Do you have to Choose Between Being Muscular and Being Strong? - Ivana Chapman

Do you have to Choose Between Being Muscular and Being Strong?

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You don’t need to pick a side. You can be both muscular and strong.

Do you really have to chose between being muscular and being strong? It’s the great battle between powerlifters and bodybuilders. Powerlifters are trying to achieve explosive power and tend to perform reps in the 1-5 range, while bodybuilders try to achieve maximum muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) in the higher rep range, generally 8-12.

Does it have to be Strong OR Muscular?

There’s the impression, mostly tossed around by guys who spend more time trolling the Internet than at the gym, that powerlifters are strong, but don’t have great physiques, and bodybuilders are weak, inflexible weaklings that just have a lot of steroid-induced useless showy muscle.

Are powerlifters developing their talents at the expense of developing an impressively muscular physique? Are bodybuilders just pumping up size without having any strength?

Getting Massively Muscular

For every thousand or so wannabe bodybuilders doing forearm curls when they can’t even do a chin-up, there’s 8-time Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman who regularly deadlifts 800lbs and bench presses 500lbs. There does appear to be a trend in the bodybuilding community to do more powerlifting exercises like squats, deadlifts, dips, and chinups rather than just use machines or dumbbells to isolate body parts.


Because doing full-body exercises is an efficient way to build maximum muscle mass all over your body. The body responds with greater growth hormone and testosterone production with those “big lifts” compared to isolation exercises like triceps extensions.

So bodybuilders benefit by developing more overall muscle size.

Bodybuilding moves are not for Powerlifters

The use of isolation exercises like the leg extension, leg press, or pec dec machines is still valuable for building mass, particularly when used at the end of the workout when the stabilizer muscles are fatigued and don’t allow full body exercises like squats at their maximal weight anymore. These machine exercises cause muscle damage and metabolic stress, which promotes hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Powerlifters and most athletes don’t need isolation machines and should probably stick to barbells and dumbbells, but for bodybuilders the metabolic damage that occurs when repping out leg presses at the end of a squat session will likely result in enhanced growth of the leg muscles.

The Benefits of Strength and Muscle Size

So let’s say you want to be strong AND muscular. Keep in mind that most powerlifters are muscular, but they don’t follow the strict eating patterns that lead to a ripped physique because it isn’t a requirement of their sport. They don’t diet in the same way to get lean so they don’t usually have the lean physique that bodybuilders do (at least on show day!).

Powerlifting exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are great overall muscle builders and do a lot of metabolic work for you in a shorter period of time.

Periodizing Your Workouts

In general, if you want size, you need to do more reps (8-12) and sets (4-6) than if you want to build strength. You could certainly maintain that rep range all the time, but you’ll get better hypertrophy results if you cycle from the high-rep range to a lower-rep range over time. It’s useful to periodize your program from preparatory to hypertrophy to strength to power (1-2 reps). That way you’ll have maximum muscle growth and get consistently stronger.

Strength = Size ?

Genetics certainly play a role, but to a certain extent strength and muscle size are correlated. It’s not a perfect correlation; plenty of strong guys don’t have a lot of muscle and a lot of muscular guys are relatively weak. It doesn’t hurt to work for strength if you want size, but size won’t necessarily give you strength.

Yes, there is a way of training to be strong and muscular. Take some tips from powerlifters and a few from bodybuilders and you’re all set.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 6-year-old boy. She is a writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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