When I read about strength training, the advice often comes with the assumption that the reader wants to get "big". I want to achieve strength, but would prefer not to increase size too much if possible.

So is there a difference in how one should train to increase muscle size vs how one should train to increase strength? If so, what is the difference?


4 Answers 4


Most of the respected strength training programs focus on exactly that: strength.

In general the rep ranges are your biggest lever to play with with strength vs hypertrophy vs endurance.

There's also relationships between muscle cross-section size as it compares to strength. Boiled down, the idea is that 2 square inches of muscle can generate more force because of physics than 1 square inch of muscle can. But that relationship isn't clearly understood:

It is commonly believed that maximal force and CSA (cross sectional area) are strongly related. Studies examining varying levels of training status display discordant data suggesting complex relationships between training status, CSA and peak force.


The F/CSA relationship seems complex, and future studies are required to elucidate the relationships among key factors in the expression of strength.

Boiled down, you basically want to follow a strength training program, and be suspicious of a lot of work in the hypertrophy rep range.

Eventually a strength athlete will get big. If you can squat 600lb, deadlift 700, and bench 315, you will be large, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Just to put that into the equation as well.

I don't have any evidence of this, but in Pavel Tsatsouline's kettlebell books he talks about kb training being as being desired by a law enforcement folks because you get a decent level of strength, conditioning, and don't get "big". Again, just something to consider.


People don't accidentally gain a lot of muscle, even by strength training. Gaining a lot of muscle requires hard work in the gym and at every meal. This is not something you should worry about.

It is important, however, to make sure that the sources you are reading and watching focus on strength training, not bodybuilding. Strength training is for athletic performance with muscle size as a side effect (or as something to encourage for athletic benefit); bodybuilding programs are designed to encourage size regardless of strength.


I know of one study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787090) that shows that 12 weeks of

  • high rep/low weight training produced 2.6% increase in muscle size and 19% increase in strength, versus
  • low rep/high weight training produced 7.6% increase in size and 35% increase in strength.

So you could conclude from that study, that high rep/low weight gives you more strength gains per size gain. But all the usual reservations apply.


As others have said, strength vs size is a matter of rep range and overall intensity of your working weights. If you're looking for strength while keeping the same size, much of it will depend on neural efficiency (or the ability of your nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers) which will be developed over time as you gain some muscle memory of movements.

In the end, however, it's hard to get stronger without building mass or vice versa. I've heard it compared to something along the lines of

Strength and size is a lot like good sex; you can't make love without a little ****ing and you can't **** without making love

In other words... strength and size both go hand in hand as your body adapts to stimulus. If you're looking for strength, go with lower rep ranges but if you're still new to strength training, hypertrophy is still a good idea as it will give you more wiggle room to adjust to new movements. You want to learn the movements safely and comfortably before going all out.

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