Why You Are Getting STRONGER But Not BIGGER

You’re killing your training sessions, all your lifts are steadily increasing week to week, but your muscles haven’t seemed to have gotten the message…

What gives!? Increasing your strength should automatically mean your muscles will grow too right? Not necessarily…

It’s extremely common for lifters to make some serious strides in their strength progress but still be frustrated by their apparent lack of progress in terms of body composition. The good news is this is an easy problem to fix. If you are able to consistently make progress with your strength, then there are only a few variables you’ll need to adjust to increase your muscular size along with it.

Here’s the common culprits behind why you are getting STRONGER but not BIGGER.

(Looking to build some muscle? Consider this HYPERTROPHY TEMPLATE!) 

1. You Aren’t Eating Enough

This should be fairly self explanatory. If you want to get bigger, you’re going to have to eat. There is no getting around this. 

You could be doing everything right from a training standpoint, but if you aren’t eating enough to put yourself into at least a small calorie surplus you aren’t going to be supporting your muscles ability to grow.

Your strength progress can increase despite a lack of calories due to technique/skill improvements driving your lifts up. However, your muscles aren’t going to play as nice. Simply put,  if you haven’t supplied the necessary resources, even under proper training stimulus you aren’t going to develop any notable hypertrophy adaptations. Get yourself into even a slight calorie surplus (200-300 calories above maintenance calories per day) and you’ll begin to see slow and steady progress on your muscle size along with your strength.

This isn’t to say that building muscle while maintaining your current bodyweight (or potentially even while losing weight) is impossible. The process just requires more work, and the rate of progress can be frustratingly slow. If you are serious about wanting to see progress in terms of muscle growth, make sure you are eating enough to support that goal.

Joey Szatmary 2019 USS National Heavyweight Strongman Champion

2. You Don’t Have Enough Training Volume

Hypertrophy adaptations (I.E. building muscle) are ruled by the principle of volume. The more volume in your training (more sets and reps) the greater the hypertrophy response you will get (up to a point of course). 

If you like to stick to powerlifting specific programming this may very well be the reason you aren’t seeing much progress in terms of muscle growth. Powerlifting programs have significantly lower training volumes comparatively speaking to true bodybuilding programs. This lower volume is instead replaced by the much higher training intensity of powerlifting programs compared to bodybuilding programs.

This isn’t to say that powerlifting programs are “bad”, just, if you primarily have a goal of building muscle they might not be the most optimal program for your goal.

If you want to see your strength and muscular size improve at the same time consider trying a “powerbuilding” program (Hybrid programs with strength and hypertrophy in mind). Despite the bad rap they tend to get, powerbuilding programs have gotten much better since their inception and feature higher training volumes than your standard issue powerlifting program. If you don’t care all that much about strength, you can just dive into the deep end and run a true bodybuilding program.

3. You’re Making Technique Improvements Not Muscle Adaptations 

Sometimes we get “stronger” without actually getting stronger.

Most people automatically assume if their lifts increase then their muscles must have gotten bigger and stronger too. However, this isn’t always the case. If you’ve been diligent in your training and made significant strides in your form/technique your lifts could be going up without actually increasing the training stress on your muscles themselves that would cause them to grow.

An example of this would be a lifter learning how to wide grip bench. The wider grip will shorten the range of motion for the movement which usually increases the numbers they’ll be able to put up. This makes it entirely possible for a lifter to get stronger at bench press in as little as a day. Their muscles didn’t magically get bigger and stronger that quick, they just used a “better” technique to lift more weight.

Sometimes your technique improvements will outpace your actual muscle adaptations. This is especially common in beginner lifters. This is nothing to be frustrated about strength gains are strength gains after all. However, if you are wondering why you are getting super strong without seeing much increase in your muscles size, you may just be making rapid technique progress. The gains will come, be patient.

4. You Don’t Train Any Isolation Movements

Training the big compound movements like the squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press are going to be the most bang for your buck when it comes to strength progress and how many muscles you can train at once. These are you “meat and potato” movements.

However, if you are disgruntled by lack of leg growth or arm growth even though your squat numbers keep going up, or your bench continues to skyrocket, you may want to add some isolation movements in to supplement.

Smaller isolation movements not only allow you to target the exact muscle you want to see grow, they also allow you to accrue more of that “volume” stuff we were talking about earlier. Not only that, they allow us to increase training volume without increasing “systemic stress” (I.e. it’s going to be much less fatiguing to get in some extra sets of leg extensions than it is additional sets of heavy squats). This makes isolation movements a great way to increase your overall training volume, without completely running yourself into the ground.

Full body training routines are great, but if you aren’t seeing the muscle growth you want to see, don’t be afraid to attack the problem directly.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.