The Size-Strength Range
In simple terms, strength is about increasing force production. Size, on the other hand, is about getting a pump and creating microscopic damage to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger. This is hypertrophy in a nutshell.
The general rule of thumb when training for strength is that the reps should be low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuro-muscular.
If you think of your body as a computer, strength training is more about upgrading your software, which is your central nervous system (CNS), than it is about the hardware—your muscles. Strength training is about teaching your CNS how to bring more muscle into the game or to increase motor unit recruitment.
Unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological. It’s about upgrading your body’s hardware, like bones, connective tissues, and muscles. You literally build your body, forcing the tissues to develop and grow stronger.
If you want to improve size, maximize time under tension on every rep. Body building is about using weights as a tool to increase your muscle size.
This can be achieved by:
- Using strict form.
- Utilizing controlled eccentric (lowering) movements of at least three seconds.
- Mentally focusing on the muscles being worked and squeezing those muscles at the peak of contraction.
- Avoiding fully locking out, so the muscles are under tension throughout the movement.
Training for Strength vs. Size Study Summary:
The study looked at 19 young males with at least one year of training experience and split them into 2 groups:
– The low rep, heavy group (3 sets of 2-4 reps)
– The moderate rep, moderately heavy load group (3 sets of 8-12 reps)
They were training 3 days per week for 8 weeks. Both groups performed 3 sets of 7 exercises for the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. The sets were taken to failure.
The results showed that the 2-4 rep group gained more strength, while the group that did 8- 12 moderate rep group grew more.
In the study comparing heavy (3 x 3) versus moderate (3 x 10) load training, strength gains were greater in the heavy load condition while hypertrophy was superior for the moderate load condition, particularly in the quads.
The heavy group had a mean gain of ~3% while the moderate group had a mean gain of ~5%. Several in the heavy group did better than those in the moderate group. This could be because some participants respond better to a certain loading zone than others. But reinforces the need to use research as a guide and then customize to the individual.
The Practical Implications:
- If your training goal is maximal strength, it’s a good idea to spend most of your time training in lower repetition ranges closer to your 1 RM with some training in the higher repetition ranges. Strength is greatly influenced by neural adaptations, motor skills as well and muscle size.
- If the goal is maximum hypertrophy, then training volume plays the key role. Now, one could accumulate volume with lower repetition work, but that approach isn’t very practical from a time efficiency and joint health perspective. For that reason, if your goal is size make the bulk of your training in the 8 – 12 repetition range.
- Regarding organizing your training, it’s a good idea to include both lower and higher repetitions. You can prioritize which rep range you’re doing most of the time depending on your specific goal.
- Previous research has shown that it’s possible to build muscle even with very high repetitions if sets are taken to failure however it’s not as efficient as sticking with those moderate 8 – 12, 8 – 15 repetition ranges.
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