Do You Have To Get Stronger To Get Bigger?


If you’ve spent any time in the gym I’m sure you’ve seen that the biggest guys and gals are usually the strongest.

So you think: Cool, training for strength must lead to the best muscle growth, I should just focus on getting stronger!

But suddenly you see this huge guy or gal that doesn’t seem to be lifting that much at all. Or on the other end, this guy or gal that’s strong as hell but look small, even skinny.

What’s going on here? Why do some people lift a lot but look small, while others show of modest numbers and are huge?

So, do you have to get stronger to get bigger? You can gain muscle training either for strength or muscular endurance. Muscle growth is about doing more training over time no matter how heavy the training is, as long as the weights are not getting too light. However, training for strength might be better in some circumstances.

So as you can see, for muscle growth it doesn’t matter that much whether you focus on strength training or muscular endurance training. With that said though, during some circumstances strength training seems to be slightly more advantageous.

In this post I’ll cover what makes muscle grow, why you can gain muscle training either for strength or muscular endurance, and finally discuss why and when strength training can be a better choice!

What Makes Muscle Grow?

There are three main factors that lead to muscle growth:

  1. Mechanical tension – tension on the muscles created by lifting close to failure
  2. Metabolic fatigue – the burn you feel when doing a lot of work in a short time
  3. Muscle damage – how much you break down your muscles during training

Out of these three, research has shown that increasing mechanical tension overtime, i.e progessive tension overload, is by far the most important factor for muscle growth.

And this is where the first misconception surrounding strength training and muscle growth appears.

The belief is that, since progressive tension overload is the main driver of muscle growth, then getting stronger must mean more gains, simply because more strength puts larger tension on the muscles. But, even though there’s a lot of truth to this idea, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s what I mean:

Mechanical tension isn’t created solely from lifting heavy weights, such as in the 4-8 rep range for example. No, enough mechanical tension for growth can be achieved with very light weights as well.

In fact, a 30 rep max will cause mechanical tension similar to what a 5 rep max will, which means that doing a 30 rep max will lead to similar growth as doing a 5 rep max. The only difference between these two is that the 5 rep max create enough mechanical tension required to maximize growth earlier and more effectively than the 30 rep max do.

Another key factor to note here is that the 5 rep max will train your body to produce strength, while the 30 rep max will train your body to be more endurable, but muscle growth will still be very similar.

Why Some People Are Big But Not Strong

The fact that you don’t have to train for strength to grow muscle explains why some people can have very large muscles while not being that strong. They’ve likely trained more for endurance and haven’t trained their nervous system to recruit muscle fibers correctly with heavy weights.

With that said though, individuals who’ve built larger muscles training for muscular endurance, can learn how to express strength with low reps and heavy weights rather quickly. They got the muscles to produce the force, they just first need to teach their nervous system how.

Why Some People Are Stronger Than They Look

This is also why some people are stronger than they look. They’re extremely skilled lifting heavy weights for a few reps, their nervous system capacity is up there in the high 90 percentages, which means they can effectively produce force with the “little” muscle mass they have.

But this is not the biggest reason why some people are stronger than they look. No, an even bigger reason are:


While we all have the same sort of muscles, in the same regions in the body, there are differences in where they’re attached to our skeletons. And this is a HUGE factor behind how heavy someone can lift.

Your muscles function as a lever and the point where they attach to your bones largely impact how much force they’re able to produce and thus how much weight they’re able to lift. In fact, research has shown that anatomical variance between individuals means that one person can be 25 % stronger than another person with identical muscle mass.

In other words, an individual with less than optimal anatomical genetics for producing strength might need to build 25 % more muscle to compete with the more gifted individual when it comes to expressing strength.

The Intensity vs Volume Debate

In an interview with Eric Helms Radu Antoniu asked: Does volume in and of itself lead to muscle growth or is it that volume leads to strength gains which lead to muscle growth? This was Eric’s answer:

Eric helms reps for muscle growth“I would say that yes, just pure volume to a certain degree creates growth. But after your muscles adapt to doing a high amount of muscular work, then the fuel cell is big enough. In that situation you may need to do more volume, to get progressive overload, to get the fiber to grow. A good way to look at it is that you need volume of heavy enough work to create an adaptive stimulus. And the volume you need is going to be more than you previously needed to grow before you plateaued.” 

