One of the biggest questions I get asked as a coach is “What are the main differences between training for strength and training for size.” This guide is going to answer that by looking at intensity, sets and reps, volume, exercise selection, frequency plus how to train if you want BOTH strength and size.
- Intensities for Strength Versus Size Training
- Volumes for Strength Versus Size Training
- What Does This Look Like in Terms of Sets and Reps?
- The Best and Worst Exercise Selection for Strength and Size Training
- How Often Should You Train for Strength Versus Size (Frequency)
- Overview of Strength and Size Training So Far
- How to Train for BOTH Strength AND Size
Let’s get started, shall we?
Intensities for Strength Versus Size Training
It should come as no surprise that the intensity (weight) of your exercises should be heavier if you want to get stronger. Typically we’re talking 70-90% of your 1rm for most strength work.
When training for size, however, you’ll want to be doing most of your work in the 55-75% 1rm range.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t get stronger doing lots of sets with lighter weights, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t get bigger doing lots of sets with heavier weights. All it means is that these would NOT be the optimal or ideal way to do so.
Volumes for Strength Versus Size Training
Since training for strength means lifting heavier weights, it causes more stress and fatigue on your body, especially in joints and connective tissue. This means that you cannot do as much volume (sets x reps) of strength training as you can of hypertrophy training.
On the other hand, if you’re training for size you’ll often be lifting lighter weights, which are less stressful. This means that you can do far more sets and reps (more volume).
What Does This Look Like in Terms of Sets and Reps?
For strength, you can make good progress training in the 1-6 rep range, whereas for size you can make good progress training in the 5-30 rep range.
These ranges are quite wide, and to be honest the majority of your training will not be in the ‘extremes’ of either range. So most strength training will be 3 to 5 reps, and occasionally 1 or 2 reps. Similarly, most size training will be in the 8-12 rep range, and occasionally in the 20-30 rep range.
For strength, it’s typical to perform 3 to 5 sets per exercise, which is actually pretty similar to training for size.
The main difference is actually in the total number of sets performed per workout due to the number of exercises. if you’re training for strength you might only perform 2 or 3 exercises, meaning a range of 6-15 sets. Whereas for size you might perform 4 to 6 exercises, meaning a range of 12-30 sets.
*In short, expect to be doing a lot more sets and a lot more reps if you want to get bigger!
The Best and Worst Exercise Selection for Strength and Size Training
Some exercises are much better for strength training. Compound, multi-joint exercises that recruit a lot of muscles are typically the best. Things like squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses. On the other hand, isolation exercises like dumbbell flyes, and unilateral exercises like lunges are often poor choices, as they simply cannot be loaded heavy enough to build strength optimally.
When it comes to training for size, however, isolation exercises, unilateral exercises and all kinds of variations can be really useful to focus on developing specific muscle groups. Compound, multi-joint exercises should still be the foundation of your training, but you can add in a much wider range of other exercises alongside them to maximise your results.
How Often Should You Train for Strength Versus Size (Frequency)
Just like we talked about in the ‘volume’ section, strength training is more fatiguing, and so generally speaking it can’t be done as frequently as size training. For example, if you have a heavier squat or deadlift session on Monday, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to repeat or improve upon that session if you did it again on Wednesday (unless you’re a complete beginner)
On the other hand, if you’re training for size, you might be able to have a hard training session for quads on monday and then another hard session on Wednesday, especially if you’re using different exercise variations. This is even more so the case for small muscle groups like biceps, triceps, rear delts and side delts, that can easily be trained hard for size three or four times per week.
Overview of Strength and Size Training So Far
For strength, train with heavy, compound multi-joint exercises and low-moderate volumes and low-moderate frequency.
For size, train with a mixture of compound and isolation exercises at moderate weights, higher volumes and higher frequency.
How to Train for BOTH Strength AND Size
If, like our girl HM over here, you want the best of both worlds, that is… you want to be strong AND pack on some size, then this section is for you.
Ultimately what you’ll be achieving is a compromise between the two types of training…
- You won’t get as strong as you possibly could
- You won’t get as big as you possibly could
BUT, because of the significant overlap between the two things, you’ll probably achieve about 70% of both. Not a bad trade-off in my eyes.
Here are your 2 options…
Option 1: Train for strength and size at the time. Start with a couple of strength exercises each workout then supplement them by adding in between 2 and 4 bodybuilding style exercises for size.
For example, an upper-body day might look like, Bench press 5×5, Barbell Row 5×5, Dumbbell Flyes 3×10, Dumbell Rows 3×10 each side, Arms Superset 3×10 each.
Option 2: Have a ‘bodybuilding’ or size training phase for a few weeks, followed by a strength training phase for a few weeks.
For example, 4 weeks size training, 1 week deload, 4 weeks strength training.
In my experience, option 1 is simpler, easier, and tends to work best for most beginners and early intermediates.
But for late intermediates and advanced lifters, you might find that combining both types of training in the same sessions and same weeks taxes your recovery too much, and prevents you from making much progress. In these cases, you might be better switching to option 2.
And that’s pretty much it for today. If you follow the general rules and guidance in this article you should be able to train effectively for strength, size or some combination of the two. You’ll also be able to correct that annoying gym bro who tells you that you have to “go heavy to get big”.
As always, if you’re looking for programming or guidance from a coach you can trust, you can book a time to chat with me right here.
‘Til next time
Msc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor/Educator