T Nation

Strength vs Size for Nattys


Title catchy enough? I hope so. Sorry in advance if this turns into a TLDR wall of text.

I've been thinking a lot on bodybuilding training versus powerlifting training recently, specifically in regards to naturals (i.e. relevant to me).

I see the popular natty bber's on youtube and also several people on this forum, and I can't help but notice that many of these guys get basically as strong as many powerlifters at their bodyweight. Maybe not on the deadlift, but many of them get pretty close on squats and from what I've seen most of them actually end up stronger on the bench press. I believe with just a few minor training adaptations such as hitting a heavy squat and deadlift every so often (more to train the CNS), there wouldn't be much disparity in strength at all.

I mean just looking at supersaiyan's "how do you train" he basically says "I would do 315 for 3 reps, but I never really gave a shit about barbell bench or maxing strength" or from gregrons "I hit 315 for 5 without a spotter, and I hadn't even done barbell bench in like a year." There are tons of other examples. Gmoore's got very respectable numbers all around for a 181. I killed my shoulders and elbows with max weight and got stapled under many a barbell to get to the point of repping 315 for 3-5, and here are a bunch of bodybuilders who basically just did it accidentally, and they don't even fucking care!

The reason I specify naturals is that I think gear allows for much more specialization. Lifters who are heavily assisted can focus their training (and their injectables for that matter) to more specifically target building tons of muscle or building tons of strength. But for us naughty nattys, how much difference is there really between trying to build muscle and trying to build strength? There are quotes floating around about "back in the old days the only difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding was a contest prep diet". Especially back in the days before steroids were even really utilized.

All this leads me to wonder how different we really ought to make our training methods out to be. It's making me rethink many of my presumptions about the best way to get strong.


This is something I've thought about quite a bit, as well. Granted, I'm not claiming to be pushing amazing numbers like some of you other guys on here. The most I've put up bench-wise anytime recently was 250 for 3x5 a number of months ago when I was doing SS. Something I would like to add on the subject as to why BB training could possibly end up greatly benefiting one's strength is that BB training creates a very solid foundation from which to produce force.

To give an anecdote about what I mean: A ways back when I was still messing around in the gym and not training with focus I was able to put away 225 for 8 solid reps. My weight at the time was probably around 180 or so. I eventually hit a plateau where I just couldn't get 225 up for more than 8-9 reps and could barely push any weight heavier.

I talked to one of my bigger buddies and he said something that, albeit simple, was very striking to me. He said, "Well, man, there comes a time when the weight you're pushing puts too much stress on your joints/tendons/etc. and you just have to let yourself grow before going for more on your lifts". Now, I know there are world-class powerlifters who lift many times their body weight, but for many of us naturals and all-around gymrats, I think lifting for size can and will carry over to great strength gains.

I believe that it's just that: a bigger base from which to create power. Really, how many guys do you see in the gym who weigh 160-190 benching in the 300's? Sometimes training BB style to help those muscles grow, rather than solely training the CNS, can help when you go back to powerlifting in the future. Just speculation.



I think a.) bodybuilding does a great job of building the chest, shoulders and tris. More mass helps the bench, even bicep mass helps.
b.)There's a lot of pressing volume in bodybuilding, and imo pressing at any angle will help your bench.

I'm not strong enough on dl or squat to comment


Pretty cool thread idea. Ill chime in here with my 2 cents.

Training for size (or a look) and training for strength aren't mutually exclusive. You don't get big and impressive looking (not saying I am that) by putting up baby weights just like you don't get strong as an ox without putting on slabs of beef. You MAY be able to maintain your size while lifting "light" weights (relative to your size) but IMO you aren't building that size without pushing weights.

IMO the major differences in BB/PL training come from A. Exercise selection and B. Rep Ranges.

This isn't to say that people who train BB vs PL don't do a lot of the same lifts or go for the same number of reps but BB/Physique guys probably hit rear delts and upper chest a little more than PLers do while PLers push for maximal strength in the 1-3 rep range more than BBers :wink:

I don't think there is really all that much difference. We all love lifting weights. We all love pushing our own limits. We all love getting better. We are just chasing different goals at the moment.


Thanks for chiming in Captain Insomnia. The thing I'm feeling more and more is that me and people like me would better serve their strength goals by taking a few more exercises from the bodybuilders, hitting those rear delts and upper chest and quads more, spending more time at the higher rep ranges, and focusing less on that 1-3 range.

