If you hit the gym to lift weights, you are probably training for size or strength. However, what you do during your workouts will directly determine which of these attributes you develop. It’s all too easy to do the wrong sort of training for your goal so make sure your training matches your goal by following the right type of program…

Training for strength

If you want to develop strength, you need to get comfortable lifting heavy weights. How heavy depends on your experience and abilities but typically you should be working with 85% or more of your one repetition maximum (1rm).

Lifting such heavy loads means you’ll only be working with relatively low repetitions – typically 1-5. However, for the majority of your training time, you should focus on 3-5 reps per set. Sets of 1-2 reps can be beneficial but they are so hard on your nervous system and recovery abilities that they should only be done for a few weeks at a time – such as when you are peaking for an event.

In terms of exercise selection, strength training should focus more on movements than muscles. Forget leg day, arm day, shoulder day etc. and, instead, think more about squat day, bench press day, deadlift day, and overhead press day. Add assistance exercises to help create muscular balance and work on any weak links that might be holding you back.

Good rep/set schemes for building strength include:

  • 3 sets of 3 reps @ 85% 1rm
  • 4 sets of 2 reps @ 90% 1rm
  • 5 sets of 1 rep @ 95% 1rm
  • Ramping up to a maximum set of 5 reps
  • Ramping up to a maximum set of 3 reps
  • Ramping up to a maximum set of 1 reps

(Ramping – keep the rep count the same and increase weight set by set up to your max for the day. Increases should be the same from one set to the next e.g. 5 reps of 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 kg – max set)

Rests between sets are usually quite long – three to five minutes being typical. This allows you to recover fully so that you can use maximal weights for each and every set. Doing so will produced the greatest gains in strength. Training with low reps and heavy weights is not the best way to build muscle size although it will make your them grow. If you want muscle size specifically, you need to use lighter weights and perform more reps. See below for details.

Training for size

Training for size often increases muscle strength but this is a happy coincidence rather than the main purpose. Training for size utilizes lighter weights than for strength, 67-85% of 1rm, and performing multiple sets of 6-12 reps.

Where strength training focuses more on movements, training for size involves targeting specific muscles. This usually requires a split routine where different muscles are trained on different days e.g. chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs and shoulders all trained on different days of the week. Each muscle should be trained using several different exercises to a) provide plenty of workout volume and b) work the muscle from different angles to maximize development. This is only really possible of you work different muscles on different days.

To maximize development, you should use a variety of rep ranges during your workouts. For example:

  • Bench press – 4 sets of 6 reps
  • Incline dumbbell press – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Cable crossovers – 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Press-ups – 2 sets of 12 reps

Rests between sets are generally quite short to maximize “the pump” which is the engorgement of blood into the working muscle. The pump is at least partially responsible for increased muscle size.

What if you want size AND strength?

If you want both size and strength, you should focus on the high end of the strength rep range and the low end of the size rep range – 4-6 reps. This will give you the best of both worlds. One of the most effective size and strength set-rep schemes is the famous five sets of five reps. 5 x 5, as it’s often known, is a tough but a great way to build big, strong muscles. Use heavy weights and rest three minutes between sets. Use 5 x 5 on your key exercise(s) for the day and a few lighter sets of an exercise or two for the same muscle group to finish your workout e.g.:

  • Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Leg press – 3 sets of 10
  • Leg curls – 3 sets of 10

Don’t just “hit and hope”; plan your workouts to match your training goals. That way, you’ll get much better results from your time in the gym. And make sure your diet supports your training. Whether you want big strength or big size, your diet needs to be big too!