Big or Strong: Do You Have To Choose?

Swole bodybuilderQuestion: Do you workout principally for strength or size?

I think this simple question raises other important questions about your motivations, desires and realistic expectations, not to mention some internal philosophical stuff that you may not have thought of before.

Can’t I have both size and strength? you ask.

The answer is of course, yes, but there are ways to get bigger faster and there are ways to get stronger faster, and they aren’t necessarily the same.

Becoming both big and strong is something that comes with time and dedication. Physiologically speaking, the mechanism that makes us grow big and look pumped might be slightly different to the one that makes us really strong.

Both ways technically fall under the umbrella of hypertrophy because they involve the ‘growth’ of muscle. However, this subject of hypertrophy can be split into another two categories:

  1. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: The increase in sarcoplasm volume i.e. the fluid surrounding the muscle fibres, and not the muscle fibre itself.
  2. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy: increase in muscle-contraction-enabling myofibrils and strength, density of muscle fibre

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Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Bulking CycleWhat is the goal of a bodybuilder?

Bodybuilding, by definition, is about size. Yes, it’s also about definition, symmetry, presence, pose and overall balance. The contestants have to get big though…really big.

That’s why a lot of their training time is dedicated to Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy. This involves the sarcoplasm – the fluid in the muscle cells between the muscle fibre. When sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is triggered, it is the volume of this fluid that grows, thus making the muscles appear larger.

The muscle fibre, that accounts for a muscle’s strength is quite unchanged during sarcoplasmic growth.

Basic Training for Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: Sets with 10-15 reps with moderate weight

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

strong fibresWhat is the goal of an athlete?

An athlete’s success is measured in performance. So a pro will train a lot to get the best out of their muscles, largely irrespective of their size.

Myofibrils are the parts of muscle fibre that gives the muscle it’s force of contraction. They are essential for movement and strength. When myofibrillar hypertrophy is stimulated, more myofibrils are synthesized and the whole muscle fibre gets stronger and bigger. The immediate size impact is not as large as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy but the strength gains are a lot more.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is the strengthening and growth of the muscle fibre itself, therefore allowing you to lift more the next time you hit the gym. The growth is primarily in density rather than volume.

Basic Training for Myofibrillar Hypertrophy: Sets with 3-5 reps with heavier weight

Can’t I Do Both?

This is basically the question a lot of people ask: Are the two mutually exclusive? Do you have to choose one or the other?

No, when you train for one type predominantly, you will always get a portion of the other. It would be silly to think a person could get really big muscles but not be any stronger. Likewise, someone who does pure strength sets will get bigger over time; muscles can only get so dense before they grow in size to accommodate the additional tissue.

So, to an extent, they come hand in hand. There will just be a dominant one, depending on how you train.

So What Should I Do?

It all comes down to what motivates you to lift weights in the first place.

  • If it’s for aesthetic reasons; you want big muscles to look good, then the quicker route to your desired physique is definitely going to involve a heavy emphasis on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
  • If you workout to keep fit, healthy, strong, or maybe to stay in shape for a specific contact sport for example, then you will want to concentrate more on myofibrillar hypertrophy and shoot for strength and power.
  • Maybe you compare yourself to other guys (or girls) in the gym and you work out to feel like a competitor and to be part of the community. Ask yourself this:

Would I rather look bigger than the next person, or would I rather be able to lift more than them?

At FuelEndureRecover, we like the philosophy:

It’s not about how big you are…it’s what you do with it that counts.

…but that’s just us!

The most important thing to remember is that whatever you want out of your training, keep at it and you will achieve it. If you want to be massive, go for it. If you want to be strong as hell, keep it up. If you want to be massive and strong – it will come, but not without a lot of time and hard work.


Gym girl swoleTraining for size and strength are not opposite objectives by any means but they might involve slightly different approaches if you want to target one more than the other.

The size of a muscle is not necessarily indicative of its strength, and the same is true in reverse. So when you look at the guys and girls around you the next time you go to the gym, remember that everyone trains differently and will elicit different growth responses from their muscles in turn. When you look at it like that, you can’t really compare yourself to anyone, and I really believe it’s best not to.

Stay hungry and feed your own success.

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