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Training for Strength vs. Training for Size: Are They Really That Different?

You've likely heard people saying these things in the gym before:


"I only train for hypertrophy."


Or,


"I'm only going to focus on getting stronger."


These are all things that I hear people saying often, and it begs a question that many beginner and even intermediate strength trainees ask.


Can you really build strength without building muscle size?


Or are they directly linked to each other?


Keep reading to find out!



Comparison between training for strength and training for size with weight training in the gym.

Contents



Firstly, What is Even Meant by 'Training for Strength'?


When people say that they're specifically training for strength, they usually mean that they're focusing on lifting heavy specifically to get stronger in the lower rep ranges and maximal lifting capacity.


It usually means that getting as strong as possible is their primary goal, and anything else is secondary or not quite as important to them (such as building muscle).


Most of the time, strength training is going to be done with 3-5 sets of 1-5 reps.


You'll generally see people training for strength on the main barbell compound exercises such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press and row.


This is because these are the exercises that will often be tested (aside from rows) to determine a lifter's true strength.


And so if you wanted to get stronger at these exercises, you would need to practise them more, with heavier loading.


Strength is a skill. And as with any other skill in life you have to practise it to get better at it.


So if you want to get comfortable lifting heavy weights, you need to lift heavy weights more often. That's why people 'train for strength'.


Now What is Meant by 'Training for Hypertrophy'?


Muscular man doing barbell curls to build strength and size in his biceps and arms.

As you may have guessed, training for hypertrophy means to specifically train in a way that is most conducive to muscular hypertrophy or growth.


Everything else is secondary to this goal, and lifters would likely take a different approach towards their training when compared to training for strength.


Training for hypertrophy usually means to lift in higher rep ranges with more moderate loads, somewhere between 2-5 sets of 6-15 reps.


You might've noticed that many pro bodybuilders such as the ones that compete in IFBB very rarely go below 5 in their rep ranges.


This is why.


They're specifically trying to train for muscle mass, and aren't so worried about getting stronger or the weights that they're lifting. They just want to do their job, which is to look big and muscular.



The Relationship Between Muscle Strength and Muscle Size


While many people think of training for strength and training for size to be two completely different training styles, studies have shown that these two goals or training styles may not actually be as different and individual to each other as we may think.


Before we get into that, we need you to understand how muscle growth works and how it's stimulated.


The primary driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension. This basically refers to the amount of weight that you're lifting.


To grow and gain more muscle over time, you have to get stronger in a rep range that's conducive to hypertrophy.


This is why progressive overload is so important. To make long term progress in terms of muscle growth, you absolutely HAVE to be getting stronger in your chosen rep ranges.


Very large and strong man deadlifting heavy weights and building lots of strength.

If you don't get any stronger and aren't able to lift more weight as time goes on, you're not going to build any new muscle.


And we already said this, but the best way to get stronger is lift heavy more often. Out of both heavier and more moderate lifting, the more optimal one for muscle growth is a matter we'll cover soon.


But lifting heavy does have indirect benefits to muscle growth that are very important. You HAVE to be getting stronger to build more muscle, and lifting heavy or 'training for strength' is the best way to go about doing this.


Now with that out of the way, we can get into whether the notions of 'training for strength' and 'training for size' really hold any water.


So you might've seen tables that look something like this:


Muscular Strength

1-5 reps

Muscular Hypertrophy

6-15 reps

Muscular Endurance

15+ reps

These tables show a very distinct and clear outlines of where you should be training in terms of your reps reach set depending on your primary goals in fitness.


You'll see them all of TikTok, Instagram, in books, and heaps of other places.


However, science has actually shown that this is not completely true.


A study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld split 20 resistance-trained men into two groups.


One group was told to perform each exercise for 10 reps, falling into the 'training for hypertrophy' range.


The other group was told to perform each exercise with much heavier loading doing just 3 reps, which would fall into the 'training for strength' range.


Total training volume throughout the week was kept the same between both groups, meaning they each did the same amount of overall work (sets x reps x weight).


What would've been mind blowing to many people was the fact that after 8 weeks of training like this, both groups saw the same amount of muscle growth.


This study found that both heavy AND moderate rep ranges were able to produce great muscle gains.


And these findings weren't just from one study either. Greg Nuckols at Stronger By Science reviewed several studies that put these rep ranges to the test, and they all found similar results.


It was also found that lighter weights (closer to 15+ reps each set) was also able to stimulate great muscle growth.


So science has proved that the everyday Instagram and TikTok infographics you see online aren't always completely true.


But what about building strength?