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At a bodyweight of 101kg, I have the following 1RMs:

Overhead press: 60kg Bench Press: 95kg Deadlift: 170kg Squat: 120kg

Nothing particularly amazing, but it still took a fair amount of training to get here, as I started out as a 140kg extremely weak nerd who'd done nothing but sit at a desk for over a decade. It took a fair bit of posture and mobility work before I could do these lifts properly.

However, despite this level of strength, I'm not visibly muscular. I don't expect to see muscle definition, as my body fat level is still too high, but my arms almost look skinny, and my thighs just have barely visible curves of muscle.

I've been mostly training with sets of 3-5 reps. Is this why I haven't developed much muscle size? It bothers me a little bit that I don't even look like I go to the gym.

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My experience with clients, mainly males for this issue, is they overestimate 1) how heavy they need to be 2) how strong they need to be to look muscular, yet they underestimate how lean they should get.

Fat can dramatically smooth out a person's appearance. This a famous internet example from years ago:

Dave Gulledge before and after

That’s Dave Gulledge. On the left he’s at something like 312 pounds. On the right he’s about fifty pounds lighter.

Some more relatable examples:

From ~210 lbs to 190 lbs:

Jason Before and After front https://b-reddy.org Jason Before and After side https://b-reddy.org Jason Before and After back https://b-reddy.org

(Image credit: https://b-reddy.org/2017/06/12/quick-tips-for-sustainable-cheat-days/ )

From 150 lbs to 130 lbs:

Calvin before and after https://b-reddy.org

(Credit: https://b-reddy.org )

Wanted to give a wide spectrum of weights to show leaning up can make people look bigger / more muscular pretty much regardless of starting weight (provided the person is lifting of course).

A person regularly weight training, regularly trying to get stronger, at a lean 190 lbs, at a reasonable height, is going to look muscular. But when a person is heavier fat can hide curves, a big belly can make arms look disproportionately smaller, and so forth.

At least for teenagers to the early 20s, populations they pay attention to -like NFL players and bodybuilders- have given a grave distortion of how heavy a person needs to be to look muscular. Couple that with how heavy most are to start with, and this often gets lost in the shuffle.

Most everyday people will want to go what I call the "butting" route. Bulking through cutting!

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"Looking muscular" largely depends on your bodyfat percentage, which you seem to know. Sets of five reps are good for stimulating development of strength and size, but ultimately, to "look muscular", you probably will need to continue to lose bodyfat.

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I think it's entirely possible that what you lack in size is due to what you've lacked in the volume of work.

I'm not saying it's wrong to work this or that rep-range, but it's largely agreed upon that if you want to prioritize size-gain, then you should consider increasing the volume of the work. I.e. the number of total reps performed.

There are some pretty decent programs out there for those who want to gain size, and I'm sure you'll be able to find it by googling. Also there, I expect you'll find that there is more emphasis on total volume of work, as well as a good chunk of isolation work.

That said, I think burning some fat will do your body more justice. It's often the case that we build strength while gaining both muscle and fat, and if we spend some time shedding some fat afterwards, we'll start to reap the aesthetic rewards of our work.

For instance, you could probably lose, say, 10kg of fat while maintaining most, or even all, of your strength. And as you no doubt agree, a 90kg person with those 1RMs is going to look more defined and muscular than a 100kg person with the same achievements.

I feel like I'm mostly just confirming what you already suspect. You seem to have it figured out, to be honest. :)

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You need to understand that strength and muscle size are very weakly related. See this study comparing leg size and strength and this study on the relationship between size and strength.

To build size quickly, you must maximize muscle hypertrophy. This has been studied for years, and the general consensus is that sets of 8-12 reps are best. Make sure your last rep is really tough to complete. You may not get the last rep each time. Proper form goes a long way. It will prevent injury and properly isolate the muscle(s) you intend on training.

As for leg definition, it takes a relatively low body fat to start seeing the "curves of muscle." The majority of body fat is stored on the mid-section of your body and on your legs.

  • In the study to which you linked, strength and muscle size (cross-sectional area) were strongly correlated in older subjects. I suspect that the weaker correlation in younger subjects derives substantially from differences in neuromuscular efficiency (that is, genetically-dominated "explosiveness), which age preferentially diminishes. – Christian Conti-Vock Jun 29 '17 at 13:36

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