Do you wonder what the best way is to count sets and reps? Why you shouldn’t skip leg day? We have answers. This is #Gains, Explained, a space for you to ask any and every question about fitness. The Men’s Health team (and other experts) are here for you.
To submit a question for a future column, fill out this form.
My strength is increasing, but I don’t see a big difference in muscles getting larger. Why?
-Strong as a Horse, Small as a Mouse
WHEN I WAS in college, I felt like I could squat a house. I was training for football, and my focus was to get as strong and athletic as possible so I could turn all those reps into touchdown runs. Since I was strong, I figured I would also build up the tree trunk thighs I was hoping to grow. Thing is, my legs didn’t look bigger. Even more noticeably, my calves looked downright skimpy. My main objective wasn’t to get swole, but the lack of growth still bummed me out. All those hours in the gym were supposed to pay off for my physique somehow, right?
Not exactly. My issue—and it sounds like part of your problem, too—is that I was training for one very specific outcome while expecting another. Unfortunately, those two outcomes aren’t as compatible as we might hope. “Fundamentally, building muscle strength and building muscle size just are not the same thing,” says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
My legs weren’t growing at the rate I was hoping for in part because I was tackling a program filled with sport-specific rep schemes designed to build strength and power. Since you’ve experienced strength gains, we can reasonably assume that you’re probably following a training program designed for that purpose, and that you’re progressively adding more of a challenge from session to session, too.
You may be missing the mark on two key factors when it comes to building mass. One has less to do with what you’re doing and more to do with what you’re eating. “When it comes to wanting to build more muscle, it first starts out with a nutritional component,” says Men’s Health Advisory Board member David Otey, C.S.C.S. “Are you taking in the necessary calories in order to build muscle, and are you taking in the protein in order to support and build muscle?” You can determine how much protein you need based on your current bodyweight. Start by consuming one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight—and if you’re chasing muscle growth, a bit more protein never hurts. Aim to get as much protein as possible from real food sources, then supplement accordingly.
On top of that, you need to understand the same thing I struggled with in my football days: Building strength and building muscle size just aren’t the same. “Building ‘strength,’ especially on multi-joint movements like the bench press or deadlift can be illusory,” Samuel continues. “Strength as quantified by the amount of weight we’re putting up can change for three reasons that may not necessarily influence muscle size.”
Samuel cautions that you could shortchange your mass gains if you’re using poor form and allowing momentum to help you lift weight rather than focusing on good reps and the mind-muscle connection. He also notes that if you’re new to lifting, strength gains can be due to neurological adaptations. But that brand of progress will only last for so long, in part because it’s mostly about your brain. “For most people in the initial three to six months of working out, a lot of their changes within the body of strength are from the neurological perspective,” says Otey. Finally, Samuel says that your muscles might have grown, leading to strength gains—but clearly not on the scale that you’ve been hoping to achieve.
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to increase your potential for size gains. But first, you’ll need to reframe your approach, focusing less on gaining strength and more on creating what Samuel calls “mechanical tension.” Start by using these three tactics.
Introduce Isolation Exercises
Samuel’s first step is adding more isolation movements into your workouts. “You’ll still want to keep some functional ideas, like deadlifts and squats, in your workouts, but isolation movements (think biceps curls and leg extensions) allow you to truly fatigue a muscle and push it to its limits (without drawing assistance from other muscles),” he says. “You’ll also be able to focus on the feel more, and mind-muscle connection is key to building muscle.”
Work in Higher Rep Ranges
As noted above, my college football workouts were often low reps with heavy weights—which is the classic blueprint for building strength and power. If gaining mass is your goal, you’ll need to adjust. “There’s a lot more room for other muscle groups to get involved, and then you’re not always truly loading the targeted muscle group you’re trying to grow,” Samuel says of these low rep ranges. “More reps at a lighter weight will help you stay focused on the muscle you’re aiming to challenge most, keep you attuned to form breaks, and let you aim for greater time under tension.” He says that you should shift your working sets to eight to 12 reps instead. Additionally, Samuel notes that you should focus on extending the time that your muscles are under tension (more on that in just a moment)—so those sets should take you from 35 to 40 seconds to finish.
Slow Down Your Movements and Feel the Pump
Explosive movements are useful for sport-specific training, but they’re not the best for packing on muscle mass, Samuel notes. “If you want to build muscle, focus on slower movements done at a 1030 tempo,” he advises. That means you break down the exercise to a one second initial contraction (when you lift the weight during a dumbbell curl, for example), then slow down to take three seconds to lower down (the eccentric portion) for each rep. Otey says that another important aspect of muscle-building has to do with feel, which will only improve once you’ve slowed down. “You should, to a certain extent, chase the pump a little bit if you’re looking for hypertrophy,” he says. “If you don’t feel it in the area that you want to be feeling it in, then you’re probably not seeing the effects in the area that you want to feel it in.”
Take this advice to start, but remember: Your fitness plan doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. You can build muscle without totally abandoning strength—and your strength gains will only help you to build more mass. “Don’t be afraid to do a few exercises in lower rep ranges to keep increasing strength, advises Samuel. “If you get stronger, you’ll invariably be able to lift heavier loads during those higher-rep-range isolation moves that are more focused on growing muscle.”
Samuel says that you should think of your workouts using a 1:3 ratio: For every one move you do to gain strength (and this should happen at the start of your workout—think big compound movements), do three moves that focus more on building muscle (think biceps curls, machine exercises, etc.).
This approach isn’t far off from what I’ve done in my post-football training life. Eventually, I did see my muscles start to grow. My back squat max isn’t quite what it once was—but I’m pretty happy about how my thighs look once the summer season hits. By making these changes, you can find a better balance, too.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.