Strength Training vs. Bodybuilding
Strength training and bodybuilding are often viewed as the same by those who don’t lift. What is the difference, and which is right for you?
Strength training and bodybuilding are often viewed as the same thing by those who don’t lift and often even by those who do. Strength training and bodybuilding, however, have different goals. These goals can essentially be described as strength vs. size.
Strength training aims to make muscles stronger by targeting the neuro-muscular system.
Bodybuilding aims to change your muscles' physiology to make them larger and more aesthetic.
Most of you, like me, started at the gym to get 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. First, you must decide what you want to focus on, 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, the way you train 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 it will fail to survive if it doesn’t adapt to allow you to lift a certain weight. 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 how you will 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.
Some other differences and variables change your body's adaption.
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; you still need a good amount of weight to achieve hypertrophy, but it will not be as extreme as when strength training.
As you need to perform more reps, your weight will be slightly lower. Finding the right balance is the key to building an 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 will 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.
When doing assistance exercises to support these lifts, you want to go for even more volume and 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. For example, if your main lift is a deadlift, 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 must change how you communicate 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 will 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. 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 total 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 rest for around 3-5 minutes between sets. The strain that strength training puts on your central nervous system will require much 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 were hypertrophy training -- this is a way to destroy your gains.
Strength assistance training should see you hitting 15-25 reps 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 struggle 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 you follow will be a combination of strength and size. Thanks to the phenomenon known as "newbie gains," you will build strength and size very quickly, no matter what way you prioritize.
Once those double gains begin to stall, your body will 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 will increase the weight you can lift much more effectively than if you focus 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, continue your strength journey, or 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 increased your one-rep maxes across the board, you can lift heavier during your size phase, allowing for much higher gains.
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.
- Start by focusing on form, not weight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you found a weight easy, move up to the next session, and be careful about increasing the 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, and 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 surefire way to fail.
- Recovery days are vital; you do most of your growing outside of the gym.
- Eat for success – you must ensure 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 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, and dairy, while also getting 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 most important exercises 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, tricks, and plans, and you will be on the right track to having the body you dream of.
If you are just starting on this path, good luck. It is one of the most rewarding challenges you can set for yourself and your loved ones.
Tony Lee, MS, RD
Tony Lee, RD, MS, is a highly qualified and accomplished Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from Arizona State University. Tony brings over two decades of experience in dietetics, specializing in sports nutrition. Interests include studying all aspects of wellness, fitness, genetics, and peak health performance.