Strength or Size: Bigger Biceps, Bigger Numbers or Both?

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 obviously are obviously not mutually exclusive, and some trainers may even say, they are one and the same.

Aside from parameters that are directly related to your training, many other factors can and will dictate which adaptations will take place in response to a training stimulus. Age, gender, training status, and caloric consumption are just a few examples. Think about it, your grandma is going to have a whole different response to the same training variables than Schwarzenegger did in his heyday. Now this article would be essentially useless, I believe, if there were not, however, some basic universal parameters to consider ,when you plan to train for muscular size or strength.

External factors to consider: Training age, caloric intake, etc.

Let’s tackle those external factors that will dictate your inevitable training result, first and delve right into what I consider one of the most important ones: I like to call it your “training age”, or relative experience in the weight room. It will impact your muscular size and strength gains, like very few other parameters do. Adel aka Dr. Andro covers this in great detail in his review of a recent meta analysis covering aspects governing training adaptations. A novice to the world of lifting weights, for example, will always experience relatively greater strength gains per time period than an advanced lifter. These increases can be attributed to a both, an increase in cross-sectional area of the Muscle (increases in actual muscle size), and neural factors (Chromiak, 2006).

Regardless of whether you are still a rookie or a seasoned veteran, though, your daily caloric intake, will always be another determining factor. One which is of specific relevance in view of muscular hypertrophy (size gains). Now, the law of thermodynamics would suggest that we need to consume more energy than we expend to gain muscle, which would inevitable imply that we need to consume more food than we would need just to maintain our current body weight on a given day, if we wanted to gain muscle (see table on the right to estimate your daily energy requirements to build bigger muscles).

In practice, however, I have found that sticking to mathematics will not always yield the desired results. Many of my clients struggle to gain weight, despite consuming more than they presume they expend. As a result I gradually increase a given client’s calories until weight gain ensues. This is at the heart of goal-oriented coaching, and you would apply the same principle, just the inverse, for someone trying to lose weight.

The fundamental determinant of success irrespective of your primary goals will always be your workouts

When all variables outside a given workout are held constant, you’ll find what you have probably expected this article to be all about – the meat and potatoes of your weight training:

  • 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),

which are going to be dictated by your training goal.

A brief look into the literature reveals, 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).

But while textbook information is great for general recommendations, it may not always apply in the real world gym setting. When it comes down to it, it is more than likely that you will find yourself gaining muscle, even when working in lower rep ranges with higher loads.

Two example workouts plus primer on how to tweak them

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:

The Lifts Sets x reps
Title Lower Body Strength Emphasis various
Barbell Squat 3 x 5
Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8
Leg Press 3 x 10
Leg Curl 3 x 10
Details: 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.
The Lifts Sets x reps
Title Lower Body Size Emphasis various
Barbell Squats 4 x 10-15
Leg Press 4 x 12-15
Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8-12
Walking Dumbbell Lunges 3 x 30
Lying Leg Curls 3 × 12-15
Leg Extensions 3 × 12-15
Standing Calf Raise 3 × 15
Details: 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.

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. 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.

You see, 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!


  • Chromiak, J. (2006, March). Strength training for muscle building. Hot topics in strength.
  • Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics.
Adam Bisek

Adam Bisek is a Physique Athlete, Writer, 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’s love for education and improving the health and fitness of others pushes him to bring his best on the stage, on paper, and in the gym.

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