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Training for Size vs Strength: How to Get Big, Get Strong, or Do Both

Updated on January 29, 2019
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Train for size and strength.
Train for size and strength. | Source

Most people lift weights because they want to get big or they want to get strong – or both.

And although the type of training required to achieve these goals is identical when you are just starting out, when you are a bit more experienced you’ll need a somewhat different approach when training to build maximum strength than you will when training to build maximum size.

However it is possible to train for both at the same time if you set your workouts up in the right way.

So in this article I’ll explain the best way for anyone past the beginner stage to build maximum muscle size, maximum muscle strength, or both at the same time.

How to Build Maximum Muscle Size

First off, as I already said, if you are a beginner you can build strength and size equally well with the same approach. Simply do a full body workout three times per week, focusing on getting stronger on the main compound lifts. You’ll also need to eat in a way that supports muscle growth. Stay with this for as long as you are making gains with it.

Once you’ve been training like this for a while, however, it will start to get too demanding, as you’ll be using much heavier weights. So when you stop making progress you’ll need to switch to a different type of training.

This will involve splitting your body up into either an upper/lower body routine, training three or four days per week, or a well designed body part split, such as the push/pull/legs split.

And it’s from this point that you will need to take a different approach to building size optimally than you will to building strength optimally.

To build muscle size to the maximum level requires slightly higher reps and more total volume (sets, reps and exercises) than are required when training for strength. You’ll also want to rest for shorter periods of time between sets to induce more metabolic fatigue.

Specifically, 8 – 12 reps is the ideal range for building muscle size, but going as low as 6 can also be very beneficial. And up to 15 or even higher can work well for lower body and/or advanced trainees.

You’ll want to do two or three exercises for the major muscle groups and one or two for the smaller muscles. The ideal rest period between sets is 60 – 90 seconds for the smaller exercises, and up to two minutes or a little longer for the bigger exercises.

But, even if getting bigger is all you’re interested in, you’ll still need to get stronger in order to maximize your size gains, so always be looking to increase the weights you are using for each exercise over time.

How to Build Maximum Strength

Although full body workouts are great for building strength, as an intermediate or advanced lifter you will probably do better with an upper/lower split routine. And although the push/pull/legs split can also work well for strength, this is really more suitable for developing size. So when training for strength I’d stick with the upper/lower split.

The ideal number of reps for building strength is 1 – 5, but going as high as 8 can also be beneficial. Do bear in mind, however, that the lower the reps (and the heavier the load) you are using, the more stressful it is for your central nervous system (as well as your joints). For this reason many strength athletes rarely, if ever, go below 3 reps in their training.

You’ll do less total exercises and less overall training volume when training for strength, and you’ll focus mostly (if not entirely) on the big compound exercises. Rest periods between sets can be anything from two to five minutes.

How to Build Maximum Size and Strength Simultaneously

If you want to get as big as possible and as strong as possible there are two approaches you could take. You could train for both at the same time or you could divide up (periodize) your training into blocks of size focused training and blocks of strength focused training.

If you wish to train for both at the same time there are again two options. The first is to do a strength focused workout and a size focused workout for both the upper and lower body each week. So for example this might look like the following:

  • Monday – Upper Body Strength
  • Wednesday – Lower Body Strength
  • Friday – Upper Body Size
  • Saturday – Lower Body Size

Or, alternatively you could have a strength component and a size component to all your workouts. So in this instance you would start your workout with one or two big compound exercises, aiming specifically to increase your strength on these lifts. And then you would do additional work designed to build muscle size.

Or, if you wish to periodize your training you could start with sets of 10 – 12 reps and reduce these down to 2 or 3 reps over a period of 8 – 12 weeks. Or you could alternate blocks of size specific training with blocks of strength specific training, e.g. 3 X 10 for 4 weeks, 4 X 5 for 4 weeks, 3 X 8 for 4 weeks, and 5 X 3 for 4 weeks. This is a very effective method and the change from one rep range to another will help to keep you fresh and motivated for training.

If you are using either of these methods of periodization, I would keep the reps a little higher for your assistance/isolation work though, especially on your lower rep phases.

As you will no doubt have noticed, there is a degree of overlap between training for size and training for strength. And training for one helps with training for the other, i.e. the stronger you are the more weight you will be able to use for your higher rep training which will make training for size much more effective, and the bigger you are the stronger you will be able to get. That’s why it’s usually the case that the bigger someone is the stronger they are.

So that’s it. You now have a good general outline of how you should train for maximum size, maximum strength, or both at the same time. Best of luck.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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