strength for muscle growth

7 Rules to Build Strength and Size

Being jacked is awesome.
Out of all the things we can achieve in life, building a big and muscular physique is definitely one of the most rewarding. But, you know what’s even better than being jacked?

Being STRONG and jacked. Looking like you can lift is impressive. But being able to lift is not only more impressive, it’s almost a necessity if you hope to maximize your muscular potential.

What’s so special about strength?

Obviously it is the foundation of almost all fitness-related qualities and technical skills.

But it also increases the amount of weight you can lift in the rep ranges geared toward hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Increasing volume, decreasing rest time, improving technique, and playing around with tempo all stimulate size gains. But progressive overload still reigns supreme. You’ll have a hard time creating overload if you aren’t – at least every now and then – adding weight to the bar.

strength for muscle growth

Strength is the foundation of almost all fitness-related qualities and technical skills. Image courtesy of

Not only that, but strength helps you avoid injury. In my experience, a strong person is almost always more injury-resistant than a weak person. The less time you spend injured, the more time you can spend training. And the more time you spend training, the more size you’ll be able to gain in the long run.  

Does this mean you HAVE to train for strength? Can you build a great physique without ever actively focusing on getting stronger? Yes. But, strength and size feed each other. You’ll get much further training for both than you will training for only one or the other.

How much time should we spend training for strength?

The answer to this question depends 100% on your priorities.

Getting stronger improves your ability to get bigger (and vice versa). But training for strength and size equally will lead to mediocre results in both (the whole “jack of all trades, master of none” thing).

strength for muscle growth

Getting stronger improves your ability to get bigger (and vice versa). Image courtesy of YouTube.

The body doesn’t have an unlimited ability to recover, so you’ll have to emphasize the adaptation you care about the most. Does getting bigger matter to you more than getting stronger? Spend the majority of your training time focusing on size. Does getting stronger matter to you more than getting bigger? Spend the majority of your training time focusing on strength. A good rule of thumb is to start with a 3:1 ratio with the majority of training phases geared toward your top priority (size for example). Then, you can adjust the ratio based on your results.

How do we build strength?

It’s actually quite simple (to a point), and requires proper application of a few basic principles:

  1.      Specificity

All specificity means is your training must be specific to the goals you’re looking to achieve.

A football player doesn’t improve his football skills by playing basketball. A lifter doesn’t improve his base levels of strength by doing cardio. He also won’t improve by lifting with extremely high reps or performing a bunch of circuit training. If your goal is to get stronger, your training should have you lifting progressively heavier weights over time – with compound movements – in a moderate to low volume environment. It’s obviously important to train for other fitness qualities as well. But, if you want to get better at lifting heavy weights, you need to spend time lifting heavy weights.

  1.      Overload

The body adapts to the stresses imposed on it, which means you have to continually do more work over time to make progress.

For example,  last week you hit 415 lbs on the back squat for five sets of three. Hitting 415 lb. for five sets of three this week ISN’T going to lead to an increase in performance. You’ve already adapted to that stimulus (it’s no longer an overload). On the other hand, if you come in and hit 425 lb. for five sets of three, that’s more weight – and more work – than you did the week before. You’re going to make progress.

strength for muscle growth

For the purpose of getting stronger, emphasis should be placed on adding weight to the bar. Image courtesy of Bodybuilding24x7.

Overload can come in many forms. For the purpose of getting stronger, emphasis should be placed on adding weight to the bar. Focus on 5-10 lb. increases per training session, week, or month. Adding reps and sets is effective too. However, too much volume can impact the amount of weight you can lift (when volume’s high, intensity must be low…and vice versa). So increasing load should be your top priority.

  1.      Fatigue Management

Training stimulates gains in fitness, but it also generates fatigue.

Fatigue masks performance. This is why performance can decline after a few weeks of hard training, but then shoot sky high once you’ve rested. It also increases your risk of injury.  So, the goal of each training cycle is to maximize fitness while minimizing fatigue.

  1.      Effort

This may seem like common sense, but no training plan works without effort.

Effort is the “x factor” that separates those who achieve high levels of strength – or high levels of success in any endeavor – and those who don’t. Put a ton of effort into your training, regardless of how the smaller details of your training plan are set up, and you’ll make amazing progress.  

  1.      Consistency

Results don’t happen overnight.

strength for muscle growth

Results don’t happen overnight. Image courtesy of Bodybuilders Walls.

Look at anyone who has achieved incredible levels of strength (or size for that matter). I can guarantee – genetic freaks aside – it took years for them to get there. How you manipulate training variables? Yeah, that’s pretty important. But consistency is the glue that binds all of those variables together. Without consistency, everything falls apart.  

