Strength over Size

Here lies much gym mythology, misinformation and ultimately misunderstanding. When I talk to endurance athletes that I work with or even the majority of my female PT clients they are all, understandably concerned about becoming overly muscular and heavy...

In reality and for a number of different reasons this never happens but instead their muscles grow a little bit and take shape or ‘tone up’. So what is the difference between the two forms of resistance training?

Strength training is a workout programme that aims to improve your neuro muscular system in such a way that more muscle fibres are recruited at any one time thereby increasing how much force the muscle can produce (you become stronger).

Hypertrophy training is a workout programme designed to maximise muscle damage and growth. It is also referred to as training for size (you look stronger).

Not really, beginners usually experience simultaneous improvement in both size and strength but only up to a certain point. Bigger muscles don’t necessarily translate to proportionally greater strength and strongmen rarely look like body builders. Mo Farah, one of the UK’s greatest middle and long distance runners is surprisingly strong. He can perform squats with one and a half times his bodyweight on his back. For the average 12 stone man that is equivalent to putting 18 stone across your shoulders and squatting with it. At the other end of the spectrum powerlifters tend to be stronger than bodybuilders despite having less muscle mass.


  1. Become stronger and fitter
  2. Protect bone health and muscle mass (reducing risk of osteoporosis and sarcopenia)
  3. Help with weight loss: strength training increases your resting metabolism
  4. Develop better body mechanics (proprioception): it benefits your balance, coordination and posture, reducing your risk of falling.
  5. Help with chronic disease management: for example if you have arthritis strength training can be as effective as medication in decreasing arthritis pain.
  6. Boosts energy levels and improves mood: strength training as with all exercise boosts mood because it increases endorphins but can also help you sleep better.
  7. Cardio vascular health benefits: muscle-strengthening physical activity helps improve blood pressure

When training for strength focus on using a heavier load (more weight) with fewer reps (less movements). As a guide I get clients to use weights that they can just about lift, with good form, between 3-8 times per set (between 3-5 sets with 2-3 minutes rest in between).

Conversely for hypertrophy you should be using lighter loads but for more reps. So typically you will be looking to move a lighter weight between 8-15 times (3-5 sets with 1-2 minutes rest in between).
As always there is a certain amount of crossover but the above is a good basic guideline.
Next month we will take a closer look at stretching and flexibility.