So, this further backs up what I said earlier that it doesn’t matter that much where your volume is coming from as long as you progressively overload your workouts with more volume and/or intenisty over time.

Furthermore, even though volume is what creates the stimulus, you should do as little volume as you can while still making the best progress possible. Because if there comes a point when you plateau, then you can increase volume a little which will drive further adaptation.

How much training volume should you do?

The amount of training volume a beginner to intermediate trainee needs to progress quickly is somewhere between 30-100 effective reps per muscle group per week.

From that point, over the years they’ll likely need to gradually increase the amount of work they do in order to keep progressing. I wrote more about how many sets and reps to do in this post.

Training For Strength is Better in Practice For Most People

Even though I’ve said that the rep range you use doesn’t matter that much for muscle growth, focusing on strength training (intensity) above pump training (volume) still seems to be better for most people practically. For a few reasons:

1. Training For Strength is More Effective and Efficient

When you train with heavy weights you will cause a stimulus for muscle growth immedaitely from the very first rep.

Muscle fibers are recruited in an order according to something called the size principle.

This principle essentially tells us that slow-twitch muscle fibers (with the least potential for growth) is going to be activated before fast-twitch muscle fibers (with the highest potential for growth), just like this:


As you can see, in order to start recruiting type 2 muscle fibers (with the highest potential for growth) immediately, you must lift above a certain threshold of intensity.

And this threshold is passed when the weights you use are higher than 60 % of your 1 repetition max. This is accomplished by lifting in the medium to heavy rep range.

On the other hand, if you train with high repetitions and light loads, you’ll still be able to recruit your type 2 fibers, and create a good stimulus for growth.

But… They won’t be recruited until you reach the very last few reps of your set.

In fact, research has shown that in order to recruit your type 2 muscle fibers maximally when training in the higher rep ranges, you need to go to the point of absolute failure, where fatigued is so high that you no longer can perform the lift. And this is where the effectiveness of high rep training goes out the window.

Both because it’s a very painful thing to train to failure with light loads, and because it causes an unproportional relationship between fatigue and muscle growth, where you’ll have to do a lot of fatiguing “junk volume” before you get to your money maker reps at the end of the set.

2. It’s Easier to Train For Progressive Overload When Focusing on Strength

People training for strength as opposed to muscular endurance tend to gain muscle faster.

First of all, when you’re training with a lower rep range it’s easier to make bigger jumps in strength ensuring progressive overload. Now sure, it’s possible to do the same with lighter load training for muscular endurance as well. Either you try your best to get more reps the next time you hit the gym or use micro plates to make a very small leap in weight between workouts.

But secondly and more importantly, people training for strength are usually more faddish at increasing weight on the bar over time. Which will lead to quicker progressive overload.

How heavy should you train?

So, the 30-100 reps per week that you should do, should’t be just any reps. No, to get the best results possible, as effectively as possible these reps should be done in the low to medium rep range of around 4-10 reps.

If you go below 4 reps then you’ll have to do more sets to achieve enough training volume for optimal growth, which also becomes non-effective training.

At that point, injury risk goes up and central nervous system fatigue is usually becoming the limiting factor instead of your muscles, becuase you must lift heavy weights for multiple sets.

Train For Strength or Not? What to Choose?

First of all, if you for whatever reason want/need to get strong, then obviously you should train for strength and vice versa if you need muscular endurance.

But, if your goal is purely muscle growth, then whether you should train for strength or muscular endurance comes down to these three things:

  1. What type of training you enjoy
  2. Your genetics
  3. Your training experience

These things will dictate whether strength or pump training is the right choice for you. So, let’s look at these one by one:

1. What Type of Training do you Enjoy?

This one is much more important to consider than what a lot of people think. Adherence to your fitness plan is the number one most important factor, because no matter how optimal a training program looks on paper, if you can’t stick to it in the long-term then you won’t see the results you’re after anyways.

Personally, even though I’m mainly training for muscle growth, I still enjoy training for strength the most using big compound lifts. I think it’s fun, cool and challenging, and for that reason I’m training mostly in the 4-6 rep range.

Now, let’s say that you enjoy the complete opposite, like doing higher reps with bodyweight training for example, then that’ll also work well for msucle growth, as long as you focus on improving your performance over time!

So, do you enjoy lifting heavy ass weights? Or do you prefer the burn and pump?

2. Genetics

Genetics is interesting. Some people seems to need more training volume to grow than others. While others grow better on higher intenisty and lower volume.

