Building Strength vs Size

Building Strength vs Size

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Many people when they first walk into a gym have the goal of wanting to be both ‘big and strong’. They think both training methods are interchangeable and after reading how weight training in its entirety builds muscle size and strength, many follow a training plan that caters for both.

Only when they move out of the beginner’s stage of training do they realise that to keep progressing in either discipline you need to train specifically for either ‘strength or size’.

Granted that many training programs do have both disciplines thrown into the mix and yes there is cross over between the both of them.

However to increase your muscle mass or strength – you will need to understand the difference between both training methods and this will put onto the right path in terms of your training goals.

The size-strength continuum

Strength training

In basic terms strength all about increasing force production created by the musculoskeletal system. Adaptations that occur when strength training are different from hypertrophy training because more biochemical reactions do take place – this allows you to lift a heavier load.

Some of the biochemical changes that occur during a strength training cycle are:

  • An increase in muscle glycogen
  • An increase in the storage capacity of the muscle glycogen
  • An increase in the creatine phosphate and ATP stores-which are both vital energy providers
  • An increase in the enzyme activity that are needed for quicker reactions required to produce a maximal force

However this is some research out there that suggests strength training is primarily neuromuscular because of the low rep range and the heavy resistance used.

This training approach does recruit more motor unit and the central nervous system does play a vital role in being able to lift heavy. Maybe strength training is a combination of both biochemical and neuromuscular adaptations but this is dependent on what scientific review journals that you just read. The jury is out on this chicken or egg scenario!

Hypertrophy training

On the flip side of the coin, ‘size’ or ‘hypertrophy’ is about pumping the muscles to create micro tears which are then repaired and this enables the muscle tissue to grow.

Building muscleTherefore hypertrophy training can increase the size and number of myofibrils or muscle fibres and this is an additional factor in the muscle growth mechanism.

This is a simple way of explaining how the physiological adaptations occur in the muscle to increase its size and this is usually implemented with a higher rep range combined with a moderate load.

In a nutshell hypertrophy training does force the muscles, connective tissues and bones to develop and grow stronger.

The major differences between each of the training goals are the training volume (reps, sets and weight) and the varying impact that these training volumes have on the body.

Let’s discuss these differences in training volume and see how this can be used in a practical sense in the gym. Remember that the key focus of this article is to establish which training method you should be implementing – so that it matches your training goals e.g. strength versus hypertrophy.

Practical application for strength training

Your training volume is reduced in comparison to hypertrophy training and you should be performing heavier lifts with less repetitions per set. The structure of your training program should incorporate a main lift followed assistance lifts.

The main lifts should be executed at a weight 90% or more of your 1RM and you ought to be performing no more than 4 lifts per work out. This equates to two sets of between 1-2 heavy lifts over 2 sets.

The main lifts should consist of either: squats, deadlifts, chest press or shoulder press to increase your raw strength. If they have been executed properly with the right weight then performing anymore would compromise your lifting form and this would limit your strength gains.

These main lifts during strength training are neurologically more taxing on the body and this is the main rationale behind in an increase in the rest intervals needed between sets.

It is recommended to have between 3-5 minutes rest in between sets, as this strategy gives your body enough time to recover properly – ready for the next heavy lift.

With the assistance lifts is very important that you don’t overload the central nervous system. The load of the bar should be between 70-80% of your 1RM with a rep range between 15-25.

The assistance lift exercises should be chosen so that they help with any weak points of your main lifts e.g. snatch grip deadlifts can help with moving the plates from the ground during the deadlifts (main lift).

Practical application for hypertrophy training

You will need to perform a higher volume of training in terms of sets and reps when compared to strength training. Realistically you still need to be using the heaviest weight possible but the increase in reps and sets will dictate that absolute weight will be lower compared to strength training.

The correct blend of training volume combined the weight being lifted does translate to gains in your muscle mass.

Hypertrophy training can be summarised as follows:

  • Main lifts should be at 70-85% 1RM, with a 15-20 range over a maximum of 6 sets.
  • The rest intervals should be around the 2 minute in between sets
  • The assistance lifts should be used to work on any weaknesses with a work load 50% 1RM, with a higher range of between 30-50 over 3-5 sets
  • Aim for 60-90 seconds in between the sets of the assisted lifts

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Hi, my name is Jonathan, a fitness blogger and bodybuilding enthusiast and I am the founder of Skinny2Fit. I want to provide you with easy access to good advice that is both simple and to the point. Helping you gain muscle mass and strength!


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