Strength training and bodybuilding are often viewed as the same thing by those who don’t lift, and often even by those that do. Strength training and bodybuilding, however, have different goals. These goals can essentially be described as strength vs. size.
Strength training is the goal of making muscles stronger by targeting the neuro-muscular system.
Bodybuilding is the aim of changing the physiology of your muscles to make them larger and more aesthetic.
Most of you, like me, started out at the gym with the goal of getting muscular and strong, without knowing that these objectives are actually different goals. To begin with, you probably followed a weight training program, and thanks to beginner gains, you probably gained some muscle size and strength at a great rate. Then gains in both began to stall.
To carry on making progress in both areas as you get more advanced, you are going to need to specialize your training. You will have to decide what you want to focus on first, training for size like a bodybuilder or strength like a powerlifter.
You have probably already seen the different approaches in the gym, and while they both share similarities in their exercises and equipment used, the way you train both will be fundamentally different.
So, what are those differences, and how do you optimize the training for both?
Your body’s main goal in life is to survive. This is the sole purpose. To optimize its chances, it communicates via adaptation. The external environment, which is the stresses it faces, will cause it to respond in different ways to adapt.
Training in the gym is basically a conscious attempt to communicate to your body, how you want it to adapt.
You are essentially telling it that if it doesn’t adapt to allow you to lift a certain weight, it will fail to survive. This isn’t true, obviously, but this is the power of training.
Size & Strength, What’s the difference?
Let’s begin by explaining the difference in training styles between strength and size. Essentially the simplest way they differ is by volume and weight. Hypertrophy, which is the way that you are going to build size, requires more volume than strength training.
Volume is the number of sets and reps you do in any particular exercise. The more you do, the higher the volume.
There are other differences and variables that change your bodies adaption, here they are:
Building Muscle Size – Hypertrophy
To make your muscles bigger, you need to stress them. To do this, we use hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy is achieved through volume training. You do not completely eliminate the weight; in fact, you still need a good amount of weight to achieve hypertrophy, but it will not be as extreme as when strength training.
As you are going to need to perform more reps, your weight will obviously be slightly lower, finding the right balance is the key to building impressive size. Most people settle on the 15-20 rep range to achieve the best results.
When performing your main exercises, like bench presses and squats, you will focus on 70% of your one-rep max. The way hypertrophy works is through the accumulation of stress.
When working for size, your rest time between sets is going to need to be much smaller than when you are strength training. The sweet spot is around 1-2 minutes for your compound lifts, but not longer than that.
When you are doing assistance exercises to support these lifts, you want to go for even more volume and even lower rest times. Reps should be in the 20-30 range with a rest time from 0-90 seconds.
Assisted exercises should be tailored to work on your weak spots, either strength-wise or aesthetic-wise. If your main lift is a deadlift, for example, a great choice for supporting exercises is the Romanian deadlift.
Muscle failure is the goal, without hurting yourself of course. Protecting your joints during any exercise is especially important.
To build as much strength as possible, you need to change the way you are communicating with your body. You are going to put less focus on volume and more on heavier weights with fewer reps and a longer rest period.
The overall layout of your workout is going to be nearly identical to if you were building size. You will start with your compound lifts before progressing through your supporting exercises. The main difference is you will be dropping to a much lower rep range.
Strength training exercises will use around 80-90% of your one-rep max. In total, your reps should be around 10-15 per compound lift. Often strength programs will have you lifting more than 90% of your one-rep max when this is the case, and your totals reps should be under 10.
To do this, you will be doing 2-4 reps in the 80-90% range or 1-2 at over 90%.
Another crucial difference is the rest period between sets; with strength training, you should be resting for around 3-5 minutes between sets. The strain that strength training puts on your central nervous system will require a lot more rest.
Assisted training during strength periods is also incredibly important. Often, new lifters overload their nervous system, and they treat strength training as if it was hypertrophy training, this is a way to destroy your gains.
Strength assistance training should see you hitting 15-25 reps total per exercise at around 80% of your one-rep max. You will also only do 3-4 exercises. Choose exercises that are purely focused on the weak points of your compound lift. If you are struggling to beat your bench press targets because of weak triceps, focus on those.
What should I start with?
If you are a beginner, any program that you follow is going to be a combination of strength and size. Thanks to the phenomenon known as “newbie gains,” you are going to build strength and size very quickly, no matter what way you prioritize.
Once those double gains begin to stall, your body is going to require you to focus on one pathway to see significant gains in either category. If you are at this point and wondering which way to specialize, I would advise you to start with a strength program.
If you begin with a good strength program, you are going to increase the overall weight that you can lift much more effectively than if you focused on size. Set yourself up with good goals to aim for strength-wise; when you achieve them, you can alternate between training methods.
You can set new goals and continue on your strength journey, or you can swap to a hypertrophy-orientated plan. The benefits of doing a strength plan, to begin with, will then become apparent. Through a strength program, if you have managed to increase your one-rep maxes across the board, you will be able to lift heavier during your size phase, allowing for much higher gains of size.
A good home gym is always a great place to start your journey.
Tips for building strength
Here are some tips if you are following a strength plan:
- Warm-up for at least 10 minutes and make sure you cool down and stretch for 10 minutes as well.
- Start by focusing on form, not weight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you found a weight easy, move up the next session, be careful about increasing weight you haven’t lifted before in a session.
- Concentrate on form and try to work on establishing that mind to muscle connection, control your descents, and isolate your muscle group.
- Work at the right tempo, count to three while lowering a weight, hold for a second, then count to 3 on the lift up, then “squeeze” your muscle to get the full pump.
- Focus on your breathing, exhale on the push or pull, inhale as you release.
- Keep shocking your muscles by slowly adding weight. You don’t have to go crazy here, adding 10 lbs is still enough to shock your system into action.
- Only add more weight when you can complete every rep in your program without struggling. Always maintain proper form.
- Stick to a routine, and don’t change your exercises every week; this is a sure-fire way to fail.
- Recovery days are absolutely vital, and you do most of your growing outside of the gym.
- Eat for success – you need to make sure you eat a lot during strength periods, more calories than you consume, or you will see no growth.
Tips for building size
- Eat a good breakfast, including a protein.
- Eat every three hours, and this will ensure you boost your muscle mass potential.
- Eat at least 0.4g of protein per pound of body weight during the day; do this by eating lots of meat, dairy, and get comfortable with protein shakes.
- Eat lots of fruit, as they contain essential minerals and vitamins that you need.
- Push yourself to near failure as much as you can.
- Use the big three exercises, the squat, deadlift, and bench press are the singular most important exercises used to build muscles.
- Train 3-4 times a week minimum
- Get plenty of rest and sleep.
- Train with high-volume, medium intensity.
Deciding to build a better body for me was one of the most important decisions I made in my life. Unfortunately, every gym is full of people who think they know more than they do. Thanks to this, it is easy to fail in your goals because people tell you what you are doing is wrong. Follow the above tips and tricks and plans, and you will be on the right track to having the body that you dream of.
If you are just starting out on this path, good luck, it is one of the most rewarding challenges you can set for yourself and your loved ones.