Size versus strength and which is right for you

There are lot of reasons a person may choose to workout. For some it’s aesthetics, others it’s strength, and it can even be about mental health (among a bazillion other reasons).  Today, is not one of those warm, and fuzzy feelings post though. If we are looking at strength, the basic principle is about increasing force production. Aesthetics, usually equated with size (for the purpose of this post), is more about getting a “pump” and creating micro-tears to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger.  Strength is more about muscle recruitment.

It’s safe to say, based on current knowledge of anatomy and physiology, when training for strength it is best to keep the rep range low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuromuscular. Meaning, it has a significant impact of your Central Nervous System (CNS). If you were to think of your body as computer/smartphone etc, strength training is more comparable to upgrading your software (IOS update anyone?), compared to the actual hardware (Iphone x). In other words, strength training is about teaching your CNS how to recruit more muscle, opposed to having larger muscles available for use. Sorry, my tech nerdiness is showing.

So, hopefully now that you understand strength a little more, let’s talk about hypertrophy. Unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological.  I’m talking bones, joints, ligaments, and those sexy, sexy muscles. You literally build your body (how cool is that)? This actually forces the tissues to develop and grow stronger. So, in this scenario the strength comes from an actual increase in mass opposed to recruitment.

So the next important thing to ask here, is which is more important? Hazahh… it’s a trick question! The answer is neither. It is all in fact, dependent on your goals. For physique athletes, like any other type of athlete, you can undoubtedly benefit from increased motor unit recruitment (strength training).  Since all types of training can have neurological benefits. However, if your training goal is to create maximum structural change, it is best to spend the predominant amount of training time in the hypertrophy range of 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps, which has historically been shown to be more directed at stimulating muscle growth

While it seems so simple. This is often a point of confusing for both new, and experience lifters. I fully admit, that at one point myself, I assumed the heavier I could lift, the bigger I would get. We have all seen that huge guy squatting every plate in the gym, benching with chains, and power curling. However, this is a fallacy (what a cruel joke). Bodybuilding is not about becoming a “weightlifter ” (Power, Olympic, or otherwise). It’s about using weights as a tool to recruit and increase your muscle size. So, while it is a great feat to impress (or scare off) women in the gym, it will not get you the “gainzzzz” you seek. And here is a little secret for the ego lifters out there. No one else in your gym cares how much you lift! Crazy, I know! But they are too busy looking at themselves than to care about you 😉

Ok. So now that we know a little more about how to, and how not to, become a bodybuilder. Let’s talk about actual weightlifting (the competitive kind). When you go “too heavy”, here’s what happens. You actually reduce the time under tension, because you’re forced to use momentum to move more weight (think bouncing the bar off your chest). Momentum does not build muscle. You’re also unable to lower the weight in a slow, controlled manner, further reducing your time under tension. Again, think when a powerlifter quickly descends, squatting into the whole and quickly driving back up. It’s about achieving that overall total.  You’re less focused on the muscles being worked (in fact, you’re recruiting a whole bunch of other stuff too) because your focus is to move the most weight. The basic take home is that you utilize more muscles, which reduces the accumulated “pump” in specific muscle group (squat = legs, bench= chest, deadlift=back etc. etc. etc.).  There is nothing wrong with this style of lifting either. In fact, it’s smart. If your overall goal is to move the MOST weight, then it’s the right way to go about. It’s all about the using the best means to an end.

It is also noteworthy, that if your goal is overall size, there is a time and a place for strength training. Increasing your overall strength can then be applied to volume down the road in future training. Conversely, occasional “spot training” or “accessory lifts” can be used to engage lagging parts. And in weightlifting, the sum truly is greater than the sum of the parts. But by bringing up your triceps, you can in turn increase your overall bench. Score! Cause common, who doesn’t want that, amiright?!


Happy lifting,

JP xox

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