  1.      Have Fun

Lastly, you should have a blast every time you step foot in the weight room.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard (again, effort is required to make progress), but a lack of fun zaps motivation. And if you program your training in a way that you enjoy, your results will absolutely skyrocket.

Now that you have the principles down, let’s move on to programming tips.

There’s no “right” way to program for strength (everything works, just to varying degrees). But, these guidelines should get you moving in the right direction:

Strength Programming Tip #1 – Train in the 3-6 rep range.

This equates to about 70-90% of your 1RM.

The intensity range is so large because I’m accounting for submaximal training (leaving a couple reps in the tank), beltless, or paused work that forces you to use lighter weight, etc.

strength for muscle growth

If you want to build strength, train with slightly higher reps and less weight (but still heavy weight). Image courtesy of Muscle & Fitness.

Going for singles and doubles is important (maxing is a skill in and of itself). But because you can’t handle much volume at those intensities, single and doubles do more to test strength than they do to actually build it. If you want to build strength, there is a better option. Instead, train with slightly higher reps (3-6) and less weight (but still heavy weight).

Strength Programming Tip #2 – Perform 3-6 sets per exercise.

A few more sets is fine. But, 3-6 sets seems to be high enough volume to stimulate strength gains. Yet it is low enough volume to NOT create unnecessary levels of fatigue.

Strength Programming Tip #3 – Take 2-5 minutes of rest between sets.

You don’t recover as fast from a set at 80% of your 1RM as you do from a set at 60%. The goal of a strength phase isn’t to chase a pump. It’s to move as much weight as possible. So, you need to take longer rest periods between sets of your heavy work. Then you can train at the same intensity – or close to it – during the sets that follow.

Strength Programming Tip #4 – Train the compounds.

Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows? These are the exercises with the highest loading capacity. A higher loading capacity equates to a greater ability to build strength. So, if you haven’t been training the compounds, start. And if you have been training the compounds, start performing them with heavier weight.

strength for muscle growth

If you haven’t been training the compounds, start. Image courtesy of Directly Fitness.

Strength Programming Tip #5 – Don’t go to failure.

Training to failure is a great tool when trying to spark new muscle growth, but it’s a horrible tool when trying to get stronger because it:

1.)   Generates a ton of fatigue

2.)   Decreases confidence

3.)   Increases the risk of injury

Instead of training to failure – at least on main lifts – I’d recommend leaving one or two reps in the tank (i.e don’t go past technical failure). Not only will you feel better overall, but you’ll make a lot more progress in the long run.

Strength Programming Tip #6 – Reduce the accessory work.

Don’t eliminate it, but there’s only so much stress your body can handle (especially at higher intensities).  If you want to maximize progress on the lifts that give you the most “bang for your buck” strength-wise (the compounds),  you’ll have to limit the accessory work.  How much should you limit it? That’s tough to say, because there’s no concrete number for the amount of accessory work YOU can handle. But, 2-4 accessory exercises per workout should be plenty.

strength for muscle growth

If you want to maximize progress on the lifts that give you the most “bang for your buck” strength-wise (the compounds), you’ll have to limit the accessory work. Image courtesy of Lean Life Academy.

Strength Programming Tip #7 – Use auto-regulation.

All auto-regulation means is to adjust your training load – or volume – for each workout based on how you feel. This is because your stress changes on a daily basis. As your stress changes, your readiness to crush heavy weights changes with it.

For example, maybe you’re supposed to go for 405 lb. on the back squat for four sets of three. Yet your warm up set at 355 lb. makes you feel like your back’s going to explode. It’s probably not a good idea to still shoot for 405. On the other hand, if you go in and 405 lb. moves like butter, it may be a good idea to add some weight to the bar.

Auto-regulation allows you to push it on the days you feel good, and pull back on the days you feel like crap. Auto-regulation takes a lot of honesty – and an extreme amount of self-awareness. But even if you follow percentage-based programs, I think making adjustments based on how you feel will take your gains to the next level.

Wrapping Up

The tips above are just guidelines. You should experiment – and then make adjustments – based on your results.

Being jacked is awesome, but being strong and jacked is even more awesome. You can build a great physique without getting stronger. But since getting stronger greatly enhances your ability to get bigger, why wouldn’t you?   

About the Author

strength for muscle growthNick Smoot is a strength coach and nutrition consultant out of Newport News, VA. He got his start in the fitness industry back in 2012, and since then he’s spent countless hours helping clients become the best versions of themselves possible. In his free time, he enjoys lifting heavy things, eating, writing, traveling, nerding out on Harry Potter, and eating. You can read more of his work at his website,