I think that natural powerlifters are prone to getting too far away from bodybuilding style training than is helpful. I'm sure the pendulum swings the other way too if there are natty bodybuilders out there who neglect bigger lifts or adding enough weight to keep themselves growing. So much more in common than is different.

And for the record I train with a pretty high level physique competitor every once in a while, and I swear to God he uses like 6x as much weight as me on rear delt exercises. I wouldn't mind having that kind of delt power when I lay down on the bench.


This, but don't forget upper back! BBer tend to lack lower back strength and fine-tuned technique.

I personally think that a heavy focus on BBing training with some decent technique work thrown in for the first few years would be an awesome way to actually 'build a base' for a PLer. Not some stupid 5x5, 531, or Sheiko.

Having said that, I'm continually surprised how weak some of the people on here and elsewhere are given how they look.


On the flipside, I know a lot of people that have excellent physiques and almost never push max weight on say your example the bench press, some examples being on this forum. Also one of your examples, Gregron has a background in Powerlifting and has competed, which can explain at least partially his solid foundation in strength.

Ultimately, I believe you need to both, to be well rounded, not only does higher rep training bring about hypertrophy but it also strengthens tendons which is ultimately necessary in the PL sport.

For me personally, I am fairly sure that my squat is being held back from extremely small quads and poor quad strength. Conversely my OK bench and pressing numbers, when I could do it had plenty to do with my rear delt and upper chest "bodybuilding" work.

So I totally agree, with you, both should go hand in hand, there is no reason IMO why you cant major in one method but minor in another to be a more complete lifter.

The guys who look good and are strong as an ox are always the most impressive.


Nice post.

There's also just some strong folks out there. Folks who can basically train without rhyme or reason and make easy gains. Chalk it up to genetics or what not. Kirk said he squatted 315 on something like his first or second day of squatting as a teenager. These people are going to be strong whether it be a bodybuilding type of training or a powerlifting.

Your comment on squats is interesting. It depends on the rep range we are talking about. If it's a 1RM and we are taking two trainees with similar training histories and leverages, I don't think the bodybuilder would pose a threat to the powerlifter's max.

The takeaway from this topic you started is that anyone who is dedicated and gifted enough to truly excel in one of the sports can probably do so in the other as well if they give it the same dedication. Of course, assuming we can get a powerlifter to diet like a bodybuilder.....


The way I look at it after fannying around with different rep ranges over the years is its all about progressive overload; if you're training for strength then aim to get stronger in the 1-3 rep range. If you're training for size then aim to get stronger in the 8-15 rep range.

Of course this is a very broad statement but a solid foundation to base you're training on depending on your personal goals.


Id like to know why you consider those programs stupid, and what programs would you replace with those popular programs.


Definitely a good point. This is why I personally try to hit numerous rep ranges. For example, I always do one legs day focused on time under tension and the 10-12 rep range and another a few days later focusing on max weight and heavy doubles and singles. I do this so I can eventually squat more weight for more reps. I also pyramid with the bench (12, 10, 8....) to the same effect. Seems to help with both size and strength. I am no where near as strong or a big as some guys here (MattyXL, csulli, gregron, etc.) but I at least would not be embarrassed.


Simple, not enough focus on high volume hypertrophy work for all muscle groups.

Better alternatives? Either simply use a good BBing split (doing the Big 3 on their respective muscle group days) - this is essentially the old school PLing/powerbuilding approach - or do the BBing split + some high frequency/high intensity strength work ON TOP of it (I switched to this in the last few weeks).

Don't get me wrong, Sheiko and even 5x5 are decent strength programs but imo most should focus a lot more on whole body hypertrophy before going to "strength" programs. I regret dong some variations of 5x5 for my first years of training.

ps: I basically agree with the OP, despite the fact that he has a shitty squat.


Wow thanks for the shout out there csulli, feels good lol. Guess I'll add some input:

I do consider my lifting aimed more towards the 'bodybuilding' aspect, ie I care more about gaining muscle than I do about gaining strength, BUT I also have always cared about gaining strength as well, I spent a lot of time focusing on strength, and have always trained certain lifts (bench, deadlift, sometimes squat, others) more like a PLer, which is why I believe my numbers are respectable. That said, I don't think doing these things do as much for muscle gain for me, I just want to also be strong.

