Three of the most common reasons a person ever steps into a gym and picks up a weight is because they:
- Want to build muscle.
- Want to increase strength.
- Want to do both equally.
In those first 2 cases, the game plan seems obvious enough. Find a proven workout routine aimed specifically at that one goal and train your ass off using it. Makes perfect sense, right?
Apparently not, because I see people disagreeing with this statement all the time. They’ll argue that getting big and getting strong aren’t mutually exclusive, and there should be no real difference in the way a person trains for either goal.
The question is, are they right? Just what is the difference (if any) between training to build muscle, training to get strong and training for an equal combination of strength AND size?
Let’s find out…
Strength And Size Are The Same, But Different
The first thing you need to know is that these goals, while definitely different, are very closely related to each other.
How so? Well, for starters, the strongest person is also usually the person with the most muscle, and the person with the most muscle is also usually the strongest.
Now sure, you’ll occasionally see some huge dude in the gym struggling with unimpressive weight, just like you’ll occasionally see some short fat guy who looks like he’s never seen the inside of a gym squatting a ton. But generally speaking, there is a definite correlation between being strong and being big (and vice-versa).
Not to mention, the #1 requirement of building muscle is progressive overload, and that basically means that if a natural trainee like you and I aren’t getting stronger over time, we’re probably not building muscle either.
Similarly, while it is very possible for strength gains to be neural (or even technical) rather than muscular, getting stronger is usually going to cause muscle to be built (assuming you’re eating to support it).
So… the goals go hand in hand for sure, and we won’t typically get one without the other… at least not often (and certainly not optimally).
The “Everyone Should Only Train For Strength” Argument
And this is usually the point when certain people like to end the discussion and just claim flat out that everyone, even if they only want to build muscle and look good, should train like a powerlifter.
They’ll say to avoid ALL isolation exercises and machines completely. Train ONLY with low reps. Stick with JUST the major compound lifts. Basically, don’t waste any time training for or even thinking about building muscle… just pick a good strength oriented routine, lift heavy and get strong. The muscle will take care of itself.
Sorry, but these people are morons.
Granted, they are partially correct morons, but still morons nonetheless. Why? Because they’re missing the most important point.
Just Because It Works Doesn’t Mean It’s Optimal
You see, there are definite differences in the type of training that works best for each goal.
Again, there is plenty of overlap and many similarities between them. And sure, an intelligent workout routine aimed strictly at muscle growth will still allow you to get stronger, just like an intelligent workout routine aimed strictly at strength will still allow you to build muscle.
That’s why bodybuilders are strong and powerlifters are big. Like I said before, the goals go hand in hand. So, if you’re training solely for strength, you’ll still be able to build plenty of muscle. That’s where these people are completely correct.
But they become morons when they imply that this is what works BEST for building muscle. And when you recommend that a person with Goal A should train for Goal B because it happens to still produce Goal A, that’s exactly what’s being implied.
And that’s just wrong.
If you want Goal A to happen as quickly and effectively as it possibly can, then you should train directly for Goal A and adjust every aspect of your program in whatever way suits it best. Why the hell should the results you want be a side effect of your program? It should be the one and only focus of it.
It’s like saying a powerlifter should train like a bodybuilder. I can argue that getting stronger is a HUGE component of a muscle building program, and that having more muscle will lead to more strength. So, according to this same dumbass logic, someone only interested in strength should train for size.
Wait, what’s that you say? That person may still get strong, but it just wouldn’t be the best way for them to train for strength? Yup, you’re absolutely right. And my point is that the opposite is equally true. Training for strength will produce size too, but it’s just not going to be the best way to make it happen.
So while a routine aimed only at strength will work for size and a routine aimed only at size will work for strength, neither will work as well as a routine designed specifically for that goal.
“But No One Got Big Lifting Light Weights!”
I was recently having a little chat with a more “strength focused” individual about this very subject, and after explaining what I just explained, his reply was the headline you see above. That no one ever got big lifting light weights.
Uh… okay… but what does that have to do with anything I just said?
Ohhhh, I know… I get it. When I say “training for muscle and size” he’s taking it to mean training like an idiot. You know, all the stereotypical dumb-shit bodybuilder nonsense I make fun of regularly. For example…
- Lifting light weights for high reps 100% of the time.
- Resting 1 minute or less between every set.
- Doing tons of isolation exercises and hardly any compound exercises.
- Doing leg extensions and leg curls instead of squats and deadlifts.
- Doing 100 sets of 100 exercises to “blast your muscles from every angle.”
- Focusing more on pump than progression.
- And so on. (Plenty more here: Bodybuilding Workouts SUCK For Building Muscle!)
