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Gaining muscle vs gaining strength through weight training

Gaining muscle vs gaining strength through weight training
Though this may seem obvious to many people who have been long time members of the fitness industry, a fact that still sits on the fringe of 'insider knowledge' when it comes to working out is that different programs produce different results. Now, that may seem general and widely accepted, but the actual specifics of that statement are often misunderstood or simply unknown. 

That's not to say it takes the scientific method or some sort of long, complicated algorithm to figure out how to get in better shape, especially for beginners. But it is certainly helpful to know about things like rep ranges, hypertension, time under tension, caloric intake, etc. 

For example, it's easy for the basics like those to become second nature a few years into it, but how many of us could honestly say we knew the difference between bodybuilding and powerlifting workouts? What our caloric intake should be for cuts or bulking cycles? Or even what rep range we should lift at? In fact, I'd bet most people stuck with something to the tune of five sets of ten for at least the first few weeks of working out, as that's a nice, safe range to start out at. 

These are the people this article is for. And hopefully it will cover most of what you need to decide the program for you. But do do this, we have to start with the very basics. 

Starting off, it helps to know what makes your muscles actually grow. As strange as it may sound, to build your muscles, you must first destroy them. Though this may sound dramatic, it's true. When you lift weights, you're actually stressing your muscle fiber and breaking them down through causing minor injuries, triggering cells to rush to the trauma to repair our muscles. These cells then fuse together and create new muscle protein, known as myofibrils. The result of this is a new, shiny, bigger muscle. 

Lifting for size

When it comes to building muscle, you use this process in your favor. The key to this growth and to keep it from stagnating is to keep metabolic stress, muscle damage, and tension constantly increasing. Increasing and varying this stimulus over time is a concept known as progressive overload, which basically means upping the weight as time goes on, mixing in different exercises, or focusing on different techniques, such as isolation lifts (lifts that focus on one muscle) or compound lifts (usually Olympic style lifts that focus on many muscles). 

Now, when it comes to building lean muscle and getting that cut, sharp edge to your muscles you'll likely want to focus on isolation movements, at least to begin with. Things like slow and controlled curls, leg extensions, and basically every movement done on a machine. These workouts target individual muscles allowing you to sculpt your body in a more controlled way. 

 If you're training for muscle size, choose a weight at which you reach muscle failure in the 8-12-rep range. In other words, after your warm-up sets, which are never taken to failure, you should select a load with which you can complete at least 8 reps but not more than 12.

Lifting for strength

Now, this header may confuse some people, especially those who are just starting to lift weights. Naturally, when you beginner, you get bigger, leaner, and stronger just because your body isnt used to the kind of stress it's put under when you lift weights. 

But as you continue to make gains and grow, you soon realize that lifting for muscle size and functional strength won't always be one and the same. The honest truth is, to gain strength you usually have to get bigger, by any means necessary. And when you gain lifting with a powerlifting program, a few pounds of fat getting packed on along with the muscle is par for the course. 

When lifting for strength, you'll general want to include a workout that's either entirely barbell based or one that includes one or two supplemental lifts. The best starter program for lifting in this way is the stronglifts 5x5 program. It's a three day a week cycle that focuses entirely on barbell lifts done for five sets of five reps. 

Done properly the stronglifts program can see a massive strength increase in beginners, especially for the first few months. 

While both types of muscle building require a caloric excess, there will be slight differences as to how you eat to gain either strength or sculpted muscle. 

When it comes to a bodybuilding program, it's important to focus on quality of quantity. Making sure to eat clean, but a lot is the biggest thing to remember. Your protein should be at least one gram for every pound you weigh. One hundred pounds? Eat one hundred grams of protein per day. Etc. 

The same applies to the strength training workouts, but it allows for a bit more wiggle room. Cheat days and slip ups wont affect your strength gains as much as it would affect your muscle composition. But still, the diet of an athlete shouldn't deviate TOO much from that of a healthy individual except from overall amount of food. That means not too many processed foods, refined sugars, and booze, while opting for more lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. This can give you the energy you need to lift, and the nutrition to benefit from doing so. 
It may sound easy enough, but getting your nutrition right is a huge hurdle for anyone looking to pack on size. Just make sure to strike the perfect balance between eating too much and eating enough, and you'll eventually settle right around where you need to be. It's a process that takes time, though apps like myfitnesspal and other calorie trackers can certainly help. 


A common beginner mistake is slamming their head straight into a program with the mindset that they're going to plow through it no problem and be able to do it seven days a week. But it's not really that easy, especially for a new lifter
Finding the exercise sweet spot can be a challenge. Too much exercise will result in overtraining, increased risk of injury and halted progress. On the other hand, too little exercise can make building muscle an uphill battle. It's the combination of work and rest that will lead to results. Creating a training plan that allows for a day off between workouts is usually a very safe way to make sure that you don't burn out early into your lifting career. 

HIIT, LISS, and cuts.
Now I know that may look like a mass of meaningless letter to those above, but they're just the shorthand forms of two common fitness ideas. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training, which is a form of interval training, a cardiovascular exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods. Whereas LISS stands for Low Intensity Steady State cardio. As its name suggests, it is any form of low intensity cardio where you maintain the same pace for a set period of time. This is completely different to HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), which focuses on quick bursts of cardio followed by a rest period.

Many people go into their first workout programs wanting to incorporate either HIIT or LISS while still expecting to achieve peak muscle or strength gains. While both HIIT and LISS are certainly fantastic for general fitness and health, neither is truly great for muscle building. 

As was said earlier, when you first start out you'll be able to burn fat and still gain muscle, but as you pass your early stages and beginner gains, that'll level out and force you to choose one or the other. Most people attempting to lose fat will use diet and exercise strategies that make it impossible to preserve muscle.

This is why most lifters work in cycles. There are two big ones that most professionals and dedicated lifters apply. Cuts and bulks. To keep it relatively simple, a cut is when you lose weight, with the knowledge that you will lose some muscle, to bring out the definition in your physique. On the other end is the bulk, where you eat more and lift heavier to put on size and strength by any means, with the knowledge that you will put on fat. 

Now the bulk is usually the easier of the two, and the cut is the more precarious and easy to mess up, as you can lose most of the benefit of the bulk completely on accident. 

During your cut keep protein levels consistent, cardio moderate (until close to the end), try to let the food do the work, and don't slash the calories all at once.  Give yourself wiggle room as you hit plateaus.

But all of this information can be considered essentially useless without the first step, which is the motivation to just start and build the habit of fitness. Once you get into it for a period of time then you'll certainly need to refine, cycle, and educate yourself more, but the simple act of getting your body in motion is the best thing you can do for yourself. 

About the author

Dr. Constance Odom, MD

5 min read