Size vs Strength

Bigger isn’t always better. Strength and conditioning coach Richard Tidmarsh explains how to tailor your training whether you want to add size or get stronger.

What’s the main difference between training for size  and training for strength?

The number of reps per set is the key practical difference, but I’d suggest that you work on becoming strong before you look for size. Strength should be the priority for the keen trainer — you should focus on becoming a functional athlete.

But if I get stronger, won’t my muscles get bigger, and vice versa?

Not necessarily. If you don’t work on your structural integrity — your ability to perform compound lifts such as the deadlift and front squat — you’ll tire quickly in a workout and may not be able to do sufficient work to build muscle mass. As you get stronger, you can deal with more weight, increasing the overall load of your workouts.

Is it possible to get bigger and stronger at the same time?

If you’re new to weight training you’ll initially make both size and strength gains because your muscles are adapting to a new stimulus. But once these early gains begin to plateau, you need to choose between size and strength so you can tailor and vary your workouts to this end.

So how should I train simply for muscular size?

I’d never suggest you focus only on size. That can lead to limited flexibility, and there’s a danger that by doing just isolation (or single-joint) moves you won’t teach your body to move as a single unit, which can lead to muscular imbalances and injury. It’s wiser to increase the initial number of reps in a set and then increase the time under tension of the muscle group you’re targeting by using methods such as supersets (two moves back-to-back without rest), drop sets (reducing the weight to hit failure repeatedly) and negative reps (doing only the downward, or eccentric, part of the move).

What’s the best way to train for muscular strength?

I recommend a three-session split during a week, doing five sets of five reps of key lifts. These are split into pulling moves, such as deadlifts and weighted chin-ups, pushing, which includes weighted dips, and a “vertical” session that might include front squats and overhead presses.

 Does one approach require more rest between sessions than the other?

Rest is key to any program because muscles need time to recover. Three sessions of lifting per week at the right intensity will be sufficient whatever your goal. You may want to add a yoga and a conditioning session every week to complement your goals and keep things fresh.

Is protein intake as important for both training objectives?

Yes, protein and nutrition are of utmost importance. Results are down to both your work in the gym and your nutrition. Every meal, particularly breakfast, should include protein, and your eating before, during and after training is very important.

Richard Tidmarsh is owner and lead trainer of Reach Fitness, a strength and conditioning gym. For more information go to

Strength in numbers

Make sure your reps and rest are right for your goals.

1 For strength, you need to lift close to your one-rep max — at or above 80 percent is ideal. For size, 60-80 percent works better.

2 One to five reps per set is the standard for strength training, while 8 to 12 is ideal for size gains. Five to eight is a decent compromise between the two.

3 When strength training, you can rest up to five minutes between sets to fully recover. For size, keep it to two minutes or less.

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