Yeah, that’s NOT what I mean at all when I say “training for muscle and size.” Instead, I mean using a program that is, above all else, focused on progressive overload and adjusts all of its components (training split, frequency, intensity, volume, rep ranges, rest times, exercise selection, etc.) specifically towards the goal of muscle growth (and of course eating properly to support it).
“But A Beginner Should Only Focus On Strength!”
And this is another common argument that comes up in this conversation. And I agree with it. The majority of what you see in this article is aimed at intermediate and advanced trainees. Beginners, regardless of their specific goal (strength or size) benefit from virtually the exact same thing.
And that is, focusing on getting stronger on a few basic compound movements using a low volume full body routine. No argument from me on that at all.
For example, I’m a fan of Starting Strength and have recommended it many times. But let’s say a beginner is mostly interested in size rather than strength. Do they really need to be doing power cleans or would some type of row be a better choice for them? I’d personally go with rows.
And getting strong doing sets of 5 is great. Again, no argument from me on that. But do you know what’s also great? Getting strong doing sets of 8. Really, as long as you’re getting strong, you’re doing it right.
But just making a small adjustment to the rep range you’re getting stronger in or the exercise you’re getting stronger on may better suit the specific goal you’re training for ever so slightly. Sometimes even for a beginner.
The Differences Between Training For Strength or Size
Alright, so now you know that these two goals have some similarities (e.g. both require getting stronger). However, they also have plenty of differences between them that should dictate the specifics of how you train for each.
Want some examples? Here’s the first few that come to mind…
Example #1: Training Split
I’ve covered this topic pretty thoroughly before in my comparison of Full Body vs Upper/Lower vs Body Part Splits, but the take home message was simple.
As long as everything else is done right, just about any sane split can work for damn near every goal. Be it increasing strength, building muscle or anything in between. Everything “works” for everything to some extent because of the overlapping principles between goals. That’s why plenty of people have gotten strong as hell using a body part split and plenty of others have gotten big as hell using a full body split.
However, certain splits are just much more ideal (and proven) than others for certain goals and situations. For strength, upper/lower (and full body) tends to work best. For building muscle, upper/lower and (intelligent) body part splits tend to work best. For beginners with any goal, full body tends to work best.
Example #2: Intensity/Rep Ranges
As I’ve also covered before (How Many Reps Per Set?), just about every rep range is at least somewhat capable of producing your desired training effect (strength or size). That’s why you can get strong doing sets of 10 and get big doing sets of 5.
However, some rep ranges are just much more ideal for certain goals than others. Generally speaking, someone only interested in getting strong will do best spending the majority of their time in the 1-8 rep range. Someone only interested in building muscle will do best spending the majority of their time in the 5-12 rep range.
Yup, this is another perfect example of the overlap I’ve been mentioning. However, it doesn’t change the fact that going slightly lower in reps (and slightly higher in intensity) better suits strength, while going slightly higher in reps (and slightly lower in intensity) better suits size.
Not to mention, someone trying to get as strong as possible might never be able to make it happen without going below 5 reps on a regular basis. But someone only trying to get as big as possible will likely never need to go below 5 reps to make it happen.
They certainly can, but the point is that one goal significantly benefits from it (or just flat out requires it), while the other doesn’t.
Example #3: Rest Periods
The higher your training intensity is (meaning the closer you are to your 1 rep max), the less reps you’ll be doing per set and the more rest you’ll likely need between them. As mentioned above, people training solely for strength will do better training at a higher intensity, which means they’ll often require longer rest periods between sets. Specifically, 2-5 minutes tends to be the ideal range.
People training solely to build muscle or get big will do better training at a slightly lower intensity (note that I didn’t say “low intensity,” I just said a slightly lower intensity by comparison), which means that much rest won’t typically be needed. In this case, 1-3 minutes between sets tends to be ideal.
Again, there’s another example of the overlap between what’s ideal for strength and what’s ideal for size. But again, there is a difference significant enough to warrant making some minor adjustments to the way you train for each.
Example #4: Exercise Selection
The examples I can give here are virtually endless, so let me just give you one.
Let’s say you feel the bench press more in your triceps and shoulders than you do in your chest (a fairly common problem). Now if you only care about getting strong, this wouldn’t matter much because you’re more interested in the movement than the muscles. You don’t really give a crap about what muscle group is moving the weight so long as you’re moving the weight.
But when muscle growth/building a nice looking chest is your primary goal, this instantly becomes something you SHOULD give a crap about because you DO care about the muscles doing the work. At least a little.
So if the bench press isn’t fully providing the optimal training stimulus your chest needs, something needs to be done about it. Whether that means adjusting your form, adjusting your exercise selection or just including other secondary exercises (for example, the incline Hammer Strength machine or dumbbell flyes), it will likely have a significant positive effect on your results.
