If you’re a beginner you might be thinking, “Hold on.. isn’t weight training just weight training?” Well, no, not really. The exercises you choose to do, combined with the amount of weight used and number of reps can alter how you’re training your body. Training for strength (example: powerlifter) is about increasing the amount of force your body can exert, to lift heavier. Training for size (or mass, example: bodybuilder) is more about ‘sculpting’ the muscles to look a particular way, and getting that pump when you train.
If you’re just starting out at the gym it’s a good idea to aim toward strength training to build yourself a basic foundation and have something to work with, it’s also a good idea to start off around 10 reps of each exercise (which is more than an advanced strength training routine) because on average it takes a combined 500 reps for your brain to recognise the movement patterns. However, once you reach a particular point you may want to decide to focus solely on strength training with heavy, compound exercises and low reps, or to increase your training volume and focus more on building size. Training volume is the number of reps and sets that are included in your workout; the more reps and sets you do, the greater the training volume.
Training for strength usually involves focusing on compound exercises, which are exercises that target many muscles at once. Prime examples of these are the deadlift, squat and bench press. The general rule that you see for strength training is to keep reps low, and the load high in any particular exercise (the number you will do in your rep range will depend on both your fitness level and your body type). This is to focus on the force that you’re able to exert.
Training for size needs a different approach, it usually will require you to work your muscles to complete fatigue through small, isolated exercises with a higher number of reps and a lighter weight. The amount of weight that you lift in a mass-building workout is not as critical as it is when you are training for strength, rather, the primary focus should be higher reps and fatiguing your muscles and getting a pump.
Depending on what your goals are, and if you’re not one of the aforementioned types of athletes, you may want to consider working in both training styles in a way that compliment each other (if you’re lost at how to combine them into an effective workout plan our Get Lean Guides cover that for you). It can also be easier to achieve a particular training style through the type of exercise you choose to do. We’ve created a chart for you to help you understand a little better (click to enlarge). Of course, there are many more exercises than this that we couldn’t possibly fit into such a compact chart, and some exercises (example: deadlifts) will work far more than just one muscle group. It’s also important to note that some exercises can be completed using different techniques to help focus on slightly different muscle groups. Think of this chart as a basic guide to strength versus size exercises.
Remember, just because you see someone at the gym doing a certain exercise a particular way doesn’t mean that you need to as well. Figure out what your goals are, and then find a training plan (or trainer) to help you achieve them!