I put it off for so long—The Bigness Project, I mean. I knew it was happening; there was chatter about it last fall after many of my friends signed up for an early access group and left me in the chalk dust flying off of my barbell. They were very excited to grow their muscles Arnold-style using techniques specific to hypertrophy training. And, I was telling myself (cause I ain’t one to make a scene) that “I’m not doin’ it. I don’t need bigger muscles. I train for strength and power!” as my voice escalated and I rode into the sunset on my high horse.
If it sounds like I was a bonafide strength snob, you’d be right.
Looking back I feel comfortable saying that because here I am on the other side of Bigness, having enjoyed it.
Long story short, a few months ago I received a text from Jen Sinkler asking if I wanted to train 5 days a week on The Bigness Project. I HAVE BEEN PUTTING IT OFF THIS WHOLE TIME I said in my head, but then impulsively wrote, “whoa, that’s a lot of training, but YES”. So, hypertrophy and I put our differences aside…and that’s basically how I fell into The Bigness Project.
And, to be quite honest, it was love at first lift. I remember walking out of the gym after the first day with an extra pep in my step and the rest is, as they say, history. Here’s how I tell it.
Muscular Fatigue vs. Brain Fatigue
Hypertrophy training is all about building muscles, the cross-sectional size of muscles. That means we’re creating damage (healthy damage!) and then resting our muscles after a session so repair can happen—that’s when they get bigger. This response happens when we do moderate to high reps and sets focusing on specific muscle groups with little rest and lots of attention directed toward the working muscles.
I really like how Nick Tumminello puts it: “unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological. It’s about upgrading your body’s hardware, like bones, connective tissues, and muscles. You literally build your body, forcing the tissues to develop and grow stronger.”
And, while it leaves me feeling fatigued, it does so at the muscular level versus at the neurological level (a.k.a. the Central Nervous System, CNS, or more popularly know as “the brain, the brain the center of the chain”…plus the spinal cord).
To get a neurological response I have to go super heavy or super speedy or both and since that’s not the goal of hypertrophy, I don’t activate my CNS as much. It wasn’t until I trained strictly for hypertrophy that I realized stress in my life and added neurological stress in the gym don’t mix for me. This was a really nice perk to the training as it gave my body time to chill out/recover after a strength phase and became essential during recent periods of high life-stress. After Bigness I now recognize that I need less of a CNS stimulating workout when my life is more stressful* and hypertrophy fits right in.
*Note:this is totally not the case for everyone and you should read David Dellanave’s article on stress to learn why.
Down and Dirty With Muscles
Bigness utilizes tempo training to slow down each rep to what sometimes feels like a snail’s pace—but, that’s a good thing! Let back up a bit, tempo training is a resistance training term that means you perform the movement at a set pace. It’s often denoted with four consecutive numbers, 3101, for example. Each number corresponds with a section of the movement:
3: eccentric, muscle lengthening, phase, generally when you’re lowering the weight
1: a pause after the eccentric and before the concentric
0: the concentric, muscle shortening, phase
1: a pause after the concentric and before the eccentric
The tempo training in Bigness focuses on the eccentric phase of the lift—the slow lowering. Focusing on eccentrics can be tied to bigger gains in muscle mass, but what I liked most about it was the intense awareness it brought to the muscle I was working. When I was forced to count each second of every rep I had acute attention on the movement and allowed myself to get down and dirty with what muscles were working. There’s a certain feel you get when you focus on your biceps during bicep curls.
And, that feel is part of what’s called the mind-muscle connection—the act of activating your muscles by thinking about, well, activating them (what a mouthful!). In fact, research says that by internally focusing on a muscle, say by using an internal cue (“squeeze your calf”), that your calf will register more EMG activity—a way of measuring muscular activity. It’s yet to been seen if there’s a direct link to gains in muscle mass as a result of this, but anecdotally I feel a difference as do many hypertrophy coaches.
All this talk of “activating” initially made me think of the contraction phase of a lift, but I was curious if the mind-muscle connection could happen during any part of the movement so I reached out to Kourtney Thomas, the writer of The Bigness Project. I had a hunch that I could use the mind-muscle connection throughout the whole dang thing, and she agreed: “I think you can make [it] work for you in any phase of movement. Sure, it might be easier at first to tap into the connection when you’re able to engage and squeeze that particular muscle in the concentric action. But over time, you should be able to keep that connection throughout the movement. For instance, when doing an RDL, you should be able to feel your hamstrings on the way down.”
While it’s not a requirement to think about your body to perform activity, what’s so interesting is that when you do think about it—your mind-muscle connection gets stronger. In my training that meant more muscular fatigue and a bigger pump. Despite needing more research, if you chat up a body builder, they’ll wax poetic about the mind-muscle connection and I’d wager that they’re on to something. The focus on tempo training gave me time to get down and dirty with the mind-muscle training (really, it takes practice!) and helped me become more in-tune with my body. Before I had a decent level of proprioception, but Bigness brought it to a new level.
Thick Muscles, Large Gains
I thought that changing my focus solely to hypertrophy—and, what I erroneously thought was training purely for aesthetics—would somehow be detrimental to the increases I’d made in strength. What I didn’t consider was that bigger muscles can turn into increased absolute strength.
When making the switch to hypertrophy there actually is a loss of absolute strength, but the short-term trade off to gain muscular size is worth it. Here’s why: having larger muscles means there’s the potential to recruit more muscle when you return to a strength cycle. According to Team Juggernaut: “through proper application of phase potentiation, you will take that bigger muscle and teach it to produce more force during general strength training and then hone that improved size and strength into better technique and neural qualities during a well designed peaking phase.” So, bigger muscles can mean bigger strength gains—consider me sold.
Once I landed on The Bigness Project I soon realized how misinformed I was in trying to avoid it. There are plenty of reasons to try it out, but by far my favorite reasons are:
- to learn how my body feels during a hypertrophy phase—especially understanding the difference between a physical and a neurological stimuli. That was eye-opening and will alter my approach to training.
- to slow down and get intentional and focused with the mind-muscle connection that not only increases the benefits of hypertrophy training, but also helps generate muscular awareness.
- to build muscle mass that can be honed to increase absolute strength.
I didn’t go into hypertrophy training for aesthetics, but I did gain visible mass and that means a bigger, more solid, and more aware structure. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve found a training method that I’ll return to in the future.
If you’re into building your body, check out The Bigness Project. You won’t regret taking some time off of your strength cycle to recover and build a better base! (Get it before it’s gone, well, get it while it’s one sale – through Friday, May 5th at midnight!)