they will. But the chances that you will do yourself lasting and possibly serious damage will grow too – by pushing your body too hard and overstraining yourself there’s a very good chance that you will tear a muscle or sprain a tendon.

It’s all about intensity…

So, adding more weights can be one way to increase intensity in a way that also increases your muscle size – it’s just that at best it isn’t very effective, and at worst it can actually be counter productive. Nothing leads to muscle wastage more quickly than a few weeks sat nursing an injury on the sidelines. Why do we still do it then?

One of the biggest issues is around our perception of the relationship between weight and hypertrophy. It’s not surprising – many people who are starting out in bodybuilding will look at more experienced people with larger muscles working out and using bigger weights, and instantly make the connection in their minds between the two. Bigger weights equal bigger muscles, the theory goes – and when you’re just starting out in working out this can actually often be the case.

Beginners will see a lot of fast, early muscle growth, which seems to respond to more and more weights being piled on the equipment. It seems to be a logical route to bigger muscles – until the injuries start to kick in. It’s also worth quickly pointing out here that genes also play a huge role in how fast we build muscle and bulk up. Don’t make snap judgements about the weights that the big lifter you’ve just seen in the gym is working with until you know more about their family history. Some people are just genetically predisposed to growing muscle.

…but what is it?

But back to this idea of ‘intensity’. If it is the secret to building muscle (and we think it is, along with genetics), and it’s not just about piling on the weights, then how do we find it? Well, unfortunately the answer is that only you really know.

Everyone is different, but for you, greater intensity might be about doing more bench presses, more quickly. Or it might be about taking fewer (or shorter) rest breaks. Or it might just be about mixing up the order of your workout to make the transitions between different sets a little bit tougher. So, you might want to focus on tempo, or on your workouts themselves – but the idea is simply to make what you’re doing a little bit harder in a way that isn’t going to risk ruining your body in the way that just piling on the weights can be.

The other great advantage to taking this approach – and to having a better feel of what ‘intensity’ means for you – is that you will have a far more detailed understanding of what really challenges you. Simply adding weight to your workout is a very one-dimensional approach to making your bodybuilding regime more intense, and by looking instead at the various ways you can push yourself, you’re focusing on the many different aspects of the ways in which your body responds to pressure.

Finally, we actually think that you’ll also just find it more interesting. Too often, we’ve seen inexperienced new body builders start enthusiastically, make great progress by piling on the weights, then get injured and never really get the bug back.

By having to look for new strategies to increase the intensity of your workouts – without necessarily increasing the weight of the equipment you’re working with – we believe you’ll stay fresher, for longer. And of course, you’ll also get bigger, if your genes are on your side.

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