Now, even though a higher training volume can be achieved in any rep range it’s probably more effective to use a slightly higher rep range and focus a bit more on pump training if you need a lot of volume to grow.

While on the other end, someone who grow better with higher intenisty obviously should train with lower reps and heavier weights.

The only way to find out where you fit if you want to follow your genetics when training, is to simply try training with high reps and low reps at different periods. Make sure you give each period at least 6-8 weeks to correctly address progress.

Most people will have a pretty even set up of genetics and see similar gains when volume is equated, however some genetic outliers might see a lot more gains training in one rep range as opposed to another.

Another thing regarding genetics is that people who start out with the skinny fat physique often can’t handle pump training and higher volumes as well.

The first reason for this is that skinny fat individuals can’t handle stress well. This can cause recovery problems, which in some cases can promote unwanted fat gain, especially around the mid section, a problem that all skinny fat individuals try to get rid off.

The second reason why skinny fat individuals should avoid high rep training is because of appetite. Higher rep pump training usually leads to higher appetite than what more strength oriented training do. And one of the biggest problem a skinny fat individual has is controlling appetite. Uncontrolled appetite leads to overeating, which leads to unwanted fat gain.

You can read more about setting up the best training program for skinny fat individuals here.

3. Training Experience

For beginner to intermediate trainees low to medium rep training is superior to high rep training. Here’s why:

In the beginning you’re far too weak to get a good training stimulus from high rep training, as the weights you would be using is going to be very light.

By doing sets in the 4-10 rep range on the other hand, you’re getting full muscle fiber recruitmentmechanical tension, and enough volume per set to effectively spark muscle growth at your stage.

Why Not Mix Strength and Pump Training?

The best thing to do for most people is to simply mix your training. Training both for strength and muscular endurance within the same workout is a very smart idea. This way you’ll get the best of two worlds.

You can focus on driving your strength forward focusing on progressive overload in the beginning of your workout, and then add some extra volume in the form of pump training at the end of your workout.

This way you’ll make sure that you hit all your muscle fibers completely, and that you achieve full mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue and muscle damage, all of which are important drivers of muscle growth.

This is the reason my training routines looks something like this:

Monday – Upper Body – Chest Emphasis

  • Flat Bench Press – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Cable Rows – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Incline Bench Press – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Seated Shoulder Press – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Rear Delt Dumbbell Flyes – 3 sets of 15-17 reps
  • Skullcrushers – 3 sets of 15-17 reps

Wednesday – Lower Body

  • Barbell Squats – 5 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Romanian Deadlift – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Leg Press – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Seated Calf Raises – 5 sets of 15-17 reps
  • Hanging Knee/Leg Raises – 5 sets max

Friday – Upper Body – Back & Shoulder Emphasis

  • Weighted Pull Ups – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Standing Barbell Shoulder Press – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Barbell Rows – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Incline Bench Press – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Lateral Raises – 3 sets of 15-17 reps
  • Spider Curls – 3 sets of 15-17 reps

As you can see, on this program you do 4-6 reps on what I like to call your main strength and muscle drivers (this is where you should focus on progressive overload). Then you do 12-15 and 15-17 reps for the remaining workouts to add extra volume and metabolic stress for a more balanced and complete workout.

What’s most important is that you’re not doing too much training too early, as that’ll lead to recovery problems. And you also want to have volume left in the tank to increase if/when you need to as you get more advanced!

Related Questions

Do bigger muscles mean more strength? Bigger muscles don’t have to mean more strength. If an individual have built muscle training for muscular endurance throughout their entire training career, then they’ll have big muscles but they might not be very strong.

With that said though, individuals who’ve built larger muscles training for muscular endurance, can learn how to express strength with low reps and heavy weights rather quickly. They got the muscles to produce the force, they just first need to teach their nervous system how.

Why aren’t my muscles getting bigger? There’s a lot of factors that can influence why your muscles aren’t growing. In order of importance these are:

  1. Too little or too much training volume
  2. Not focusing on progressive overload
  3. Not eating enough calories
  4. Not eating enough protein and carbs
  5. Not sleeping well and enough
  6. Having to much stress in your life

If you can get these things in check then your muscles should start getting bigger!

Niklas Lampi

My name is Niklas Lampi and I work as a fitness writer, nutritional consultant and personal trainer. My favourite exercise is the bench press and my favourite food is pizza!

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