Now let’s look at it from the other side. Would someone who is only interested in strength and bench pressing a lot of weight ever need to do an exercise like dumbbell flyes or some kind of machine press like the Hammer Strength machine? Nope, probably not.
Whereas exercises like these would have a beneficial effect on that first person training solely for size, they’d likely have little to no beneficial effect at all and may in fact be detrimental to this second person training solely for strength.
This is just one example of MANY.
Similar, But Different
See what I mean? None of the above examples are super huge differences, but they are still differences that will most definitely have an impact on the results you get. Or, the results you fail to get because you’re just not training optimally for your specific goal.
So again, and I can’t overstate this enough… regardless of whether you’re only interested in strength or size, getting stronger is still priority #1. Now if all you care about is strength, then it’s your only priority. But if all you care about is size, then you have additional priorities that you should be taking into account to get the best results possible.
Strength AND Size: How To Train To Get BOTH
So at this point we’re (hopefully) all clear on the similarities and differences between the two goals and how to train for each. Right?
Just in case we’re not, let’s recap.
- If your primary goal is building muscle, use an intelligently designed workout routine that adjusts all of its components to suit muscle growth (details here: How To Build Muscle Fast). You’ll still get strong as hell, because getting strong is the #1 required component of an effective muscle building program. You just probably won’t get as strong as you would if you were using a routine designed specifically for strength.
- If your primary goal is getting strong, use an intelligently designed strength routine that adjusts all of its components to suit strength gains. You’ll get strong as hell and, as long as you’re eating to support growth, you’ll grow too. You just probably won’t grow as well as you would if you were using a routine designed specifically for growth.
With that out of the way, there’s one final question that still needs to be answered: What do you do if your primary goal is to both get strong AND build muscle?
Well, when a person wants an equal combination of strength and size, there are 2 options that I like and would recommend…
Option #1: Combining Goals
One thing you will rarely ever see me recommend is combining goals. Trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, or train for some endurance goal while trying to build muscle, or any similar example of trying to meet two (or more) conflicting goals simultaneously is almost always a horrible idea.
Most people will either greatly limit their results or, more commonly, spin their wheels and not get anywhere with either goal.
However, there can be exceptions to this if the two goals are similar enough to each other and have some degree of overlap. Hey, what a coincidence, because that sounds exactly like increasing strength and building muscle!
So, how do you make it work? Well, there’s a few different methods for doing it. Here are 2 of my favorites:
- Let’s say you’re using an upper/lower based routine. In the first upper and lower body workout of the week, you could make it more strength focused. Higher intensity, lower rep ranges, mostly (or even entirely) big free weight compound exercises, more rest between sets, and so on. Then in the second upper/lower workouts of the week, you could make it more size focused. Moderate intensity, moderate-higher rep ranges, less rest between sets, still focused on compounds but with some isolation exercises too. So over the course of a week, everything still gets trained twice but one time it’s more of a power/strength day, and the other time it’s more of a size/hypertrophy day.
- Let’s again say you’re using an upper/lower based routine. In fact, let’s say you’re using The Muscle Building Workout Routine. In that program, you’re basically doing one primary exercise and one secondary exercise for each major muscle group in each workout (like bench press and then incline dumbbell presses for chest, or rows then lat pull-downs for back). In this case, you can do the primary exercise for somewhere in the 3-6 rep range (for example, 5×5) for more of a strength focus, and then make the secondary exercise for somewhere in the 8-15 rep range (for example, 3×10) for more of a size/muscle building focus.
Option #2: Alternating Goals
A second way to train for an equal combination of getting strong and getting big is to take what I just described in the first option but then break the goals up into phases and cycle between them. Aka… periodization.
For example, you could do sets of 8-10 for the primary exercise and sets of 12-15 for the secondary exercise and call that the “size/muscle building phase.” At the end of that training cycle (6-12 weeks, for example), you could switch to sets of 3-5 for the primary exercise and sets of 6-8 for the secondary exercise and call that the “strength phase.”
You could then alternate between phases for as long as you need/want to.
Strength Matters Most, But Other Stuff Matters Too
Now let’s bring it all together.
If you want to get strong, you need to get stronger (duh). If you want to get big, you still need to get stronger. Regardless of which goal you care about most, getting stronger is still the key component to making it happen.
However, it’s NOT the only component. There are many other aspects of your program and many ways of adjusting them that have proven to better suit one goal more so than the other. Will any of it completely make or break your success? Probably not. But will getting it right improve your success? Absolutely.
So depending on which goal you have (getting strong, building muscle, doing both), you should focus on getting strong as hell while every single one of those adjustments have been made.