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Getting Stronger but Not Bigger

Getting Stronger but Not Bigger (Why You Aren’t Getting Bigger)

One of the keys to muscle growth is increasing strength. As a very general rule of thumb, the stronger someone is, the more muscle mass they will tend to have. 

The reason I say this is a general guide is that other factors contribute to both strength and muscle size, some of the pound-for-pound strongest Olympic weightlifters in the world are in the light-middleweight divisions!

This is important to note then because people can easily get fixated on consistently lifting more weight at the expense of some other important factors that contribute to muscle hypertrophy. You could therefore be focusing on the wrong aspect of your training and may notice that you’re getting stronger but not bigger. 

Getting stronger in the gym is not just the result of muscle size. Neurological adaptations and Central Nervous System efficiencies are a large contribution to strength so this is a key reason why people can get stronger in the gym without necessarily getting bigger.

If you want to get to the point where you are not just strong but also look strong then there are certain mistakes you might be making with your training or certain things you are missing completely. Therefore, read on to see why getting stronger does not necessarily mean you’ll get bigger…

Getting Stronger but Not Bigger 

One of the biggest frustrations with training is a lack of progress, particularly when it comes to muscle growth and size. This is the key reason many people hit the gym and weight section in the first place and you’ll often see the biggest guys in the gym lifting the most weight. 

The correlation, therefore, seems obvious – more weight = more muscle – though this is not necessarily the correct principle to follow. Many people will try to add weight to the bar every week (which it’s worth pointing out is a good thing) yet as the numbers increase, the scale weight and noticeable changes to your physique are minimal. 

This is obviously a very frustrating scenario as people are getting stronger but not bigger, which is really the aim. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single reason why this is the case and rather it’s a combination of multiple factors at play. The reason for this is that strength is only one contributor to muscle growth but, unfortunately, this is the one that people focus on the most. 

The process of getting stronger with the intention of muscle growth is known as progressive overload and is fundamentally something that everyone should be focusing on. Ignoring fancy techniques and programs, if you get stronger over time, you’ll build muscle mass. 

This is why beginner strength programs like Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5 are so popular and effective. The focus is on getting stronger with heavy compound movements which in turn build a noticeable amount of muscle. 

This sounds like contradictory advice as I’ve also just said that getting stronger alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get bigger. This is because there is a point of diminishing returns. 

For a beginner to the intermediate lifter, lifting more weight in the gym will lead to more muscle growth. You’ll break down muscle tissue and over time force your body to adapt and grow back bigger and stronger. This is why within 2 years of training most people can add 24 – 40 pounds of lean muscle mass just by getting stronger on compound movements. 

There is a limit to this progress though, and sustained progress for 2 years is more of an exception for those with good genetics. For the average gym-goer, ‘newbie gains’ last around a year, and then plateaus start to occur. 

It’s likely getting stronger in the gym alone will not be enough (for a number of reasons), so adding weight to the bar is not going to have a direct correlation with more muscle mass. Humans are not biologically wired to work like that otherwise there would be no limit to how strong or big we can get!

This means there’s going to be a point when getting stronger is not going to mean more muscle growth and different strategies will be needed. 

Why Are You Getting Stronger but Not Bigger?

Once plateaus to your physique start to happen, maybe scale weight isn’t moving or you’re just not seeing noticeable changes in the mirror, adding more weight to the bar is not necessarily going to be the solution (as you might already be experiencing). 

Therefore, a range of factors need to be identified to see why you are getting stronger but not bigger:

  1. Neurological Adaptations

Olympic weightlifters are the best example of this. You can witness these athletes lift incredible weight in training and while they have noticeable amounts of muscle mass, with a t-shirt on you wouldn’t notice that they even lift when crossing them in the street. 

The reason why strength is not the only contributor to size is that muscle mass does not make someone stronger. It’s a factor but neurological adaptations and CNS efficiency allow your body to learn a movement and become more efficient at lifting the weight. 

