Training for Muscle Strength vs. Size

By Joe Mullings

I get the question quite often from combat athletes when it comes to resistance training….”How do I get stronger and faster but not get overly muscular?

To answer that, there are always a number of questions that I propose to the athlete.

  • How much time do you have?
  • What are your specific goals?
  • When is the event?
  • What are you prepared to do in order to attain your goals?

Those are critical questions to get answered when designing a training program for yourself or a world-class athlete. Don’t just jump into a program and “workout”….. But that’s a piece for another time.

It is important to differentiate muscularity and strength. They are definitely related, but not to the extent that most people think. Additionally, one must prioritize if they want strength or muscularity. There is a difference between a “bodybuilder” as an athlete and a “strongman” as an athlete. Both lift weights for their respective sports but both have clearly different goals.

Building muscle (hypertrophy) using resistance training can be broken down into 2 broad categories:


Myofibrils are bundles of myofilaments that are found in muscle fiber. Think of those braided cables that hold up suspension bridges. Smaller filaments that are wound in bunches that create a larger and stronger cable due to the sum of their wholes.

These myofibrils grow when you apply a stimulus that is greater than what they are accustomed to. That stimulus causes a trauma to the muscle fibers and as those fibers “repair’ themselves, they will do so by increasing the density and volume of the myofibril as to not have this stimulus damage it again. This process is why an athlete needs to continue to put “loads” on the respective muscle groups in order for those muscles to grow and become stronger. Otherwise, if resistance is not increased, the body will adapt, as it does quickly, and the muscle will no longer grow in size or strength. For this example think heavier weights and lower reps (2 to 5 range) until failure.

Myofibril hypertrophy is the type that typically occurs in primarily strength athletes. Olympic Lifters, Strongmen, etc…


The sarcoplasm is the fluid and energy sources that surround the myofibrils in the muscle. Increase in the size of these blood vessels that surround the myofibril can increase the size of these muscles and potentially the endurance of these muscles but have less of an impact on strength of these muscles as do myofibril hypertrophy.

Again, the body is an amazing machine. Depending on the “stimulus” that you give the body, it quickly adapts and responds. In this type of training, the stress that is imparted on the muscles is more along the lines of higher reps (10 to 20) until failure. The reps are important, but just as important is the “time” that the muscle group is under stress. This type of resistance training has more to do with ATP and glycogen depletion. If you refer back to our article on ATP, glycogen and energy systems, you will see that the body stores energy in its muscles for bursts of 3 seconds all the way up to 20 seconds in order to do anaerobic work when called upon.

In a state of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the body gets stressed in a way that has it respond to addressing ATP and glycogen stores in the sarcoplasm as a primary effort rather than the myofibril space. Therefore it repairs / heals itself so as to accommodate for the next load that taxes it and increasing those fluids around the myofibril bundles.

This is where bodybuilders and some endurance athletes spend a majority of their time by “pumping more blood” to the area in order to grow the muscles.


Well, it depends on what your goals are. If you are in a pure strength building mode, you want to spend a majority of your time in the myofibril arena and select your weights and resistances where you perhaps hit the body parts with 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps of each exercise with 3 minutes in between sets. As you want as much rest in between sets so you can really take on as much weight as possible to failure with each set.

If you are in an endurance or muscle “size” building mode, you may want to select your weights and resistances where you can perform 5 sets of 12 to 20 reps of each exercise with approximately 1 minute in between sets. The rest in between sets will change depending on whether it an endurance athlete or a bodybuilder in this phase. Endurance athletes will take less time in between sets.


Yes you can. But its like every “multi-tool” on the market, you get the flexibility and range, but you do give up the extreme end of precision and value. You are never quite the strongest and you are never quite in the best endurance shape.

Consider doing a warm up set or 2 in order to prime the muscle group you are working, but don’t count these towards your set count of these exercises. These sets are primarily used to get the muscle group in the groove in this movement.

Hit your “myo” sets first. I suggest 3 of them for the exercise. Choose the weight that will take you to failure at the 3-rep count. Then after finishing these 3 sets, do your last 2 sets, “sarco” sets, at 20 reps and do these sets with a weight that will take you to failure. In a perfect world I like to use the Hammer Strength ground based machines and have 2 spotters as I can strip off weights as the athlete fails and keep the resistance as high as possible as the athlete strains the whole way for his 20 reps.

If you don’t have a similar setup of Hammer Strength ground based equipment for this, you get the idea, figure a way to eventually decrease or strip the weights so it’s a strain nearly every rep of the way. Keeping the athlete under a push or pull stress for a time of 20 to 30 seconds is the goal.

Last but not least is to make sure you address your nutritional needs directly after the training session with carbs and proteins as your body will be in dire need of repair and if you don’t feed it, you will do more damage than good from these sessions.

Best Wishes on your training.


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