Why Your Weight Lifting Routine Is Making You Stronger But Not Bigger
During my first year doing strength training workouts, I experienced exciting progress week after week. I lost stubborn fat, developed noticeable muscle, and moved weights I never imagined I could lift without straining.
After a while, though, I grew frustrated. My strength gains kept coming, but my physique stayed pretty much the same. I kept wondering why I could deadlift one-and-a-half times my bodyweight, and yet no one walking down the street would ever guess it by looking at me. I didn’t want to be a bodybuilder, but I did want to look as strong as I felt.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that lifting heavy weight is enough when trying to get bigger, not just stronger. In reality, getting stronger and bigger is a lot more nuanced.
3 Reasons Your Lifting Routine Is Making You Stronger, But Not Bigger
If you’re getting stronger but not bigger, there are three likely culprits:
1. Your genes
According to Melinda Sothern, Ph.D, professor at LSU Health New Orleans, some of us have a hereditary edge over others when it comes to our ability to gain muscle.
“Some people have a higher number of [type II] muscle fibers that have the propensity to become very strong, powerful, and large,” she says.
While no one is born with a bodybuilder physique — that only comes as the result of dedicated training — there is a segment of the population blessed with greater potential to get big.
2. Your gender
Thanks to a higher red-blood-cell count and greater levels of testosterone, men have a considerably easier path to building muscle than women.
“When women seek to become strong, the idea that they’re going to get these big bulky muscles like men is just not true,” Sothern says.
Though some women naturally do have a high percentage of type II fibers, and thus gain muscle relatively easily, most have to make deliberate, consistent effort over a long period of time to build size and shape.
I, for example, have had to train five days a week for several months to see the muscle gain I’ve experienced. And I’m not bulky by any stretch of the imagination.
3. You’re not targeting your muscles for growth
Third among the possible reasons why you’re not getting bigger is that your weightlifting routine is not programmed to help you get bigger. “Big muscles are not the typical outcome of typical strength training workouts,” Sothern says.
Put another way, you may need to make some targeted changes to stimulate hypertrophy, or muscle growth. More on that in a bit.
Can You Train for Strength and Muscle Gain at the Same Time?
In a word, yes.
However, it’s important to recognize that strength training and hypertrophy training require separate approaches that you’ll have to balance in your weight lifting routine.
According to Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, C.S.C.S., associate professor in exercise science at Lehman College, you maximize strength by lifting very heavy weights in low volume, and you maximize muscle growth by lifting moderately heavy weights in high volume.
So lifting for both strength and muscle gain “would involve combining some very heavy loads in the one- to five-rep range with some moderate-to-light loads, anything eight reps and above,” Schoenfeld says.
How to lift weights for strength and muscle mass
There are a million ways to go about weightlifting to get bigger, not just stronger.
You could dedicate entire days (or even weeks) to one goal, or you could follow the approach of Jordan Syatt, a world record-holding powerlifter and strength coach: Begin your strength training workouts with big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.
“Go for heavier weight, lower repetitions, and really challenge yourself strength-wise,” he says. Then, as the workout goes on, switch to moderately heavy weights and higher repetitions (think 8 to 12 reps).
5 Exercises to Help You Get Bigger
This big, compound movement simultaneously targets your quads and glutes, according to Syatt.
To increase time under tension — a key stimulus for muscle growth — slow your descent into the bottom position by counting off two seconds, or take a two to three second pause at the bottom before driving explosively back up to the starting position.
Using dumbbells will not only load your pectorals (chest muscles) like the classic barbell version of the exercise, but also enlist more stabilizer muscles throughout your torso. The more muscles you work, the more muscle you’ll grow.
Like you did with the squat, slow the descent into the bottom position, or pause an extra second at the bottom before pushing the weights back up explosively.
Working one arm at a time not only helps reduce muscle imbalances, but also helps to target your upper back muscles on each side. The result: A greater growth stimulus.
This move also forces your abs to work overtime to stabilize your torso and prevent it from rotating, says Syatt.
4. Seated dumbbell hammer curl
According to Syatt, doing this curl variation while seated reduces your ability to use momentum, forcing your muscles to work harder to move the weights.
5. Seated dumbbell lateral shoulder raise
Performing this move while seated allows you to better isolate your shoulders, forcing them to work harder to get the job done.
The less help they get from other muscles, the more they’ll grow.