Strength Versus Size

I spend a lot of time on YouTube watching videos and listening to podcasts. Yes, I’m a dork. Sue me.

Anyway, earlier today I started brushing up on kettlebells. You see, I’ve loved kettlebells for years now because they’re an incredibly cost-effective piece of fitness equipment.

As I watched the videos on kettlebells, I returned to a question I’ve asked myself a hundred times at least. “Can you gain mass with a kettlebell?”

Since I was already at YouTube, I decided to take a look, and that’s when I did something I know better than.

I looked at the comments.

I’m constantly amazed at how many people will look at a dude doing 50 reps of clean and presses with two 24-pound kettlebells, then make a comment about how the guy doesn’t have any muscle.

When I crafted the Warrior Pyramid, the bottom tier wasn’t called “size.” It wasn’t “jacked physique.” It wasn’t “body like Rambo or Ahnold!”

No, it was “strength”. Plain and simply, it’s about being strong.

Yes, size may intimidate, but it’s not what matters. Size is something else entirely, and it needs to be viewed differently.

I’m not someone who will say bodybuilders and others guys who focus on physique aren’t strong. They are. It’s virtually impossible to stimulate that much hypertrophy without becoming strong.

That’s not what they’re about, however.

If you could come up with a way that those guys could get that big with only needing a single five-lbs dumbbell, they’d be all over it. After all, they can all lift a five-pounder for hours, so sure, they’d do it.

Realistically, that’s never going to happen, though, so they hit the weights and train hard.

As a result, they get strong.

However, strength can come without an increase in size.

Back in high school, I was a scrawny SOB. I barely weighed enough to not be classified as underweight. At 5’8″ and 135 lbs, I remember when I did an incline press with 175 lbs.

I was doing an incline with over one-and-a-quarter of my bodyweight. That was fairly strong.

I was still a scrawny SOB.

With my own experiences at 18 and 19, I saw that strength wasn’t necessarily a one-to-one correlation with size. You could be pretty strong without being massively big, but I also knew it wasn’t possible to get massively big without getting fairly strong.

Gaining size isn’t just an artifact of hard training, but hard eating. Those bodybuilders eat a lot to put on that muscle. A lot also use the finest pharmaceuticals they can afford.

But there are plenty of strong guys who aren’t that big.

Óscar Figueroa is 5’5″ and competes in the 62 kg (137 lbs) weight class. He also snatched 142 kg (312.4 lbs) and clean & jerked 176 kg (387.2 lbs). While he looks muscular, he doesn’t look like he’ll be making a trip to the Olympia anytime soon either.

Óscar Figueroa. Picture courtesy of (

He’s not built like the behemoths we might think, and he’s only a few inches shorter than me, so I find it hard to believe those arms are that big.

The point is that strength comes with size, but size isn’t the only indicator of strength.

So which do we actually need?

It’s a fair question, and I’m going to be honest, while I would like more size in my arms and chest, I’m going to say that strength matters more.

Size may intimidate people from messing with you, which is a good thing from a killproof point of view, it may also make one a target. Instead of just some average guy, you’re now the big guy who someone may want to start something with just to prove he’s bad.

Comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan recounted a story about how he’d watched people try to start stuff with Chuck Liddell back in his prime. Liddell was the UFC champion, but people wanted to rumble…because he was the champ. They wanted a go.

Being a big, powerful-looking guy may help minimize attention from some people, but it may also draw attention from others. Now, I’ll grant that the guys who will be drawn to start something with a big guy are usually people who just want a fight, they necessarily want to kill anyone.

Of course, what they want at the start of things and what they want later might not be the same. Some guys have been known to get their asses kicked, then take it personally.

Stories abound of guys who get their teeth kicked in, then return later with a gun to finish what they couldn’t do with their fists. Not good.

Of course, that’s getting off topic and I could rant on that for hours, and I don’t really want to right now.

My point is that judging strength by size may be old and common, but it’s also wrong. Dead wrong.

For you, get strong. If you want size, then fine. If you’re scrawny as hell, even more fine. Otherwise, don’t sweat it. Just train hard, train smart, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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