Training for Strength vs. Aesthetics - How They Differ

August 27, 2021 6 min read

Training for Strength vs. Aesthetics - How They Differ

When it comes to training and what you are working to accomplish, we often see individual’s goals lumped into one of three categories: 

  • Physique Based - Just want to look good! 
  • Strength Based- The desire to get stronger over time.
  • Athletic Based - Performance for a specific sport. 

The most challenging part of this breakdown is that for most people, appearance and physique are always in the back of our minds.  We want to be stronger, but we also want to look good.  We want to perform at a high level in a sport, but we fear holding onto any sort of body-fat level that may help us get there.  We see Olympic level athletes, or competitive CrossFitters that seem to have it all!  They’re strong, they’re fit, and their bodies always seem so lean!  

We also must remember that when we typically see these athletes is at the peak of their seasons and performance - which in turn often results in a very peak level for their physique.  Their nutrition is dialed in, their recovery is top-notch, and their main focus is that sport.  So if we want to look like these athletes, do we have to train like them?  

Can you accomplish more than one of these goals, and what makes them different in how you approach them?  

How Training Differs

Having a specific goal for yourself, whether it be physique or performance-based can be really helpful to drive motivation. This is why we often encourage people to sign up for a race, or a lifting competition.  These things can help to keep us focused and provide a sense of drive to succeed.  Let’s be honest, training can get a bit monotonous at times, but what should we expect training to look like for each of these different goals?  

Training for Sport

Of each of these three goals, training for a sport is going to be the most specific to an individual because of the physical needs each sport requires.  For example, as a baseball player, you need to have endurance and strength in your shoulder capsule to be able to handle the repetitiveness of throwing over and over again.  For a basketball player, you must have strong legs, as well as stable joints in your ankles and knees to support the explosiveness and constant change of direction.  

Most often, athletes at high levels have very specific body-types as well that are catering to their success in that sport (i.e. swimmers tend to be tall, have very broad shoulders, large lats, long torsos and long arms).  So if you are training for a sport, know that your goal is not physique, it is performance and safety within that sport - and your training should reflect just that.  

Training for Strength 

Training for strength and training for physique are a bit different compared to athletics, as they definitely have cross-over in their approaches.  When training for strength, you will mainly focus your lifting and training on 3-5 basic compound movements - squat, bench, deadlift, press, and even Olympic lifting for some (cleans and snatches).  This will be what you spend 80+% of your training on, and the other 20% of the time or so is spent on a variation of supporting accessory isolation exercises (i.e. single leg or arm movements, RDL's, pull-ups, dips, rear delt raises, etc.).  

You also tend to train these compound movements in smaller, heavier sets of 1-5 reps with adequate rest periods between.  Common strength training cycles will often look like 3x3 or 5x5 type set-ups with 2-3 minute rests between each set.  

Training for Physique 

When we train for physique, there is still going to be a large focus on getting stronger in the basic compound movements mentioned above because a key to improving physique is progressively improving strength as well.  The main difference is you focus on more reps, more volume, and a larger variety of movements to target specific muscle groups.  Instead of working with reps in the 3-5 range, you often see 8-12 reps per exercise. 

It is also common to see this type of training be split into specific days for specific body-parts, dedicating an entire workout to a single muscle group or area of the body.  For example, you may do 4-5 different exercises all targeting the chest in the same day - one of which may include the bench as the major compound movement.  

Aside from the rep schemes and variety of exercises, the other main difference between strength and physique is the diet.   

How Nutrition Plays a Role 

Outside of having a proper training program in place, you must also carry a large focus on nutrition and recovery.  Without adequate sleep and rest time, you are going to end up with higher levels of systemic inflammation due to your body's inability to repair itself.  This leaves us feeling fluffy and achy, which neither are good for our overall physique or for your body to be able to expend energy to build stronger muscle fibers!  

In regards to nutrition, with a physique focus, we recommend pairing your programming with a periodization style of dieting.  This is where you cycle your calories between a caloric maintenance level to support muscle growth and development paired with periods of calorie deficits to drive body-fat lower and accomplish a leaner physique. It is also quite necessary to keep your nutrition as balanced and nutrient-dense as possible to support maintenance of muscle, but decreased levels of body-fat.  Like we've talked about before on another blog, quality of food definitely matters in this process!  Also remember, you do not want to stay in a caloric deficit for too long as that will drive metabolic adaptation.

For strength-based goals, to be able to get stronger once you are past the beginning stages of training, you will likely require a strategic caloric surplus.  When you are completely new to training, most anyone will get what we call ‘newbie gains’, meaning your muscles are like sponges and will develop strength quite quickly - regardless of a specific diet.  Although past a year or two of consistent training, your body becomes more efficient.  The more efficient our body becomes at using our energy sources, the more energy it will need in the form of calories to support the further development of our muscles, and the more challenging our training must become.  

Is One Better Than the Other?

Let us say that if you are newer to lifting weights, or training in general, any form of strength training or resistance training is going to be beneficial not only to your strength development, but also your physique.  It is typically once you get to an intermediate or advanced level of training that strength, muscle development, and physique may start to plateau.  

There is no arguing that to build a lean, toned physique, we must first build the muscle that presents that type of physique, and that comes from lifting heavy.  You will not build sculpted shoulders, back muscles, and quad definition with running, burpees, and 8# bicep curls.  We must lift heavy, we must progress in load and volume over time, and we must eat enough to support that muscle development we want to see.  It has also been shown that muscle does decrease as we age, which in turn can slow down our metabolic rate and drive higher body-fat levels.  So regardless of your goals, resistance training in some form or fashion is necessary for optimal health long term.  

If you want to build strength as your main goal, try to find joy and drive in perfecting the lifts, beating your old numbers, and rolling with the ebbs and flows of lifting - building strength is not always a linear process!  If you feel you're the type who needs more variety in your workouts, then training more with a physique and overall health goal may be what is best for you! 

Either way, we recommend picking the training style you enjoy the most and your body seems to tolerate and respond to the best.  No one is going to stick with a training style long-term if they hate it, or if their body is constantly ending up with injuries from it.  

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