Muscle Size Versus Strength

A man doing bicep curls.
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Strength training and bodybuilding (or muscle building) do not necessarily have the same goal. Strength training essentially targets the neuromuscular system to make muscles stronger. Muscle building (bodybuilding) aims to modify muscle cell physiology to make muscles larger.

Although larger muscle mass and overall physical size may provide some strength advantage, performance goals and appropriate training approaches will be different depending on the desired outcome—muscle or strength.

How Muscle Building and Strength Training Differ in Effects on the Muscles

Muscle building targets hypertrophy of muscle tissue—the muscle gaining overall size. Some of the gains may be in an increase in fluids within the muscle cells (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) and some are in making more new muscle fiber.

Strength training aims to increase the functional ability of muscles. It targets neuromuscular development in conjunction with the development of type 11a muscle fibers. In addition, strength training focuses on myofibrillar (muscle fiber threads), and muscle training on sarcoplasmic (cell cytoplasm) enhancement. But there is also crossover development with either training focus.

Another example of such differences in human performance targets is in training for speed or endurance. Speed training emphasizes fast-twitch, type 2 muscle fibers that develop the energy systems to execute explosive power (think sprinting). Endurance training builds energy systems (mitochondria) that provide energy for the longer endurance events. You can train in a way that develops either of these energy systems, even though each of us is more or less endowed with a predominance of fiber type.

Training Guidelines for Muscle Building

Bodybuilding uses training protocols that enhance muscle size, such as:

  • A balanced nutrition program that supports low body fat maintenance and sufficient protein to build muscle. In order to build muscle, your body needs protein.
  • Progressive overloading, which is necessary for maximal muscle fiber recruitment and size increases.
    • For novice and intermediate athletes, use moderate loading: 70 to 85 percent of your one-rep maximum (1 RM), 8-12 repetitions per set, 1-3 sets per exercise.
    • For advanced training: 70 to 100 percent of 1 RM, 1-12 repetitions per set, 3 to 6 sets per exercise. Devote the majority of training to 6-12 RM and less to 1-6 RM loading.

Training Guidelines for Strength Building

For strength training, the advice on progressive overloading is a little different.

  • For novice to intermediate athletes, train with loads corresponding to 60 to 70 percent of 1 RM, 8-12 repetitions per set.
  • For advanced individuals, cycle training loads of 80 to 100 percent of 1 RM for 1-6 sets to maximize muscular strength.

In these guidelines, based on those established by the American College of Sports Medicine, training is similar for novice to intermediate trainers who are developing basic strength and muscle.

Advanced trainers tend to use more repetitions and lower weights for bodybuilding, and higher weights and fewer repetitions for strength training.

For most recreational athletes and fitness trainers, a suitable combination of strength and muscle training will be the most useful. However, should you need to specialize, it's worth knowing how to adapt your workout once you reach an intermediate weight training level of condition.

Whether you train for strength or muscle, or a combination, you need to be committed to the appropriate exercises and program protocols to achieve success.

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