Ah yes, the age-old question of how to resistance train for muscular growth or muscular strength. And just as the weight lifting gods would have it, the answer isn't so simple. When weight training
for either goal there is always going to be some crossover as the two goals are not dichotomous, for some they may be one in the same. Furthermore, many other factors can dictate adaptations to a training stimulus such as age, gender, training state, and caloric consumption. Think about it, your grandma is going to have a whole different response to the same training variables than Schwarzenegger did in his hay day. There are, however, some basic parameters to consider when you plan to train for muscular size or strength.
Figure 1. Equation for calories to gain weight
Low Activity (<3 trainings/wk)
Bodyweight (lb) x 16-18 calories
Moderate Activity (3-4/wk)
Bodyweight x 18-20 calories
High Activity (>5 trainings/wk)
Bodyweight x 20-22 calories
When all variables outside a given workout are held constant, you find what you are really looking into this article for; the meat and potatoes of your weight training goals if you will. The total volume (amount of repetitions and sets per training session), repetition and set scheme, and of course intensity (% of 1 repetition maximum of an exercise), are going to be dictated by your training goal. In general, if your goal is strength, heavier loads (>85% 1 RM) for 1-5 repetitions, for anywhere between 2-6 sets can be assigned. Whereas, to gain muscular size a more modest load (67-85% 1 RM) for 6-12 repetitions, and 3-6 sets per exercise is recommended (Baechle & Earle 2008). Whil textbook information is great for general recommendations, it may not always apply in the real world gym setting. When it comes down to it you may find you gain muscle even when working in lower rep ranges with higher loads. Personally, I have seen my best muscular gains on a 5 sets of 5 reps program. Below are two workouts for identical muscle groups, one aiming for muscular strength, and one for muscular size:
Lower Body Size Emphasis
Barbell Squats - 4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Leg Press - 4 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Romanian Deadlift - 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions
Walking Dumbbell - Lunges 3 sets of 30 steps
Lying Leg Curls - 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Leg Extensions - 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Standing Calf Raise - 3 sets of 15 repetitions
Lower Body Strength Emphasis
Barbell Squat - 3 sets of 5 repetitions
Romanian Deadlift - 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Leg Press - 3 sets of 10 repetitions
Leg Curl - 3 sets of 10 repetitions
While the above workouts are relatively general, they provide a good numerical and visual depiction of the varying emphasis for the two different goals. As I stated previously, repetitions and sets don't always fit into the textbook recommendations, but as anyone with a good deal of training experience will tell you, much of your training will. It's not about hitting a number that counts, it's about training with intention, training with your goal in mind, and ripping the barn doors off when you hit the gym.
If your intention is to get stronger
, implement longer rest between sets (2-5 minutes between sets), with exercises that use a great deal of musculature (e.g. barbell squats, bench presses, deadlifts), and done so with an all out effort that renders only several repetitions. Whereas, if muscular size is your goal, use a combination of multi-joint exercises (e.g. pull-ups and leg presses) and isolation exercises (e.g. bicep curls, side lateral raises) done to failure in the aforementioned repetition and set ranges. The rest of your progress comes with recovery, a surplus of calories, and plenty of protein. Whatever your goal is, make sure you have a plan of action, and follow it consistently. Remember, if progress slows don't be afraid to try something new. There are plenty of successful workout programs floating around, but inevitably it is your own personal journey in the weight training world that will determine what workout variables are best for you.
In the end it's pretty simple in regards to training for size or strength. The workout variables are straightforward, so long as you bring your best effort to each training session and allow for proper rest (48-72hours between working a body part), progress should ensue. Now all that's left is for you to choose your goal, apply these principles, and show the weights who's boss. Until next time, train smart, eat healthy, and stay positive!
Adam Bisek is a Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach practicing in Minneapolis, MN. Certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) he brings a high level of intensity and passion to early morning bootcamps and a dedication to results with his personal training and weight loss coaching clientele. Adam qualified for national competition in Men’s Physique with a 3rd Place finish at the NPC Badger State (Oct 2011), and will be competing this fall for his pro card.
Chromiak, J. (2006, March). Strength training for muscle building
. www.nsca-lift.org Hot topics in strength.
Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning
. Human Kinetics.