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Small But Strong or Big But Weak? 3 Big Reasons Why!

Wondering whether strength is equal to size? Wondering why you don't look are strong as you are?

Powerlifter preparing to do heavy deadlift.

This is a problem that many people face in the gym.

Not looking as strong as you should be, or not being as strong as you look can be pretty annoying in the gym if you're the type of person that's always comparing yourself to the other people around you.

And although it is unhealthy to do so, we all know that deep down we do it all the time.

It's weird and frustrating when we see people that we are clearly bigger and more muscular than, lifting significantly heavier weights than we are!

And it's also weird to see ourselves lifting more weight than the people that are taller, bigger and stronger-looking than us.

If you're wondering why this is, I'm going to give you 3 reasons in this article, as well as some tips on how you can adjust your training so that your physique better reflects the level of strength you look like you have, or vice versa!

Why Aren't You As Strong As You Look?

There are 3 big reasons as to why this might be the case with you.

Let's get started with the first and most important one.

Your Genetics

Let's face it.

People are all different, and some are naturally going to respond better to training stimuli than others.

Some are going to have an easier time achieving muscular hypertrophy and growing their muscles in size, while others might naturally have an easier time gaining strength in the gym.

Some people will have an easier time doing both.

Lean and athletic man showing off his muscles while holding a dumbbell

So if you've found that you're not as strong as you look, then your genetics might naturally favor muscle growth and allow you to build muscle more easily.

On the other hand, if you've found that you're a lot stronger than you look and don't actually look that good for the level you're training at, then your genetics might naturally favor strength gains.

Now, it's important to know that generally, the bigger you are, the stronger you will be.

However this doesn't mean that just because you're bigger than someone, you'll be stronger than them.

There can be slight discrepancies, or sometimes massive ones where smaller guys are stronger than guys almost twice their size, despite being of similar experience in the gym.

Your genetics are not something that can be changed, and will just have to be overcome through sheer hard work and determination if they're not favorable.

There's no use in complaining about your genetics or wishing they were different, because they're not something you can change and you'll simply be wasting your time.


In weightlifting at the gym, technique plays a huge part in determining how much weight you can lift and how strong you appear to be.

Certain exercises can be manipulated and performed in ways that allow lifters to move much heavier weights than they otherwise would be able to.

A prime example of this would be the barbell deadlift, which is notorious for the ways it can be leveraged to grant benefits to the lifters and make them stronger.

You'll sometimes see extremely light lifters deadlifting four or five times their bodyweight, because they're able to leverage their bodies so well and maximize the use of their bodyweight being hedged against the barbell.

Most of the time you'll see sumo-pullers achieving these types of results, because sumo deadlifts allow for better leveraging for most people.

This also benefits shorter people due to angles and lever mechanics against the weight. For example, shorter deadlifters will be able to maintain a more upright torso than taller lifters, keeping the bar closer to their center of mass and making the weight feel a lot lighter than it should.

This happened to me back in high school as well, when I was 16 and 5'6'', weighing 60kg (132lb) and deadlifting 155kg (341lb) while my 6'2'' friend who weighed 95kg could only do about 145kg at the time (320lb).

When deadlifting, my torso was almost completely upright (as I pulled sumo) while my friend's torso was nearly parallel to the ground!

Man doing heavy barbell deadlifts

So yes, biomechanics, angles, leverages and technique can all play a part in determining how strong someone appears.

Don't always blindly trust what you see!

My advice is that you do your due diligence, do your research and look for ways to improve upon your lifting technique to better maximize your leverages and lift as much weight as possible.

Popular exercises to do this on include deadlifts, as well as the barbell bench press.

Body Structure

The natural structure and size of your body is also going to be determined by your genetics, and is going to be a contributing factor to how strong you look, and how strong you really are.

Some people are going to have naturally larger frames (both in height and width), while others will have naturally smaller frames that allow them to look more toned and muscular, even with less actual muscle mass.

Of course, naturally smaller people will not look as strong as taller, larger individuals. However know this is not always the case, and that smaller people can certainly be stronger than larger people.

Factors such as limb length, wrist size, ankle size, height, and muscle insertions all play big roles in determining how muscular you look.

For example, having smaller wrists (determined by genetics) actually creates the illusion of a thicker, stronger and more muscular forearm and upper arm, even though it might be the exact same size as the arm of someone who's got a thicker wrist.

Man with thin wrists showing off his muscular arm muscles

The same goes for the ankles and the calves.

Other factors such as muscle insertions will directly impact how your muscles look. Some people will have naturally shorter biceps length-wise, but have higher peaks (meaning the biceps will be taller when flexed).

Other people will have longer biceps that make their arms look fuller overall, but be shorter in height when fully flexed.

You might think this doesn't make a difference, but it does. It makes a big difference.

This right here is an example of a longer bicep insertion:

Man showing off his arm muscles in the sun

While this is an example of a shorter bicep insertion:

Strong and muscular bodybuilder flexing his arms to show off his biceps

Completely different looks, right?

Height and limb length do also play a role, with the longer your limbs being, the more spread apart your muscle mass is going to be.

Essentially, your muscle mass has more room to cover, stretching it out and making it appear smaller and not as full as the limb of a shorter individual.

That's why shorter individuals tend to look stronger and more filled out at the beginning of weightlifting journeys than taller people do.

Their muscle mass has less room to cover, meaning it won't be stretched out as much and will appear fuller and larger.

So again, you genetics and the way your body is built will affect how strong you look, which can cause discrepancies between the level of strength you look like you have, and how strong you really are.

Other Factors

Now, those 3 are probably the biggest factors and reasons as to why you might not look as strong as you are, or the other way around.

However, there are some other factors as well that we won't go into detail in this post.

These include:

  • Steroid use.

  • Specific training programs (powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc).

  • Injuries

  • Mindset/ability to train hard and push close to failure.

To Wrap Things Up

Maybe you're not as strong as you look.

Or maybe, you're not as big and muscular as you are strong.

Either way, there's a discrepancy between the level of strength you look to be at, and how strong you really are.

Just know that genetics, and external factors you can't control play a massive part in determining how strong you look.

It might not be fair, it might suck, but it's the truth.

It's just something that you're going to need to accept and move on with. Something you'll need to work around.

Otherwise, you can try things such as modifying your technique and modifying your training programs to better suit your weaknesses and train smarter.

For example, taking a more powerlifting-style approach to your training might be beneficial if you're not as strong as you look, and the same goes for bodybuilding-style training programs.

I hope you've enjoyed reading through this post, and have learnt something!

If you did, don't forget to share it with your friends so that we can reach more people and help keep the world knowledgeable in health and fitness!

Are YOU as strong as you look?


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