For example, a few years ago, I was, let's say, 90% as strong as I am now, but barely looked like I lifted. Since changing the focus to more bodybuilding, target and feel the muscles working etc type movements, my physique has improved significantly, without my strength increasing too much.

Basically I think a lot of BBers are strong because they probably spent a lot of time focusing on strength, and still do on certain things, even though they also do a lot more "BBing type" movements, and probably have more focus on making sure everything is balanced, ensuring no real weaknesses.


I think this is a very good assessment. When anyone starts out training with weights, how much you're lifting is really all you have to go on. It's also much easier to focus on as even with the best of genetics, it's rare to see actual physical muscle growth on a weekly, if not monthly basis. Much later on, you get people becoming more concerned with other variables, but I don't think I've ever seen a decent bodybuilder who was truly weak.

Yes, you'll hear some top Wnbf pros call themselves weak by comparison to some of the real freaks (whether just natural strength levels, or former PLers), but no one reaching respectable levels of musculature is ever of average strength IMO.
(possibly in one of two exercises due to a number of possible reasons, but not overall)



I think training big movements focusing on traditional "strength ranges" (4-6) for natty's is huge, but you need to focus on training the muscle, not three movement. For example, when benching, having a crazy arch, a super wide grip, tucking your elbows and touching at your belly button might help you move more weight (initially), but it does little for development. However, keeping a minimal arch, having a fairly close grip (as close as you can while keeping tension on the chest), flaring the elbows, bringing the bar to nipple line at lowest and stopping just short of lockout insures that your targeted muscles are taking the brunt of the work. Been doing this lately and the progress has been pretty crazy.


I like this thread. It really speaks to my earlier misinformation. It's interesting to look back and see the evolution of the fitness industry. I think not long ago, the push was "strength work" above all else. You saw a lot of people talking about Starting Strength, 5/3/1, Madcow, etc.

So, as a newb, of course I followed this and thought "whatever I need to do to lift more." I got up to 960+ BSD (nothing crazy, but moderately respectable), but ff course, that lead to horrible form, unintended muscles becoming dominate (i.e. shoulders, hip flexors, etc) and now a focus on reversing all of this crap I did.

I'm glad to see the industry is taking a step back almost and beginning to stress the fundamentals more.


Cool input from everyone so far.

Like Matty said, I did have a brief stink as an amature powerlifter (lol, I did one meet. It was a ton of fun) so like I was saying.... I don't think the goals of looking good and being strong are mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand, it's just a matter of where you focus your efforts.

Who doesn't want to be strong and look awesome? I think we are all after that in the long run.


Great thread topic.

I can't comment on this personally as I'm not big and I'm definitely not strong, but in my experience the guys I see in the gym squatting and benching the heaviest weights are often the guys with the best physiques. The same definitely doesn't apply to the deadlift, as I've seen guys who don't necessarily look like they lift deadlift good numbers.

I think that training to get strong on the squat and bench and training for hypertrophy probably have a lot of carryover in both directions.


Exactly man.


I find some of the comments on this thread interesting....

Personally I do not think as a beginner you can be mislead into doing a program such as Madcow or 531. I wish I was aware of these options when I started, instead I engaged in weight lifting dumb-fuckery. I would have been alot better off if I started off doing 5x5 and had a base of strength before anything else, and when asked by younger lifters I whole heartedly recommend these programs. 5/3/1 does work different rep ranges and Madcow is not a cookie cutter program meaning you could add other things to it to satisfy your inner body builder.

ZJ - 531, especially its original form, does not advocate poor form, instead from what I remember it always advocates leaving a rep or two in the tank to avoid situations such as yours. The progression in 531 is slow and deliberate, and you dont train off your full max but your training max (85% IIRC) so this type of program along with the Boring but big template allows for safe strength gain and hypertrophy rep ranges.

Flash - In PL terms I wouldn't advocate any raw lifter benching into their belly buttons or having an extreme elbow tuck like a shirted lifter would. If you could get away with flaring elbows to activate the pecs more God Bless you. Up until about 4 years ago I benched exclusively in a BB style, and while I became decent at benching this way it wreaked havoc on my shoulders, to the point where I stopped flat benching all together until I decided to start competing. Raw benching with elbow placement at a 45 degree angle seemed to give my shoulders some room (as so they were not at their ROM limit in a sense) and always found just below the nips to be optimal. I know quite a few BBers who bench the same way.

Like Greg said doing both is the best way, but I still think having a foundation of the "big three" is a good place to start