Getting bigger doesn’t necessarily make you stronger so the reverse is true that getting stronger won’t necessarily make you bigger. As your body becomes more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers, performing a movement pattern, and utilizing different muscle groups to move the weight, this won’t directly translate to muscle size afterward. 

  1. Not Enough Muscle Hypertrophy

The key to muscle growth is muscle hypertrophy. This is the process of increasing muscle size and strength through weight training and recovery (protein synthesis and muscle repair). To elicit muscle hypertrophy though, it’s not enough to just lift more weights. 

Progressive overload is a key contributor to muscle hypertrophy but lifting more weight is not the only factor. Time under tension, lifting the same amount of weight in less time, shorter rest periods, and performing more reps are all additional factors that need to be ticked off. 

Most times when people lift more weight they will either sacrifice form, perform fewer reps, or fail to control the eccentric portion of the lift which creates muscle damage and growth. These factors, therefore, need to have equal focus as increasing weight is just one part of the muscle growth pyramid.  

  1. Not Consuming Enough Calories

Finally, getting stronger can be beneficial for muscle hypertrophy but to get bigger, you need to consume a calorie surplus and commit to a long-term bulking phase. Strength increases can be made at maintenance calories and sometimes even during energy deficits (due to neurological adaptations etc..) but when it comes to muscle growth, a ready supply of calories and macronutrients are needed. 

When it comes to body composition, the one hour that you spend in the gym is only done to kickstart the muscle-building process. Where growth occurs is in the 23 hours outside of the gym that is spent eating and resting/recovering. 

Therefore, to really reap the benefit of your training you need to be following a dedicated diet plan that is centered around a calorie surplus. This is how you truly get “bigger”. 

Training Hard but Not Getting Bigger

One final issue people have is that they train hard, or at least most of us think we train hard, yet for all the effort we may be seeing little progress in terms of muscle growth. The reason I’ve added this section is that you can train hard but still be failing to follow some of the factors listed above which specifically contribute to muscle growth. 

Training hard is a simple foundation for muscle growth but you also need to be following certain criteria. Adding weight to the bar is of course beneficial and something you should still be aiming to do but training hard doesn’t just mean lifting more weight. 

An excellent strategy for muscle growth is a focus on training density, which really is a focus on “training hard”. Training density means doing more work in the same amount of time and goes hand in hand with progressive overload. 

A good example for someone who could perceive themselves to train hard is:

  • 310lb squat – 3 sets x 6 reps, 4-5 minute rest between sets, no prescribed set length (though typically under 30 seconds in length).

To improve training density you could look to focus on progressing in the following way (rather than skipping straight to lifting 320lbs. 

  • 310lb squat – 3 sets x 10 reps, 90-second rest between sets, 1-1-2-1 rep tempo (ensuring sets last roughly 50 seconds) 

What this method above will do is increase training density and shift the focus onto muscle activation and muscle fiber fatigue. When simply lifting more weight as an indicator of training hard, it’s easy to forget these other factors which offer a significant contribution to muscle growth. 

Once you have a solid foundation of strength, you should also then looking into more advanced training techniques to create metabolic stress. This can include extending sets through drop sets or supersets or using rest-pause reps instead of straight sets.   

Therefore, unless you are tracking specific markers like rest periods, rep tempo, and session duration it’s very difficult to claim that you are training hard. To train hard you need to use specific numbers as a guide and then improve them. This is a humbling exercise to follow as you’ll soon find that training hard doesn’t just mean getting stronger!

Final Thoughts 

One of the worst things when hitting the gym is not seeing sufficient progress. Getting stronger is a good sign that you are doing something correctly and you should strive to get stronger over time as this will contribute to muscle growth but it’s unfortunately not the only solution for getting bigger. 

Improving training density, ensuring you are consuming a calorie surplus, and fully resting/recovering are all equally crucial aspects that you need to optimize in order to get bigger and maximize muscle growth. 

A focus on strength will definitely contribute but you shouldn’t use this as a sole indicator and you definitely shouldn’t rely on getting stronger as a route to getting bigger.