You've likely heard people saying these things in the gym before:
"I only train for hypertrophy."
"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!
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'?
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.
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:
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?
Are you able to do that through all rep ranges as well?
If you look into Brad's study, you'll find that the group which trained with heavy loads and lower reps actually saw much better strength gains when compared to that of the moderate load group.
So while the notion that training for strength and training for size are two completely different things doesn't hold that much water, the idea that you have to lift heavy to get stronger definitely does.
So Does This Mean That You Should Only Lift Heavy?
At first glance, heavier rep ranges look like the better overall training approach if you're looking to get stronger and build more muscle at the same time.
You get the same amount of muscle gains, but build more strength.
However, a part of the study revealed that the workout sessions of the heavier loading group dragged on for more than 4 times as long as the workouts of the moderate loading group.
Plus, the subjects lifting heavy reported much higher mental and physical fatigue, which means this style of training is likely going to be very tough to sustain for most people and it's going to be hard to achieve long term progress.
So yes. Lifting heavy more often would be the better overall option if we all lived in a perfect world where we had unlimited time to work out and we didn't have to worry about feeling fatigued.
But we don't live in a perfect world.
Most of us have jobs that we have to commit to.
Friends that we have to see.
Tight schedules that don't allow for the freedom of long workouts.
So it makes sense to lift both heavy and lighter weights to ensure that we can continue to get stronger and apply more progressive overloading, without burning ourselves out and negatively impacting our ability to train in future/subsequent sessions.
Generally, the heavier you lift, the more taxing it's going to be on the body and the higher the recovery cost will be.
It makes sense for us to be lifting in all rep ranges, to ensure we're able to make the most strength and muscle gains without causing ourselves to burn out and lose the ability to make long term progress.
The Key Takeaway: Science has shown that training for strength and for size are not as different as many would've have previously thought. It's important to lift heavy to build strength, but you don't have to be confined to the moderate rep ranges of 8-15 to build muscle optimally.
Things to Note and Keep in Mind
We've established that training for strength and training for size aren't actually too distinct to one another. They're not as different as most people may think.
However, there are some few things that you have to keep in mind when you train and come to apply the knowledge from this post into your training.
Firstly, there are some rep ranges that are more conducive to hypertrophy than others.
For example, a study conducted by Thiago Lasevicius found that going below 20% of your one-rep max on an exercise is going to lead to significantly worse muscle growth than lifting in heavier rep ranges.
However for most people, this is going to be going above 50+ reps each set, which rarely ever happens anyways.
And as to how low in reps you can go, there doesn't seem to be too much science around that.
However it's not smart to go below 3 reps each set if you're not a powerlifter, as it's only going to cause you to lift very close to your maximal loads and require A LOT of recovery costs.
Plus, your sets likely wouldn't end up being too consistent either.
We believe it's best to stay above 3 reps each set unless you have a very specific reason to be dipping below that.
Also, keep in mind that in order to maximize your strength and muscle gains from your hard lifting in the gym, you need to be eating in a caloric surplus.
You can still build strength and muscle whilst you're in a calorie deficit, but it is much tougher.
You naturally won't be able to make as much progress, and you can learn why in the link to the post above.
If you're not sure what a calorie surplus is, it basically means eating more throughout the day than you're burning.
Training for strength and training for size are not as different as some people may make them out to be.
It's important that you understand just how muscle growth is really driven (primarily) and the necessary approaches that you should be taking to ensure you can make the best progress.
Lift heavy, train hard, eat well and you'll be well on your way to reaching your goals in fitness!
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