by Robert Maxwell
UPDATED 12JANUARY2019 - Since I posted this article last year, it's become one of the most popular pages on the website. It's also spawned lots of questions and feedback. One year later, I'm adding this paragraph to the original article to set something straight. I already say this in the text you're about to read, but the feedback I've gotten tells me it needs to be said again, at the top of the page. I'm not into beating around the bush, so I'll just speak the offensive truth. If you're fat and put in a feeble effort in the gym, you can't just say "I'm training for strength", then go on eating whatever you want whenever you want. That's not how it works. Strength training might offer more dietary wiggle room than appearance-based training, but it still requires some discipline in the kitchen. If you have none, there's a different sport for you which I'd strongly recommend – couch surfing. Now, on to the article.
Just about everyone I know who lifts weights regularly is at least a little concerned with how they look. I know I am. Even those who claim to train mainly for strength over aesthetics will tell you (if they’re honest) that having visible gains is part of the attraction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise some important questions. For those new to training, the first one is likely “what’s the difference?” Don’t you always get stronger when you get bigger, and vice versa? Yes and no. If you’re familiar with weight training you know what I mean. The strength versus aesthetics debate isn’t exactly cut-and-dried. Although more muscle usually means more strength, there are some major differences in how you’ll train if your main goal is hypertrophy. Higher reps, more assistance exercises, and less emphasis on proper technique, just to name a few. In this article I won’t delve too much into the differences in training for strength versus size and definition. Instead, I’ll share some reasons why I feel strength training is superior. If you’re into bodybuilding, don’t click away just yet. Read what I have to say, then decide what you think. You’re welcome to disagree, but I started off training for aesthetics, so I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Here are five reasons I believe focussing on strength is a better choice.
THE RESULTS ARE MORE USEFUL
I have nothing against bodybuilding style training if that’s what gets you to the gym four times a week. This was my situation for years, and I learned a lot during that period. Trouble was, I started getting overly concerned about the effects of real work on my body. I noticed myself shying away from lifting heavy things outside the gym, concerned that I might get an injury which would affect my training. For a guy who previously loved splitting firewood and building cabins, this was quite a personality shift. It took me a while to realize I didn’t like it. I wanted to train in a way that made me feel empowered outside the gym, not afraid. This was one reason I shifted gears to strength training. Since doing so, my positive attitude towards physical work has been restored. I now look at every manual labour job that comes my way as a challenge, believing I can do it better because of my training. It’s a great feeling. Maybe you’re someone who can train for aesthetics and not be negatively affected as I was. If so, I congratulate you. For myself, switching to strength-focussed training was the best choice I could have made for my physical productivity beyond the gym.
YOUR PROGRESS IS LESS ARBITRARY
Henry Rollins said “The iron will always kick you the real deal. The iron is the great reference point, always there like a beacon in the pitch black.” This is a slightly overdramatic way of pointing out that when you lift heavy weights, you’re doing something very substantial, very tangible. It has been argued that progress in bodybuilding can be just as empirical as strength training, since you can measure your muscles numerically as they grow and record the results. This isn’t a bad goal, but I would argue it’s more arbitrary than improving your ability to lift something heavy. Big muscles look good and powerful, and they most likely are, but there’s something fundamentally human about being strong. It’s primal – part of our nature, to become the strongest and best versions of ourselves, using our incredible, intricate bodies to do amazing things. It seems to me this sort of goal makes more sense than the goal of shaping our physical vessels to their most visually appealing state. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to look good, not at all. It’s only when this becomes our sole focus that I believe we fall short.
YOU’RE NOT SO BODY-CONSCIOUS
Call me old fashioned and sexist if you like, but it seems to me it’s not particularly masculine to be obsessed with your reflection in the mirror. Not that it’s terribly appealing in a lady, either, but there’s something particularly disturbing about a man who can’t stop looking at himself. I don’t mean this as a criticism of bodybuilding so much as a criticism of vanity. If you’re constantly looking in the mirror while flexing your muscles, you’re not improving them. The confident lifter doesn’t need constant doses of reassurance provided by a piece of polished metal and glass. He knows he’s strong. Left unchecked, focussing too much on how you look can seriously hinder your progress in the gym. If you’re so afraid of putting on a little fat that you don’t eat enough, your training will suffer. So will your mind. Focussing mainly on strength in and out of the gym means you won’t fall apart when your abs aren’t as defined as they were 6 months ago. Don’t found your self-esteem on the shifting sands of aesthetics. You’ll be happier and stronger for it.
YOU’LL STILL LOOK GOOD
Properly programmed strength training with a smart diet plan to match allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Bodybuilders are usually pretty strong, but they’re not the strongest people in the world. That distinction belongs to strength athletes – those who train specifically to get as strong as their genetics will allow. The bonus is that they usually have great bodies, too. It’s impossible to get substantially stronger without building some muscle. Eat in a way that keeps your body fat low and that muscle will be more visible. You’ll be both strong and aesthetic, without the agony of obsession over how you look. Olympic weightlifters, particularly in the lighter weight divisions, are a perfect example of this. They have plenty of strength, plenty of muscle, and aren’t caught in the more of body image obsession.
YOU’RE NOT CONSTANTLY DIETING
As someone who’s trained mainly for aesthetics in the past, I know the pain of constant cycles of bulking and cutting. Add to this the burden of counting every calorie and macronutrient, and you’ve got a recipe for discouragement, strained personal relationships, and perhaps even failure. I believe there’s a better way. With a basic understanding of proper nutrition and a commitment to eat in a way that supports your training, I believe counting calories and obsessing over every meal becomes unnecessary. This is especially true if your main goal is strength. An effective diet for getting strong is very simple: lots of protein, lots of calories, and lots of good carbs and veggies. If your goal is more looks-oriented, like having a rippling 6-pack 365 days a year or making every muscle striation pop out, you’ll have a much harder time succeeding with this sort of “relaxed” eating approach. Obsession with aesthetics usually also means obsession with food. I’m not saying this to let you off the dietary hook. If you’re overweight, you need to eat in a way to fix that. This applies whether your main goal is strength or looks. But if you’re already in decent shape and don’t have a huge problem with food, training for strength can allow you to continue avoiding stress in the kitchen.